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Ngā uniana – Māori and the union movement

by Cybèle Locke

Māori shearers joined unions from the early days of the union movement in New Zealand – especially after the rules and regulations were translated into Māori. Later, Māori freezing workers became a major force in unions.

Māori rural workers and unions

Māori were active participants in the union movement from its early days in New Zealand, particularly in parts of the workforce where they were most numerous.

Joining the workforce

Māori entered the capitalist workforce as their tribal heartlands were eroded. Māori land-holdings were reduced from 26.8 million to 3.4 million hectares by 1921. Much remaining Māori land was marginal – too small to farm, or of poor quality – and had multiple owners. Historian Michael King described the Māori workforce prior to the Second World War as ‘a rural proletariat, part of it land-owning but not land-using; part of it disinherited by the loss of land.’1 Māori workers became increasingly reliant on cash incomes from seasonal labouring, public works and domestic-service work. Kanataraki (Māori work gangs – a borrowed name from the English word ‘contract’) remained largely kinship-based, involving men, women and children.

United we stand

Bob Tūtaki of Ngāti Kahungunu was a shearer and union organiser in the Taihape and Hawke’s Bay areas from 1909. He encouraged the formation of the New Zealand Workers’ Union in 1919, saying ‘Let us stand up with one common mind ... stick together, everybody, remember that old Maori philosophy, “Tatau tatau”, meaning altogether.’2 Tūtaki became a full-time organiser and an executive member of the union; he was also active in the Labour Party, contesting the Eastern Māori seat against Āpirana Ngata in 1928.

The Amalgamated Shearers’ and Labourers’ Union

Māori engaged in shearing work as early as the 1850s. Māori shearers were first recorded organising for higher pay at Petane, Hawke’s Bay, in 1863.

The New Zealand branch of the Amalgamated Shearers’ Union of Australia was established during the long depression of the 1870s and 1880s. The Māori membership increased dramatically when union rules and regulations were published in Māori, and Māori organisers were hired to canvass shearers. By 1914, 1,000 of the 4,093 members of the Amalgamated Shearers’ and Labourers’ Union were Māori – many of them in Hawke’s Bay and on the North Island’s East Coast.

The union became the New Zealand Workers’ Union in 1919, and Māori played significant roles in local organising. Female shed hands also joined; in 1937, the New Zealand Workers’ Union had 500 women members, nearly all Māori.

The Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act

The Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1894 encouraged the formation of unions, made conciliation and arbitration between employers and workers compulsory, and established an award system to regulate wages and conditions. However, shearers, freezing workers and farm labourers were not covered by the Act – so many Māori workers did not have recourse to compulsory arbitration. Māori rural workers joined union campaigns to seek recognition under the Act; shearers and freezing workers were successful in 1915, and farm workers in 1936.

Bad bosses

Hiwi Maynard, an executive member of the New Zealand Workers’ Union, reported to the national conference in 1939 that many Māori land development scheme workers had ‘deplorable’ housing conditions3 and were being taken advantage of by incompetent supervisors. From his experience, money was divided unevenly among workers and stand-down periods were unfairly distributed.

Land development scheme work

In 1933, at the height of the economic depression, it was estimated that 40% of Māori were unemployed. Māori were eligible for unemployment relief providing they registered, and many did.The main assistance offered by the United and Coalition governments was Māori land development scheme work. The schemes enabled tribes to borrow public money, administered by the Department of Native Affairs, and develop Māori land on a communal basis, which would subsequently be subdivided and settled.

While this provided some relief, Māori delegates of the New Zealand Workers’ Union became concerned that Māori were paid less and suffered worse conditions than Pākehā labourers on equivalent relief schemes, and they demanded redress. The newly elected Labour government in 1935 moved quickly to legislate compulsory unionism for private-sector workers and to increase Māori relief scheme rates to equal Pākehā rates – but it was the New Zealand Workers’ Union that organised to ensure the legislation was implemented and Māori scheme workers had a union to belong to.

    • Michael King, ‘Between two worlds.’ In The Oxford history of New Zealand, edited by Geoffrey W. Rice. 2nd ed. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1992, p. 290. Back
    • John E. Martin, Tatau tatau: one big union altogether: the shearers and the early years of the New Zealand Workers’ Union. Wellington: New Zealand Workers’ Union, 1987, p. 58. Back
    • New Zealand Workers’ Union report of 23rd annual conference, 27 June–3 July 1939, Wellington, p. 101. Back

Māori and industrial unions

Māori were manpowered into defence industries during the Second World War. During the economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s workers migrated into urban areas of their own accord in search of work.

Politics and poetry


Moving to Auckland from the far north, Hone Tuwhare – later an important poet – began his boilermaking apprenticeship at the Ōtāhuhu railway workshops in 1939, aged 17. He joined the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants in 1942. Through his involvement in the communist party, Tuwhare met the poet R. A. K. Mason, secretary of the Labourers’ Union, who encouraged Tuwhare to write poetry. In the early 1950s, Tuwhare and his wife moved to Mangakino, where he continued to work as a boilermaker and became an executive member of the Ātiamuri branch of the New Zealand Workers’ Union.


