White-Collar Radical: Dan Long and the rise of the white-collar unions, by Mark Derby, (Craig Potton Publishing, 2013), 302 pp., $39.99
White-Collar Radical: Dan Long and the rise of the white-collar unions reveals its author Mark Derby writes well, though this is hardly surprising because he is an experienced writer and historian, whose colourful and absorbing Kiwi Companeros: New Zealand and the Spanish Civil War I especially enjoyed. This book, different in every respect, is, although generally admirable, somewhat less satisfying. Commissioned by the Dan Long Memorial Trust and written with the cooperation of the Long family, it doubles as a biography and as a quite detailed history of the Public Service and associated white-collar unions during the often stormy years of the 1950s and 1960s as their size and influence greatly increased. For those of us who maintain that the biographer must put the subject of the biography firmly at the centre of attention throughout the entire work, Dan Long himself is often regrettably absent for far too many pages, as Derby traces with admirable clarity and exhaustive detail the tortuous chronicles of union conflicts, aspirations and reforming campaigns. In doing so, of course, he certainly fulfils the promise of the book’s sub-title, but at the risk of creating a certain imbalance. And commissions themselves, however amicably and generously intended by both those who commission and those who accept them, invariably pose problems of objectivity for any author, as this reviewer knows well from personal experience.
Dan Long was born in 1922 on the West Coast and brought up in the southern Wairarapa, the second son of devout Catholic Irish working-class parents. His father, a railway worker all too fond of his drink, had served in the British Army during World War One, and had risen from the ranks to become an officer. Dan’s mother, however, by far the strongest influence on his childhood and youth, was as devout a pacifist as she was a daughter of the Church, and Dan absorbed her views in their entirety. These were entrenched by the similarly powerful intellectual influences encountered through the family’s Labour Party associations, and his early student years at Wellington Teachers College and Victoria University College (as it was then), when he took inspiration from such charismatic personalities as Bill Sutch, Ormond Burton and John Beaglehole. He became a conscientious objector and, earnest and honest in his Christian Socialism, he served out his time in prison and detention until 1946. Yet sympathetic as Derby is to Dan Long’s powerfully held moral imperatives, and as contemptuous as he is of the wartime political attitudes and widespread social antagonism towards conscientious objectors, he also reveals Long to be as naive and simplistic as he was genuinely idealistic. It is very easy now for younger generations, who did not experience the fears and continuing anxieties of New Zealand’s wartime society, to fail to fully appreciate the reasons for the widespread antipathy that existed then towards conscientious objectors.
On his release from detention, Dan Long joined the Ministry of Works as a clerk. He also resumed his part-time law studies, and was soon shifted to the ministry’s legal department. There, he became a union activist. In 1956 he joined the Public Service Association executive, and this was to dominate his life until his premature death from a heart attack in 1976. Equally importantly, he met his future wife, Margaret Brand, a child of progressive working-class parents who had been brought up in Auckland. She established herself in the capital as a major figure in the long, hard-fought but ultimately triumphant campaign for equal pay for women. Naturally and significantly this book serves in large part as her biography too, for in so many ways she stands out as one of the major and most effective personalities inside Wellington’s vociferous and high-profile radical community. Margaret Long’s intellect and drive complemented her husband’s own qualities perfectly, and she remained a loving and stalwart ally even when domestic demands of a growing family restricted her public activities.
Dan Long’s rise inside the Public Service Association was remorseless, and seemingly preordained, though in fact the result of hard work and ability – it was remarked that he regularly worked such long hours that he donated ‘a large amount of free overtime’ to the PSA. He became a vice-president within a year, president a year later, and after that the organisation’s general secretary. For the rest of his life he guided the PSA through tumultuous times with consummate skill and tact and, always the internationalist, extended its influence abroad. By 1974 the PSA was, as Derby points out, New Zealand’s largest union, with 60,000 members whose influence had even been felt in the snake pit of Australian industrial relations, where his experience and principled political attitudes resonated strongly in what traditionally was a very different environment.
