Geographically isolated and long regarded as the "quintessential" proletarians, industrial bogeymen and revolutionaries, coal miners occupy an important place in the history of industrial radicalism in New Zealand. Looking behind the stereotypes, this study tells a story about New Zealand's industrial past, with clear identification of the central issues and attention to the colorful personalities involved.
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About the Author
Len Richardson is a labor and sports historian who taught for many years at the University of Canterbury.
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Coal, Class & Community
The United Mineworkers of New Zealand, 1880-1960
By Len Richardson
Auckland University PressCopyright © 1995 Len Richardson
All rights reserved.
Coalminers occupy a special place in the history of industrial radicalism in New Zealand. Yet despite the obvious importance of their labour, their world long remained a closed one. Shunted off in remote and inaccessible camps, the first generation of miners were commonly depicted as an enclave of British miners greedily holding a new society to ransom. Their 'foreign twangs', go-slows, restrictions of output and strikes were seen as a sign of the slowness with which they integrated into the wider colonial community. Isolated by geography, occupation and nationality, the miners were depicted — and not by anxious conservatives — as industrial bogeymen about to descend from their mist-shrouded, windswept pit fortresses to take control of the labour movement for their own revolutionary purposes.
Until recently most historians who have turned their attentions to the British coalfields and their colonial offshoots have accepted, in varying ways, the central contention of the stereotype: that isolation and the single-industry nature of mining communities encouraged or facilitated radicalism — a radicalism most commonly equated with the frequency with which the miners withdrew their labour. It is a view which was systematically elaborated in 1954 by two influential sociologists, C. Kerr and A. Siegel, who depicted coalmining communities as the archetypal 'isolated mass'. In their view, it was the combination of 'isolation' (in both the physical and occupational senses) and 'mass' (indicating a largely undifferentiated workforce) that produced industrial militancy. Together, according to Kerr and Siegel, they created an environment in which shared grievances accumulated, the 'habit of solidarity' flourished and unions prospered. At the same time, such communities by their very nature did not readily permit the aggrieved to 'exit' from the mass. Accordingly, grievances were likely to be Voiced' in 'protests' and led to mass walkouts. In the single-industry town, where both the employer and the force of a wider public opinion are commonly absent, the external restraints upon the workers are relatively weak. Thus in coalmining communities the strike became 'a kind of colonial revolt against far-removed authority, an outlet for accumulated tensions and a substitute for occupational and social mobility'.
As a general explanation of the industrial behaviour of coalminers, the 'isolated mass' thesis has been significantly modified in recent years. The contrast between the strike proneness of Anglo-American miners and the relative peacefulness of their European counterparts led to suggestions that 'the inherent environmental tendency towards strike proneness may be counteracted or reinforced by cultural factors'. As John Benson has demonstrated, the nature and experience of British coalmining communities was so various as to undercut quite seriously the central characteristics of the model; British mining villages in the nineteenth century were neither universally isolated nor did they constitute an undifferentiated mass. Nevertheless, the notion of the isolated mass seems, at first glance, a reasonable shorthand description of the nature of New Zealand coalmining and the experience of those who worked in it. The remoteness, both geographical and industrial, of the pioneering heartlands of the coal industry — the Grey Valley and Buller districts — was undeniable. Whether they lived in established coaltowns or in the satellite camps perched precariously on bush-clad slopes, the miners of colonial New Zealand inhabited a world of their own. The inaccessible and inhospitable environments in which they laboured would, but for the richness of the bituminous coal seams that lay beneath the surface, have long remained a wasteland devoid of either people or industry. While coal was able to tame the tyranny of the terrain, industry did not follow. The miners thus remained separate from other industrial workers. Isolation and remoteness were less influential, it is true, in shaping the development of the Waikato and Otago/Southland coalfields — but the differences were of degree rather than kind. It was an isolation which only slowly diminished as improvements in transport made it possible for the miner and his family to abandon the mining communities for larger and more diverse towns such as Greymouth, Westport and Huntly.
