Gear meatworks closure kickstarts modern Petone - 150 years of news

Striking Gear Meat workers and their children pictured on April 6, 1981, as a six-week dispute neared its end. From ...
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Striking Gear Meat workers and their children pictured on April 6, 1981, as a six-week dispute neared its end. From left, Thomas Meihana with Selina, 7 months, Glen Rainford with Hemi, 12 months, Malcolm McAllister with Kimiora, 5 months.

Modern Petone was born in 1981 when the Gear Meat abattoir closed, heralding the end of the suburb's working-class, industrial century.

A painful six-week strike that summer and autumn was the final death spasm for the meatworks, which closed quietly mid-year.

Known as Petone's "stink factory", Gear was founded in 1874 by James Gear, an English butcher who gave up Otago goldmining to found his factory on a 12-hectare foreshore block where Pak'n Save is today. At its peak it killed 10,000 sheep a day, and 600 cattle.

The 12-hectare Gear meatworks site dominates Petone's waterfront in 1910.
ALEXANDER TURNBULL LIBRARY Ref: 1/2-001869-G

The 12-hectare Gear meatworks site dominates Petone's waterfront in 1910.

When frozen meat exports began in 1882, Gear was well-placed to meet demand, having built train tracks along The Esplanade that hooked up with main railway lines.

The lines also took waste to a huge piggery at Gear Island, today's Shandon golf course, and until the 1920s transported Wellington punters to the Hutt Park raceway.

By the 1880s Petone was booming as a working-class suburb, and grew when Unilever established a factory around 1900 to make candles out of Gear's tallow.

But seeds of Gear's demise were sown as early as World War II, historian Warwick Johnston said in his 2012 history of the company. Gear continued to pay high dividends to shareholders and failed to follow the lead shown by its founder, to continuously reinvest in equipment and improvements.

On February 26, 1981, 500 Gear butchers stopped work when their union tried to improve pay and conditions by imposing restrictions on certain tasks.

Strikes were at an all-time high in New Zealand, and The Dominion's pages were full of industrial news. Petone's Unilever workers won a 13.6 per cent pay rise while the Gear strike dragged on.

Workers denied they were striking, saying the company had locked them out, but the dispute was ruled a strike, and workers were blocked from getting the unemployment benefit.

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The minister of labour, future prime minister Jim Bolger, said the disputed points between the Gear and the union were so small "as to be almost nonsensical to maintain a dispute of this length".

Relief was palpable on both sides when an agreement over knife and line change allowances was made on April 13.

Pay packets would again arrive for workers, who had collectively lost $2 million in wages, or $10,000 each in 2015 money. The company also suffered substantial losses, plant manager Barney Sundstrum told The Dominion.

"We are happy to have them back. Both parties have suffered needlessly."

The very next day, however, Gear announced it was selling 31 of its retail shops and its wholesaling arm to rival Hellaby's. The company's demise was not far behind.

Newspaper letter-writers warned it would be the death of Petone, but in hindsight Gear's failure was the birth of Petone as we know it today, historian Johnston said.

Hundreds of workers moved up the North Island to find jobs in other freezing works or industries, and Petone's gentrification got under way as upwardly mobile young families moved in.

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The Dominion Post  150 Years of News is available via dompost.co.nz or 0800 50 50 90. Priced at $34.95 + $3 postage and handling or $29.95 + $3 p&h for subscribers.

 - Stuff

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