Danny the Red

Don Franks

Because he once stood against Tom Skinner for FoL president, Danny Nichols will always rate at least  a footnote in bourgeois labour movement history.

Which is more than most other shop floor militants get, because so much of our working class history never makes the scholarly pages. But it’s a simple fact that to thousands of Hutt Valley workers, their Danny the Red is literally remembered as a central figure of the last century.

Dennis Allan Nichols came from a dirt poor London working class family to seek a better life in New Zealand. In the late 1960s he got a job at Ford’s Lower Hutt car plant and for a while just kicked back and enjoyed the job security, relatively good pay and nice climate. He had an easy operation in charge of the phosphate machine and like other class savvy British immigrants, he made a comfortable niche for himself in the softer kiwi job environment.

But as time went on, Danny  began to register the various injustices visited on less clued up workers in the unorganised plant. In those days there was no active union on site and foremen could and did sometimes clip a worker over the ear if he or she didn’t jump to it fast enough. Danny started making a few waves and began to revive the then defunct Coach and Motor Body Workers Union . In the course of this Danny got talking to union officials in the pub. Two of those officials were Ken Douglas and Pat Kelly. Ken suggested that the new fledgling car plant activists be delivered up to the Engineers Union. Pat came down to the plant and helped develop the Coach Workers into a radical independent job organisation. The main ingredients were a number of inexperienced but militant  Maori line workers and Danny’s extraordinary leadership.

Danny was an active short statured man with a quick mind and a loud voice. He came from generations of proletarian stock and personified shop floor attitude.

The largely Maori workforce warmed to Danny’s decisive uncompromising leadership and together they forged a formidable union team. With the help of Pat Kelly and Con Devitt, Ford’s Seaview plant became a bosses’ worst nightmare. Each of the separate departments – Body Shop, Metal Finish, Paint, Trim Line, Finishing Shop and Upholstery came to be policed by a senior delegate, supported by half a dozen line delegates. One union delegate for every four or five workers. On most days there was a senior delegates’ meeting at smoko and each week or so there’d be a wider meeting in one or other of the departments. Mass union bulletins came out regularly and short strikes over health and safety issues were frequent. If any Ford worker of that era had a grievance of any kind he’d go straight to his union delegate, with the expectation of getting rapid satisfaction.

At the top of this working class army as undisputed plant convenor general was Danny. His job on the phosphate machine didn’t take long and he spent most of the day striding around the factory looking for trouble. If a luckless foreman had left material blocking an aisle for a second Danny was on his case yelling like a banshee. The plant became so safe that you could wheel a twin pram through any area any time of the day or night. In the bigger picture, wage rates became standardised and raised above the award with due recognition for skill , experience and long service. Actual car assembly was a secondary matter.

It was into that environment that I was lucky enough to arrive as a young Maoist student dropout wanting to help bring on the revolution. After I’d spoken up at a couple of mass meetings Danny encouraged me to stand as a delegate and, rather earlier than was sensible I found myself senior delegate for the finish shop in Plant 2. Whenever I had a union problem I’d wander over to Danny’s machine and we’d talk about it and sort something out. From his advice and example I learned about unionism. Danny tried to persuade me to seek a year’s scholarship to Ruskin College, the British school of unionism. I turned that down, because I thought I’d learn more at Ford’s and never regretted that decision.

For some years Danny and I cooperated very closely, through all sorts of strikes and struggles. He was only at a loss once, when the cleaners took action against the assemblers. Us line workers had our smoko in the plant. The old cleaners wheeled round filthy urns of stewed warm syrupy tea and we’d have that out of paper cups where we worked. Then, most of us dropped the cups on the floor and went back to work. The cleaners had to pick the cups up and got sick of it. One day they put the tea out but no cups. So all of us straightaway walked over to have a meeting in the lunchroom, as we always did in any time of trouble. “I don’t know what we should do here” said Danny, addressing the meeting. ” The cleaners have a bit of a point”. “We should put the blame on the company!” said someone. “Ok”, says Danny, “that sounds like a good idea. Let’s see how we can do that” And the dispute became one over getting better smoko facilities.

The thing was to take the workers’ side no matter what. When I got myself sacked for a silly piece of bravado Danny called an all up meeting and the whole place went on strike for several days. We went to see Pat Kelly for a bit of support. He was pissed off with us. “Don’s been to the well once too often” he said. “Too bad for him”. “That’s as may be” says Danny, “but those workers are all staying out the gate and you must do something to help.” Rather reluctantly Pat dug into his bag of tricks and pulled out a nasty compromising document he’d been saving for a rainy day. With that, he went to the government mediator and had a quick word. To the amazement and indignation of the company, the mediator reinstated me forthwith. But if Danny hadn’t held the line, none of the rest would have followed.

All sorts of other disputes and carry on took place at the Ford plant but the point of me raising this bit of history is related to the Labour Party.

While an inspirational and unequaled leader on the shop floor, Danny was a pain in the arse when it came to left politics. As time went by, he increasingly scoffed at  socialist organisations’ right to existence. His alternative was the Labour Party, or rather, a mythical new improved Labour Party that would embrace militant unionism. Over and over again Danny insisted “All you little splinter groups are wasting your time – if you want to do something useful for the workers, get into Labour and push it to the left!” I don’t think Danny was ever actually a Labour Party member himself, but his constant top volume message on this subject made it very difficult for socialists. One thing the WCL had right was a clear characterisation of Labour as a capitalist party and  our different views on Labour became a very sore point between Danny and I.

Because of his huge and deserved mana on the shop floor, Danny was listened to by militant workers when he trotted out his “push Labour to the left” mantra. Although the WCL prevented the Coachworkers union affiliating to Labour, that was a rather hollow victory. On the shop floor, Danny’s “push Labour to the left ” fairytale prevailed.  Although I recruited blue collar workers from other sites to the Workers Communist League, I never recruited any Ford workers.

Looking back on the Mana by-election I was rather vividly reminded of Danny Nichols constantly saying we should move Norm Kirk’s Labour to the left.

Today’s ace unionist Matt McCarten says: “I hope my message to Labour got through – that they can’t take their supporters for granted and must stand for something that isn’t National-lite”, and  “If it did,”then taking three weeks being a carpetbagger in Mana was worth it.”

In my book its time to take that old stuck record off the turntable and smash it.

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