Page 1: Biography
Labourer, trade unionist
This biography, written by John E. Martin, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.
Arthur Cook was born at Campbelltown, Tasmania, on 30 November 1885, the son of Martha (Mary) Eberhardt and her husband, Alfred Cook, a labourer and later a station manager. He spent his early years in Australia working on farms, shearing sheep and mining, before emigrating to New Zealand around 1910. He worked as a farmhand in South Canterbury and as a shearer in the Mackenzie Country, and joined the Waimate Workers' Union. On 2 May 1911, at Timaru, he married Jessie Scott, a domestic servant, and settled in Waimate; they were to have three sons and a daughter.
Cook was a strong supporter of the 'One Big Union' philosophy, then popular in Australian union circles, and he soon urged New Zealand trade unions to adopt the idea. In 1915, after he was elected Waimate delegate for the New Zealand Shearers' Union, he pushed hard for the amalgamation of all rural workers. When the New Zealand Agricultural and Pastoral Workers' Union was established that year, he was elected to its executive and became a casual organiser. Through enthusiasm and hard work, Cook began to take a central role in the union's affairs, and in 1918 he was elected president.
Cook travelled on horseback and by motorcycle to organise shearers, musterers and threshing-mill hands across the South Island. A big, well-dressed man, he did not say a great deal but was an able organiser and a formidable negotiator. A photograph at this time shows him in his organising outfit: a jacket – its pockets bulging with pens and paper – and riding breeches, leather chaps and boots with spurs. He later favoured dark suits and a homburg hat.
Experience organising shearers in the Gisborne area led Cook to appreciate the contribution of Māori to trade unionism. He became a strong advocate of organising Māori workers and encouraged their representation in the union; he also learned to speak some Māori. Alarmed at the high death rate of Māori shearers during the influenza epidemic of 1918, he led a successful campaign to improve the legislation regulating shearers' accommodation.
Despite this success, Cook had little faith in political reform. Influenced by syndicalist ideas, he favoured industrial organisation and direct action, arguing that workers 'will gain more in one day by job action than can be gained in a hundred years by political action'. Cook resigned as president of the union, now called the New Zealand Workers' Union, in 1921, but continued to serve as an organiser and general executive officer. After acting temporarily as secretary in 1922, he was appointed to the position on a permanent basis two years later. The union's membership had slumped in the early 1920s, and Cook immediately set about revitalising the organisation and improving its finances.
In 1924 the Workers' Union joined the New Zealand Alliance of Labour, led by 'Big Jim' Roberts. The following year Cook became president of the Alliance, a post he was to hold until 1935. Roberts and Cook became two of New Zealand's most powerful trade unionists over the next 15 years. While Roberts moved closer to the New Zealand Labour Party, Cook continued to advocate the separation of the labour movement's industrial and political wings.
The Workers' Union was decimated by the depression of the 1930s. The closure of public works schemes and severe wage cuts for rural workers forced Cook to wind down its operations. However, the election of the Labour government in 1935, the resumption of public works, and the introduction of compulsory unionism in 1936 paved the way for the union's revival. Under the leadership of Cook and the new president, Dick Eddy, it soon became the largest, and one of the most powerful, trade unions in the country. Cook had by now abandoned his syndicalist position, and the Workers' Union formally affiliated with the Labour Party in 1936. Cook and Eddy developed a close relationship with the Labour government and the union again began to organise Māori workers actively.
Cook also helped to unify the trade union movement. In 1935–36 the Alliance of Labour had split into two factions, one led by F. P. Walsh and the other by Roberts and Cook. In 1937 Cook played a key role in the formation of a new organisation, the New Zealand Federation of Labour. The following year he was New Zealand's union representative at the International Labour Organisation's annual conference in Geneva. While overseas he travelled widely, visiting Australia, India, Italy, Germany, France and Britain.
In 1939 Cook announced his intention to resign as secretary of the Workers' Union, largely because of his deteriorating eyesight. Bob Semple, the minister of public works, urged the union to retain Cook and he was persuaded to stay. In late 1940 he travelled to Sydney for an eye operation. It was only partially successful, and although he resumed work as secretary in 1941, he decided to stand down the following year. During a farewell tour of Hawke's Bay he was presented with a silver-mounted carved walking stick by Māori of the region, with whom he had developed a warm relationship. The veteran Māori shearers' organiser Bob Tūtaki described Cook as the 'father' of Māori in the trade union movement.
The Labour government appointed Arthur Cook to the Legislative Council in September 1942. The following year he was chosen to represent New Zealand at a trade union conference in London. He chose to travel by sea even though Prime Minister Peter Fraser and others urged that it was safer by air. On 4 March 1943 his ship, the California Star, was torpedoed in the Atlantic Ocean. After assisting the crew to launch lifeboats, and declining a place in one, Cook escaped from the sinking ship on a raft. He was lost at sea, presumed drowned. He was survived by his wife and children.