Story: Roberts, James
Gas stoker, labourer, waterside worker, trade unionist, politician
This biography was written by Anna Green and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998
James Roberts was born in Lissangle, County Cork, Ireland, on 21 February 1878, the son of Thomas Roberts, a farmer, and his wife, Bridget Driscoll. At a young age he was sent to work with an uncle, but after a disagreement he left to join the merchant marine. During the 1890s he worked for a time at London's Beckenham gasworks as a stoker, and it was there that he first became interested in socialism and trade unionism. During a second spell at sea Roberts made friends with Donald and Malcolm McCallum of Ngauranga, Wellington, and this may have influenced his decision to emigrate to New Zealand. The McCallums' mother, Annie, provided a home for Roberts when he took his seaman's discharge at Wellington, probably in 1901 or 1902.
Roberts's early years in New Zealand were spent in a number of different jobs, including bushwork, labouring on the North Island main trunk railway line, and working for the Wellington Gas Company. On 22 February 1912, at Wellington, he married Annie McCallum's niece, Lucy Wallace; they were to have six children. A physically large and powerful man, 'Big Jim' Roberts could be short-tempered, but his children remember with affection a kindness coupled with an intense enjoyment of verbal debate over the family dinner table. In the early years of their marriage both Jim and Lucy Roberts were active in Wellington socialist circles, but Lucy was to suffer from poor health, becoming deaf during her third pregnancy and later developing crippling rheumatoid arthritis.
Jim Roberts's involvement in trade unionism in New Zealand began at the Wellington Gas Company, where he joined the union and briefly became its president. During this time he became active in the New Zealand Federation of Labour (the 'Red Feds'), a combination of industrial unions founded and led by the miners, which subscribed to a syndicalist ideology of workers' control and rejected the arbitration system. Roberts was president of the federation's Wellington district council from June 1911 and chaired its local propaganda committee. In July 1912 he was elected to the executive of the Wellington branch of the New Zealand Socialist Party.
Despite the defeat of the Red Feds in 1912–13, Roberts was to remain a staunch exponent of industrial unionism, advocating the organisation of unions within industries as opposed to the traditional basis of skills or craft, in order to counter increasingly large capitalist combinations. Nor did his scepticism about the arbitration system fundamentally alter; he continued to believe that it was inherently unsympathetic to the working class. However, his experiences as a union secretary during the 1920s and 1930s, when economic circumstances were unfavourable to labour, were to reinforce his conviction that the Red Feds' strategy of strike action was no longer feasible. Over the course of his career in the union movement Roberts strove to improve working conditions and maximise the control exercised by men at work through a dual policy of on-the-job pressure tactics and advocacy in the Court of Arbitration.
Fired from the gasworks in 1912 for his union activism, and finding it difficult to obtain another job, Roberts worked for New Zealand Railways on the Paekakariki line before securing employment on the Wellington wharves in 1914. He joined the Wellington Waterside Workers' Union and in 1915 became secretary of the New Zealand Waterside Workers' Federation, a position he held until 1941. Work on the waterfront was casual and insecure, physically arduous and frequently dangerous. During his 26 years as secretary of the watersiders' federation Roberts spent much of his time struggling to improve working conditions and safety.
Jim Roberts's knowledge of industrial law made him a formidable adversary in the Court of Arbitration. One British shipping company manager wrote that Roberts was so astute and such a champion bluffer that he could outmanoeuvre all the marine superintendents, foremen stevedores and employers' agents. During the First World War he was able to secure significant gains for waterside workers, including improved rates of pay, restrictions on sling loads and a reduction in working hours. This diminished the almost untrammelled control waterfront employers had previously exercised over working conditions. Even during the sharp recession beginning in 1921, Roberts managed to preserve many of the recent improvements in the fiercely contested 1922 award, and was able to minimise losses in wages and conditions throughout the economically depressed late 1920s and early 1930s.
He was, however, to find it very difficult to eliminate the casual nature of waterfront work, whereby watersiders were hired on a two-hourly basis, and the inequities that arose from employers' favouritism towards a small élite of workers. 'We do not want a lot of fat men and a lot of lean men', Roberts told the Arbitration Court in 1922. Various schemes were put forward to end the control exercised by the foremen on the notorious 'auction block', from which men were selected to work each day. Despite the opposition of employers – and the initial scepticism of waterside workers – Roberts fought hard to introduce a labour bureau in each port, operated jointly by the union and employers, through which the available work would be allocated on an impartial and equitable basis. In 1936 the first bureau opened at Lyttelton. The new award the following year required that labour bureaux be established at the three other main ports in conjunction with a minimum guaranteed wage for watersiders. These were major achievements which partially reduced the casual nature of waterfront work and transformed day-to-day labour relations on the wharves.
The ultimate goal of the waterside workers, which Roberts persistently sought throughout his career, was the ownership and control of stevedoring and labouring on the waterfront. In pursuit of this objective, the Waterside Workers' Federation had extensive discussions with employers in 1920 concerning a co-operative contracting scheme. Although these negotiations eventually failed, Roberts never abandoned the aim of extending workers' control on the waterfront, and in the more favourable climate of 1936–37 he was able to insert a clause into the award allowing the new national Waterside Workers' Union to undertake co-operative stevedoring contracts. Subsequently, the union was able to acquire a small number of contracts to load and unload vessels.
