Especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many tradesmen belonged to organisations such as the Freemasons, Druids Order, friendly societies, Oddfellows and other lodges. These ritualistic fraternal societies were men’s clubs that facilitated business between members and acted as a social welfare organisation for those who fell upon hard times.
Tradesmen were also instrumental in setting up the first unions and advocating for better work conditions. Carpenter Samuel Parnell agitated for – and won – an eight-hour work day in Wellington in 1840. New Zealand’s first recorded trade society, a Benevolent Society of Carpenters and Joiners, formed in Wellington in 1842.
Workers led by Samuel Shaw attempted to institute an eight-hour working day in Dunedin in 1849. In Auckland, painter William Griffin agitated for reduced hours and gained the eight-hour work day in 1857. The Dunedin Building and Contractors Association formed in 1873, and many other trades banded together for common aims in different associations.
Carpenters were the first workers to combine on a national basis, forming a New Zealand Council of their union in 1876. The first working man to enter Parliament was S. P. Andrews, a plasterer from Christchurch. On Labour Day different trades often marched in parades under their own flags.
The New Zealand Building and Allied Trades Federation was formed in March 1940, as an unregistered federation of building trade unions. In 1949 the Carpenters Union went on strike due to the low wage difference between carpenters and builders’ labourers.
In the 2000s the New Zealand Building Trades Union united the previously separate unions of carpenters and joiners, glaziers, bricklayers and blocklayers, signwriters, plasterers and tilers, aluminium workers, roof tilers and roofers, building industry workers, and painters and decorators.
Electricians are known as sparkies, carpenters are chippies and bricklayers are brickies. Subcontractors are called subbies. The newsletter of the Institute of Electricians’ Hutt Valley branch was titled Sparks Galore in 1988.
Clothing and language
Tradesmen are grouped in with other blue-collar (manual) workers. Modern builders often wear a leather apron which holds their tools. Carpenters and builders of the late 1800s and 1900s often sported a full white apron with a pouch at the front.
The smoko break is a tradesman’s institution, taken mid-morning and mid-afternoon. In the past it usually involved a cup of tea and a cigarette. In the 2000s there were fewer smokers and more coffee drinkers. Large construction sites often had smoko rooms or smoko sheds.
In the 2000s many tradespeople were self-employed or worked in small companies. A lot of work was generated through informal alliances – tradesmen often recommended acquaintances to clients. They often also negotiated deals with supply firms to get goods at wholesale rates in return for regular custom.
Traditionally a laid-back work culture of ‘she’ll be right’ has been prevalent in New Zealand. From the late 20th century this was slowly changing, and more of a safety culture emerged. Since the passing of the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992 there have been many prosecutions. In the past many building sites were unfenced with no warning signs. Building sites became required to be secured and display warnings of specific hazards.
New Zealanders are a nation of do-it-yourself practitioners. In the past building regulations were less strict, and many New Zealand houses have illegal alterations (even additions) carried out by home handymen. Stricter regulations in the 2000s required registered tradespeople for almost all electrical and plumbing work. Many people still do their own renovations, especially jobs that require no structural work, such as plastering, painting and tiling.
All building trades have historically been male-dominated. For example in 1971, of the 5,434 plumbers and gasfitters in New Zealand, not one was a woman. The situation does not look likely to change quickly. One measure of the future shape of an industry is apprentices. In 2008 there were 2,057 building and construction apprentices, but just nine were women. In 2006, of 146 plumbing apprentices, none were female.