Pub Talk: Mickey, Norm and David were sitting at their usual corner table under a framed black-and-white photograph of Karl Marx. Karl, himself, was playing pool with Helen Kelly – and losing.
‘THE WORKERS’ REST’ stood in a remote corner of the Heavenly City. It was a squat public house, set slightly apart from the tile and weatherboard dwellings that confirmed the neighbourhood’s proletarian status.
From its open windows, patrons could watch as sturdy working-men emptied catcherfuls of grass-clippings onto compost heaps; housewives, in bright sun-dresses, pegged the contents of wicker washing-baskets to rotary clothes-lines; and tousled neighbourhood children played happily in the summer sunshine.
The Half-Gallon, Quarter-Acre, Pavlova Paradise, on continuous loop.
Mickey, Norm and David were sitting at their usual corner table under a framed black-and-white photograph of Karl Marx. Karl, himself, was playing pool with Helen Kelly – and losing.
“I’ll never get used to women in public bars,” sighed Mickey, “it simply wasn’t permitted in my day.”
Norm sipped his DB Brown, nodding appreciatively as Helen sank another ball in the corner pocket. “Wasn’t all that common in mine, either. Although things improved markedly after the abolition of six o’clock closing.”
“Well, it was a brave barman who dared stare down the likes of Sue Kedgely and Sandra Coney!”, boomed David. “That the first place the women’s libbers wrenched from the male chauvinists’ grasp was the local pub always struck me as impressively practical!”
“Well, in my opinion,” said Mickey, with a nod in Helen’s direction, “it’s a definite improvement.”
“And this new Prime Minister of ours,” queried Norm, “is she an improvement – do you think?”
“Miss Ardern? Well, she’s certainly an improvement over that lugubrious Tory from Southland. But, she is very young to be prime minister. Gosh, I was 63 when the Governor General summoned me to Government House.”
“Thirty-seven’s not that old,” objected David, “Alexander the Great is said to have conquered most of the known world by the age of twenty-five! Not that Jacinda would be impressed by that sort of carry-on. I look forward to hearing her scold him for not putting his case for world domination before the UN Security Council!”
“Very droll, I’m sure, David,” said Norm, “but I’m interested in hearing how you think she’s doing. I realise we can’t call hers a Labour government, not with that strange fellow Winston Peters in tow, but surely we wouldn’t be stretching things too far to call it a ‘progressive’ government?”
Mickey frowned, and set his glass on the table.
“If you’re asking me for a serious answer, Norm, I’d say ‘Yes – but not very progressive.’ One of the first things we did after winning the 1935 election was to get together with the trade unions and draft legislation designed to restore workers’ power in the workplace. If your intention is to force the capitalists to behave like decent human-beings – and that was my government’s intention – then you must have a strong and sophisticated workers’ movement at your back.”
Norm chuckled. “Well, when they arrested Bill Andersen in 1974, it certainly didn’t take long for the unions to mobilise in his defence. Ten thousand workers marched up Queen Street to the courthouse to demand his release. I had to send Hugh Watt to Auckland to defuse the situation. The problem though, Mickey, was that in 1974 I wasn’t sure whether the workers’ movement had my back – or wanted to stab me in it!”
“By the time I received my summons to Government House,” said David, “the unions had already had 12 months of voluntary unionism. Their membership was plummeting and they were willing to swallow just about anything from us – providing we restored their precious compulsory unionism. My Labour Minister, Stan Rodger, tried to strengthen the movement, make it more sophisticated, but, when push came to shove, it just wasn’t there.”
Mickey and Norm stared at David for a long time.
“There was a reason for that”, murmured Mickey.
“Did your government have their back, David?”, Norm added, quietly.
“If the workers aren’t persuaded you’re for them,” Mickey continued, “then it’s easy for the Tories to turn them against you.”
“Cheer up, guys!” Helen Kelly stood behind them, a glass of wine in each hand. “Labour’s industry agreements are a bloody good way to begin rebuilding the workers’ movement.”
The three men looked up at her doubtfully.
“No, seriously, they are. So, if Jacinda could just get her act together on medicinal cannabis, she would put her government’s progressive credentials beyond all doubt!”
This short story was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 29 December 2017.