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Con Devitt

Trade Union leader

Trade Union leader

Born: February 22, 1928. Died: July 13, 2014.

CON Devitt, who has died aged 86, was a militant and often-controversial trade union leader who took his fight as a young man in the shipyards of the Clyde to his adopted home in New Zealand.

As leader of the New Zealand Boilermakers' Union, he became something of a nemesis to the nation's Prime Minister Robert Muldoon during the 1970s and '80s. Such a thorn in Mr Muldoon's flesh was Mr Devitt that Mr Muldoon ordered police raids on the home of Mr Devitt and his wife Joyce.

"Not pleasant," was the way Mr Devitt recalled those raids, in the Glasgow accent he never lost. He went on to head the New Zealand Trade Union Federation, a breakaway group that would eventually join the New Zealand National Council of Trade Unions which represents most NZ workers today.

At roughly the same time as Margaret Thatcher sought to break the unions in the UK, Mr Muldoon sought the same in New Zealand. Mr Muldoon sought to portray Mr Devitt as a communist agitator. That he never was. He was a proud socialist and sought to defend his workers in an epoch when capitalism was on the up, workers' rights on the down.

He maintained his Glasgow connections and, although almost 12,000 miles from his hometown, insisted his relatives send him copies of the newspaper he had grown up reading, The Glasgow Herald. He retained a lifelong interest in and passion for Glasgow, where he had spent the first 25 years of his life, mostly on Dumbarton Road in Clydebank.

As leader of the New Zealand Boilermaker's Union, Mr Devitt found himself in almost constant conflict with Prime Minister Muldoon and his centre-right government, whose supporters branded the Scotsman a whingeing Pom and helped spread a hate campaign against him in the media. (Mr Muldoon was knighted by the Queen in 1984).

The two men clashed over pay and conditions at an oil refinery, at a pulp and paper plant and most notably over construction of what was initially the BNZ (Bank of New Zealand) building in Wellington, the tallest building in New Zealand when it was completed in 1984. (It is now called the State Insurance Building).

The 103-metre-tall construction was designed in the late 1960s but was opened only in 1984 and has been described as a monument to union militancy. Mr Muldoon accused Mr Devitt and his union of deliberately delaying construction of the black monolith and of quadrupling its cost to $93 million. Mr Devitt responded that he and his union had been made scapegoats for the delays. He said he had merely been trying to secure for his members exclusive rights to welding and that the delays were as much down to design flaws and faulty materials.

A conservative New Zealand journalist, Karl du Fresne, wrote in a 2009 blog: "New Zealand from the 1960s to the 1980s suffered an epidemic of bloody-minded industrial disruption, much of it generated by cloth-cap unionists who had emigrated from Britain and brought the class war with them ... the classic example was a union leader named Con Devitt, who'd come out of Clydeside and ended up in control of our Boilermakers' Union. It was Devitt's union that added seven years' construction time for what was supposed to be Wellington's flagship building ... it was perhaps no coincidence that around this time, overt hostility began to emerge against British migrants ...... and we began to hear anti-English jokes like: 'How do you know when a planeload of Pommy migrants has arrived? Because the whining continues long after the engines have been turned off.'" Having fought for workers' rights in New Zealand for most of his life, such comments merely produced in Mr Devitt a wry Glaswegian smile.

The third of eight children, Cornelius Devitt was born in Greenock on February 22, 1928, but moved across the river with his family as a child and was brought up in a tenement on Dumbarton Road, a stone's throw from where he would start his career in the shipyards. His mother Annie, whose maiden name ironically was Muldoon, had moved to Scotland from Donegal and met his father, also Cornelius, who was working on the ferry which took her to Greenock.

Having moved to Clydebank, they shared the poverty which blighted Clydeside and one of his siblings died in infancy, another as a teenager. From the moment he got a job as a plater in a Clydebank shipyard, building and repairing hulls with metal sheets, such poverty motivated him to defend workers' rights. For his national service just after the war he served with the 1st Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in Egypt at a time when the British mandate in Palestine was nearing an end and the first Arab-Israeli war was looming. Returning to Clydeside, he was even more shocked by the poverty and decided to emigrate to New Zealand in 1953.

After his death, Maureen Devitt of Glasgow, his niece, told The Herald: "Fear, lies and poverty were the weapons Con believed were continually used to devastating effect against workers and their families. He indicted New Zealand newspaper editors for allowing themselves to be used in spreading hatred against trade unions. He frequently quoted Robert Burns. He never swore, never spoke coarsely and was an emotionally stable, strong, gentle, caring man.

"A few years ago he was having a few beers and an argument with pals in New Zealand over a Rangers-Moscow Dynamo game only a few months after the end of the war in 1945 at which he was one of 90,000 spectators. He called me in Glasgow to check his facts (a 2-2 draw, with Rangers playing in narrow blue-and-white hoops, nicknamed 'the butcher's strip.')." Con Devitt died in Wellington. He is survived by his wife Joyce (née Bastow, originally from Wandsworth, London) and by his brothers David, Gerald and Eddie.

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