Celebrating The Māori Organisation on Human Rights

When we honour the great revival in Māori struggle that burst out in the 1970s, the Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland-initiated Ngā Tamatoa – with their dramatic protest actions and Black Panther-inspired flair – are the group who most often come to mind. They deserve all the recognition they have got, certainly, but we should remember also the myriad other protest and campaigning groups that emerged across the country in the 1960s. There was Te Hokioi, a newsletter publicising cases of injustice and grievance. And, coming out of Wellington, there was the Maori Organisation on Human Rights (MOOHR), a pioneering educational and agitational grouping. MOOHR’s story shows how the fight for Māori liberation is at the heart of working-class history and organisation in Aotearoa.

In the decades following the Second World War there was a boom in the New Zealand economy, and businesses found themselves with labour shortages as they tried to keep up with rapid economic growth. This led to big growth in cities and urban centres, and a huge migration of Māori from the countryside to the city. It was a massive, and rapid, transformation. Young Māori found themselves in unfamiliar cities, separated from whānau and familiar ways of life, and concentrated in the lowest paid and most difficult work. The experience was both alienating and exhilarating. Alienating, as ties of language, iwi connection and identity were torn away in the racist city setting. And exhilarating, as young people found friendship connections, sometimes money, and new independence in urban life.

The defeat of the watersiders in the 1951 Lockout had led to years of quiet and conservatism from trade unions but, by the late 1960s, industrial discontent was starting to pick up. Young Māori workers were at the forefront of this – in the vanguard. And, as they started to find their voice as organisers and militants on the job campaigning for pay and conditions, their minds started to turn to how they could put these skills and this confidence to use as Māori and for the needs of other Māori.

In 1967 the Department of Maori Affairs started trying to implement a law designed to break up what was left of Māori communal ownership. The state hoped to break up what was left of jointly held Māori land. Two Māori drivers had been approached by elders on the East Coast about this situation, and they approached Tama Poata, a Communist and organiser with the Wellington Drivers Union.

What happened next shows what is possible when workers organise, and reminds us of the kind of workplace culture we have lost in the last decades. Poata took the issue to a meeting of Māori drivers, and that meeting formed the Maori Organisation on Human Rights. From there, a stopwork meeting of over a thousand drivers gathered in Newtown and voted to support Māori submissions against the land-grabbing law. Tama Poata put the case in his memoirs, Seeing Beyond the Horizon:

We were able to argue that Māori issues were something that should be addressed by ourselves as trade unionists, andMāori interests were especially relevant because there were a huge number of Māori drivers in the union. You only had to travel the length of the North and South Islands to see the number of Māori on the roads and operating heavy machinery.

From this meeting MOOHR developed as a network around their newsletter. Issues carried information and analysis on land confiscations; inequality in education, prison statistics and housing; and international questions like Vietnam. Experience of producing submissions for Parliamentary Select Committees convinced MOOHR members of the futility of following the respectable rules of the system. Their March 1972 Special Bulletin ended: “We say stick your special committees and submissions”! Protest, direct action and disruption were the order of the day. MOOHR and Ngā Tamatoa drew on each other and the new mood of radicalism.

Ranginui Walker called MOOHR the ‘underground expression of rising political consciousness among urban Māori.’ We should honour them as forerunners, and remember the connections they embodied between organised workers and Māori campaigns for justice.