For Paul Munro, the secretary of Australia’s Administrative and Clerical Officers Association, Dan Long was ‘a rational and civilized old leftie’ of gravitas and experience – with a reputation as a committed internationalist that was in contrast to the more opportunistic Australian union leaders of that period. Dan also seems to have been able to keep his Catholicism separate from his union work; even in his relations with Australian officials of all political shades, at a time when Australia’s powerful Catholic right wing played such a controversial part in Australia’s union affairs.
Mark Derby sums up Dan Long’s style well: he ‘remained a reassuring representative who, even as he held his place on picket lines, slept on marae floors and contributed to interminable “teach-ins”, retained the outward appearance of a top-level civil servant, with his well-trimmed hair, plastic-rimmed spectacles and gaberdine raincoat. This thoroughly conventional demeanour permitted him to also associate professionally with departmental heads and cabinet ministers, but as the protest movement’s lines of battle shifted to contest racial and gender imbalances, a besuited white male of advancing years found it harder to be trusted, even by those who solicited his organisation’s support.’ Dan’s long-standing friend, Jim Turner, writing in a special issue of the Public Service Journal, published a month after his funeral, described him as ‘a clever man, a versatile man and a man acquainted with human frailty. He was essentially human, not coldly logical. He had an analytical mind. He was a fighter, yet he had compassion. He was a truly good man … [who] lived a full life … [and who] was respected and even held in affection by those who knew him and worked with him.’
Yet if one considers Dan Long dispassionately, as he is depicted in this almost overwhelmingly affectionate biography – one that can occasionally verge dangerously towards hagiography – there seems to be a certain blandness, even a colourlessness about his personality. His private life was admirable but unremarkable: he lived all his adult life in Upper Hutt and the wider Hutt Valley, and was to all intents and purposes the very pattern of a Wellington bureaucrat, but one notable for his social conscience, his sensitivity and deep compassion for all. A man of principles, unshakeable convictions and strong religious faith, he seemed to hold no grudges towards those – such as his beloved atheist wife and his children – who did not share that faith.
The author’s obvious high regard for his subject and the consequent lack of a truly objective voice detracts from one’s full enjoyment and any sense that a fully rounded portrait is being presented. Likewise, the relentlessly left-wing account of events in the story of how Long and many others struggled against ingrained political and professional opposition, and prejudice and indifference, to achieve their goals and expand the white collar union’s influence, seems over-emphasised. As with any sustained ideological account of historical events, this ticking off of grievances can become tiresome; as does the reiterated use of pejorative adjectives and adverbs accompanying almost every mention of those opposed to Long, Brand, their activist colleagues and their crusades. The sense that a kind of a propaganda is being promulgated affects one’s sympathies for the perceived injustices being presented.
All that is a pity, because Mark Derby is especially good when he writes about the host of Wellington identities who enlivened the small city’s vibrant coffee bars and were the Longs’ lifelong friends and colleagues. Highly visible in their generation in Wellington’s often over-heated intellectual and political world, always outspoken, opinionated, tirelessly provocative and self-consciously radical, they don’t deserve to be forgotten. There remains for younger generations the mistaken assumption that the 1950s and 1960s were drab, stodgy and forgettable. They weren’t, and Derby brings to life again such huge personalities as Conrad Bollinger, an energetic, dazzling figure of polymathic abilities, and his wife Marei Dronke – a daughter of war-time refugee emigrants who fascinated and captivated my student generation at Canterbury University College. These two shone brightly, but there were many others. Derby spreads his net widely; perhaps too widely sometimes, skimming over names and thin on meaningful connections.
After Long’s sudden and unexpected death, his family and friends instituted the Dan Long Trust to enable Asian and Pacific unionists to travel to New Zealand, and to also provide our unionists with education and travel scholarships, as well as, initially, to aid his children’s education. All these were issues Long felt strongly about. From 1978 until 1999, the Trust funded a comprehensive trade union library, encouraging trade union internationalism and research into all aspects of union history. After that, the library’s extensive contents were transferred to Victoria University, where they remained in store for some years before finding an appropriate and permanent home in the university’s J.C. Beaglehole Room.
Unfortunately, this is not an especially attractive-looking book, and the often poor quality of photo reproduction is regrettable. The subject and the author deserve better.
EDMUND BOHAN is a Christchurch historian, biographer and novelist.