Wayne Thompson

Wayne Thompson is a NZ Herald reporter.

Hard union head Devitt dies at 86

Boilermakers’ battler drew vicious attacks in Parliament from Muldoon and other National MPs

Committed socialist Con Devitt had a big influence on the Boilermakers Union in the 1970s and 80s.
Committed socialist Con Devitt had a big influence on the Boilermakers Union in the 1970s and 80s.

Con Devitt, whose militant leadership of the Boilermakers Union made him a national figure, has died in Wellington, aged 86.

Born in Glasgow, Scotland, he arrived in New Zealand in the mid-1950s and worked on the building of the giant Kawerau pulp and paper mill.

Family friend Helen Mulholland said she once asked him why he came to New Zealand.

"He replied: 'New Zealand in the 1950s was the Utopia of socialism'. He was a big man with a big heart who practised socialism to the letter."

Former head of the Council of Trade Unions Ken Douglas recalls early times when he and Devitt were taking a veteran unionist to catch the ferry. "Con asks him: 'where's your coat?' The old man said he did not have one. Con takes off his coat and gives it to him. That's the sort of person he was. A humanistic guy.

"He consistently reflected the sort of values that came out of a very hard personal childhood of Clydeside, Scotland. A lot of people today do not understand that culture of social support."

Devitt's strong influence on the union spanned the 1970s and 80s as secretary to the union's Wellington Branch and then national secretary.

The country had a shortage of skilled labour.

Douglas said that from experience in Glasgow, Devitt understood industry was changing and he knew there was a limited window of advantage to improve conditions.

Boilermakers do metal fabrication and welding in the heavy engineering industry and work on bridges, ships, boilers and high-rise building projects.

Unionists of the time recall the boilermakers jealously defending their patch against different unions and insisting on lines of demarcation over who would do what work.

Militancy caused much bother to both Labour and National ministers of labour - against a backdrop of rising economic instability, inflation, frozen wages and unemployment.

Devitt became the object of vicious personal attacks in parliamentary debates by [Sir] Robert Muldoon and other National MPs.

Boilermakers' industrial action was blamed for long delays to a host of heavy engineering projects, including Wellington's BNZ Centre, Marsden Pt oil refinery, and development of the mills at Kawerau and Kinleith.

Eventually, Wellington and Kawerau local unions were deregistered.

A trend arose to avoid employing boilermakers by building in reinforced concrete instead of steel.

A 1977 commission of inquiry into the heavy engineering industry found that seven companies had been closed down due primarily to the "disruptive tactics and restrictive practices imposed by certain sections of the Auckland and Wellington boilermaker unions".

However, Devitt shrugged off the "industrial wrecker" tag.

Douglas backs him, saying Muldoon's slagging was outrageous and more about politicians needing a perception of scapegoats ... "otherwise they were going to be asked serious political questions like, why hadn't they modernised New Zealand's infrastructure?"

Interviewed in the 1985 film The Hatred Campaign, Devitt said the union was actually deregistered before the BNZ Centre dispute.

"No honest employer ever had anything to fear from the Wellington Boilermakers Union," he said.

He went on to head the New Zealand Trade Union Federation - a splinter group formed when the Federation of Labour went out of existence. It later merged to make the Council of Trade Unions.

He is survived by his wife, Joyce.

- NZ Herald

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