Tommy Wilson: Working class man still working hard

By Tommy Wilson

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The gap between what a man earned and what it cost to put his family into a whare is wider than the entrance to the port itself. Photo / Getty Images
The gap between what a man earned and what it cost to put his family into a whare is wider than the entrance to the port itself. Photo / Getty Images

Every special day has an anthem and for me the anthem for Labour Day is Working Class Man, the classic no frills ballad by gravel-voiced Glaswegian Jimmy Barnes.

Back in the day I looked after Jimmy and his whanau for a few days, when his daughter Mahalia was but a baby just learning to swim courtesy of my minding, and on one of those magical nights life gives us as a reward for manaaki, Jimmy and Jon English delivered an impromptu version of Working Class Man to a very private audience that will go down as what Jimmy would say "a fowken classic mate".

Everything about the song speaks of what our founding fathers stood for and believed in.
"Working hard to make a living - a father's son left to carry on blue denim in his veins"
Jimmy sings about simple men with hearts of gold who believed in Elvis and God and saved all of their overtime for the one love in their lives.

Whoever Jimmy was singing about - or for, was and is the same audience that I grew up in.

We were very much working class growing up in and around the wharf - as the port was known back then, and like many families in the Bay the working class life was all about labour.

All the korero was about a man's right to a decent day's pay for a decent day's work and the guardian of the right for the common man was the union delegate, who happened to be my Uncle Bonny Hulton.

If you could picture Jimmy Barnes on a push bike with a pipe and an attitude against the boss that was my Uncle Bonny.

Labour Day for men like my uncle and his wharfie mates was all about their day of rest as it was for the founder Samuel Parnell back on October 28, 1890, when he campaigned and marched for the 8 hour working day.

I guess the theme behind Jimmy's song and Samuel Parnell's pilgrimage to Parliament is the dream most of us live every day for and that is to get up, get out of bed, go to work and do what we have to do until we can do what we want to do?

It's the Kiwi dream and unlike the other of owning your own home can still happen, with a little help from your friends, and a bit of inspiration from songs like Working Class Man.
Today is that day to dream about making the dream happen and like my Uncle Bonny used to say "What other day do we get to celebrate work without actually having to do any?"

Because I used to sell papers at the pub as a young fulla, I got to listen in on their 'colourful' korero and worked out who was shafting who and who wasn't paying for that privilege. Anyone who was a boss was a buffoon or a clown and if the Wallaby coach thought he was hard done by over the weekend, he would not have lasted a week with all of his boohoo about getting beaten by a better team.

If there was one thing wharfies were passionate about besides beating the Aussies in anything, it was their working rights and back then they had it sweet, with penalty payments for everything imaginable.

The balance seems to have shifted further than a back-pedalling wallaby pack, and if you were to do the sums for a working class man now, compared to back then in my Uncle Bonny's days, the gap between what a man earned and what it cost to put his family into a whare is wider than the entrance to the port itself.

And it's getting wider by the day.

The port may be prospering, the channels may be getting deeper and the ships coming in bigger, but the working class men working hard to make a living, do not see the same horizons as they did fivedecades ago.

But just for today we down tools and take time to rest and remember those who championed the cause for the common man. The simple men and woman with hearts of gold like my Uncle Bonny, like Samuel Parnell and the amazingly graceful and gutsy Union President Helen Kelly, who passed away last week.

All of them building blocks sown into the silver lining of this long white cloud.

And when Jimmy Barnes shows up here in Tauranga on February 16next year at ASB I will be there to listen and learn from the legend who gave us the Labour day anthem - The Working Class Man.

- Tommy Wilson is a bestselling author. Tommy can be emailed at broblack@xtra.co.nz

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