- Tim Howard
14 February 1923 – 18 February 2015: worker, unionist, catalyst for justice.
Don was an intelligent worker for justice, quietly effective on many fronts. A Marxist-Leninist thinker and translator. Clear about his own values that he brought to his encounters with others, while being respectful of other perspectives, in order to build unified coalitions. A dear friend to many of us. Don – Donald Hugh Ross – inspired this writer, and many others. Standing out front to speak truth to power, when that was needed. But often the subtle behind-the-scenes mentor, critical analyst, encourager, supporter and friend. And always one of the collective, one of the many, never highlighting his own achievements but emphasising what the collective could do. After his death, his family had to ask his wife Marion for many details of his life he had not told them. “One of the good guys, a battler who never stepped back from the struggle” – as Murray Horton commented. “A quiet unassuming man with BIG politics. His politics, actions and principles were an inspiration,” said Ian Stewart in Edinburgh, on hearing of his passing. After his stroke in January 2005, Don handed his megaphone on, the one that he had often provided for others to use at pickets and demonstrations. The megaphone was up front at his funeral. The people’s voice.
In many ways Don’s stroke took him out of that public arena. Some might have thought we had farewelled him then. But his courageous, life-seizing approach to his illness meant that he was still active, still had a sparkle in his eye. Despite his speech impediment, he still had a voice: he would still seize the hand of an international visitor, look him in the eye and say “West Papua!”; he would still shake Moea Armstrong’s hand and say “you spoke well”. Don would still listen attentively and elicit from us our stories.
Marion had been Don’s life partner for 62 years. After January 2005, he was not able to talk and had no movement in his right arm or leg. Marion was his full time carer for those ten years since, putting her own life on hold to care for her soul mate. But the pathways and connections of his life still speak, even now. For a man who didn’t speak much of himself, this story will try not so much to focus on Don’s achievements as to convey something of his way of working for justice from which some of us gain inspiration. The quieter workers for change, and their way of working, need to be acknowledged so others may take up the challenge.
It seems to me that a key element of Don’s approach was to find what people had in common, and to work from that point. Karen Davis, of the Auckland Unemployed Workers Rights Centre (AUWRC, 1983-1999), said: “I will always remember his clear thinking and wise words to look past our differences and find what unites us”. Sue Bradford of AUWRC made the same point, while wryly observing that sometimes the unemployed activists didn’t always take that advice. In workshops at Kotare (http://kotare.org.nz/), Don was an educator who could help people to see that commonality as a useful tool for activism. At a demonstration in front of a conference in Whangarei that was advocating privatisation of common assets, Don even managed – to our amazement – to engage Muriel Newman, the then ACT MP, in discussion and identify a common interest with her.
My impression is that Don would not argue or debate with people of different persuasions from himself – something I suspect most of us slip into at some stage. His approach was to share ideas; to elicit the perspective of the other, then, respectfully share his own. With this style, Marion told us, he could take the former Communist Party newspaper, the People’s Voice, into the pubs, a situation which might easily have led to conflict, without ever getting into fights there. His gentle style came across to me, for example, when I was directing my anger with the Government’s 1990s’ “fiscal envelope” policy demeaning Maori rights at PM Jim Bolger as his car cruised close to us. With a smile Don drily said: “That’s an interesting approach”.
Don was secure in himself, unafraid of speaking directly to the wealthy and the powerful, but he saw hope primarily in ordinary people coming together. Working beyond differences, for unity, against the powers that be. Don’s father-in-law, in a letter to Marion, once described Don as a “gentle persuasive subtle convincer”. This skill of encouraging listening and respect, understanding of differences yet working towards unity; was hugely effective in Don. It wasn’t that he wouldn’t stand up and confront when necessary. His son Alan tells of getting a call one night to pick Don up from the police station, arrested for holding to a picket line in support of seamen with unfair working conditions – not the usual experience of a retiree well in to his 70s. Neither was it that he was ‘neutral’; in fact, he was particularly attentive to what really mattered to people of low income. But he pragmatically kept a focus on what would strengthen the unity of those in struggle.
