An institutional story, David Grant

Coal, Class and Community: The United Mineworkers of New Zealand 1880‑1960
Len Richardson
Auckland University Press, $39.95
ISBN 1 86940 113 1


Coalmining unionism has a long and tortured history in this country. The industry was first nurtured on the remote and inaccessible West Coast which lived and breathed it for 80 years and more. In other areas, Southland/ Otago and Waikato principally, coal production was less consequential in local cognisance, bit‑parts in pastoral economies.

The first coalmasters, were a cartel of successful Dunedin businessmen who established the Westport Colliery Company in 1879 and commenced operations at Denniston, atop a rocky, windswept plateau adjacent to the narrow coastal plain that runs north from Westport. This settlement is now a ghost town, a few rickety houses, most abandoned, a handful home to alternative lifestylers. Juxtaposed among the rubble and scrub stand a scope of unsteady chimneys beside whose fires three or more generations of miners and their families were nourished and warmed. In between these chronological parameters burgeoned a dynamic and important industry on whom New Zealanders, in work and home, depended as a primary energy source for generations until it fell victim to the combined oppositional weights of hydro‑electricity, geothermal energy and petroleum.

Colliers at the face were subject to enormous privations. It was seasonal and erratic work ensuring inconsistent income. When demand was strong men worked tip to 12 hour shifts in winter excluding them from daylight for up to a week at a time. Sanitation was appalling. Until the latter years men ate, drank, urinated and defecated in the same area.

Coal dust worked its way inexorably into cuts and abrasions that would not heal, causing long‑term infection. The same dust caused the dreaded pit disease miners’ phthisis or pulmonary consumption, which after long spells in the mine turned lungs to leather, causing laboured breathing and often painful and premature death. Asthma and bronchitis were common too; medical help, particularly in the early days, was of little consequence.

Coal falls and shaft collapses paralysed and killed. Fire was the biggest risk of all. Methane ‑ or coal damp ‑ an odourless, colourless and potentially explosive gas was ever present, as was black damp, mainly nitrogen which caused drastic shortages of breath. Methane was a factor in all of the country’s coalmine disasters ‑ at Kaitangata in February 1879 when 34 miners died, at Brunner in March 189 6 when 65 died, at Ralph’s Mine in the Waikato where, in 1914,43 died and at the 1967 Strongman disaster which killed 19. In the last‑named, the shockwave from the ignition of methane travelled at 1000 metres a second, lifting and exploding the coal dust. Those surviving the explosions were killed by aftergases. Rescuers found bodies cut in half.

Another ailment was exhaustion. Coalmining, even in its heyday, was pick and shovel labour. The physical demands, especially for the hewers, the men at the face, were prodigious. This explains miners’ predilection to injury, continual demands for shorter working weeks and high levels of absenteeism.

These brutal realities were somehow less important in the earliest historical writing about coalminers. Early British histories stereotyped the miner as the original and quintessential proletarian who owned nothing but his ability to work in his struggle for recognition in the emergence of industrial capitalism. But more recent historians have advanced a more complex and varied pattern of coalfields behaviour, allowing miners greater degrees of self ‑determination than earlier historians had conceded.

In his 1978 work, The Independent Collier, Royden Harrison esteems the collier, the hewer of the coal, as the key figure at the point of production and furthest from the employer’s supervision allowing him a considerable sphere of independence. Colliers and coal owners tested the limits of this independence over and over again and the balance of authority in each mine ebbed and flowed. The struggle for dominance had two main consequences for unionism; first, it strengthened the role of the collier; and second, it tended to place a premium upon local or district rather than national organisation.

Len Richardson’s pioneering work owes something to both traditions. New Zealand, a land of recent settlement when coalmines were first hewed, imported its earliest colliers from Britain. These transplants struggled for recognition by establishing a national organisation appropriate to their new circumstances. They had to adjust to a working and living environment more hostile and remote than anything they had ever known. But this isolation, both geographic and industrial, ensured that they pursued preoccupations of their own workplaces which both shaped and sustained a unique brand of unionism in their communities. It was the persistence with which the miners pursued these concerns which made industrial relations on the coalfields so unpredictable.

