Story: Laracy, Michael James

Page 1 - Laracy, Michael James

Laracy, Michael James

1871–1952

Shearer, trade unionist

This biography was written by John E. Martin and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 3, 1996

Michael (Mick) James Larescey was born on 20 October 1871 in Avoca near Ballarat, Victoria, Australia, the fourth child of Irish Catholic parents James Larescey and his wife, Anne Haire. James had come to Victoria as a goldminer in the 1850s and seems to have abandoned the family while Mick was still young. At some time Mick Larescey altered the spelling of his surname to 'Laracy'. By 1890 he had become an itinerant shearer; his tallies of up to 150 per day by blade put him up amongst the 'guns'. He was soon active in the Amalgamated Shearers' Union of Australasia and was involved in the fierce strike of 1894 over reduced shearing rates. A few years later he became an organiser.

Laracy was slight of build with an elf-like face and in later years wore a handlebar moustache. He worked all over Australia and frequently crossed the Tasman to shear in New Zealand from the mid 1890s onwards. In 1904 he moved to New Zealand permanently. He became an itinerant about the South Island countryside, working as a shearer and also at harvesting, threshing, fencing and general farm and town work. He was also active in the Otago Shearers' Union.

Laracy married Annie O'Keeffe, the daughter of an Irish labourer, in Timaru on 30 January 1907. They were to have nine children: six sons and three daughters. He rapidly became involved in the very active Christchurch labour circle that included Jack McCullough and James Thorn, and he assisted in the organisation of Canterbury farm workers leading up to their celebrated, but unsuccessful, application for an award from the Court of Arbitration in 1907.

Laracy attended the conference of the regional unions in Christchurch in 1909 that led to the creation of the New Zealand Shearers' Union, and was elected to its executive. In 1910 he became its secretary when the previous secretary, Pat Darcy, disappeared in mysterious circumstances. He remained in this post until 1915, central at a time when the shearers' union was a vigorous, growing and increasingly radical organisation.

Laracy was plunged straight into the protracted struggle for the payment of a rate of £1 per hundred sheep. The sheep owners offered only 17s. 6d., and after many months of dispute the Court of Arbitration awarded £1 for blades but only 19s. 6d. for machines. Shearers, however, achieved the full £1 by direct action in the shearing sheds and created a platform on which to build improved rates in following years.

With Frank Waddell and Ettie Rout, Laracy set up the Maoriland Worker in 1910. From its first issue in September the paper became a key means for the union to keep in touch with its widely scattered membership; Laracy contributed a regular column. When the shearers' union proved unable to sustain the costs of production, the paper was taken over by the New Zealand Federation of Labour in 1911. As a condition of financial backing being given to the Maoriland Worker, the shearers' union was required to join the federation. In 1912 it shifted its head office from Christchurch to Wellington, and Laracy and his family moved to Petone.

The experience of the struggle of 1910 had begun to turn the shearers away from arbitration. Laracy's conviction that the union should stay within the arbitration system and work for broad unity was increasingly a minority view with the spread of the Australian philosophy of One Big Union. He argued the merits of arbitration in a well-publicised debate with the union's president, A. J. King, in the pages of the Maoriland Worker.

The refusal of the New Zealand Shearers' Union to join the strike of 1913 led to conflict between the executive and the membership, who became increasingly influenced by 'Red Fed' (FOL) militants who had been dispersed into the countryside with the collapse of the strike. While Laracy participated in 1914 in the amalgamation of all rural workers in the New Zealand Agricultural and Pastoral Workers' Union (later the New Zealand Workers' Union), men of a more radical temper – such as King, Charles Grayndler and Arthur Cook – increasingly took control. Laracy was the only moderate officer from 1913 who retained his position in the elections for the executive in 1915. Within a few months, however, he was forced to resign and Grayndler became secretary.

Laracy never returned to office. He once again took up shearing for a living and while he made a number of attempts to become secretary again he was unsuccessful, being defeated by Grayndler in 1918 and by Cook in 1932 and 1933. He was also defeated for president in 1938 by Dick Eddy. He thus retained very little formal involvement in the union (apart from being a part-time organiser for one season in 1922–23) but retained his enthusiasm for enrolling members.

After a final unsuccessful attempt to be elected as president in 1940, Laracy finally gave away the shearing life at almost 70 years of age and settled permanently into retirement at Petone. In these later years he recorded the early history of the shearers' union. He also published reminiscences of the early days and a number of ballads in the style of Henry Lawson that celebrated the mateship of the old shearing fraternity. One of these, 'Off the track', alluded to how he had lost his way in Australia as a result of horse-racing and gambling; in 'bonny Maoriland' he hoped to 'find that path again' and help others who were drifting 'Off the track'.

Mick Laracy found the path as a union organiser. An energetic and enthusiastic advocate, he participated in one of the most exciting periods in the history of the shearers' union. His involvement was unfortunately cut short by internal politics. One trade unionist said of him: 'poor impulsive impetuous Laracy, his earnestness & enthusiasm deserves a better reward'. He died on 25 April 1952 at Lower Hutt, survived by Annie Laracy and eight of their children.