Created By: Radical Wellington Walking Tour
The State Insurance Building looks like a monument to capital, its imposing black phallicism symbolic of the greed-is-good swagger of the 1980s, deregulation and big finance. But it is also a monument to militancy, and spent several years in the 1970s as, depending on your politics, either an eyesore or a testament, an unfinished hulk of a building showing downtown Wellington workers’ potential power.
Designed in the 1960s, it took until 1984 for the building, built for the Bank of New Zealand, to be finished. The Boilermakers’ Union struck for extended periods during construction over the right of their members to weld structural steel. The union raised other issues to do with health and safety on the site.
The employers, bosses across the country and Rob Muldoon’s National government all loathed union leader Con Devitt for his militant stands, and had their revenge by de-registering the Boilermakers. The union’s stand over who could weld – a “demarcation dispute” – was described at the time as a petty squabble, unionists delaying construction for their own ends. But the rise in workplace injuries and deaths in industries de-unionised since the Employment Contracts Act in 1991 tells a different story. Workers’ organisation on the job is vital for protecting safety, and matters.
Con Devitt was a life-long trade unionist and militant. Towards the end of his career he served as a leader in the Trade Union Federation, and was organising May Day rallies in Wellington as late as 2004. He welcomed the rise of the new social movements in the 1970s, and the Boilermakers made regular donations to Māori, women’s, and gay and lesbian causes. Devitt was also a regular speaker at left-wing meetings in the city. His most fitting tribute came in a song the long-time campaigner Don Franks. Franks distinguished two types of union leaders; ones that get along with those in power and “those you can really trust, the ones that the bosses hate.” Devitt was amongst those the Wellington bosses hated.
The Bank of New Zealand building, Wellington - Photograph taken by Ron Fox. Dominion post (Newspaper) :Photographic negatives and prints of the Evening Post and Dominion newspapers. Ref: EP/1979/2632/10-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22404127
This point of interest is part of the tour: Walking Radical Wellington