Roberts's vision for the labour movement extended beyond the waterfront. In 1916 he established the New Zealand Transport Workers' Advisory Board, an organisation representing watersiders, railwaymen, drivers and tramwaymen, and became its secretary. In 1919, joined by seamen and miners, these unions formed the New Zealand Alliance of Labour; Roberts was its secretary from 1920 to 1936. The Alliance was intended to be a unified, centralised organisation of national unions covering whole industries. However, Roberts's dream of 'One Big Union' was never to eventuate.
In the mid 1930s a bitter internal dispute split the Alliance into two camps, one led by Roberts and the other by the tough seamen's union leader, Fintan Patrick Walsh. At the urging of the Labour government the factions agreed to merge with the New Zealand Trades and Labour Councils' Federation in 1937 to form the second New Zealand Federation of Labour (FOL). Rivalry within the union movement initially led to Roberts's exclusion from the FOL's leadership, which was to be dominated by Walsh and his allies for the next two decades; Roberts, however, joined its executive in 1938.
Roberts also became prominent in the labour press. He wrote regularly for the Maoriland Worker (later the New Zealand Worker ), edited the New Zealand Transport Worker, and was chairman of the Standard Press, established to undertake printing for the labour movement.
Although his influence in the industrial labour movement began to decline in the mid 1930s, Roberts had by then become a powerful figure in the New Zealand Labour Party. His early syndicalist disdain for parliamentary politics had vanished by the early 1920s, possibly under the influence of British guild socialists, who emphasised the importance of both industrial and political action. After 1925, when Roberts was first elected to the national executive of the Labour Party, he was to play an immensely influential role. He was a member of many of the party's important policy committees, the reports of which shaped its election platforms.
In 1934 Roberts was elected vice president of the Labour Party and in 1937 he became president; he was to hold this influential office until 1950, and was then vice president again until 1954. He had hoped to win the nomination for the Wellington West electorate in 1938 but the party's parliamentary hierarchy, perhaps fearing his leadership potential, did not support his candidacy. Despite this, Roberts helped to cement the close relationship between the industrial and political wings of the labour movement during the momentous years of the first Labour government. Most of the labour legislation that passed through Parliament was submitted for his scrutiny. As president, he chaired the party's annual conferences and provided particularly valuable support to the parliamentary leadership when John A. Lee was expelled from the party in 1940.
Jim Roberts's dual role as secretary of the New Zealand Waterside Workers' Union and president of the Labour Party perhaps inevitably led to conflicting loyalties. In 1938 he deliberately delayed proceedings on the new watersiders' award until after the general election, fearing that the shipping companies would use the negotiations to embarrass the Labour government. The employers then proved intransigent in their desire to bring in a system of piece-work on the waterfront, and Roberts, fearful again of damaging the government, was reluctant to authorise industrial action. The watersiders became increasingly restive, and Roberts's standing within the union was seriously compromised.
In 1940, with the union and employers still deadlocked and war in Europe, the government decided to establish a Waterfront Control Commission to administer the wharves and determine conditions of work. Prime Minister Peter Fraser put considerable pressure on Roberts to accept a position on the three-member commission. Although Roberts believed that the commission could be part of an incremental process towards the long-held aspiration of workers' control, he also knew that accepting such a position would damage his union career. His premonition was soon proven correct: at the waterside workers' national conference in 1941 Roberts was asked to choose between the union and the commission; he chose the latter, and resigned as secretary. He remained a member of the commission until 1946.
Partly as a reward for his service on the Waterfront Control Commission, Roberts was appointed to the Legislative Council in 1947; he served until its abolition in 1950. He was also active in local body politics, standing unsuccessfully for Wellington's mayoralty in 1944, and serving as a member of the city council from 1950 to 1959. After the Second World War he briefly helped realise his hope for a labour daily newspaper, becoming chairman of the lively Southern Cross, published between 1946 and 1951. After the bitter waterfront dispute of 1951 broke up the national watersiders' union, he returned to the industry as general secretary of the South Island Waterside Workers' Federation from 1952 until his retirement in 1963. Jim Roberts died in Porirua on 4 February 1967, survived by four daughters and a son; his wife Lucy had died in 1944.
Big Jim Roberts was a prominent figure in the union movement, the labour press and the Labour Party for 50 years. Between 1920 and 1950 his influence on the policy and organisation of both the industrial and political wings of the labour movement was so pervasive that he was often called the 'Uncrowned King' of New Zealand. While he was a successful leader of the waterside workers' federation, Roberts was unable to achieve his wider goals, including workers' control of the industry and the creation of 'One Big Union', partly because of the faction-ridden internal politics of the labour movement. Nevertheless, his legacy is one of principled pragmatism and honest practice, and his commitment to the cause of working people remained undimmed throughout his life.