Story: Croskery, Alexander Wellington

Page 1 - Croskery, Alexander Wellington

Croskery, Alexander Wellington

1878–1952

Draper, trade unionist

This biography was written by Kevin Hince and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998

Alexander Wellington Croskery was born in Swansea, Wales, on 19 December 1878, the son of Mary Ann Mortimer Thomson and her Irish-born husband, Alexander Brown Croskery, a provision merchant and later an accountant. He arrived in New Zealand with his parents in 1880, and attended Queen's College in Auckland. After working on a farm in Taranaki in 1894–95 he moved to Wellington, and in 1896 began work as a draper's assistant at James Smith and Sons. He married Emily Clark on 17 December 1902; they were to have ten daughters and three sons. The family lived in Newtown, where between 1902 and 1911 Croskery ran his own drapery and tailoring business in Riddiford Street, then about 1917 moved to Lyall Bay.

By late 1911 Alec Croskery was again employed as a shop assistant, at the George and Kersley drapery in Lambton Quay. He began to take an active part in the trade union movement and in February 1912 helped establish the Wellington Retail Soft-goods Employees' Union. He served as secretary of the union and its successors from its formation until his death in 1952. Initially it was a part-time role but in May 1912 he was sacked by his employer, arguably because of his union activities; he then became full-time secretary.

Croskery worked hard to increase the union's membership, especially in provincial areas outside Wellington, and supported the amalgamation of all shop employees into one union. A capable administrator and advocate, he was a model arbitrationist union secretary. He had a meticulous approach to clerical and financial matters and invested union funds shrewdly.

In 1915 Croskery helped establish and became secretary of the Wellington Saturday Half-holiday Association, which secured the closure of shops on Saturday afternoon in the Wellington region. He also became secretary of other small unions: the Wellington Plumbers' and Gasfitters' Union in 1916, and the Wellington Operative Butchers' Union in 1919; in 1920 he became secretary of the New Zealand Federated Butchers' Association. In 1922 Croskery was instrumental in the formation of the New Zealand Federated Shop Assistants' Association, an organisation representing shop assistants, drapers, grocers, chemists, butchers and hairdressers. He was elected its first secretary, serving until 1949, and then was president until 1952.

From 1913 Croskery was closely involved with the Wellington Trades and Labour Council and its successor, the Wellington Trades Council, serving as an executive member from 1936 and as vice president from 1939 to 1945. He also maintained close links with the political wing of the labour movement. He stood unsuccessfully for the Wellington City Council on several occasions, and contested the Wellington Suburbs electorate for the New Zealand Labour Party in 1919 and 1922, losing both times to R. A. Wright. In 1922 Croskery was selected for the Wellington South seat, but exchanged electorates with Robert McKeen; Croskery lost, McKeen was elected. He was a member of the Labour Party's national executive in 1937–38 and 1939–40, but he always put the interests of his union's members first. In 1941, when the Labour government refused to implement the five-day, 40-hour week for shop employees, Croskery successfully argued that the union should sever its ties to the party.

In the 1930s Alec Croskery emerged as an influential figure in the national labour movement. In 1936 he became secretary of the New Zealand Alliance of Labour, and the following year he played an important role in unifying the various factions to form the New Zealand Federation of Labour (FOL). In 1937–38 he was a workers' representative on the Court of Arbitration. He later served on the Industrial Emergency Council and the Workers' Compensation Board. He became a member of the FOL's executive in 1942 and its vice president in 1943. In 1946 he was elected president, succeeding Angus McLagan; he held office until his death in 1952.

Croskery was president of the FOL at a time of deep division within the labour movement, which led to the formation of the rival New Zealand Trade Union Congress in 1950 and the bitter waterfront dispute of 1951. During these years he was generally overshadowed by his very able vice president, Fintan Patrick Walsh, and he has often been seen, probably unfairly, as Walsh's puppet. In fact Croskery was prepared to assert his independence of Walsh, although their working relationship was positive and close. They shared an ideology based on a strongly anti-communist position and support for the arbitrationist tradition within New Zealand unionism. In contrast to the aggressive, overbearing Walsh, Croskery was diminutive in stature, spoke hesitantly with a squeaky voice, and was genial and conciliatory in manner. Colleagues remembered his calm, steadying influence; mediation rather than confrontation was his style.

Croskery was a delegate to the World Trade Union Conferences in London (1945) and Paris (1949), and the International Labour Organisation's conference in Geneva in 1949. Community service was also an important part of his life. During the 1918 influenza epidemic he organised a relief committee in Lyall Bay. He later served on the Wellington Hospital Board from 1935 to 1941, and on the Lyall Bay School Committee and the School Committees' Association.

A dapper, well-dressed man who was always puffing on his pipe, Alec Croskery suffered from chronic bronchitis and emphysema in later years. He died in Wellington on 18 August 1952; Emily had died a year earlier. They were survived by nine daughters and two sons.