Michele Hewitson interview: Garry Parsloe

The Maritime Union is Garry Parsloe's emotional life and family. Photo / Brett Phibbs
The Maritime Union is Garry Parsloe's emotional life and family. Photo / Brett Phibbs

The president of the Maritime Union, Garry Parsloe, said he couldn't get his hair done for his picture, because he doesn't have any, but he might comb his moustache.

People have opinions about his moustache and about whether having one is a good look for a union leader embroiled in a PR war with the Ports of Auckland. Everyone has an opinion on the industrial dispute and everyone has advice. Somebody emailed him recently to tell him he should shave off the mo.

As you can see from the picture, he hasn't taken that particular piece of advice.

Does the moustache matter? It might because it gives him a certain look and perception is, if not all, quite a lot. The Ports of Auckland bosses are groomed and wealthy looking; they wear nice suits and crisp shirts. The union boss wears jeans and polo shirts or T-shirts, with slogans.

Today's says: Organise, Unite, Fight. He has, "oh, wardrobes full" of such shirts from his union and unions all over the country and the world.

He reckons he has, oh, 50 or 60 of them. "There's a shirt for every occasion." He does own a suit or two and "I might get a suit on three or four times a year".

He wears suits to funerals, of course, but I bet he looks itchy in them. He looks like what he is. He said: "I'm an old sailor." An old sailor, then, turned union boss. He went to sea at 15, as a deckhand, and what he loved about it was that, in 1960, in those pre-TV days, the seamen would finish their work and then "sit around and talk about the union".

He is small but tough looking, with a lived-in face, and strong working man's hands, still, despite having left the sea for a union desk in 1980. He said, about his public profile, and PR war: "The trouble is, they've got me. I'm the president, so I go forward. But they'd be better off with somebody a bit better looking and not so old and grumpy. And a bit of hair!"

He's 67 and could retire. He was due to go in March but he sniffed trouble and decided he'd better stay on. I think this might have come as a relief (the staying on, not the trouble, for all that he doesn't mind a fight and is naturally combative: "I enjoy putting things together better.") He admitted, the one glimpse into the interior he allowed himself, that he is frightened of retiring.

"You have a full-on life. The phone is ringing all day. You're on the computer. Then all of a sudden ... you stop."

He has no family and no hobbies beyond watching sport on the telly. He lives in a one-bedroom apartment two minutes away from the Anzac Ave union office. He has a glimpse of the sea he fell in love with when he was that young boy and he keeps it ship-shape, of course.

He seldom has people over and although he doesn't mind a drink he never drinks at home and never has. Home is private but I'd hazard that it is pretty much a replica of his office, but with a bed and all of those shirts. He doesn't really have a private life.

Doesn't really? Put it this way, if you could somehow take a snapshot of the interior life of Garry Parsloe it would look like this: A union meeting.

A slideshow of the interior life of Garry Parsloe: A series of union meetings, the characters changing over the years but all looking somehow the same; working men, union delegates and presidents, in the 60s in jackets and ties; in the present, in shirts like those in his wardrobe.

His interior life would look like the photographs which line the walls on the stairs on the way to his office which show decades of working men, union delegates and presidents ...

He said: "Hey! Cut it out!" Some time, not much later, he said: "You ask the weirdest questions!" I doubt others would regard them as weird. He is big on talking about the family life of "my blokes" and how the proposed casualisation of the ports' work force will destroy family life. He likes to talk about work/life balance.

"Working people deserve a balanced life; working people should have a balanced lifestyle." I said: "Tell me about your work/life balance, Garry." He said: "I'll tell you they should be entitled to go home. It's not all about work, they should have family time." He doesn't have any work/life balance, does he? "No. I'm single."

I was asking about his family. His father left when he was so young he can't remember how old he was. His father was a sailor. "That's what got me all excited about going to sea." I had thought that his father might have abandoned the family.