One aspect of Don’s approach was that he would put effort into constructively providing feedback to allies who were taking particular roles in the struggle. Sue Bradford spoke of his ongoing commitment to provide useful critique to AUWRC right until it closed down in 1999. She also referred to his “mix of genuine support and critical analysis” offered her when she was in Parliament. In support of Kotare Trust, with its strapline about “social change”, he once helpfully asked “what sort of change?” and a useful discussion followed.
Murray Horton, in his Philippines Solidarity Network of Aotearoa (PSNA) capacity, referred to Don writing to him in January 2005; maybe a week before Don suffered the stroke. This letter was a detailed statement of constructive criticism and political suggestions, arising from Philippine human rights activist Marie Hilao-Enriquez’s 2004 visit to Whangarei. Marie herself had also received some personal comments from the man she called “the amazing ‘81 year old Bolshevik’” He also supported some trade unionists in this way, always with the intention of our side lifting its performance.
Writer And Thinker
The letters and the articles were essential elements of Don’s activism. His son Neil, now in Johannesburg, said: “I will never forget Dad clacking away on the Imperial portable typewriter at half past eleven at night”. His clear analytical writing for the quarterly magazine Struggle continued as one of his thoughtful contributions until the time of his stroke. The perennial value of his writing remains to this day, as is evident in his congratulatory letter to CAFCA in 2002 on the publication of the 100th edition of Foreign Control Watchdog (he was a long term member of CAFCA). He identified two major trends in the world:
“The first trend is the drive by US imperialism and others, to colonise and control nation-states, their people and their economies. The second trend is the increasing efforts of nations and their people to achieve or retain control of their independence and sovereignty. Because the first trend is thoroughly reactionary and hostile to the basic needs of people it will fail. FCW identifies itself with the second trend, and because it is progressive, it will succeed. The strength of FCW lies precisely in it being an active participant in this international trend”. Thoughtful. Focused. And imbued with hope.
In his writing and activities, Don had a strong sense of solidarity with people’s struggles everywhere. He understood the dynamics of oppression, imperialism and resistance, and honoured those who did resist. Don’s links with China, through the China NZ Friendship Society, his Communist understandings and personally, permeated his life. A month after his funeral, Marion invited some of us gathered to share our stories about Don beneath a large tree behind their house. This was the same spot where Don had shared stories with Rewi Alley* on one of his visits from China. The links went a way back. *Rewi Alley was the legendary New Zealander who lived in China from 1927 until his death in 1987. Ed.
He would often ask for recent news of the Indonesian Communist Party, having been very much aware of the slaughter of one million Chinese and Communists in that country in 1965-66. He was active in support of the independence and resistance struggles of Timor Leste, West Papua, South Africa and Vietnam – and in the corresponding solidarity movements in Aotearoa. When we say he was “active” his progressive internationalist perspectives meant this was not done lightly. And he was a true friend of the Philippine peoples. A member of the Philippines Solidarity Network of Aotearoa member from 1993 until 2007. A co-host in Whangarei of visitors like debt critic Leonor Briones in 1995; unionist and poor people’s activist Crispin Beltran (Ka Bel) in 1999; leading unionist Emilia Dapulang in 2002; and leading human rights activist Marie Hilao-Enriquez in 2004.
Marie’s is a voice from amongst the international workers for liberation and human rights with whom Don connected. Though Marie speaks from the Philippines in this letter when Don was ill, in a sense hers is a voice from people’s struggles everywhere. People who in turn understood and appreciated Don and the commitment he brought. “Many of us refuse to die without fighting for our next generation. So we continue to struggle happily up to the last years of our lives! You always feel young when you are in the movement. On this note, I am inspired by my beloved ‘senior bolshevik’ (I call him), Don Ross whom I met in Whangarei. You guys are fortunate indeed to have a man like him who continues to inspire the not so younger ones but who are ready to share their lives with the youth who will surely carry on the struggle for freedom, a decent life and fight for the goodness of man to his fellow man to shine finally. I really hope we will see each other again”.
