Militant unionist Con Devitt dead at 86

PAUL EASTON
Last updated 05:00 16/07/2014
Rob Prosser/Vanguard Films 1985

An excerpt from the 1985 film The Hatred Campaign.

Con Devitt
PROUD TO BE A SOCIALIST: Leading unionist Con Devitt, boss of the Boilermakers’ Union and the Trade Union Federation, was at the centre of many big industrial disputes in the 1970s and 80s.

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He was a proud union man, an enemy of Rob Muldoon but a friend to many.

Con Devitt, a leading union figure from the 1970s and 80s, died suddenly in Wellington on Sunday. He was 86.

To many, he was the baleful face of the militant unionist, fresh from the shipyards of Scotland and determined to wreak havoc in New Zealand. That was certainly the view held by former prime minister Sir Robert Muldoon.

The powerful Devitt-led Boilermakers' Union was knee deep in some of the biggest industrial disputes of the day, from wrangles over Wellington's BNZ Centre to festering disputes at Marsden Point oil refinery, the Kawerau pulp and paper plant, and the Kinleith timber mill.

Ken Douglas, former head of the Council of Trade Unions, said yesterday that his old friend had been unfairly maligned.

"There was a shortage of boilermakers. Con understood labour market forces and he was very effective at getting the best deal for his members. In overall terms, he made a very significant contribution to the union movement in Wellington."

Devitt was persecuted "quite viciously" for his role in union politics, Douglas said. "It was not a pleasant time for any militant union official, and he was a militant union official."

Away from the picket lines, Devitt was "a very engaging personality - full of humour and wit, and I certainly enjoyed his company".

Devitt gave as good as he got to his enemies. In 1979, he told a group of medical students that Muldoon was paranoid. "I'm sure some of you could assist him later when he gets worse."

Devitt is survived by his wife Joyce.

Family friend Helen Mulholland saw another side of the big gregarious Scot, who spoke with a thick Glaswegian accent despite decades in New Zealand.

"He and Joyce were always taking in waifs. Con would find these homeless people, bring them in and, get them some food and try and find them a job.

"I once said to Joyce: ‘Aren't you scared with all these people coming in?' She said: ‘Not with Con beside me.' "

The couple endured police raids as the government's dislike of Devitt increased, Mulholland said.

Devitt moved on to head the Trade Union Federation.

In 1995, he told The Evening Post he was proud to be socialist. It was, he said, "a good-sounding word".

His niece Maureen said from Scotland yesterday that Devitt had a "marvellous life".

"We used to ring him up and ask how he was going, and he's ‘Oh, it's great, I'm fighting with everyone.'"

A MONUMENT TO UNION MILITANCY

The slow rise of Wellington's BNZ Centre came to represent the power of militant unions in the 1970s - and Con Devitt's name would forever be associated with the protracted construction of the black monolith.

Myriad delays meant that, although the 103-metre-high building was designed in the late 1960s, it wasn't occupied until 1984.

The Devitt-led Boilermakers' Union claimed the exclusive right of its members to weld the structural steel, as industrial action added six years to the project.

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Among the more memorable boilermakers' stoppages was one prompted by union delegate "Black Jock" McKenzie's dissatisfaction with his company-issue boots.

The industrial strife was so bad that New Zealand architects were deterred from designing future buildings in steel.

The BNZ Centre, now called the State Insurance Building, finally opened at a cost of $93 million - more than four times over budget.

In 1995, Devitt insisted the union was made a scapegoat for the problems that plagued the project. Design flaws and faulty materials also caused delays, while disputes between the main contractor and sub-contractors were common.

"At one stage, our members were sitting across the road drinking coffee all day on full pay while the contractor and the BNZ sorted out their problems."

- The Dominion Post

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