He said: "Well, I don't know too much about what happened." Had he never asked? "People have divorces." Was he not interested or did he think it was his parents' private business? "It was their business. If people aren't getting on together, they shouldn't be together, should they?" I asked what his dad was like and he said, oh, he was a bit of character, but he either doesn't know in what way he was a bit of a character or he wasn't about to tell me.

He did like him, but what he liked about him has nothing to do with his character but to do with his lifestyle: Going off to sea, to exotic places. Did he admire his father? "I saw the lifestyle he had and I was attracted to it."

His mother married again. What was his stepfather like? "He was a freezing worker." He is probably still wondering why that answer made me laugh my head off. What more could anyone possibly want to know about his stepfather?

I idiotically persevered and asked him some questions about his romantic life. I knew he'd never married but perhaps he'd lived with people? "Oh, yes, I've had a lot of relationships." A lot! "I've had partners. Everybody has that." How many? This was when he shouted: "Hey! Cut it out!"

He had earlier told me that he was a bit bossy, and can get a bit terse and a bit growly and "we shout a little", so he might be difficult to live with. "I'm probably very hard to get on with." Because he is so bossy. "If I had a partner asking this many questions, I'd be a little bit grumpy with her and we wouldn't get on!"

I'll take that as agreement that he is difficult to get on with. "It would seem so." But why did he never marry? I'll take at stab at answering: Because he is absolutely single-minded and, except for sport, is only interested in unions. When he goes to the pub, or out to dinner, it is with like-minded people and guess what they talk about? I asked if he ever talks, to anyone, about personal things and he looked at me as though I was stark raving mad. "You've asked me more questions than anyone in my life!" (I'll take that as a "no".)

One last crack: He does have emotions, doesn't he? "Everybody gets emotional. Richard Pearson saying we would never be on the waterfront again ... I got very emotional about that."

Well, yes, but in his private life, is what I meant. "If I won Lotto I'd get very emotional." If he won Lotto what would he spend the money on? "Oh. Who knows?" More shirts with union slogans on, probably.

The union is his emotional life, then, and his family, but asking whether he replaced his lack of family with the union, or whether the union took over so completely that there was no space left for family, would be impossible for anyone, least of all him, to unravel. He said: "It's a life if you're in it, you live it."

I saw a flash of his style - a bit terse, a bit growly, more than a bit steely - when I asked whether there were thugs on the wharves. "Well, I know them all. I believe they're just working people ... they're all family people." I said that being a family person didn't necessarily mean that a person could not also be a thug. "Well, I don't think they're thugs. Okay?" They can't all, I said, be lovely people. "I didn't say they were lovely people. I said they were just people wanting a job and wanting to look after their family. I see them as nothing else."

Some say he is a relic, a dinosaur. He is nostalgic for the days of militant unionism. A slicker, media-trained president would know how that will play, and wouldn't have waxed lyrical about the good old days. He did. "Those days were the days."

His idea of not weird questions would have been questions about the days of unionism in the 1960s when "you could talk union all day and you were part of the union and it was like a family". He does know that those days of militant unionism are not universally regarded so rosily but: "I enjoyed them."

He is rumoured to call people comrade. "It depends who you're talking to. I didn't call you comrade," he said. So, oh, all right he doesn't call everyone comrade. But does he? "Yeah, that's an incredible word." With connotations. "It's just comradeship, that's all." He says it doesn't matter, "not to me", if he is thought to be a dinosaur.

It might bother him just a bit, though. He told me he asked his predecessor, Dave Morgan, whether he was annoyed by being called a dinosaur, "and he said, 'if you let it annoy you, it'll annoy you'." So he doesn't let it annoy him, and it doesn't. It doesn't matter, "to me, personally", but anyone could have guessed at that answer because that would be personal, now wouldn't it?

I asked one last silly question: Did he have any regrets about having made the union his whole life? We already know the answer.

- NZ Herald

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