Story: Drennan, Alexander
Labourer, trade unionist, communist, watersider
This biography was written by David Verran and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000
Alexander Drennan was born on 16 December 1899 in Greenock, Scotland, to Flora Wingate and her husband, Alexander Drennan, an engine fitter. He began work in the Clyde shipyards and became an active member of the shipbuilding draughtsmen’s union in the early 1920s. He married Elizabeth Hamilton, a threadmill worker, on 31 October 1924 in Paisley, Scotland, and emigrated to Auckland, probably in 1925. Their first child, a son, was born there in early 1926, but died shortly after. A second son was born the following year.
In Auckland Drennan worked as a labourer and was active in the Auckland General Labourers’ Union. He was also a member of the more conservative Auckland and Suburban Local Bodies Labourers’ Union and the New Zealand Labour Party. However, by 1931, now unemployed and radicalised by the depression, he was a member of the communist-influenced Unemployed Workers’ Movement (UWM), and had forsaken Labour for the Communist Party of New Zealand (CPNZ). He also became active in the New Zealand Section of the Friends of the Soviet Union.
In October 1931 Drennan, Jim Edwards and other members of the UWM’s Anti-Eviction Committee barricaded themselves in a house in Norfolk Street, Ponsonby, in an attempt to prevent the eviction of a woman and her five children. He was arrested, convicted of ‘procuring lawlessness’ and sentenced to a month’s gaol with hard labour. In July 1934 he and five others from the Free Speech Council were arrested for breaking an Auckland City Council ban on street meetings. Drennan and his long-time friend Harry Smith were singled out as the leaders, convicted of inciting disorder, and gaoled with three months’ hard labour. They were also placed on two years’ probation, with a 7 p.m. curfew for six months, but successfully appealed against the latter restriction.
In 1935 Drennan unsuccessfully stood as a Communist candidate for the Auckland City Council, his only attempt at public office. That year he became a member of the CPNZ’s national committee, and in 1936 he played a minor role in steering the party towards a more conciliatory relationship with the Labour Party. In 1940, following an anti-war speech during the Auckland West by-election campaign, he was fined and sentenced to three years’ probation, during which he was forbidden to address public meetings or take an active part in CPNZ activities; these restrictions were lifted in 1941.
Drennan found work on the Auckland wharves in 1936 and joined the local branch of the New Zealand Waterside Workers’ Union. By 1938 he had been elected to the branch management committee, and he served as vice president from 1941 to 1948. In 1943 he unsuccessfully challenged Jock Barnes for the Auckland presidency. He was also vice president of the national union from 1943 to 1947, and, after a short break, again until 1949.
He was at his peak of influence in the union movement in the 1940s. He was a member of the Auckland Trades Council executive (1941–43), vice president (1943–45) and president (1945–48). He also represented the trades council on the national council of the New Zealand Federation of Labour (FOL) from 1945 to 1949. However, increasing conflict between supporters of the Labour and Communist parties within the union movement led to his defeat as president of the trades council in 1948.
Drennan was Auckland chairman of the CPNZ from the late 1930s, and national chairman from 1946. However, tensions were mounting within the party between pragmatic unionists and ideologues, and a younger generation of leaders was emerging. As chairman, Drennan’s main role was presiding at the infrequent meetings of the national committee, but real power in the party lay with the full-time activists, who were ideological hardliners. He was replaced as chairman in 1949, but remained on the national committee until 1951.
In 1950 he succeeded Barnes as president of the Auckland watersiders’ union. The following year, however, the 151-day waterfront lock-out demolished the union; few members managed to return to work on the wharves, despite Drennan’s best efforts. He was the only publicly prominent communist among the leadership of the union, and the CPNZ’s influence on events was minor. Nevertheless, the 1951 party conference blamed him for what it regarded as the watersiders’ mistake of isolating themselves from the rest of the labour movement. He was also accused of wanting to continue the dispute after the CPNZ finally decided it could not be won. His standing within the party was diminished for some years.
After 1951 Drennan worked on the construction of Jellicoe Wharf, and in the late 1950s he became active in the Auckland branch of the New Zealand Engineering Union while working for Fletcher Steel. He was saddened by the death of Harry Smith in 1953, and around this time his marriage collapsed. He and Elizabeth were divorced in 1961 and shortly afterwards, in Auckland on 2 February 1962, he married Harry’s widow, Mavis Rita Florence Smith (née Cottingham). A cafeteria worker, she was the daughter of a veteran CPNZ member, Emma Cottingham, and was a long-time party activist herself.
In the 1960s Drennan worked as a miller at the New Zealand Distillery Company. He was an executive member of the Auckland branch of the New Zealand Brewers’ Employees’ Union from 1963 to 1967, representing it on the Auckland Trades Council and at FOL conferences. The union’s secretary, Jim Knox, a fellow watersider from 1951, regarded him as a friend and adviser.
From the early 1960s the CPNZ adopted an increasingly pro-China stance during the Sino-Soviet dispute. In 1966 Drennan and five other senior party figures formed the pro-Soviet New Zealand Socialist Unity Party. He became its inaugural president, and remained its elder statesman until his death in Auckland on 9 November 1971. He was survived by Mavis; his son had died in 1966.
A short, stocky man with gnarled and weather-beaten features, Alexander Drennan was widely respected for his deep commitment to the union movement. Personally kind and humane, he maintained an optimistic view of Soviet society until his death. He represented a strain of communism that advocated strenuous work within the union movement to achieve immediate gains for workers, and which placed working-class unity above ideological purity.