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Ken Douglas: one of the last of the old school

Karl du Fresne: I can’t claim to have known Douglas well, but I had a bit to do with him over the years.
Karl du Fresne
Contributing Writer
September 16th, 2022

OPINION: Tributes are being paid to Ken Douglas, who died on Wednesday* aged 86.

I can’t claim to have known Douglas well, but I had a bit to do with him over the years.

I first encountered him when I was a young (19) and very green industrial reporter for The Dominion and Douglas was secretary of the Wellington Drivers’ Union. I was an occasional visitor to the union office on the second floor of the Trades Hall. Pat Kelly was then assistant secretary.

Douglas and Kelly were a bit of an odd couple. Douglas, himself a former truck driver, was a Moscow-aligned communist and a leading light in the Socialist Unity Party, whereas Kelly – father of the late Helen Kelly, who followed him into the union movement – was a Marxist who took his ideological cues from Beijing (or Peking, as we still called it then). But the relationship seemed to work.

Not all union officials were favourably disposed toward the Tory press, regarding the media as tools of the ruling class. Some were surly and hostile, but Douglas was always personable (as was Kelly).

It was only many years later that the two parted company – acrimoniously, in Kelly’s case. By that time (this was the late 1980s) Douglas was president of the newly formed Council of Trade Unions, which several key blue-collar unions refused to join. They were suspicious of the new umbrella organisation because it was dominated by white-collar, middle-class unions such as the Public Service Association.

Douglas tried to hold the movement together and eventually found himself bitterly at odds with bolshie former comrades who thought the CTU should organise strike action against the National government’s Employment Contracts Act, which aimed to strip the unions of their power (one thing David Lange's reformist Labour government had never attempted).

Douglas found himself in the unfamiliar position of urging moderation. Kelly, always more of a firebrand, was one of those who accused him of betraying the workers. It can’t have been an easy time.

The rancour lingered. I remember writing something about the union split for the Evening Post years later and phoning Kelly to get his view on Douglas’s role in the upheaval, thinking that by then the wounds might have healed. They hadn’t. “You wouldn’t want to print anything I’d say about Douglas,” was his response.

Douglas was a community stalwart in Titahi Bay, where I lived for several years. He was active in local sports clubs and served for several terms on the Porirua City Council and the Capital and Coast District Health Board.

He also sat on some high-powered corporate boards, including those of Air New Zealand, New Zealand Post and New Zealand Rugby. Some people wondered how he reconciled these well-paid gigs with his proletarian sympathies, but I guess he justified them because they involved publicly owned organisations, albeit operating in a capitalist environment. 

Douglas’s politics were anathema to me but I couldn’t help liking him. He had a bluff personality and a sharp intelligence that was uncontaminated by higher learning.

TVNZ’s One News was drawing a long bow when it described him as “perhaps the most famous unionist in New Zealand history” (presumably the reporter had never heard of Fintan Patrick Walsh, or thinks history began sometime in the 1980s), but he was certainly one of the last of the old school.  

Footnote: I note that several media outlets are referring to Douglas as "Red Ken", but I don't recall ever hearing that nickname in his union days. The only "Red Ken" of that era was the socialist mayor of London, Ken Livingstone (or Ken Leninspart, as Private Eye magazine delighted in calling him).  

*The original version of this post incorrectly said Tuesday.

Article originally published on Karl du Fresne's blog and republished to The Platform with permission.

Karl is a freelance journalist and blogger living in the Wairarapa region of New Zealand.