Tribute to Sonja Davies by Carol Beaumont, Secretary, NZ Council of Trade Unions
It is a great honour to speak on behalf of the union movement to celebrate the life of Sonja Davies. The union movement lost a good friend and a loyal activist this week, with her death. Sonja was a woman whose life inspired many others, those who knew her personally and many who didn’t know her
There is so much to say about Sonja and her activism around so many issues and at some many levels – women’s rights, childcare and early childhood education, equal pay, workers rights, peace, as a community activist, as a feminist, as a union official, in local government and as an MP, locally, nationally and internationally. Sonja dedicated her life to speaking up for the rights of ordinary New Zealanders. Underlying all of this work was her struggle to make the world a better, fairer, and more peaceful place. As a result of her work she had the opportunity to travel widely and to make large international networks. Her politics of the left never wavered.
In the 1950s, when she lived in Nelson, she was involved in the New Zealand Workers Union with her husband Charlie. In the late 1960s, he fell ill and had to retire. Sonja was appointed as the Hawke’s Bay representative for the Wellington Clerical Workers Union and the New Zealand Food Processing Union - her first paid union position. After Charlie’s death, she moved to Wellington and became an official with the Public Service Association. Two years later she joined the Wellington Shop Employees Union. Sonja was a passionate advocate for shop workers - low paid and primarily women workers. She worked for the Wellington Shop Employees Union for 14 years until she was elected as the Labour MP for Pencarrow.
Sonja was a founding member of the Working Women’s Council and a founder and the first president of the New Zealand Childcare Association. She was also key to the formation of the Early Childhood Workers Union. Sonja was also involved in implementing the 1972 Equal Pay Act and was a member of the Equal Pay Review Committee.
Sonja was a leader in advocating for the rights of woman at work and in unions. It wasn’t easy and she said of her early years in the trade union movement that ‘when women got up to speak at conferences … the men all got up to read their newspapers or have a beer’. Judy Attenberger recalls being at a FOL conference where they were among only a handful of women and how Sonja organized them and decided on a strategy to ensure they were listened to by not giving notice they were going to speak.
In 1978 Sonja became the first woman to be elected to the National Executive of the Federation of Labour. She went on to become in 1983 the FOL Vice President. defeating Ernie Ball (national secretary of the Engineers Union) and Ashley Russ (national secretary of the Carpenters Union). She was the first woman to be elected an officer of the FOL. She told the conference she hoped her example would encourage other women in the trade unions.
Ted Thompson, the retiring vice-president, told the conference: “… in Sonja Davies you have a real gold mine. She is a battler and in my mind … she will never stop struggling in the interests of the people she represents.”
Unions have come a long way since then, but there’s still a road ahead of us to fulfil Sonja’s dream of equality. I have to say though that coming from the CTU Women’s Conference over the last two days where we honoured Sonja I think she would have been very pleased by the active, dynamic women who worked hard to develop ways of continuing to build our industrial and political power for our families and communities.
But imagine, often in the face of opposition, what it must have felt like for her, and the courage it must have taken, to continue to get up to speak, to continue to fight for what you believed in and to continue to demand your rights. What gave her courage was the activity and support of other women and men at a very exciting time for women in the union movement. Maxine Gay recalls as an 18 year old worker hearing Sonja speak at a factory with two male colleagues. She recalls thinking Sonja as a large woman and was surprised when she met her to find out how small she was. She put this down to Sonja having real presence, something others have mentioned to me. She also mentioned how at the end of the meeting another woman described Sonja as a ‘wicked woman’. When asked why she said because she leaves her husband and child at home and flies all around the country causing trouble. Maxine thought if what she’d heard was causing trouble then it sounded like a good idea and another woman was inspired by Sonja. We all know that Sonja’s advocacy for women did mean she faced many personal attacks.
The campaign to endorse the Working Women’s Charter and the consequent establishment of the FOL Women Advisory Committee and the Trades Councils Women’s Subcommittees was the result of huge activism. Sonja with her experience and skills from community, local government and union activism was able to provide the leadership and front the campaigns. In Bread and Roses she describes this campaign as the ‘Battle of a Lifetime’. Irena Brorens, then a young receptionist with the Shop Employees Union was invited to go with Sonja to the FOL conference during one of the debates on the Working Women’s Charter. She recalls listening to Sonja, seeing her standing there being given a hard time about abortion and taking the critics on. Irena too was inspired by Sonja to became a union organiser and to fight for women’s rights.
Sonja was part of a movement within unions in the 1970s and 1980s to democratise and build opportunities for workers to be active within their unions and for greater accountability of paid officials to the membership. She saw this as a way for women to play a greater role within the union movement and was actively involved in creating such change within the Shoppies.
She showed us that if you want to make change then you have to be persistent and fight for it. She also showed us that you have to build alliances and take the time to build support. In talking with many people over the last week about Sonja the common words used to describe her are words like courageous, kind, honest, principled, loyal, hard working, persistent and dedicated. Kirsty Campbell like many young women in the 1970s and 1980s was encouraged by Sonja to become active in the union movement. She describes Sonja was someone who could fight with the best of them but in doing so she managed to touch peoples hearts. Her energy and love of people were obvious to the end of her life.
In concluding I would like to express the heartfelt thanks of the union movement to Sonja for having done so much for so many and for inspiring so many of us to contribute what we can to the union movement, the wider Labour movement and the fight for social justice. We will fight to retain what has been achieved and for further progress. As Sonja said at the conclusion of Marching On “Nothing is ever too difficult to achieve. Only inertia can defeat us”.
To Sonja’s close friends, her brother David and her grandsons I express my sincere condolences for your loss.