Story: Lewin, John Philip

Page 1 - Biography

Lewin, John Philip

1915–1990

Public servant, unionist, lawyer

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

John (Jack) Philip Lewin was born at Masterton on 3 June 1915, the second son of Frederick John Lewin, an engine driver, and his wife, Mary Theresa Williams. Jack’s father, who was president of the New Zealand Locomotive Engineers, Firemen, and Cleaners Association, was prematurely retired from the Railway Department after he helped to organise workers against wage cuts. This experience and the consequent hardships suffered by the family shaped Lewin’s commitment to the politics of the left.

He was educated at Palmerston North Boys’ High School. After leaving school Lewin worked briefly in commerce and journalism, before joining the Census and Statistics Office at Wellington in 1934. He then worked in the State Fire Insurance Office at Palmerston North, the head office of the Department of Labour at Wellington, and the new Rehabilitation Board (1943). He had been studying part time at Victoria University College, and graduated BA in 1941 and MA in economics in 1943. In 1944 he became a research and publicity officer at the National Service Department.

By the early 1940s Lewin was making his mark as an active member of the New Zealand Public Service Association (PSA). He was at the centre of a group of young activists, known as the Korero, who increasingly challenged the leadership’s deferential attitude to the government and the public service commissioner. He was elected to the executive in 1942 and became vice president in 1945. In this position he was largely responsible for negotiating a new salary scale for public servants. F. P. Walsh, vice president of the New Zealand Federation of Labour, resented union activists who undermined his own position and warned the prime minister, Peter Fraser, that agreement to the increases would raise Lewin’s prestige as an outstanding union leader.

In 1946 Lewin was elected president of the PSA. Although ‘aggressive [and] self-confident almost to the point of arrogance’, he had a supreme ability to organise people in support of his ideas. Under Lewin’s stewardship the PSA was transformed into a powerful instrument for social change. He was a strong supporter of equal pay for women and women’s rights in general, and an effective advocate for public servants aggrieved with their position within the service.

Lewin’s rise as a union leader paralleled his elevation within the ranks of the public service. While president of the PSA he worked as research officer (the position was later redesignated ‘personal private secretary’) to Walter Nash, the deputy prime minister and minister of finance. He advised Nash at several major international conferences concerned with post-war reconstruction, including the Bretton Woods summit and the establishment of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in 1948.

Lewin earned public notoriety in 1948 when a satchel belonging to Cecil Holmes, a PSA activist at the New Zealand National Film Unit, was stolen from Holmes’s car at Parliament buildings. The satchel contained Holmes’s Communist Party membership card and correspondence with Lewin about a stop-work meeting at the film unit’s studios. The documents apparently found their way to Walsh, who pressured Nash, then acting prime minister, into releasing them. When they appeared in newspapers the resulting sensation badly handicapped Lewin and the PSA in their campaign against the government’s programme of economic stabilisation, and Lewin was reprimanded by the Public Service Commission for his role in the affair. In 1951 he announced that he would stand down as president that year. His last months in office, following the waterfront dispute, were controversial, and his support among the PSA’s members stood him in good stead when right-wing elements within the union accused him of having communist sympathies.

Lewin married June Doreece Joblin at Wellington on 22 May 1954; they were to have a son and a daughter. He was the assistant director (later director) of the price control division of the Department of Industries and Commerce until 1959, when he became assistant secretary to the department. He also studied law part time, graduating LLB in 1956. He remained an influential figure in the PSA, serving on its executive from 1953 to 1959 and again in 1966–67. However, from the late 1950s pressures of work limited his direct involvement. In 1960 Lewin warned the government that it was giving away too much in agreeing to sell hydroelectric power at cheap prices to Comalco New Zealand’s aluminium smelter at Bluff. In 1962 the minister of labour, Tom Shand, recognised what he believed to be the hand of Lewin in the Combined State Services Organisation’s implacable opposition to aspects of the Royal Commission of Inquiry on the State Services; he referred to him during a parliamentary debate as ‘the man who pulls the puppet strings; the man who really runs the Public Service Association’.

Lewin served as government statistician from 1969 to 1973. As chairman of the Pay Research Council, he oversaw the introduction of a more reliable method of comparing public-service pay rates with those in the private sector. He also fought effectively to speed the introduction of computerisation to the Department of Statistics. From 1973 until his retirement in 1974 he headed the Department of Trade and Industry.

A lifelong New Zealand Labour Party supporter, Lewin was the opposition parties’ representative on the Representation Commission in 1982–83. In his retirement career as a practising barrister and solicitor he augmented his reputation for vigorous advocacy in the Public Service Appeal Board; his perorations in the pursuit of justice and verbal explosions on behalf of his clients were legendary.

Lewin’s sometimes gruff demeanour belied his warmth of character and benevolence. Big in stature, he had the demeanour of a ‘scrapper’, both physically and intellectually. (Fishing and hunting were his leisure pursuits.) A forceful and proud individual, capable of turning his hand to any task, he wielded a keen wit with considerable skill. He developed an enormous capacity to absorb and digest information and to apply himself to a task, and had an insatiable drive to excel at whatever occupied his interest. He died at Wellington on 4 May 1990, survived by his wife and children.