Biographical / Historical
The New Zealand Building and Allied Trades Federation came into existence in March 1940. The organisation grew out of a sub-committee of the Wellington Branch of the Amalgamated Carpenters and Joiners Union set up in 1938 to investigate the building industry and the conditions of those working in it. With the outbreak of war; the introduction of Emergency Regulations and fears over wages and conditions the committee’s terms of reference were extended. At this time other interested unions, including the plumbers, carpenters, painters, bricklayers, structural steel workers, stonemasons, plasterers, timber workers and general labourers were invited to join the committee and in November 1939 the name of the committee was changed to the Wellington Building Investigation Committee to reflect this. It was at meetings of this combined committee in March 1940 that the rules and constitution of the proposed Building and Allied Trades Federation were drafted and provisional officers elected.
The carpenters and the plumbers unions made up the power base of the Federation and its influence was greatest in Auckland and Wellington, although regional councils were established in Christchurch and Dunedin and another was proposed for Gisborne. In Auckland, prior to the formation of the Federation a Building Trades Council existed this in turn became the Auckland Regional Council of the Federation. The Auckland Council was led by Roy Stanley, a member of the Communist Party of New Zealand (CPNZ). In Wellington, Winfred (Bill) McAra was the dominant personality and one of the driving forces behind the Federation. At the time of the formation of the Federation, McAra, like Stanley was an active member of the CPNZ and also an organiser for the Carpenters’ Union in Wellington.
About the same time that the Building Trades Federation was formed, a Transport Workers’ Federation also came into existence. Both were attempts by the left to establish a power base from which they could influence the moderate dominated Federation of Labour. This meant that a number of unions within the scope of the Building Trades Federation were reluctant to be involved. Most notable of such unions was the powerful New Zealand Labourers’ Federation, led by Peter M. Butler, who, with John Moulton, had originally been prominent in the formation of the Building Trades Federation. After the Building Trades Union Conference, 1940 only the Auckland General Labourers’ Union participated in the affairs of the Federation.
This struggle within the trade union movement was exacerbated by the war. The FOL supported the Labour Government’s decision to lead New Zealand into the war, whereas the Communist Party strenuously opposed New Zealand’s involvement on the grounds that it was a
capitalist war. The building industry in particular, was central to the war effort at home. The Labour Government was committed already to a programme of large scale construction of state houses and at the same time there was now a number of defence works needed; convalescent military hospitals, expansion of military camps and of course air raid shelters. Obviously much was required of the building trades, but as men were called up fewer tradesmen were available to do the additional work.
The first major threat to the building worker came early in 1940, when the Master Builders’ Association approached Patrick Webb, Minister of Labour and asked him to extend the 40 hour week. Webb refused, but the Building Trades Federation publicised the danger in its pamphlet, Defend Labour’s greatest achievement: the 40 hour week. This was followed by a round of conferences and negotiations. The Federation then published its Workers’ plan for the building industry. Prepared by McAra this was a comprehensive plan for the co-ordination and re- organisation of the industry. The Government shelved it and then with little consultation with the Building Trades Federation (if not the FOL) brought down emergency regulations under the Public Safety Conservation Act, 1932 and appointed James Fletcher Commissioner of Defence Construction with complete authority over labour and materials and with powers to override any cabinet minister except the Prime Minister.
With the German invasion of the USSR in June 1941, communist opposition turned into vigorous support for the war effort. However, the Government continued to avoid the Building Trades Federation and turned, when it could to the more responsive FOL.
During 1942 the influence of the Building and Allied Trades Federation faded away and its place was taken by another organisation, the New Zealand Federated Building Trades Industrial Association of Workers, which held its original conference on 15 December 1944 and its first annual conference on 15 April 1945.