BOOKCASE Early Breadmakers

Wealthmakers: History of the Northern Employers’ and Manufacturers’ Associations
By: Selwyn Parker
Publisher: Employers & Manufacturers Association (Northern) Inc
Price: $49.95

Wealthmakers might well have been candidate for ‘most boring book of the year’. Certainly history of employer and manufacturer groups is not the most obvious bedside reading.
Yet in Selywn Parker’s sure hands, Wealthmakers is always readable and sometimes absorbing. With several corporate histories under his belt, Parker knows how to make this sort of book work. There are colourful descriptions, lively pen portraits of the principal protagonists, and glimpses of New Zealand, and Auckland, political, economic and social history to provide the necessary background.
Wealthmakers is the story of the Auckland Manufacturers’ Association, which began in 1886, and the Auckland Provincial Employers’ Association, following in 1901. The two combined in 1996 to become the Employers & Manufacturers Association (Northern) or, that being too much of mouthful in this acronymistic age, EMA (Northern).
Recurring themes are battles with the union movement – from Waihi miners to the FOL and beyond – and governments of various shades that didn’t always appreciate Auckland’s importance in the scheme of things.
There are the beginnings of iconic companies like Henderson and Pollard, Turner’s Mart and Portland Cement. And the turning points in Auckland’s rumbustious growth, like the First World War, when Major John Whitney’s Colonial Ammunition Company (CAC) began making bullets in factory on scrubland at Mt Eden, the pro-cess supervised by an immigrant German, and the extraordinary post-Second World War partnership between the first Labour government and Fletcher Construction, so resented by the Department of Housing that key meetings had to be held at secret locations around Wellington rather than at the departmental building.
Understandably, given who commissioned the author and paid the bills, Parker’s view of history is seen through particular prism. There was Walter Nash’s increasingly desperate attempts to raise loans in London in 1938/39 after Labour passed and began funding its groundbreaking social welfare legislation. “Most references in New Zealand histories to Nash’s treatment in London paint picture of plucky little politician from the other side of the world being treated with ill-disguised condescension,” writes Parker. “There is some truth in this, but not much. Nash’s brand of economics was eccentric and very much the New Zealand Labour Party’s own. London’s experienced and knowledgeable bankers could make no sense of it.”
Colourful personalities abound, from William Pember Reeves, who conceived the Arbitration Court, and Edward Tregear, “an arch-socialist who ran the Department of Labour without any discernible attempt at neutrality”, to unionists as diverse as ‘Big Jim’ Roberts and F P Walsh. The two associations had their strong personalities too: Albert Spencer, founder of the toilet paper empire, had an “unshakeable conviction that private enterprise could do the job better”; Sir Ernest Davis, the beer baron, had soft spot for Labour and Michael Joseph Savage, once cellarman at his brewery, in particular.
“In the 1950s the likelihood of New Zealand captain of industry travelling to Sydney on business,” writes Parker, “was roughly the same as that of galah turning up in Auckland.” But that changed in the 1960s, and exporting is one of the principal themes of the last third of Wealthmakers as Auckland employers and manufacturers, now securely dominant in New Zealand, focused their energy and initiative on Australia and further afield.
It was also in the 1960s that Auckland employers and manufacturers failed to support Tom Shand’s voluntary unionism plans, the minister of labour concerned about the disruptive potential of an increasingly powerful union movement. Parker writes: “Auckland Manufacturers who, as always, let Auckland Employers handle this along with all other industrial relations issues, agreed to join their colleagues on the fence. ‘The system of compulsory unionism has been in operation in New Zealand for many years and has proved reasonably successful’ …. This statement was hardly true, given the problems manufacturers were having on the big construction sites, but members had come to like what was in effect state-run industrial relations ….”
As Parker concludes: “It was not the employers’ finest hour. They had helped the Federation of Labour pull the teeth from Shand’s bill and he never forgot it.”
The more pedantic aspects of lobby group history and its loyal servants are in the book too, but these and the weaving together of the two different, but connected, strands are done so seamlessly that the narrative flows smoothly and reader interest is retained to the end.

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