Richardson explores a further doctrine. Until recently most British historians accepted in varying degrees the central contention that, stereotypically, isolation and the single‑industry nature of mining has encouraged or facilitated industrial radicalism or a propensity to strike. This view found influential sustenance in the work of American sociologists Kerr and Siegel who depicted the coalmining community as an archetypal isolated (both physical and occupational) mass characterised by an undifferentiated workforce. Isolation and mass, they argued, provided an environment where shared grievances accumulated, habits of ‘solidarity” flourished and unions prospered. Exits from mass thought were difficult and miners voiced grievances in .protests”, leading to ab‑or‑nothing walkouts. As well, external constraints on miners were weak where both employers and overt public opinion were absent in single-industry towns. Subsequent researchers have modified the ‘Isolated mass” argument, principally as the nature of different mining communities in a variety of countries have been found to be so varied as to undercut the central characteristics of the model.

But Richardson has not. His dialectic is that New Zealand coalminers were at a hub of industrial radicalism. Whether they lived in established coal towns or in distant satellite camps, miners inhabited remote worlds of their own. Industry did not pursue coal in this inhospitable environment and miners remained separate from other workers. Further, while isolation was less influential in the shaping of the Otago/Southland and Waikato fields, the differences, Richardson argues, were of degree rather than kind.

The early miners were also isolated when they were cast in the role of “prideless outsiders” with “inferior morals” after they brought with them, in unholy alliance according to their masters, the twin evils of methodism and unionism. Discordant “foreign twangs” ensured that as late as the 1940s miners’ collectivist tendencies in their drive to unionise the pits were depicted not only by conservative mine owners but also by a broad spread of public opinion as selfish, monopolistic and likely to imperil the economy. Miners were thus isolated by nationality as well as by occupation.

Furthermore, there is no doubt that miners were long distances from their employers ‑ the Union Steam Ship Company from the late 1880s and, later, other shipping lines and the state. It may be argued that miners could afford to be radical. Like watersiders and freezing workers they toiled in an industry upon which the country depended for its economic wellbeing. But despite the importance of their labour, and despite sporadic industrial victories, King Coal and the shipping magnates always seemed to prosper on the backs of the hewer.

But it was this isolation and inter‑pit parochialism that was as important in explaining the difficulty in creating a lasting miners union, as was employer intransigence. In the 40 years following the first miners union in Denniston there were four attempts to find a format which could accommodate the diverse situations of all the coalfields. The Amalgamated Miners and Labourers Association (AMALA) of the 1880s was a brave attempt to bring together miners and labourers working in areas adjacent to the coalfields. But it made little impression outside the Grey Valley and Buller mining areas, its core disappearing completely in the wake of the almost complete destruction of unionism in the aftermath of the 1890 Maritime Strike.

The Miners Federation that emerged after the legendary Blackball Strike in 1908 and which soon shed its purely mining character to become the “Red” Federation of Labour sank firmer roots outside the West Coast than the AMALA. The success of this strike was a victory for a new radicalism and proof to socialist apostles that state‑imposed arbitration and conciliation law had no place on the coalfields.

Thus begun a hiatus in radical action. Miners fought against contract and piece‑rate systems and called for increased safety in the mines. In 1911 the campaign reached new heights when miners gained control of the newly launched labour paper, the Maoriland Worker. But by 1912 the Red Federation was in trouble on the fields through its failure to reform the contract system. It lost the disputes and was swept away in the reverberations of the failure of the 1913 strike. The consequent Miners Federation fell apart after seven years, as Richardson attests, amidst a welter of recrimination after its failure to provide a coherent response to wage cuts in 1922‑23. The United Mine Workers formed shortly after was the first national organisation but it survived primarily upon a recognition that each district needed to have a high degree of autonomy.

Isolation also shaped the miners’ involvement in politics, although their enthusiasm for such action fluctuated and was rarely unqualified, even on the West Coast which was the only area with enough miners to develop political influence. In two of the bigger mining towns, local councils became extensions of the union. Indirectly, coalfields industrial radicalism did much to polarise national politics along class lines and hastened the emergence of an independent Labour Party. They helped send one of their own, Paddy Webb, to Parliament in 1911, were prominent in the industrial resistance to conscription and from the resultant Labour Party had two leaders, Webb and Bob Semple, later affirmed as cabinet ministers in the first Labour Government.

But, as Richardson also shows, for most miners die radical syndicalist strike preference was not ideologically driven, but more a pragmatic response to bypass arbitration and attempt to win more immediate outcomes. The decision of the miners to run Webb as a political candidate was as much an attempt to shut out the Trades and Labour Council-based Labour Party as it was any eager conversion to political activity.