By 1966 70% of Māori men worked in production, transport-equipment operation and labouring, away from the rural economy. Concentrated in freezing works, sawmilling, road maintenance, transport, building trades and certain types of factory work, they joined the unions of freezing workers, labourers, waterfront workers and drivers in increasing numbers.

Trade unions did not keep records of their Māori members, but the Auckland Labourers’ Union estimated that it had 1,000 Māori members in 1963 – a quarter of the total membership.

Māori watersiders

Māori watersiders made their presence known in the Waterside Workers’ Union at a local level, especially at places on the East Coast like Whakatāne, Ōpōtiki, Waikōkopu and Tokomaru Bay. Recruitment was difficult because of the union’s reluctance to publish materials in Māori.

Frozen out


Terry Wesley became a butchers’ union delegate at the Burnside freezing works in Dunedin after the Second World War. Wesley succeeded in gaining better conditions and penalty rates for the entire works, and eventually became union branch secretary. He was so successful that in 1960 the New Zealand Refrigeration Company sent him and his friends and relatives down the line. They were blacklisted from every works in New Zealand.


Nonetheless, enough Māori joined the union in Auckland for a Māori Watersiders’ Union Association to be formed in the 1940s. Steve Wātene – a former captain of the New Zealand rugby league team – was chairman and F. Chapman was secretary. In the 1940s Wātene was involved in assisting Māori who had recently migrated to urban areas. He travelled to different tribal districts during the 1951 waterfront lockout to discourage Māori from working as strike-breakers.

Freezing workers’ unions

By the 1920s Māori were a major force in the freezing workers’ unions, particularly on the East Coast of the North Island; for example, they made up 70% of the Tokomaru Bay Freezing Workers’ Union. That branch was very successful because it held bilingual meetings and had strong backing from the local Māori community and the Tokomaru Waterside Workers’ Union.

Rugby, carving and unions


Rangi Paenga of Ngāti Porou, who was involved in the Kaiti Freezing Workers’ Union in Gisborne, was the first Māori elected to the city council in 1969. He was active in the Kaiti works social club, shed rugby games and the Māori carving school, where Mone Taumaunu taught both Māori and Pākehā how to carve in their lunch hour. Paenga helped establish the East Coast branch of the Meat Workers’ Union in 1971 and became president of the New Zealand Meat Workers’ Union in 1976.


By the 1970s Māori were the majority of shed hands in some North Island works. New arrivals from the Pacific Islands also took up jobs in the meat industry, particularly in Auckland and at Ocean Beach in Southland. Ocean Beach filled labour shortages in the 1960s and early 1970s with migrant Māori workers from the Hokianga in Northland and Māhia Peninsula on the East Coast, and with immigrants from Mangaia in the Cook Islands.

Some Māori freezing workers became delegates to local trades councils, particularly the Gisborne Trades Council, where Wai Hamon and Rangi Paenga worked on the council’s management committee from the mid-1960s.

Māori women and unions

Māori women also found work in the urban economy. By 1966 Māori women were 38% of New Zealand’s production workers (mainly clothing and textile workers), 21% of white-collar workers and 27% of service workers. They joined the appropriate unions. In 1969, women were well represented in trade unions, particularly in occupations that they dominated – clothing and laundry workers, dental technicians, biscuit and confectionary workers, tobacco manufacturing, shop assistants and hotel and restaurant employees. In 1969 women were 29% (103,891) of total union membership; one-third belonged to the clerical workers’ unions. However, few union leaders were women, and fewer still were Māori women.

Strike while the iron’s hot


Unionist Joyce Hawe recalled that she and other female clothing workers became union-minded after they went on strike over wages: ‘We were starting to talk unionism every hour in the day ... We knew that all we had to do [to get what we wanted] was withdraw our labour. That was the only power that we had.’1 Despite having families and working 8–10-hour shifts, female employees began attending local union meetings in large numbers after the successful strike.


Clothing workers’ unions

Joyce Hawe of Te Arawa, a machinist at Progress Manufacturing in Porirua, climbed the ranks of the Wellington Clothing Workers’ Union. She organised a successful factory strike for higher pay which launched her union career in the 1960s. In 1970 she became the vice-president of the Wellington Clothing Workers’ Union, and in 1976 a full-time organiser. She was the first Māori woman to become a national executive member of the Federation of Labour in 1981.

Clerical workers’ unions

By the 1980s, 22% of Māori women were full-time clerical workers, and they began to make their presence known in the unions. In 1985 Helena Schenkel was elected president of the Canterbury Clerical Workers’ Union, its first female president in 47 years. Schenkel had joined the union while working as an administrator at Wattie’s canneries. She became a member of the Māori advisory committee to the Federation of Labour, campaigned with the Bruce Bay Trust to stop the removal of gold from Māori land on the West Coast, and was president of Rakau Te Kura, a branch of the Maori Women’s Welfare League.

