“Not with Con beside me.”
Con Devitt was the Great Uncle of Finders MD Daniel Curran. Con has sadly passed away and we are proud to publish this tribute to him.
If you ever wanted an epitaph, there is one. With this man beside me, I fear nothing – the subtext of what the above sentence means. Con Devitt’s widow, Joyce, is describing why she never felt afraid; despite the fact that her husband regularly felt the need to take in homeless people and give them the hand in life that so far hadn’t been dealt to them.
You can be remembered for your incredible inventions, you can be remembered for your place in history – but why not be remembered for the all of the kindnesses and services you did for humanity? Con Devitt, who died suddenly in Wellington, NZ, at the age of 86 on Sunday 13 July, fulfils precisely that criteria.
A leading man in the unions, Con Devitt left the Clydeside shipyards for New Zealand, determined to bring his own sense of social justice to the country. Such a stance did not make him friends – former prime minister Sir Robert Muldoon, for example, viewed him as a man on a mission to wreak havoc. He was known for his message that workers should stand up for their rights and trust in their own strength.
Devitt’s sense of social justice led him into powerful battles. From wrangles over Wellington’s BNZ Centre to festering disputes at Marsden Point Oil Refinery, the Kawerau pulp and paper plant, and the Kinleith timber mill Con Devitt argued the cause.
Con Devitt’s name came to be associated with the protracted construction of Wellington’s BNZ Centre, now called the State Insurance Building. His leadership of the boilermaker union claimed the exclusive rights of its members to weld the structural steel, and industrial action was thought to have added six years to the project.
Ken Douglas, former head of the Council of Trade Unions, said that Con understood labour market forces and he was very effective at getting the best deal for his members. Douglas credits Con with “making a very significant contribution to the union movement in Wellington”.
Taking a stand isn’t always the fastest route to an easy life. Douglas adds that Con suffered from persecution as he battled to make life easier for other people, describing that persecution as “quite vicious”. However, union life wasn’t all that was appealing about Con, and Douglas also describes him as an engaging personality, away from the picket lines, and full of humour and wit.
Family friend Helen Mulholland was also able to add another perspective to the man, who never lost his thick Glaswegian accent, despite decades living in New Zealand. Here was the man who was willing to open his house to homeless people, bringing them into his hearth and home, feeding them and finding them jobs.
And here’s where the epitaph comes from. Helen asked Joyce if she was scared by these strangers coming into her home – and she answered, “Not with Con beside me.”
Here too was the man who endured police raids of his home as the government’s dislike of him continued. What strength of character does this reveal where a man can continue on his avowed path in the face of such obstruction? And this was the man who was also proud to call himself a socialist, a word he called “good-sounding”, and a man who liked to say that he was “fighting with everyone”.
Con went on to head the Trade Union Federation, and was well known for offering solidarity to others and was a respected speaker on workers’ rights and socialism. Dougal McNeill, writing on the International Socialist Organisation of New Zealand website, called him “the real deal, an uncompromising class fighter”.
Con is survived by his wife Joyce.