Tobias McGlinchy Hill was born in Blantyre, near Glasgow, Scotland, on 5 November 1915, the son of Alice Wood, a mill worker, and her husband, Joseph Hill, a coalminer. Toby learnt about hardship and unionism at a young age: his mother had started work in the Blantyre mills at the age of six and his father had worked as a rivet boy in the Belfast shipyards. In 1925 the family emigrated to New Zealand and settled in Christchurch, where Toby attended St Mary’s School. A clever child, he was an avid reader and a good talker. The Hills were a close-knit Catholic family who loved reading, story telling, singing and dancing.
Hill won a scholarship to St Bede’s College in Christchurch, but his family could not afford the uniform and books. He went to sea for a few months before getting work at Woolston Tanneries, where he was a delegate for the Canterbury Freezing-works and Related Trades Employees’ Union. In 1936 he returned to sea and became involved in a celebrated industrial action concerning the steamer Limerick, when the ship sailed from Honolulu without most of its crew as a result of a dispute over the use of non-union stevedores. In 1938 he became a waterside worker and within a year was elected to the executive of the Lyttelton branch of the New Zealand Waterside Workers’ Union. In the late 1930s he was involved in action by watersiders against the export of scrap iron to Japan. On 8 March 1938 he married Florence Mary Bradford at St Mary’s Church, Manchester Street, Christchurch. They were to have five sons and a daughter.
In April 1942 Toby Hill was elected national secretary of the Waterside Workers’ Union, based in Wellington. Endorsed by the long-time incumbent, Jim Roberts, who had resigned, he defeated two other candidates in a national ballot. In February 1944 another militant, Jock Barnes, was elected the union’s national president. Although Barnes became the dominant personality in the union, Hill was an important leader in his own right. Neither flamboyant nor theatrical, he was an able official who gave incisive explanations in his reports to union meetings.
After the Second World War, industrial relations on the waterfront worsened and disputes were endemic. The watersiders were New Zealand’s leading militant union and had several showdowns with employers and the Labour government. Barnes and Hill were denounced by the press, politicians and employers as ‘wreckers’, ‘dictators’ and instruments of communist policy. Neither man was a member of the Communist Party of New Zealand and they took legal action against newspapers that claimed they were. Hill later remarked that he had ‘had a stomachful of being labelled a communist’. Strongly opposed to communist philosophy, he ‘believed that the way to change governments was by ballot and not by bullets’. Other unfounded rumours claimed that he was a leader of the Catholic Action group.
Conflict with the government and employers continued after the election of the National government in 1949. In April 1950 the watersiders and their allies walked out of the New Zealand Federation of Labour (FOL) conference, isolating themselves from the majority of unions. In February 1951 watersiders throughout New Zealand were locked out by employers for refusing to work overtime. This was the opportunity their enemies had been waiting for. The government imposed harsh emergency regulations and deregistered the union. Troops and strike-breakers were used to work the wharves and the government actively promoted the formation of new, compliant unions in every port. The FOL, supported by the majority of unions, backed the government. The watersiders held out for 22 weeks, loyally supported by a number of other unions and many individuals, before conceding defeat.
Hill and the Wellington branch of the deregistered union now argued that the priority was to rebuild genuine unionism on the waterfront. To achieve this, he urged that the national union be wound up, that he and Barnes step aside, and that the deregistered men attempt to seize control of the port unions and establish a new national federation. Barnes strongly opposed this strategy and Hill resigned as national secretary, stating that he was physically burnt out. Refused employment on the Wellington waterfront, he found it difficult to get regular work. He was ‘hounded from job to job, the victimisation following the rigid pattern of a job found, a telephone call to the boss from some outside influence, many of them thought to be at the high government level, and the sack for Toby Hill’.
In 1953 he got a job as a storeman at a Wellington printing firm, the Quality Transfer Company. He became active in the New Zealand Printing and Related Trades Union and was a member of its Wellington executive. In May 1955 the Golden Bay Cement Works Employees’ Union appointed Hill its advocate in wage negotiations. The New Zealand Employers’ Federation refused to negotiate with him and FOL president F. P. Walsh informed the cement workers that Hill’s appointment was contrary to FOL policy. In late June he was sacked from Quality Transfers, his employer claiming that he could no longer withstand the pressure to dismiss him. The printing trades union protested at the victimisation; the evidence pointed at Walsh.
Remarkably, Hill resurrected his union career. In 1960 he was readmitted as a delegate to the FOL conference, and over the following years he became secretary of several unions, including those representing fire brigade staff, gas workers, theatrical employees, shipwrights and harbour board employees. He was president of the Wellington Trades Council from 1967 to 1977 and in the early 1970s became general secretary of the Federated Cooks and Stewards’ Union of New Zealand. One of the last disputes he was involved in was in 1976, when the maritime unions prevented the United States nuclear warship Truxtun from berthing in Wellington.
Hill was a committed Catholic with a passion for football, theatre and ballroom dancing. He died suddenly of a heart attack at Tawa on 22 January 1977 (he had suffered heart disease for a number of years and survived a major heart attack in 1965). He was survived by four sons and a daughter; Florence had died in 1969. Vilified by the press and hounded by invective and abuse before and after 1951, Toby Hill was one of New Zealand’s most controversial trade unionists. His rise to prominence at a young age and his comeback in the 1960s were testaments to his ability and commitment to unionism.