Don worked as a volunteer in China for two and a half years in the early 1950s. I can see this as a generous contribution to the early years of the Chinese revolution. But I can also see it as a time of deep learning for Don himself, where he breathed the values, analysis and strategies of Maoism and Communism. US Embassy intelligence papers patronised him, saying he came back quoting Mao and that he was not politically significant. They did not understand the quiet influence and effect someone can have away from the high profile roles that capture the news headlines. A longtime member of the Communist Party of NZ (CPNZ), Don and others were separated from it when it detached itself from the Communist Party of China after the death of Mao Tse Tung. They founded the Preparatory Committee for the Formation of the Communist Party of New Zealand (Marxist-Leninist) in 1978, later renamed in 1988 the Organisation for Marxist Unity (OMU). Don took an editorial and writing role from that time with the OMU’s quarterly magazine Struggle.
My own impression was that Don never forced his views on anyone, but carefully worked to form effective coalitions with people of all sorts of ideologies. Sue Bradford spoke of his wonderfully clear Marxist thinking. But she also said: “As someone who was from a younger generation of communists, I was used to seeing some men in that older generation as dogmatic, and sometimes quite patriarchal and patronising to younger people, particularly women. Don was never like that. Even though he held deeply and clearly to his ideological heritage, he didn’t try to impose his views in any kind of bombastic way. Instead he sat there with that twinkle in his eye…”. At his funeral, Catherine Delahunty read James K Baxter’s poem, “The Communist Speaks”, a reflection of Don’s commitment to the ordinary person, the worker, the beneficiary, the struggling poor of the world.
Worker For Justice
Don didn’t really retire, at all. His work for justice, spanning the decades of his employed life, carried right on into his so-called retirement. A way of life; wherever he considered there was injustice and need. I remember Don bluntly challenging the Whangarei District Councillors, when he was there to contribute to their Annual Plan. Pointing to the framed traditional picture of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, and knowing the Council’s track record, he said: “Take down that rat-eaten copy of the Treaty you have here”. Indeed he was very clear about the need to bring Te Tiriti alive. Active as an elder and mentor in Network Waitangi Whangarei, he supported us Pakeha educating ourselves and taking responsibility for our part of the relationship with Tangata Whenua embedded in Te Tiriti o Waitangi. On another front, with transport deregulation in the early 90s, bus services in the provincial town of Whangarei had wound down to nothing. It was Don’s genius that identified the need for buses, especially for low income people, and inspired our small group to work for nearly three years to establish what has since become a highly successful bus service, against all the blocks that civic leaders put against it.
Alongside Unemployed And Beneficiaries
Thanks to the Rogernomics Rightwing revolution, unemployment started going through the roof in the mid 1980s. At that time, Don and others were establishing the Whangarei Unemployed and Beneficiaries Trust. Sue Bradford and AUWRC in Auckland connected with the Whangarei group, while also helping to build a national movement, Te Roopu Rawakore o Aotearoa. Don was described as a kaumatua for their group in Auckland, despite the distance. At a national level he was also a key worker, as an encourager, mentor and educator.Sue described him holding activists spellbound for half an hour at a national hui in a freezing campsite somewhere out of Palmerston North, explaining how a physical object came into being; others would have struggled to hold the group’s attention for five minutes.
Don stayed in touch with the Unemployed Rights Centre right through until it was closed down in 1999. He supported the development of Kotare Trust through the 1990s and into the early 2000s. And he was a great support to the people he worked with in the Whangarei Unemployed & Beneficiaries Support Trust. He diligently kept this group going, responding to beneficiaries’ needs, into the early 2000s, though it had become difficult to sustain. Sue: “I offer my heartfelt thanks for everything Don did for us through those times of struggle, heartbreak and hope. We will always remember Don for the twinkle in his eye, his ability to face every difficulty straight on with that beautifully clear Marxist analysis, and for the deep tautoko he offered us all”.