There were other ways in which New Zealand miners experienced isolation. They were first and foremost migrants. From the beginning most were transplanted British colliers, and the colonial coalmasters of the late 1870s had been reluctant to recruit miners who they feared might bring with them, in unholy alliance, the twin evils of Methodism and unionism. When this proved to be the case, the miners were cast in the role of outsiders who, by common consent, lacked the 'pride of colonials', had 'lower ideas of life', 'inferior morals and stronger prejudices' than were to be found 'amongst the general population'. Colonial workmen exhibited this pride and self-respect, it was commonly held, by their willingness to change occupation as shifting marketplace requirements dictated. By contrast, such pride in their calling as the miners might possess was seen by their critics as an 'intolerable repugnance to engage in any laborious occupation but their own'. Similarly, the collectivist tendencies of the miners, demonstrated in their drive to unionise the coalfields and by their attempts to create an industrial organisation for the unskilled, were depicted as 'grasping' and likely to imperil the economy. In short, the miners were seen as troublemakers determined to use their monopoly of skill to preserve old-world customs and practices in ways that would ensure them a privileged position in colonial society. While such a characterisation was to lose much of its force with the passage of time, the continued influx of British and later Australian miners ensured a measure of persistence. Even in the 1940s commentators claimed they could detect a discordant 'foreign twang' in the coaltowns. In this sense, the miners were isolated by nationality as well as by occupation.
A less frequently noted aspect of the migrant status of most coaltown inhabitants is that, despite the disproportionate number of males in the community, many miners came with families. We know little about the role wives and mothers played in mining communities, but there is enough evidence to suggest that the stereotype of the conservatising influence of wife and home needs revision. The women who came to New Zealand coalfields in the nineteenth and early twentieth century often brought with them their own experiences of mining life. Most were from mining families and many had worked above-ground in British coalmines. Ann Bromilow (1862-1939), for example, a native of Staffordshire who reached Blackball early in the twentieth century, had worked, from the age of twelve, as a 'pit brow lass' in the Wigan collieries 'tipping and screening' and on the 'picking belts'. In Blackball she became a foundation member of the local branch of the Socialist Party. She represents an important strain in coalfields radicalism — one which, while it is scarcely visible in the day-to-day life of the pits, is evident in even the most cursory glance at the composition of protest groups and political organisations which developed in the mining towns. There in anti-war leagues, socialist study groups, women's auxiliaries, school committees and occasionally on borough councils can be found the public face of protest that normally expressed itself more privately. The involvement of women in community politics and the centrality of the family unit in the mining towns added an important dimension to life on the coalfields; it also entrenched the closed nature of the pit communities.
There can be no doubt either about the isolation of the miners from their employer. The age of the small local operator working accessible seams or outcrops passed in the 1880s as the Union Steam Ship Company gradually monopolised the major pits on both the Grey Valley and Buller coalfields. The newcomers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century — other shipping lines and the state — were similarly absentee owners, sometimes foreign but mostly New Zealand-based. The disintegration of the coal industry in the 1920s was to modify the picture by creating circumstances in which small groups of miners could undercut the big operators and squeeze out a space for themselves on the coalfields. Initially made up of no more than two or three miners, the 'cooperatives' — as they came to be called — were, after 1920, to grow in size and in number. But in the days when coal was king, the small owner-operator was merely a bit player; the major bituminous deposits were monopolised by absentee owners — mostly shipping companies — who maintained a minimal managerial presence on the coalfields.
The isolation and the parochialisms produced by the coal industry made it difficult to create a lasting national miners' union. In the 40 years following the formation of the first miners' union at Denniston in 1884, there were four attempts to find a format which could accommodate the diverse situations of the coalfields. On each occasion the impetus came from the West Coast. The Amalgamated Miners' and Labourers' Association (AMALA) of the 1880s, a precocious attempt to bring together miners and labourers working in areas adjacent to coalfields, scarcely made any impression outside the Grey Valley and Buller mining areas. In some respects it was little more than an extension of its parent body, the Denniston Miners' Union. The Miners' Federation which emerged in 1908 in the aftermath of the legendary Blackball Strike, and which quickly shed its purely mining character to become the Red Federation of Labour, sank firmer roots outside the West Coast than the AMALA. Yet it too was in trouble on the coalfields well before it was swept aside in the aftermath of the 1913 general strike. Similarly, the reorganised Miners' Federation of 1915, despite its purely mining character, fell apart amidst a welter of recrimination after its failure to provide a coherent response to the wage cuts of 1922-23. National organisation evaded the miners until the formation of the United Mine Workers in 1923; and that organisation's capacity to survive rested primarily upon a recognition of the need for a high level of district autonomy.
Isolation also shaped the miners' involvement in politics. In the bigger mining towns such as Runanga and Huntly (which both gained borough status in the first decade of the twentieth century), local councils became an extension of the union. School committees similarly provided public platforms for politically active miners. Beyond this direct involvement in local politics, coalfields industrial radicalism in the decade before world war did much to polarise national politics along class lines and hastened the emergence of an independent labour party. In the process, the miners put one of their own, 'Paddy' Webb, into Parliament as the member for Grey. Their prominence at the head of industrial resistance to conscription during the First World War placed them at the centre of events which led to the formation of the New Zealand Labour Party in 1916. This was later to ensure a presence for the miners in the first Labour government — recognised in the fact that two ex-miners from the Grey Valley, Webb and 'Bob' Semple, were appointed Cabinet ministers. Together with another Blackball veteran, Angus McLagan — the leading radical of the next generation of union officials — they were the architects of the reforms of the 1940s culminating in the nationalisation of the major pits.
