Story: Ngā uniana – Māori and the union movement

Page 5. Māori and national union politics

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The New Zealand Federation of Labour (FoL) was established in 1937 to represent the unionised industrial labour force nationally. Bob Tūtaki was the only Māori delegate present at this inaugural conference.

Structures to promote the involvement of Māori at higher levels in the union movement were slow in coming, and were sometimes resisted. In 1983 the FoL Māori and Pacific Island Advisory Committee was established to give Māori members a voice at the national level. Jackson Smith, secretary of the Wellington Drivers Union, was the first convener and Syd Jackson, secretary of the Auckland Clerical Workers’ Union, was the first secretary. ‘Pacific Island’ was dropped from the name in 1985, and the committee focused solely on Māori concerns. When the FoL and the Combined State Unions (CSU) merged to form the Council of Trade Unions in 1987, the national Māori committee was retained and Māori gained two representatives on the national executive.

Māori activism and unionism

In the 1970s young urban Māori became involved in modern Māori protest movements, such as the action group Ngā Tamatoa. They began to push for greater representation in the trade union movement.

Syd Jackson, a founding member of Ngā Tamatoa, was a staunch trade unionist and a Māori nationalist. His union politics were forged in the Tōmoana and Whakatū freezing works, and in the Kāingaroa branch of the Timber Workers’ Union during the 1960s. He went on to become a field officer and then branch secretary of the Auckland Clerical Workers’ Union in 1979. Jackson worked to educate unionists on Māori issues, and encouraged Māori to become delegates or stand for national executive positions.

Taking sides

Debate was fierce at the Hui a Ngā Kaimahi o Aotearoa. A Public Service Association delegate argued: ‘If current Māori grievances can’t be met through the current organisational structure, and my guess is they can’t be, then it is entirely logical that Māori people should take charge of their own destiny.’1 A member of the Hawke’s Bay Hotel Workers’ Union countered with: ‘Crack one branch of a tree and you’ll weaken the tree as a whole.’2

Te Hui a Ngā Kaimahi o Aotearoa

As Māori became delegates, executive members or staff of their unions during the 1980s they became increasingly frustrated with the union movement’s lack of attention to Māori issues. When official channels yielded no results, some Māori unionists proposed setting up a separate Māori union movement. The Hui a Ngā Kaimahi o Aotearoa (meeting of New Zealand workers) was organised in 1986 to discuss this proposal. Over 400 Māori delegates from private- and public-sector unions attended to air their grievances. After lengthy debates, the hui decided against a separate movement but demanded that the FoL and the CSU support Māori self-determination, increase Māori representation in union decision-making structures, encourage real consultation and take action on Māori issues.

As a result, the Māori and women’s advisory committees won the right to be represented on the FoL national council and national executive in 1986. These rights were retained when the Council of Trade Unions was formed in 1987.

Super union

In the early 2000s Matt McCarten, previously a stalwart of both the Alliance and Māori political parties, was the secretary of Unite, a union that covered low-paid workers in a range of industries. Unite’s innovative tactics have included the ‘super-size my pay’ campaign for fast-food restaurant chain workers (a satirical reference to super-size meals). The union has also drawn attention to disputes with a 6-metre-tall inflatable rat sporting a sign that read ‘Don’t be a rat! Give workers a fair deal.’


In the 1980s and 1990s workers in low-paid, low-skilled jobs were the least likely to be organised by the trade union movement; they were also more likely to be Māori and Pacific Islanders.

In the 2000s Māori workers have used Māori models of organising to work for better wages and conditions for neglected workers. Robert Popata and Megan Jones, co-founders of the Northland-based Community Union Movement Kotahitanga, trained organisers by taking them to Waitangi. They suggested that the Treaty of Waitangi was the first New Zealand collective agreement, and stood as a warning about what could go wrong when negotiating a collective contract.

Māori union delegates, organisers and educators, at national and local levels, continued to encourage Māori to play an active role in the union movement. ‘Union is a good way … [to bring] people back together under the same umbrella. If we can show them that the Union is about supporting our people and manaakitanga [caring] for our young people coming into the workforce, I can see it being successful for Māori,’ said Justin Dick, a representative of the Dairy Workers’ Union.3

  1. Quoted in PSA Journal, 16 April–20 May 1986, liftout supplement. Back
  2. Socialist Action, 28 March 1986. Back
  3. Te Runanga o Ngā Kaimahi Māori o Aotearoa, Ngā momo whakaritenga Māori: Māori models of organising, pamphlet accompanying video, 2009. Back
How to cite this page:

Cybèle Locke, 'Ngā uniana – Māori and the union movement - Māori and national union politics', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 28 June 2022)

Story by Cybèle Locke, published 11 Mar 2010