Reginald John Bailey was born on 16 March 1921 in Blenheim, the son of James Maurice Bailey, a Crown lands ranger, and his wife, Elizabeth Agnes Murray. He was always known as Chip, and in 1957 changed his name by deed poll. After his family moved to Wellington he attended Khandallah School and then Wellington College, where he contracted pneumonia. He was off school for a year and suffered from a chronic cough and sinus trouble for the rest of his life.
After leaving school Bailey moved from job to job, working as a spray-painter, picture-framer, furniture-maker, printer and waterside worker. A voracious reader from an early age, he became interested in left-wing politics and joined the Communist Party of New Zealand (CPNZ). He was drawn to the vibrant left-wing cultural scene in Wellington and in the 1940s became involved in the Unity Theatre and the New Zealand Society for Closer Relations with Russia. On 15 June 1945 Chip Bailey married Rona Meek (née Stephenson), a fellow communist, in Wellington. They were to enjoy a close personal and political partnership until his death. Their only child, a daughter, was born in 1949.
Bailey joined the Royal New Zealand Air Force in May 1942, but was unable to serve overseas because of his health and was discharged in February 1943. He worked for a short period as a full-time CPNZ official before becoming a taxi driver. In 1948 he joined the Wellington Drivers’ Union and the following year was elected to its executive council. Because of his independence of mind he was expelled from the CPNZ in the late 1940s. However, he was readmitted after the 1951 waterfront lockout, during which he played a key role in Wellington producing underground literature for the waterside workers. He edited their regular (and illegal) bulletins using a small portable typewriter. He constructed a clever hiding place for this machine in his home, and it survived a thorough police search.
The drivers’ union was deregistered in 1951 because of its support for the watersiders, and left the New Zealand Federation of Labour (FOL). Bailey was one of the activists who worked to reorganise the union. In 1954 he was elected vice president and became a full-time organiser. In 1956 he was elected secretary after the long-serving incumbent, Tom Magee, was suspended for using union funds without authority.
Like most unions at the time, the drivers’ union was dominated by its officials. Organising drivers was not easy, as they were a mobile workforce, scattered over hundreds of worksites with only a handful of union members on each job. However, Bailey recognised that the real problem was the forms of organisation in the union. He encouraged workplace and area meetings, and the election of job delegates.
In November 1958 he was defeated as secretary by Charlie Janes, as a result of an anti-communist campaign in the union, encouraged by employers. Bailey remained active in the union, and was re-elected secretary in mid 1959 after Janes resigned following an investigation into his handling of union finances. Bailey continued to promote democracy in the union: the Wellington-based executive was abolished, the poorly attended quarterly meetings were replaced by regular delegates’ conferences, an annual conference was introduced and a monthly job bulletin, Drum , was published.
He strongly advocated the drivers’ union’s reaffiliation to the FOL, a proposal carried by postal ballot in 1958. He became an influential leader in Wellington’s union movement and was elected to the management committee of the Wellington Trades Council. The drivers’ union was at the forefront of the growing militancy of the early 1960s, and, together with Bailey, came under fierce attack from the National government, employers and the press. In 1962 there was another unsuccessful move within the union to oust him and other communist officials.
In his spare time Bailey enjoyed reading, art, theatre and film. He was an avid sports fan, but strongly opposed sporting contact with South Africa, and was active in the Citizens’ All Black Tour Association. In April 1963 he became seriously ill with a brain tumour. He died in Dunedin Hospital on 25 April, aged 42, survived by Rona and their daughter. A member of the CPNZ until 1970, Rona Bailey was prominent in the campaign for equal pay for women and in protests against the Vietnam War and apartheid.
Chip Bailey’s untimely death robbed the trade union movement of one of its most able leaders. Contemporaries described him as an outstanding intellectual who was ahead of his time. A good organiser and a devastating debater, he was a central figure in re-establishing a strong, left-wing presence in the union movement after the defeat of 1951. A dedicated communist, Bailey was never free from controversy but won wide respect as an independent thinker. His greatest legacy was the methods of organisation he pioneered in the Wellington Drivers’ Union. After his death, job delegate structures, stopwork meetings and regular elections of officials came to be recognised as foundations of democratic trade unionism.