Yet it would be wrong to assume from this summary that the commitment of the miners to politics was a consistent and central element of mining unionism. It was only on the West Coast that the miners were numerically strong enough to develop political influence. The miners' enthusiasm for politics, in fact, fluctuated and was rarely unqualified. The reasons are not difficult to find. In the watershed general election of 1890, which witnessed organised labour's first halting intrusion into politics, even West Coast miners were too few in number and so marginal to the political process that they played little part in it. Indeed, on the eve of the election the miners' leaders rejected political activity as both a distraction from the struggles of the workplace and a potentially divisive force. Defeat of the Maritime Strike which preceded the election, and the consciousness which the dispute aroused, had led the miners to question their rejection of political activity; but it did not result in attempts to put men 'direct from the pit' into Parliament. The miners simply lacked the 'mass', the organisation and the conviction necessary to force their way into the political arena.
Resistance to the idea of political activity persisted well into the twentieth century. The rise of industrial radicalism associated with the emergence of the 'Red' Feds in the first decade of the twentieth century was ambiguous in its political implications. To the majority of miners, the syndicalist preference for the general strike promised more immediate returns than attempting to put one of their own into Parliament. The decision of the Grey Valley miners to run 'Paddy' Webb as their candidate in the 1911 general election was inspired as much by a desire to shut out the recently formed Trades and Labour Council-based Labour Party as by any widespread enthusiastic conversion to political activity. On the Buller coalfields, where the NZLP's presence was weak, no miner candidate emerged. The heightened class awareness associated with the 1913 general strike carried Webb to success at a by-election for the seat of Grey. But thereafter, doubts about the value of political activity were on the increase. Individual pits were slow to affiliate with the New Zealand Labour Party in 1916. Throughout the 1920s, the continued reluctance of the miners to throw their full support behind Labour was a constant irritation to the party hierarchy. Even in the period of greatest cooperation between Labour politicians and the miners — during and immediately after World War I — criticism of the nature and the extent of the miners' political activities scarcely diminished.
The concept of the isolated mass takes us a fair way then towards an understanding of New Zealand mining unionism — but it leaves much unsaid. To begin with, it says little about what men carried in their heads. We have already noted the migrant and outsider status of the miners and the pressures on them to abandon the customs of their calling and display the versatility and mobility that were the hallmark of the colonial working man. To justify their resistance to these pressures the miners drew on their shared historical memory of the myriad injustices that had been visited upon their forebears. The contours of their individual pasts might differ, but the sense of shared or collective grievance they engendered shaped the unionism they created. In time the 'New World' was to provide its own pantheon of struggles; but the sense of being a part of a historic battle which transcended time and place was at the heart of mining unionism.
The importance of the past as a reinforcement of the present suggests that the mental world of the miner was rather more complex than some have allowed. The conventional view that hard lives and hard work produced hard men with narrow horizons needs much modification. There is little doubt that the 'pick and banjo' issues of 'yardage' and 'tonnage' and of 'minimum wage' and 'special payments' were the stuff of which coalfields life was made. Such a preoccupation, however, neither precluded radicalism nor limited its expression to purely mining concerns. At times, pit issues stimulated an industrial radicalism which reached well beyond the coalfields. The AM ALA of the 1880s and the Miners' Federation of 1908 were the most spectacular examples of the capacity of mining unionism to transcend the insularity of the coalfields. On each occasion the attitudes espoused and the actions followed allow us to glimpse something of the continuities and the changes which occurred as miners sought to reshape the world in which they lived and worked.
Excerpted from Coal, Class & Community by Len Richardson. Copyright © 1995 Len Richardson. Excerpted by permission of Auckland University Press.
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Table of Contents
2 The Struggle for Acceptance,
3 The Road to Recovery,
4 The New Radicalism,
5 Crisis on the Coalfields,
6 Conscription & the 'Coal Crisis',
7 Syndicalism, Communism & Recession,
8 The Struggle for Survival,
9 War & Nationalisation,
I The NZ Federation of Miners: Preamble and Objects,
II NZ Federated Coal Mine Employees' Industrial Assocn of Workers: Objects,
III Rules and Constitution of the United Mine Workers of NZ,
IV Labour Platform of the Grey District Industrial and Political Council, 1911,
V NZ Marxian Association: Constitution and Rules,
VI The miners and the purchase of the Grey River Argus,