Work and community, Len Richardson

Building the New World: Work, Politics and Society in Caversham, 1880s1920s
Erik Olssen
Auckland University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 1869401069

Work and play, the polar opposites commonly held to preoccupy that indefinable beast “the ordinary New Zealander” have not attracted quite the same attention from historians. “Play” remains sadly much neglected. Work has fared much better, although most of the writing about it has been carried out by historians whose interest has been primarily to trace the emergence of the labour movement. Central to their accounts has been the relationship between workers organised in trade unions and the creation of an independent Labour Party. Very often work has been of peripheral interest or explored primarily to embellish what were essentially political narratives. Latterly, these concerns have been somewhat turned on their head. The workplace is increasingly being seen as important in its own right and as exerting an influence well beyond the factory floor. Nowhere is this shift in focus more clearly or more skilfully exploited than in the recent work of one of New Zealand’s foremost historians, Erik Olssen.

The new preoccupation with the workplace was clearly evident in Olssen’s brilliant recreation of the world of revolutionary industrial unionism, The Red Feds (1988). There, he demonstrated that the emphasis which the apostles of socialism placed upon what came to be called “worker control” was critical to their success. He explored this by examining in some detail the response to the Red Feds of West Coast coal miners, Canterbury general labourers, Wellington watersiders and Manawatu flaxworkers. Despite the diversity of the work practices experienced by these workers, he found a common element in their stories was a concern to achieve more independence at the point of production. By unravelling this thread, Olssen was able to explain, rather more convincingly than had previously been the case, how the “Red Feds” carried their gospel so quickly and successfully from the apparently inauspicious launching pad offered by remote West Coast coal towns.

In Building the New World, Olssen has explored the relationship between the labour process, politics and the development of community amongst the skilled workers of a single Dunedin suburb, Caversham. Concentrating on the period from 1880 to 1920, he focuses on the masters and journeymen of the handicrafts, skilled women workers, carpenters and joiners and the labour of the men of the Hillside Railway Workshops. He shows how work shaped the life and determined the preoccupations of the community they shared. Craft loyalties and the fascination with trade practices provided focal points which often transcended other solidarities such as those which sprang from the relationship to the means of production. Skilled artisans who set up in business in their own right did not overnight become the enemy. As Olssen shows, they frequently kept up their contacts with old mates, maintained union membership and, if they were of a mind, lined up at the bar rail as part of the artisan fraternity. The community of craftsmen clearly had permeable, not fixed, boundaries.

The artisan or trade culture persisted primarily because it rested upon the bedrock of shared aspirations. And, as Olssen sees it, the fundamental ingredient here was not a pie‑in‑the‑sky, American‑style belief in the possibility of some rags to riches transformation. The skilled men and women of Caversham harboured a more modest set of expectations grounded in and shaped by the desire to maintain at work and beyond a fair share of autonomy. This quest for individual freedom emerged in attempts to control the pace and pattern of work. It was freely accepted that such independence as could be carved out would be achieved only by persistent endeavour. Prudence, frugality and sobriety were the touchstones. There was little room for the footloose hard man given to boozy displays of rowdyism. If the world of the skilled man was a man’s one it was also one lodged firmly in family and household. The key word was discipline.

These attitudes were carried from the world of work into the world of play. Indeed, a much neglected element of the role of skilled workers has been their contribution to the rise of mass spectator sport. British historians have demonstrated the links between artisan culture and the emergence of soccer as the “people’s game”. Skilled workmen in the old world were able to command sufficient discretionary income and leisure time to devote to watching and playing sport. Moreover, their appreciation of skill and dexterity at work had its parallel in the search for excellence in sporting performance.

Like their English counterparts, the New Zealand skilled craftsmen came to play an important role in shaping attitudes to sport. It may well be no accident that the stock-in‑trade of New Zealand rugby, as it presented itself on the field of international sport at the beginning of the twentieth century, was specialisation and the honing of individual skills. In sport as in life, there would be no gain without pain. This hardnosed approach was anathema to British rugby officials. They saw such attention to detail as too “professional” by half. But it was an approach which the Caversham skilled workers understood and appreciated.

Yet, in keeping with their modest expectations, they, like their middle-class English critics, shunned the life of the “professional athlete”. They preferred the security of “broken time” payments to compensate men for time spent away from work, and insurance schemes to protect them from the loss of earnings which might follow an injury sustained on the playing field. Modest reimbursement for legitimate expenses was more in tune with their expectations than “pay for play”. The joys of play were fleeting, work was forever.

