Page 1: Biography
De Lany, Dorothy May
Hotel worker, trade unionist
This biography, written by Neill Atkinson, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Born on 24 March 1908 in Campbelltown (Bluff), Southland, Dorothy May De Lany was the daughter of Mary Josephine Kett and her husband, James Patrick Leo De Lany, a labourer. Her Catholic parents, both born in Victoria, Australia, had arrived in New Zealand around 1907; by 1919 the family was living in Invercargill, where James worked for the Railway Department. Dot began work at a local hotel, probably as a maid, and in February 1922, aged 13, joined the Otago Hotel, Restaurant and Boarding-house Employees’ Union (a separate Southland union was established four years later). Her mother died in 1925 and Dot, who would never marry, was to live the rest of her life in the family home in Ettrick Street, Invercargill.
By 1937 De Lany was chief cook at the Southland Club Hotel in Dee Street and vice president of the small Southland Hotel, Restaurant and Related Trades Employees’ Union, which was then in financial trouble and poorly administered by an unpopular secretary. She became president in November that year and in February 1938 was appointed secretary, a full-time position which she was to hold for the next three decades. With assistance from the Canterbury hotel workers’ union and the national federation, which loaned the Southlanders £200 to buy a car, De Lany quickly began to revive the union’s fortunes. During her first four months in charge she travelled 2,175 miles and enrolled 229 new members. Over the following years she helped organise catering and cleaning staff in public and private hospitals, government tourist hotels and on public works projects such as the Homer Tunnel in Fiordland.
Always smartly dressed, Dot De Lany was fond of jewellery and fur stoles, and usually wore her blonde hair in a neat bun topped with a fashionable hat. She was a tall, imposing woman, capable of holding her own in the aggressive, masculine worlds of unionism and the hotel trade. On several occasions she manhandled drunk, abusive members out of her office and once, while visiting Wellington, she is said to have responded to the unwelcome advances of the union leader F. P. Walsh by throwing him to the floor and sitting on his chest until he apologised. Later, when she arrived by seaplane to visit catering staff from the Manapouri hydroelectric project, who were accommodated aboard the Wanganella in Fiordland’s Deep Cove, pranksters hoisted the ship’s gangway. Undeterred, De Lany slung her bag over her shoulder and, to the cheers of those on board, scaled a rope ladder onto the ship.
A staunch supporter of the New Zealand Labour Party, De Lany represented her union for many years on the Invercargill Labour Representation Committee and the Southland Trades Council, and was later a popular member of the Southland Hospital Board. In 1960 she underwent surgery for breast cancer. She recovered, and in March 1961 became vice president of the New Zealand Federated Hotel, Hospital, Restaurant and Related Trades Employees’ Association, which represented over 24,000 workers (two-thirds of them women) in nine regional unions. In September 1963 she was elected unopposed as president; at the time, she was said to be the only woman president of a trade union in New Zealand.
De Lany’s presidency coincided with a period of dramatic change in the hotel and restaurant industry, as new liquor laws and changing social attitudes led to a rapid expansion of licensed restaurants, motels and take-away food outlets, and to an increase in the proportion of casual and part-time workers. While the hotel workers’ federation made some progress towards securing equal pay for its female members, it opposed the reintroduction of barmaids in the early 1960s (since 1911 bar work had been an almost exclusively male occupation). Determined to protect the jobs of existing male staff, for some years De Lany managed to restrict the number of women working in local bars.
In October 1967, after 50 years of six o’clock closing, opening hours for licensed hotels were extended to 10 p.m. The hotel workers’ federation authorised industrial action to win a higher night-shift allowance but Southland members voted against taking part, prompting an angry De Lany to resign as local secretary. Although again troubled by illness, she was persuaded to stay on as national president, holding the position until her death. A flamboyant, courageous woman, she remained convinced that for workers, ‘Utopia is the horizon. You’ve just got to keep fighting towards it’.
Dot De Lany died of secondary cancer at her Invercargill home on 19 October 1970. She left a substantial legacy to the local union, which named its office building after her. Such was her enduring reputation in Southland that, more than two decades after her death, the sale of this building provoked considerable anger among older unionists.