Extracted from Pull No Punches: Memoir of a Political Survivor by Judith Collins. Published by Allen & Unwin NZ. RRP $36.99. In stores from 1 July.
When David and I came back from Hong Kong, enthused by the energy and hard work we had seen, we did what any sensible people would do. Despite both of us working full-time and studying parttime at university, we bought a restaurant. We spent a lot of time eating in restaurants so, clearly, we should buy one. We went into partnership with an Italian chef and his wife. David found a restaurant called Pabulum that had gone into liquidation, refurbished it, renamed it La Gondola and we were in business. We learned a lot about small business. It is always excellent advice to buy low and sell high, and cashflow is king. What could go wrong?
By this stage, I had been approached by a former law colleague to join a law firm in Takapuna on the basis of soon becoming a partner in the firm. We decided to take the opportunity and I became a partner at the age of 27. One night after dinner with the other partners and their spouses to celebrate the new partnership we dropped into our restaurant to collect the money and credit-card receipts for banking the next day.
We found there had been a dispute between our business partner and an employee he had dismissed. We did not see this as a major problem.
It became a problem. That week we had our first encounter with a truly nasty union representative. We were threatened with destruction of our business if we did not pay considerably more than the former staff member was owed. We were told that the former staff member’s father was a union leader. We pointed out that they could bring a claim through the usual employment channels and that we had over 20 employees to keep employed. That did not matter. Our restaurant was picketed. Bottles were thrown onto the roof and chanting through loudhailers greeted our customers. We had bills to pay and staff to pay. We had borrowings to service at interest rates in the 20 per cent range. Our staff came to work. Customers walked through the picket. Two soon-to-be Labour MPs and four others came to the restaurant one day to meet with David and threatened him. The fact that David was a police officer would be used against him. Our business-partner chef was the subject of abusive comments. Rent-a-crowd was out in force.
At university my lecturer could see I was stressed and asked if I was all right. I told him what was happening. He suggested that I see Margaret Wilson, then president of the Labour Party, who was a lecturer there too. She told me that we had been caught in the middle of a dispute in the Labour Party for control of the Auckland Central electorate, which was then held by Richard Prebble. The left of Labour wanted it and the right of Labour had it. It had nothing to do with us. This was about one faction staking its claim to another faction’s territory. She suggested that we get Rodney Harrison, a well-known lawyer for the left, to act for us and she would see if she could bring matters to heel. Margaret was kind and sympathetic. A meeting was held and matters were settled.
I had never experienced such a feeling of helplessness before. David and I had both been brought up to think that unions were there for the workers and that they cared for them. What we saw was that, for some union leaders, the workers were there for the union leaders. Our 20 workers would be sacrificed and those union leaders did not care one bit. This was not what we thought would ever happen to us or people like us who were working hard, employing others and trying to get ahead. But because we were employers, we were the enemy and our staff were collateral damage.
Our business survived but our belief in the Labour Party did not. To see two of those union heavies who had threatened David become Labour MPs and then Ministers was quite something. I never bothered to speak to either of them about it. I doubt they would have remembered. It was clear that small-business owners and their staff were utterly unimportant to them.
“This was not what we thought would ever happen to us or people like us who were working hard, employing others and trying to get ahead. But because we were employers, we were the enemy and our staff were collateral damage.”