If the worlds of work and play converged, then so, too, did the labour process shape political assumptions and activities. It is a feature of Olssen’s work on both the Red Feds and the skilled workers of Caversham that he rejects the notion ‑ frequently linked with the rise of the new social history ‑ that politics was somehow an irrelevancy in the lives of working men and women. The tendency to regard “real life” and “political life” as separate entities rests upon either the belief that politics occurred only in Parliament or upon the assertion that the deliberations of politicians rarely, if at all, touched the day-to-day lives of ordinary people. Often the idea has been buttressed by the argument that working people left political involvement to the ideologues. Among other things, this attitude reduces human beings to the status of hapless irrelevancies incapable of affecting the course of their own lives. It is also a view which ignores the way workers were able to use such individual and collective strength as they possessed to protect and enhance what they saw as the most critical aspect of their lives ‑ work.

What Olssen’s study reveals is that, in certain circumstances, Caversham workers were able to exert considerable political influence at the point of production. Nowhere is this clearer than in the ability of the Hillside railway workers to resist the doctrines of scientific management. “Taylorism”, as the new managerial practices came to be called, sought to limit the power of skilled workers by breaking the labour process into its constituent parts. The canny men of the railway workshops found ways to forestall such an encroachment upon their independence. They maintained a shrewd and sustained programme of lobbying within the Lib‑Lab government which dominated politics in the two decades before World War I. In this way they managed to convert into law a job classification system which embodied a shop-floor hierarchy largely of their own making. They were able also to shore up the future by negotiating a pension system which embodied the values of security and modest provision which characterised the artisan subculture.

These and other concessions formed the basis of a stable working environment. They were also the building blocks of a political culture. Between 1890 and 1920 Caversham workers were represented by two Lib‑Lab politicians, Arthur Morrison and T K Sidey, whose politics mirrored those of the community which produced and sustained them. Theirs was the politics of pragmatism. And against this solid and ‑ in the eyes of Caversham skilled workers ‑ successful political alliance the more radical ideologies reshaping political loyalties and expectations made slow progress. Indeed, Olssen’s case study is a salutary reminder that the term “Lib‑Lab”, as applied to governments of 1890‑1912, was much more than the increasingly meaningless label some historians have suggested.

The workplaces of Caversham may also be seen as defining the shifting meanings which men and women gave to such slippery terms as class and community. Skilled craftsmen infused these terms with meanings which were determined historically by what the late E P Thompson, one of the most influential of twentieth-century historians, called “the sharp jostle of experience”. In the 1890s, as we have noted, the artisan culture found space for employers as well as for wage-drawing craftsmen. Both could and did coexist within what contemporary workers regarded as the working classes; both were regarded as “working people”. Thirty years later these tolerances had crumbled somewhat but they were neither easily nor totally swept aside. Among craftsmen there remained room for the inclusive language of the community, but it was now challenged by a newer language which saw ownership of the means of production as marking a class divide.

The changes in the labour process which lay behind the new ideologies also transformed women’s involvement in paid employment. The 40‑odd years traversed by Olssen’s book coincide with the gradual demise of the household economy where bartering continued to flourish and where women’s labour was a highly valued asset. In such a context individual women could construct their own zone of independence and personal freedom. The rise of the factory system in Caversham, as elsewhere, gradually destroyed the household economy and imposed a wage one. In doing so, it produced a working world in which “real” work was held to be labour which was performed by men and rewarded in cash. Conversely, the new definition of work cast the household labour of women as non‑work and severely reduced the autonomy and status of what most women did.

It is one of the more notable achievements of Olssen’s study that he traces the process by which the women of Caversham’s skilled community adjusted to the restricted choices and marginalised status which was their lot in this new order. Put simply, he demonstrates the persistent and often self‑sacrificing efforts made by these women to acquire a skilled training which they hoped would enable them to attain a level of independence in their lives. As Olssen puts it, their determination to learn a trade was a “testimony to the centrality of independence in the subculture of the skilled”.

Building the New World is a landmark in the writing of New Zealand history. Its most significant achievement is that it teases out the way in which the labour process impinged upon and shaped a single community. It achieves what so many community studies fail to do: it places the changes reshaping Caversham clearly in their wider context. The skilled workers of Caversham battle their way through the cross‑currents of the external forces ‑ national and international ‑ which were remaking workplaces everywhere. In their efforts to negotiate the circumstances of their times, the inhabitants of this Dunedin suburb put their own spin on events. By dissecting this process and spelling out the wider meaning of their responses, Olssen has skilfully demonstrated ways in which the historian’s craft can breathe new life into worlds we have lost.

Len Richardson teaches history at the University of Canterbury. His particular interests are labour history and the history of sport.

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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review and Sociology
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