Not surprisingly for someone who had believed in the power of the collective since his school days, Don was a trade unionist all his adult life. Actively engaged. Supportive of the high-profile unionists. As soon as he arrived in Mangakino (Waikato) to work as a tunneller on the diversion tunnel at the Maraetai Dam in 1948, he was elected secretary of the NZ Workers Union. This was in the lead-up to the 1951 waterfront lockout, a critical time for workers and for NZ. This union covered all trades and workers on the dam’s site of over 2,000 employees. The first action Don took as union secretary was to set his own pay at the same rate as the lowest paid person of those 2,000 workers. Alan Ross explains this call: “Dad’s integrity meant he would never take advantage of a situation”.
At the funeral, his longtime friend Robert Reid of First Union spoke of Don’s role in union movements. Much of it was behind the scenes work, not publicly recognised or honoured like that of high profile unionists. It was the role of keeping unions to their purpose and maintaining their integrity. Consistent thoughtful support and critique. Holding the local scene together. Robert was keen to name and honour this contribution. It continued well past Don’s paid working life, at local and national levels; many unionists could identify the support they received from Don.
Don, Robert and others of us were part of the gathering in Rotorua that launched the Unite! union. There were various influences on the driving ideas behind this union, including union experience in Argentina and the Philippines, and community unions in Japan. Don was particularly articulate about the value of small groups of workers supporting each other and carrying out their own organising work. Strong collectives. In similar vein, Don was influential in the establishment in Whangarei of a Community Union Council, bringing unionists and community activists together for the benefit of both. For so many of our activities in Whangarei, Don was quietly behind the scenes; at the creation of the idea, and at its implementation. The Council continued actively for a couple of years, one of its highlights being a three day picket at Port Whangarei. In September and October 1997, workers and unions at the Juken Nissho triboard mill in Kaitaia were striking for better working conditions. Meanwhile, trucks were still bringing triboard products by road to Whangarei to be shipped overseas. The Whangarei supporters and others had been sending food north for the strikers’ families. During the second month of the strike, a picket was set up at Port Whangarei, staffed by workers and community, and the loading of the foreign ship there to freight Juken Nissho cargo away was delayed by three days. Robert also quoted from Chairman Mao about the need to honour our dead. We do.
Worker And Family Man
Don Ross was born in Dargaville, and his early school education was there and then at Whangarei Primary School. He came back to live in Whangarei in 1964, to care for his elderly parents, and died in his own bed in 2015, cared for by Marion and their family, supported by others Don’s high school years were spent at Whangarei Boys High School at Carruth House as a boarder, where he took part in and was one of the organisers of a student strike to get rid of a very unjust teacher. The students’ action succeeded. The seeds of working for justice were evident even then, as a teenager. And his strategic skills. At the time of an ANZAC Day remembrance at Whangarei Boys High School in 2004, Don spoke powerfully and evocatively, recalling that strike and the solidarity between the students. He saw that strike as a confirmation of the power of people working collectively, working together.
Don’s father and brother were lawyers at Webb Ross and Ross. He too studied at Auckland University for a law degree, while working as a freezing worker to finance his studies.He was called up to the Second World War in late 1944 and did not pursue the law degree after returning from the war. Stan Luisi from Niue became a lifelong friend from these years in the Army. Don had supported Stan having a right to be placed amongst his Niuean cousins as a soldier. The bosses instead immediately placed him with Don.
During the war years Don was posted to Egypt, then Italy, and later on to Japan in a peacekeeping role. Due to his leadership skills he was promoted to be a sergeant but he declined that offer and would only accept a promotion to be corporal. After his return to NZ from Japan, Don worked as a grocer at Farmers store in Whangarei. In 1948, he moved to Mangakino where he was a tunneller and union secretary at the Maraetai dam on the Waikato River. His major focus was on the safety of the work force as, in those days, dam building was a dangerous occupation; workers had died in the building of previous dams. He stayed on the Maraetai project from 1948 until 1954.
