Peter Harris was a university lecturer in economics in Zimbabwe and New Zealand before he joined the PSA’s research division in 1976. He was one of a small team that produced research and policy advice on a wide variety of issues.
Harris was central in building the PSA’s research capability which was widely respected within the trade union movement. He became assistant general secretary (research and publicity) and was involved in a number of research and advocacy projects on behalf of the Combined State Unions and the Federation of Labour.
When the NZ Council of Trade Unions was formed in 1987, Harris was appointed head of its technical services division. He played a key role in shaping the NZCTU’s policies and campaigns, led its research effort and was one of its main spokespersons, particularly on economic issues. During the 1980s and 1990s, he was one of the few economists who consistently advocated alternatives to free market, anti-worker policies. He played an important role in the labour movement in articulating social democratic policies in the era of globalisation.
In 1999 Peter Harris left the NZCTU. He became an economic adviser to Michael Cullen, the minister of finance in the Labour government until early 2003. Since then, he has been a consultant with extensive engagement on workplace issues.
It was in the early ‘80s that the PSA proposed an all- encompassing Council of Trade Unions (CTU). At a PSA conference, President David Thorp, influenced by Colin Clark, Deputy General Secretary, floated the idea of a new central organisation that could get across the barriers. This was very much a product of Colin’s philosophical commitment to central union organisation rather than any pressing need from the PSA’s point of view. But it took another five years till the inaugural conference of the CTU.
However, by the time we got the CTU established, most of the reforms of the public service were done and there was the possibility of combining on a new economic agenda. Also, some FOL unions were getting hammered by the same neo-liberal ideology – import licensing, loss of legislation protecting shoppies (opening hours had been extended) and deregulation of the liquor trade, so there was more common ground. Even so, there wasn’t a dramatic imperative to join up because on most issues of mutual interest, joint FOL-CSU policies, campaigns and submissions were being organised anyway.
The notion was still being pushed more for philosophical than for practical, organisational reasons. That was all attributable to Colin Clark – he kept servicing the committees, kept re-convening meetings, kept the impetus up. The opportunity came when Jim Knox retired. Then we could construct a new face, consistent with a new state/private sector configuration. The CTU was set up as a new body with a new job to do.
The State and the Union - an Oral History of the PSA from 1984 to 2012 by Mary Ellen O' Connor