After the 1913 debacle, individual pits were slow to align with the Labour movement. In the 1920s communists dominated radical cells in the organisation while Labourites held sway in others. Parochial jealousies between the two, often bitter, diminished the power of the union. Political allegiances were fluid. Blackball veteran Angus McLagan was a leading communist organiser. By the 1940s he had turned full circle, become a Labour cabinet minister and, along with Webb and Semple, architect of the reforms that culminated in the nationalisation of the major pits, over the heads of a tiny communist rump which persisted to protest.

But Richardson further argues, with conviction, that the concept of isolated mass in itself is too simplistic fully to understand the ethos of New Zealand mining unionism. Early resistance drew sustenance from the collective memories of past injustices from overseas. A sense of being part of an historic battle which transcended time and place was at the centre of mining unionism reinforcing the “rightness” of the struggle.

Some horizons were wider than the local pit. John Lomas, leader of the AMALA, brought a messianic methodism to his unionism, seeing it as the instrument to liberate all working men. As part of this he also warned miners that a preoccupation with “decadent” leisure ‑ drinking and gambling ‑ made them less able financially to confront the owners at the workplace. In the 1900s the coalfields rapidly expanded and there had arrived a new, vibrant mixture of immigrants, many from a more radical labour heritage in Australia. Moreover, they were operating in a vastly different industrial and political environment where the state took the lead, attempting to settle all intractable disputes in the workplace by a system of conciliation and arbitration. The Blackball dispute was seminal in a rejection of this “legalistic imposition”. Miners led the revolt.

Then there was the reality of the pit. Richardson authenticates the Harrison thesis in the New Zealand context. The hewer was the central figure in pit radicalism, sometimes far from Wellington‑based union officials who were often ignorant of the opinions of this “second‑tier” of pit‑bound leaders. It was the hewers who gave mining unionism its fundamental and defining characteristic ‑ its preoccupation with maintaining a zone of independence in the pits into which management found difficult to reach. When this zone was threatened they demanded immediate action and national officials ignored them at their peril.

Hewers dominated local union leadership and continually sustained its long‑term objectives: the abolition of the contract system, the negotiation of a national award, the nationalisation of the mines and above all industrial democracy in the pits. Their influence grew from their proximity to the point of production. It was their skill and knowledge which determined the winning of the coal. Since the wage rate paid to other workers varied in line with the tonnage rate paid to the hewers, all miners supported union efforts to drive up the rate. But sometimes there was conflict. Richardson shows that during World War II when the hewer‑dominated union leadership was committed to win coal for the war effort they had problems winning the cooperation of the truckers after leaders agreed to introduce them to piece‑rate or contract work.

Last, as remote as the coalfields were, they attracted a host of peripatetic ideologues who came to study the “cutting edge of radical labour” and infuse their own ideas. Even the most isolated settlements were privy at one time or another to visits from socialists Ben Tillet and Tom Mann (veterans of the London dockers strike), John Benjamin King and H M Fitzgerald (itinerant Canadian revolutionaries who at one time were involved with the extreme Chicago faction of the industrial Workers of the World) and Harry Scott Bennett, (a zealous Australian orator), among others. Miners took what they wished from these visitors. Their words nourished the miners’ cause but they received them circumspectly. Local conditions were always the raison d’être for industrial action.

Nothing is ever as simple as it seems. In mining mythology the most commonly held belief was that it was the election of a “Tory” Government in 1949 that triggered a slow and lingering death of mining unionism and the communities that sustained it. The 1951 waterfront dispute gave them the means. Once Sir Sidney Holland and his cronies broke the back of the national union of watersiders they turned their vengeful eye upon those “militants” who had opposed this trek into right‑wing authoritarianism. Thus they abandoned the miners to those economic forces that were slowly eating away at the very foundations of the coal industry. This was expressed in the “hasty” development of open‑cast mining at the expense of traditional underground methods as a means of breaking the power of the hewers.

But the reality was more intricate. The seeds of change had been planted a lot earlier. Peter Fraser’s 1949 moves towards compulsory military training broke a strongly treasured article of faith on the coalfields. Discontent led by communists soon took on a broader base as critics called for restraint on the part of the unions and effectively vested the control of wage movements in the arbitration system. Labour was increasingly depicted as propping up a “capitalist” economy.

