Comrade: Bill Andersen: A communist, working-class life by Cybèle Locke (Bridget Williams Books, 2022), 412pp, $49.99
In the cover photograph for this book, Communist and union leader Bill Andersen, 50 years old, walks foursquare and determined at the head of a union battalion following his release from Mt Eden prison. On 1 July 1974, he had been sent to jail by Justice Peter Mahon, following an application by Waiheke Island ferries boss Leo Dromgoole to have the assets of Andersen’s Northern Drivers’ Union seized. This was prompted by his leadership role in wide union opposition to a long-rolling pay and conditions dispute. The following day, Andersen became ‘the man who stopped Auckland’ when 20,000 workers went on strike in protest, an event described by historian Bert Roth as ‘the greatest display of class solidarity in New Zealand history’. Nearly 10,000 marched with Andersen down Queen Street after his release on 3 July.
Nearly 50 years later, the photograph has a poignancy neither Bill Andersen nor his followers could have anticipated. Behind him march drivers, seamen, wharfies and many other union members, Pākehā and Māori shoulder to shoulder, their faces expressing their endless struggle for equity, fair pay and conditions for all working New Zealanders. It is an image of dour working-class triumph, but today it also seems to show the beginning of a long march into history, off the cover of this book, into another lost, scarcely recognisable country.
Gordon Harold (Bill) Andersen was born in 1924 to a Danish seafarer who jumped ashore in Auckland to become a master mariner and marry a local girl. They had five children, losing one to the Spanish flu, and Bill was the youngest. They grew up in working-class suburbs like Ponsonby and Grey Lynn but Andersen Senior’s employment as a coastal shipping skipper gave his family a secure life and protected them from the worst of the Depression.
Bill Andersen joined the army in 1940, lying about his age, but did not last long before he was jailed for going AWOL, and then broke out to attend his sister’s wedding. His refusal to accede to military discipline reflected his early opposition to the imbalance between the demands of exploitative bosses and the people who worked the engine rooms for their profits. He became a union secretary aged only seventeen and gained better conditions for its members. This seems unlikely but anyone across the table from Andersen in his younger years may well have been impressed by his physical stature and reputation for settling disputes with his fists.
The early death of his mother was devastating. He drifted until joining the NZ Seamen’s Union and the four-masted barque Pamir on a voyage to San Francisco, working aloft in bare feet under difficult and dangerous conditions. On the return voyage, Andersen was a forced passenger, too much of a ‘troublemaker’ for pushing better conditions among its crew. He then had two tattoos inked on his arms; the Pamir from which he had been blacklisted and a tombstone in memory of his mother.
Andersen’s experiences as a merchant seaman during World War II provided the political epiphanies that moulded a life dedicated to communism and the welfare of the working class. In Aden, he saw young boys working 72-hour weeks loading coal for just £2.10s: ‘I was so moved … so shocked … I gave them nearly all my clothes.’ Young though he was, he realised that ‘any system which could allow this sort of exploitation must be an intolerable system’.
In his unpublished memoir, Anderson wrote that on his final voyage as a seaman just after the war, he went to a company hospital in Abadan to have his eyes examined (eye strain brought on by his working conditions led to prescription spectacles). There he saw:
‘… a long line of poverty, bitter poverty, and the resultant diseases. Many children have trachoma with their eyes like running sores, malnourished, ill-clad and very distressed. I was very angry at seeing the physical results of the oil global imperialists’ activities at such a close distance … Everything said by Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin clicked with that experience.’
Andersen went ashore in Auckland in April 1946 as a ‘glasses-wearing, card-carrying communist with a hatred of racism and imperialism, suspicious of union officials but committed to trade unionism.’
Cybèle Locke describes Andersen’s long march through and with the unions, his ‘slow and careful building of working-class solidarity in the Northern Drivers’ Union (NDU), the New Zealand Drivers’ Federation (NZDF), the Auckland Trades Council (ATC) and the NZ Federation of Labour (FoL).’ Perhaps Andersen’s enduring achievement was that he put his fists in his pockets (after he married at age 30) and understood early on that violent, radical action in pursuit of one industrial settlement would cause more damage to the unions than the employers, and that all unions had to agree and act peacefully but firmly together to achieve their goals over the long term.
Locke follows Andersen’s climb as a highly respected trade union leader to the high point of 1974, followed by the steady decline and destruction of unionism by the red-baiting of the Muldoon years – the unrelenting attacks of employer organisations such as the Business Round Table; the betrayals of the fourth Labour Government, and the doubling down of neo-liberalism by the 1990s Bolger administration.
Parallel to this was his continuous involvement, to the end of his life in 2005, with a sequence of New Zealand communist parties: the Communist Party of NZ (CPNZ), the Socialist Unity Party (SUP) and the Socialist Party of Aotearoa (SPA). Andersen was under state surveillance from the beginning of his political activities and the Security Intelligence Service (SIS) has 22 volumes of files that Locke was unable to access because she was told it would take extra staff and months of work to declassify.
Although none of these parties was electorally significant, Andersen and their members did wield considerable influence among the unions. He said that his political mission was to ‘develop the thinking of the workers’ in the hope of one day seeing the establishment of a socialist state in New Zealand. But, as he told journalist Tony Reid in 1969 when he went into union negotiations with employers, ‘my opinion will have nothing to do with my socialistic beliefs … I’ll just be trying to find out how much we can win off these guys.’
The changing brands of communist parties are evidence of the debilitating sectarianism that afflicted the socialist movement. Andersen was attached to the Soviet Marxist-Leninist version of communism and, despite the suppression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, the ‘Czech Spring’ of 1968, and even the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, he remained staunch to the end.
Locke employs Andersen as a kind of biographical guide through socialist and working-class involvement with all the salient political and social movements and crises since World War II: the 1951 Waterfront Strike; Cold War peace actions; Vietnam protests; Bastion Point 1978; Springbok Tour 1981; Māori Treaty rights; the changing political and economic times. Andersen was always there, always on the right side, as the good selection of photographs reveal. But sometimes he seems to disappear into this history and the biographical thread wears thin.
It was difficult for Locke to access the man because she never met him, he never kept a journal, and she found only a couple of letters. But through her many interviews with those who knew him, she has managed to convey an image of a selfless, generous man dedicated to his cause, a man who was not for turning. Tony Reid portrayed a ‘large man who looms over the desk, looks like a European writer or university lecturer. His hair is long, slightly oily, face pale, mouth ascetic, almost harsh. The eyes somehow manage to convey – all at once – extreme shrewdness, honesty and wariness.’ He had a ‘natural modesty and fierce desire to identify himself with the rank and file.’ Others spoke of his humour and his generosity. He always kept cash in his pocket so that he would be able to help anyone in want who came into his union office.
This book provoked in me a terrible sense of loss for a country that once had a broad agreement across the political spectrum of how we should maintain a society that at least strove for equity and equality of opportunity. Since that moment in 1974 when Bill Andersen became ‘the man who stopped Auckland’, we have suffered the long-term destruction of community action and struggle and a descent into chronic inequality exacerbated by the increasing sectarianism of identity and ethnic politics.
In his memoir, written shortly before his death, Andersen wrote: ‘The socialist forces should stand for a peaceful transition to socialist power, but always remember that the corporates will not give up a struggle unless they have to.’ After sixty years of engaging in that struggle the peaceful way, he finally realised that: ‘the real answer does not lie in reform but in revolution.’ But to spark that revolution, New Zealand society today lacks the solidarity that projects from this fine volume’s cover image.
PHILIP TEMPLE is a Dunedin historian and author.