One of our caucus visits in Whangarei this week involved a trip to the Marsden Point refinery. While it was Interesting to get a modern day perspective and to tour the site, for me, it was a trip back in personal history to a time when Marsden Point was not only a job, but a lesson in politics.
It’s not hard to find people who worked on the expansion in the 1980’s, because there were 5,000 workers who built that site, along with the thousands of contractors who came and went.
I reckon around 10,000 New Zealanders were involved in the Marsden Point Refinery Expansion Project, including (apparently) Phil Heatley – and me.
It was one of Muldoon’s Think Big Projects, arising from the oil shocks from the previous decade. My partner and I were young, with a new baby, looking for a way to make a better living. We moved to the nearby farming village of Maungakaramea and my brother and many other people came to join what was then a very well paid, if often dangerous job.
It was a highly unionised site, with a reputation for militancy. We all thought the strikes were justified, particularly around health and safety. We saw friends die on that worksite. Whenever I heard the emergency whistle blow, which could be heard all over Whangarei, I knew that someone I knew or loved had been hurt or killed.
The workers also wanted to protect New Zealand jobs because we thought New Zealanders should be doing the work, not imported workers. One time, we were on strike for six weeks, which created huge hardship. We were fed by the collective – who gathered up vegetables and meat and distributed them to families through that time.
But the strikes became highly political too. Muldoon was in power and the Minister of Labour was Jim Bolger. The Nats decided a good election platform was to be tough with the unions, and got the opportunity when eight scaffolders went back to work in defiance of the strikes.
Muldoon brought in the the Refinery Expansion Projects Dispute Act to force striking workers back to work. No worker was allowed back on the site unless they signed a paper saying they were prepared to work with the eight strikebreakers – who were named in the legislation. One of them had been a close friend.
My brother wrote about those events ;
“Now when I think about Marsden Point I can hear the sound of boots marching in the fog as a riot squad escorted a van full of scabs towards our picket line, and when I remember I am reminded how a death on a construction site shames us all…”
Those times made a big impression on me. I learned that while workers can have power, governments have even more. I remember saying that if Jim Bolger ever became Prime Minister, I would leave New Zealand.
Well he did (eventually) – and we left New Zealand and worked overseas after Labour was elected in 1984, and we were all made redundant in 1986. But when we came home just before 1990, the National Party was about to regain power and impose the most unimaginable harm to working families.
That was another lesson in politics.