Marion and Don married on summer solstice day, December 22, 1952, in the local gymnasium at Mangakino. Earlier that year, Don had been a delegate to the International Peace and Friendship gathering in Sydney. He then worked as a volunteer overseas in China for two and a half years, and on his return he worked on the extensions to the Auckland War Memorial Museum. Don and Marion moved to Greymouth in 1955. For nine years Don worked in the Strongman coal mine. A pick and shovel job. Hard and dangerous work. Don left the Strongman not too long before the 1967 explosion that killed 19 of his co-workers. Counting the various roles Don had worked at, the family listed 13 different occupations over his lifetime. Upon the return of Marion and himself to Whangarei in 1964, he was a sawmill operator, and a truck driver for the Railways. Throughout all these jobs, Don’s work for justice was his passion. Speaking for his family, his son Alan said: “Dad was an extremely principled and generous person who was always willing to give his time to anyone or any cause where he felt there was injustice”.
From many of us, our condolences and appreciation go to you Marion, Don’s soul mate of 62 years, complementary spirits with a deep unity between you. To you, Don’s family – to Neil and his partner Norman in Johannesburg, South Africa; to Alan and Lydia, and to grandchildren Nicole and Donald, Don’s home people here in Whangarei.And to you, comrades and co-workers alongside Don, in many areas of action, and of thought. Each of you will have your own learnings from your time with Don.
“The Ballad of Joe Hill” in some ways could be sung of Don. Joe Hill was a Swedish-American labourer, a unionist, a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (known respectfully as the Wobblies), a workers’ song writer – who, 100 years ago this year, was executed on dodgy charges as an attack on militant unions. His ashes were sent around the world, including to NZ. “I never died, said he”.
Much loved husband, Dad and Granddad. Valued comrade. Strong believer in justice. “Gentle persuasive subtle convincer”. Worker for liberation. Where workers and beneficiaries defend their rights; where tangata whenua stand tall; where workers internationally, and allies of liberation struggles, and catalysts for justice gather around what unites them – Don, you will be with them, and us.
- Murray Horton
Tim has done an excellent job with his obituary of Don. I am particularly grateful to him for it because, although I knew Don, I knew next to nothing about his life before I met him (he was already “retired” when we first met, although he obviously forgot to behave appropriately for an “old man”). I just want to add my personal tribute to Don, and fill some gaps in Tim’s obituary. Don Ross was a CAFCA member from 1990 until 2007 and a key contact of ours for many years. When I visited Whangarei on my 1993, 99 & 2002 national speaking tours, plus one off visits inbetween, Don was either my organiser and/or host (when Becky and I went to Northland on holiday, back in 2000, Don was our wonderful Whangarei tour guide).
Don was a lifelong worker, unionist and Communist. Tim has detailed his history in the former Communist Party of New Zealand (CPNZ) and has mentioned how Don came to the attention of the US Embassy in the 1950s. He was mentioned once in a fascinating collection of US Embassy documents in CAFCA’s possession (they cover the period 1945-60). The relevant 1957 document reports that Don was one of two CPNZ members “who had recently returned from two years of ‘school’ in China. Ross is a political innocent, young and not important. He has come back filled with quotations from …Mao Tse Tung’’ (the other Party member was Bill McAra, who was described in the Embassy report as “capable and ruthless”). We published a lengthy analysis of these documents in Watchdog 65 (October 1990, “Spies Amongst Us: How The US Embassy Saw New Zealand, 1945-60”, http://www.historicalwatchdog.blogspot.co.nz/2009/12/foreign-control-watchdog-october-1990.html) along with a list of names of those referred to therein, and an invitation for them to contact CAFCA if they wanted to read the documents. Don was the only one to take us up – Christchurch is a long way from Whangarei, but he came to our home, to the CAFCA office, had lunch with Becky and me, and spent several hours reading them.
