I was recently hired to sing at a stranger's funeral. As a matter of protocol, you have to remain through the rest of the service and hear all the stuff about the deceased.

This lady died fairly young, leaving a daughter and many friends whose lives she had obviously enhanced; she clearly made a difference to many people and will be missed, although her name won't be on the news.

All our names are written in water, but some make a momentary splash.

There've been floods of tributes to the late Sonja Davies, ex-Shop Employees Union official, ex-Labour MP.

Davies received the highest civil award New Zealand rulers have to offer, and was the subject of a book and film. She was frequently described as an exceptional battler for people's rights.

Since 1974, I have been in a position to observe Sonja Davies' work. Back then the Wellington Trades Council was a hothouse gathering of unionists, right, left and centre. We met each month and literally sat with the left on the left and the right on the right.

On the left sat the Socialist Unity Party and the Workers Communist League, plus independent militants. On the right was Tony Neary the militant Catholic, and the Engineers and Printers unions.

Davies was with the contingent in the middle. I never recall her pushing for a rank and file campaign of any sort or passionately arguing on any question of the day, and I never remember her at a working bee for a protest.

I only recall her consistently pushing the Labour Party line, whatever the weather.

It was the same at Federation of Labour conferences.

Davies did stick out a bit there because almost all the officials were men, mostly aging white men. But she didn't ever advance any feminist or other agenda that caused a clash, not in the time I was around anyway.

When she stood for the Federation of Labour vice-presidency in the 70s, I turned to Graeme Clarke, communist, secretary of the Coachworkers union we both belonged to, and asked what he thought of arguing for our delegation to vote for her.

"Just because she's got a skirt?" said Graeme. I realised what he meant.

Apart from tokenism, there was no leftist union reason to vote for her. Davies was like very many union officials of the compulsory union era - she owed her position partly to an edict of the state.

When compulsory unionism was taken away, the Shop Employees union was one of the many unable to stand up and continue business as normal.

Davies was a functioning, run-of-the-mill bureaucrat, particularly keen on getting on a seat in the House of Representatives. Apart from the much lauded incident on the railway track in the 1950s, I never heard of her rocking the boat or challenging authority in any of the mass movements of the day. Certainly her assumption of a safe Labour seat in Parliament caused no trouble to the established order. At least Jim Anderton rebelled against Rogernomic politics by taking a public stand against them.

Sometime in the 80s I was asked to go and sing on a picket line of redundant icecream workers in Johnsonville. Davies was invited too. She told the workers there was nothing that could be done. When I followed her I told the workers I could understand how they felt being laid off as I'd just been replaced as a live musician in a bar by a jukebox. At that point Davies jumped up and interrupted me, saying: "See - there's nothing you can do."

I quarrelled briefly with her in front of the picket line, saying there is always some damn thing you can demand and sang my song and that was that. Some might say that's a petty incident of little consequence. It is hard to present a positive message to laid-off workers, but it's in those situations where battlers for people's rights are tested.

I have no personal axe to grind against Davies. But the only reason I can think of her becoming an approved establishment union battler pin-up is that she was ideal for the purpose, having never caused them a single anxious moment.

* Don Franks is a Wellington trade unionist.