Story: Clark, Nada Hazel

Page 1 - Clark, Nada Hazel

Clark, Nada Hazel

1922–1964

Trade unionist

This biography was written by Melanie Nolan and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

Nada Hazel Ryan, or Nan, as she was always known, was born the eldest of four children in Sydney, Australia, on 10 October 1922. She was the daughter of Nada Naomi Nation and her husband, Richard Hazel Ryan, a general labourer. Around 1924 the family moved to Wellington, where her father became national vice president of the Federated Seamen’s Union of New Zealand and Wellington branch secretary.

The Ryan family lived with Nan’s grandfather, Edward Nation, a compositor who was involved in the New Zealand Printing and Related Trades Union. Like a number of other unionists’ daughters, Nan Ryan become a clerical worker in a union office on leaving school; she was employed as a stenographer-typist for her grandfather’s union in Wellington in 1942. In early 1945 she moved to a clerical position in the New Zealand Federation of Labour (FOL) national office. Ryan was 22 when she married Horace (Harry) Peile Challen Clark, a 50-year-old compositor, on 6 July 1945 in the Wellington registry office. A daughter was born before the marriage was dissolved by decree absolute on 8 February 1949.

Throughout her marriage, and until 1952, Nan Clark continued at the FOL office, where she worked closely with union leader F. P. Walsh. She lived with her parents and her mother looked after her daughter during the day. She became a member of the management committee of the Wellington, Taranaki, and Marlborough Clerical Workers’ Union (CWU) in 1947 and union vice president in 1950. From 1947 Clark represented this union on the Wellington Trades Council (WTC). Owing to ill health, in 1953 she left unionism and Wellington to join her extended family in Piarere, Tirau.

On her return to Wellington in 1957, Clark re-entered union politics. The FOL nominated her for a US State Department study course for foreign trade union leaders, which she attended between May and September 1958. The CWU then employed her as an organiser. In February 1959 the CWU management committee, with a conspicuously high proportion of women officials, appointed Clark as assistant secretary, a paid position which did not involve an election. She represented the CWU at the national conferences and as an assessor in award negotiations. She also resumed the role of CWU delegate to the WTC. In April 1959 Clark defeated A. J. (Tony) Neary of the North Island Electrical Trades Union to be elected to the WTC management committee, and in June 1959 she defeated J. H. Collins to become the first woman secretary of the WTC, a position she held until 1964.

In the WTC’s annual report on 22 October 1963, Clark wrote: ‘Personalities are, and must be, of secondary importance in the struggles of the trade union movement’. However, personality as much as principle characterised her association with the movement. This was inevitable since Clark was allied with Walsh in the CWU, the WTC and the national council of the FOL. Walsh was challenged in these organisations by a group of mostly right-wing Catholic unionists led by Peter Butler, Des Nolan and Tony Neary. They criticised Walsh’s dictatorial style, which they alleged was ‘communist’. For her part, Clark believed that both communists and Catholics often displayed ‘emotional fanaticism’; she claimed a belief in tolerance for a diversity of political and religious beliefs.

The anti-Walsh faction successfully challenged the legitimacy of the CWU executive elections in 1959. Then in 1960 Nolan and three others won a messy and protracted battle for control of the union. Although Clark was defeated in the management committee elections, she retained her appointed position as assistant secretary, but resigned along with other long-serving staff soon after. She stood again in 1961 for the management committee, but was defeated. She continued to be a delegate to the WTC representing the jewellers’ union.

The challenge to the Walsh faction in the WTC and the FOL national council was less successful. In May 1959 Neary successfully sued the People’s Voice for libel. His actions were condemned in a WTC management committee report and Neary brought a libel case against Walsh, Clark and six others of the management committee. Neary won this case and was awarded £3,550. After more controversy, this was paid by voluntary union contributions. Clark was also named as a party in a successful contempt of court case taken against members of the FOL national executive in 1962. However, in this case, since she was only acting secretary, Clark was not party to the costs awarded.

Quietly spoken, Clark was a competent secretary, keeping good accounts of industrial disputes and the annual conferences of the WTC and FOL. As publicity officer of the FOL she revived the New Zealand Federation of Labour Bulletin in 1963. Despite continuing opposition to the ‘Walsh faction’, she was unchallenged in five elections as WTC secretary–treasurer. She was acting secretary of the FOL during K. M. Baxter’s absence overseas in 1962; next to Walsh, Ken Baxter was Clark’s closest associate in the union movement. While Nan was acting secretary the national executive was completely male, and at the FOL conference that year women made up less than three per cent of the delegates.

For about 10 years Nan Clark had suffered a heart condition. On 4 August 1964 she left the WTC to enter Wellington Hospital; she died there three weeks later, on 25 August, at the age of 41. She was well read and left her large collection of books to the WEA. As one of the few women to gain a prominent position in the union hierarchy, Clark blazed a trail in the essentially masculine union world which others, like Sonja Davies, followed.