After parting company with the CPNZ, for years he was the face and voice of the Organisation for Marxist Unity and produced a newsletter, Struggle, which CAFCA exchanged with Watchdog. There were others in that group (which, like the CPNZ, is now long gone) who were also CAFCA members. For example, the self same Bill McAra, with whom Don spent 2½ years in China in the 1950s. McAra’s obituary is in Watchdog 62, September 1989 (http://www.historicalwatchdog.blogspot.co.nz/2009/12/foreign-control-watchdog-1989.html). “For many years he and his companion Diana Wilsie were our biggest subscribers to Watchdog – they paid for five copies of every issue”. Another one was Mollie Ostler (my obituary of her is in Watchdog 96, April 2001, http://www.converge.org.nz/watchdog/96/9obitu.htm).
At one point in the 90s he was working with the late Bill Andersen (Paul Watson’s obituary of him is in Watchdog 108, April 2005, http://www.converge.org.nz/watchdog/08/09.htm). They were an unlikely couple of old blokes – both had been CPNZ members, who had gone in different directions with the Sino-Soviet split (Bill became a leading light in the pro-Soviet Socialist Unity Party, and had then set up the Socialist Party of Aotearoa after the disappearance of the Soviet Union). On one memorable day that decade I was driven from Hamilton to Auckland by Bill; we met Don there and he drove me straight on to Whangarei. So I got a total Marxist-Leninist earbashing that day. Don and Bill duly fell out and went their separate ways again.
A Big Fan Of CAFCA
You can get the flavour of him from this message that he sent CAFCA in 2002 when we invited members to send in messages to be published in Watchdog’s 100th issue (Tim has quoted part of this in his obituary; this is the full quote): “Greetings Murray - On behalf of the Organisation for Marxist Unity, may I extend warm greetings to all members of the production team of Foreign Control Watchdog on the occasion of its 100th issue. Its consistently high standard and insistence on thorough examination of facts sets a fine example. As an authoritative source of information concerning the extent of foreign ownership and influence, Foreign Control Watchdog makes a significant contribution to the democratic movement. This assessment is further deepened when relating CAFCA and its publication to the two major trends in the world today. The first trend is the drive by US imperialism and others, to colonise and control nation-states, their people and their economies. The second trend is the increasing efforts of nations and their people to achieve or retain control of their independence and sovereignty. Because the first trend is thoroughly reactionary and hostile to the basic needs of people it will fail. FCW identifies itself with the second trend, and because it is progressive, it will succeed. The strength of FCW lies precisely in it being an active participant in this international trend. May the FCW collective confidently plan for the next 100 issues with optimism. In these increasingly, complicated and challenging times, the contribution of FCW will be needed more than ever. Yours sincerely, Don Ross, Whangarei”. His analysis was spot on and remains so today.
Tim has already mentioned that Don was a true friend of the Philippine people, specifically as Whangarei co-host and/or co-organiser (with Tim) for four speakers toured through NZ by the Philippines Solidarity Network of Aotearoa (PSNA), from 1995-2004 inclusive. I accompanied two of those speakers to Whangarei, so I can vouch for the key role that Don played. Despite already being an “old man” he was a ball of personal and political activity. He made an indelible impression on Marie Hilao-Enriquez, who referred to him as “the amazing ’81 year old Bolshevik’” (which is how Don had described himself in conversation with Marie and me). The last I ever heard from him was in January 2005, when he sent me a detailed statement of constructive criticism and political suggestions, arising from her 2004 Whangarei visit.
Sadly, not long after that, he had the massive stroke from which he never recovered and which took ten years to kill him. Whenever I was back in Whangarei in the last decade (most recently in May 2014) I always made a point of visiting Don at his beautiful home surrounded by bush. He was bedridden and couldn’t speak but was always pleased to see me and to listen to what I and others present had to say. Special mention must be given to his wife Marion who put her own life on hold for a decade to care for Don at home. That is hard, hard work. To add special poignancy, Don died on her birthday (and only days after his own 92nd one). Good on you, Don, you were one of the good guys, a battler who never stepped back from the struggle until a cruel and longlasting health catastrophe made it impossible. Rest in peace, old mate.