Story: Eddy, Richard

Page 1 - Biography

Eddy, Richard

1882–1955

Labourer, trade unionist

This biography was written by John E. Martin and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998

Richard Eddy was born at Doyleston, North Canterbury, on 4 August 1882, the son of Elizabeth Ann Hall and her husband, Richard Eddy, a farm labourer. In his youth Dick, as he was commonly known, worked on nearby farms digging potatoes, cutting gorse hedges and ploughing. He came to know many of the old-time shearers and farm workers of Canterbury who had been vital to the development of rural trade unionism. Around 1900 he moved to Tikokino, Hawke's Bay, where he spent several years working with his brother at bush sawmills. On his return to the South Island Eddy became involved in the Canterbury Agricultural and Pastoral Labourers' Union.

On 31 December 1907, in Dunedin, Dick Eddy married Mary Ann Elizabeth Alice Garrett, a dental assistant. They settled in Waimate and Eddy soon became active in the local labour movement. He joined the Waimate Workers' Union, the local branch of the New Zealand Socialist Party and a Fabian society. Waimate was also the home of an unusually large and active rural branch of the first New Zealand Labour Party (1910–12) and Eddy was a delegate to its 1911 conference. Fond of rugby, he was for a time a selector and president of the local sub-union.

Alert and forthright, Dick Eddy was known for his breezy good nature and was a popular figure. In 1912 he became secretary of the Waimate Workers' Union. Influenced by visiting Australian unionists, he was a strong advocate of the 'One Big Union' movement, and supported the amalgamation of all rural workers in the New Zealand Agricultural and Pastoral Workers' Union, formed in 1915. The following year he became the Waimate delegate and casual organiser for the new union. He cycled around the South Canterbury countryside, sleeping in haystacks, barns and by the roadside, and in nine weeks enrolled over 400 farmhands. He also helped to organise Maori shearers in Hawke's Bay during their successful struggle to raise shearing rates in the summer of 1916–17.

Eddy continued to serve as a union organiser until 1918. He then worked for a Waimate stock and station agent, trading in potatoes, wheat and farm equipment, and later managed a threshing mill. In the late 1920s he purchased the threshing contracting business, which operated three mills and five traction-engines in the Waimate area. With the onset of the depression, however, business became extremely difficult.

In 1935 Arthur Cook, secretary of the New Zealand Workers' Union and a longtime workmate and friend, sought Eddy's assistance in rebuilding the union, which had struggled during the depression. Eddy sold the threshing business and became an organiser again, working to re-establish the union's membership at South Island public works projects. He was later described as 'one of the most able "road men"…that any union has had'. In 1936 he was elected president of the union, defeating the long-serving Charles Baldwin. With Cook, Eddy was to dominate the Workers' Union for a decade. Although based in Wellington, he travelled extensively throughout the country as a roving organiser. After the introduction of compulsory unionism in 1936, the New Zealand Workers' Union became the largest trade union in the country, and a powerful ally of the Labour government.

When the New Zealand Federation of Labour (FOL) was established in 1937 Eddy was elected vice president, defeating F. P. Walsh; he retained the position until 1943. In 1938 he was elected to the national executive of the New Zealand Labour Party. The following year Eddy and Cook pushed for the amalgamation of labourers, timber workers and freezing workers with the Workers' Union. A conference was organised by the FOL, but the attempt – the last gasp of the One Big Union philosophy – proved unsuccessful.

Under the Labour government, and especially during the Second World War, Eddy acted as a vital link between the party and the union movement. The Workers' Union played a leading role in the expulsion of John A. Lee from the Labour Party in 1940. That year Eddy and Angus McLagan were appointed workers' representatives on the government's War Council. Eddy also served on the Industrial Emergency Council, the National Council of Primary Production, the National Building Committee, and on a special committee of the Economic Stabilisation Conference concerned with costs and wages. In 1941 he became a member of the Legislative Council; he served until its abolition in 1950. He also travelled to New York in 1941 to attend an International Labour Organisation conference.

In 1945 Eddy announced that he would retire as president of the Workers' Union the following year. In his presidential address he made special mention of the contribution and loyalty of Maori members. He continued to serve the union as its chief industrial officer and adviser until 1950, and was a member of the national executive of the Labour Party until 1952. He also served on a range of public bodies, including the Government Service Tribunal and the royal commission on the sheepfarming industry (1947–49). Dick Eddy died in Wellington on 21 September 1955, survived by his wife, two sons and two daughters.