Stopping sexual harassment


Helena Schenkel of the Clerical Workers’ Union campaigned about sexual harassment or ‘touch promotion’, saying that young workers often did not recognise it for what it was. The ‘good morning sweetie, how are you love’ from an employer often led to more, she said. Women were forced to ignore such remarks, leave their jobs or complain to the police – but they should be protected under their award.


In response to Māori members, the Central Clerical Workers’ Union committed itself in 1987 to anti-racism education, support for Māori structures inside the union, a campaign for tangihanga (funeral) leave in the national award and hiring a Māori organiser.

Hotel, hospital and restaurant workers’ unions

In the mid-1980s increasing numbers of Māori women became active in the hotel, hospital and restaurant workers’ unions. They had been radicalised by a series of strikes and pickets, and by positive action programmes which recruited more Māori and women as union delegates.

The Hotel Workers’ Union sent 20 delegates to the Hui a Ngā Kaimahi Māori (Māori workers’ meeting) in 1986. All three speakers chosen to represent the union were women – Wikitoria Paaka, Celia Akapita and Sonja Harmer. Marie Normile, secretary of the Hawke’s Bay Hotel Workers’ Union, also attended the hui, at which more than 400 Māori delegates discussed – and rejected – a recommendation to set up a separate Māori union movement. The delegates determined to ensure that Māori concerns were recognised within existing union structures.

    • Joyce Hawe, interview by Shaun Ryan, 14 and 16 September 1999. Trade union oral history project, Oral History Centre, Alexander Turnbull Library. Back

Recession: 1970s–1990s

In the 1970s unemployment began to climb – from 5,000 in 1976 to 48,000 in 1981, particularly affecting workers in construction, manufacturing, wholesale and retail trades. Most Māori and Pacific Island workers were engaged in these kinds of jobs. In 1981 they made up 10.4% of the workforce, but 31% of the total unemployed.

Fallen giant


Māori dominated the workforce at the Whakatū freezing works in Hastings until it was shut down in October 1986. Wayne Ewart, a former delegate at Whakatū, explained: ‘I walked on the top chain and looked down. I don’t know whether any of you have seen a works closed, a giant like Whakatu. I walked on the top chain and I bloody well cried. I cried for the people who lost their jobs. I cried for the families and I cried for the whole meat industry.’1


Registered unemployment increased 146% between 1984 and 1990. By 1992, 26% of the Māori labour force was unemployed. Once unemployed, workers lost their union membership and their bargaining power. Private-sector trade unions lost 40,000 members between 1982 and 1989; public-sector unions lost 30,000 members between 1985 and 1989.

Some unemployed Māori workers returned to their ancestral marae, formed cooperatives or joined unemployed workers’ unions. In 1985 half the members of the national unemployed workers’ movement were Māori.

Redundancy strike action

Strikes were common during the 1980s, mostly to prevent wage cuts or to achieve redundancy payments for laid-off workers. Between 1986 and 1990, half the nation’s freezing workers (around 15,000) lost their jobs. Sheds were closed or downsized without warning, and it took protracted industrial action from the New Zealand Meat Workers’ Union and the Auckland and Tomoana Freezing Workers’ Union to bring about decent redundancy payments for freezing workers.

Supporting land rights


During the 1970s union president Ben Matthews involved workers at Petone’s Gear Meat works in Māori land rights issues. In 1978 the union hired a bus to take workers to Parliament to protest the arrest of 17 Māori who had occupied the Raglan golf course, demanding its return to the Tainui Awhiro people. And when 222 people were arrested a few months later for occupying Bastion Point, the freezing works ground to a halt and staff marched through Wellington in support of Ōrākei Māori.


Māori slaughtermen formed the militant leadership of the union at the Gear Meat works in Petone under the presidency of Ben Matthews, and union meetings were run with a marae-style format. During the off-season of 1981, the Hawke’s Bay Farmers Meat Company quietly closed down the Gear works. It took a nine-day national freezing workers’ strike to gain a redundancy agreement for staff.

Employment Contracts Act

In the wake of the Employment Contracts Act 1991, which abolished compulsory trade unionism, the percentage of unionised workers in New Zealand fell from 41.5% in 1991 to 21.7% in December 1995. In 1992, Māori made up 7.1% of the total employed workforce; in 1993 a survey found that they were 8.4% of union members. Māori were well represented as union members but under-represented in national union leadership roles – except in education unions.

    • The meat industry: strategies for change: a union study, Wellington: Meat Industry Study and Trade Union Education Authority, 1988, p. 35. Back

Māori and national union politics

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

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

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Cybèle Locke, 'Ngā uniana – Māori and the union movement', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 May 2021)

Story by Cybèle Locke, published 11 Mar 2010