The United Mine Workers leadership stuck with the Government and resisted overtures to join the breakaway Trade Union Congress (TUC) in 1950, staying loyal to the Federation of Labour. Splits appeared. More militant miners called for greater leadership aggression in lieu of Holland’s repeal of the 1948 Coal Act which had nationalised coal deposits. Grey Valley and Buller miners throw their lot in with the TUC. During the watersiders dispute itself UMW leaders Tony Prendiville and Fred Crook supported their case for a 15% wage increase but wished it be achieved by negotiation rather than industrial action.

But among Waikato and West Coast miners pressure began for a national coal strike in support of their traditional ally, a call which intensified after the imposition of the Emergency Regulations. The national council agreed, over the objections of both Prendiville and Crook. The majority of underground miners ‑ about three‑quarters of the membership ‑ went out straightaway, rejecting the secret ballot mode of decision‑making. Elsewhere mining continued, including in the open‑cast fields. Prendiville used his casting vote in an executive decision to sanction the ballot. Another “executive” group representing the strikers “expelled” Crook and Prendiville. They ignored it. The UMW was in tatters ‑ never to recover because in the long‑run open‑cast mining came to dominate an ever‑decreasing demand as traditional markets such as shipping, railways and gas‑making declined. The 1951 dispute and the conflicts it wrenched was the beginning of the end of radical coalmining unionism in this country.

Richardson’s exposition of the complexities of the relationship among the union leaders, the rank and file, the different pits and the political and economic forces that impacted upon all of this in the period after 1949 is, like the rest of the book, carefully worked and comprehensive. There is little to quibble within Richardson’s principle thesis either. The argument of isolated mass with qualification holds steady. So does the wider importance of mining unionism during the brief flurries of conjoint radicalism with other “militants” which transcended the fields during the heights of Lomas’ power and later during the juncture of syndicalist ascendancy after 1908.

Previous criticisms of sentimentality do not hold up. Within the parameters of his appointed task Richardson is as evenhanded as the complexity of the topic allows and is always firm and hard‑nosed, though rarely didactic. He writes with a thoroughness and a confidence that has come from years of patient research on coalmining unionism, honing his skills with an earlier centennial history of the Denniston Miners Union and a succession of articles in academic journals. The book is path‑breaking. While coalmining union historiography has a sustained and comprehensive tradition in Great Britain, and to a lesser extent in the United States and Australia, Richardson is this country’s only convert to that tradition.

But at the same time he is an old‑fashioned labour historian. For the most part Richardson delineates the institutional story ‑ the actions of the employers, unions and the state from the documented records. Richardson talked to many coalminers and while there is a smidgen of the “history from below”, the workers’ perspective and their families’, there could have been more analysis of the importance of gender, residence and leisure ‑ and their impact on the ethos of coalmining communities and the unions they served.

I would also like to have seen more discussion on the relationship between labour and culture. British labour historian Alun Howkins has written that the “words of songs collected from ordinary people can tell the historian something about these people’s attitudes, ideas and feelings”. Were there any songs, poems, propagandist banners, films or paintings which could have been studied to provide illumination on union activities or the labour process? More fundamentally, did local miners “stretch their muscle” in celebratory May Day marches as they did in Australia? Was there any New Zealand equivalent to the famous annual Durham miners’ street parade? What pleasures, if any, sustained the Blackball miners and their families who m their 12‑month struggle to defeat a breakaway tribute party during the 1930s depression, lived off meat thrown away by butchers at the slaughter yards on killing days?

Labour iconography represents workers’ images of themselves and their goals and when not added just to lend nostalgia or a superficial antiseptic view, is an important historical resource. Many of Richardson’s photographs are evocative but I would like to have seen a much bigger representation of cartoons which elicit a sharper and more caustic image and observation. Conflict between labour and capital is grist to the mill for the best satirists. The inclusion of many more cartoons and caricatures would have added pertinency, humour and an immediacy to the themes and events under exploration.

In 1976 a conference of the British Society for the Study of Labour History concluded after an analysis of working class artefacts and their associated social forms found that there was a unity and homogeneity which showed a remarkable resilience in the face of often appalling industrial conditions in the workplace and the home. Similar evaluations and conclusions here would have added even greater weight to Richardson’s argument.

David Grant most recent social history, On A Roll: A History of Gambling and Lotteries in New Zealand, was published in 1994. He has had a longterm interest in the history of labour and sees no dichotomy in currently pursuing a history of capital visàvis the New Zealand stockmarket.

Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
Search the archive
Search by category