Monday, November 21, 2011

the miners' militant history

My text for the November issue of The Spark (and the LHP Newsletter).

From the arrival of colliers in the 1870s to New Zealand’s biggest strikes, miners have played an active part in the struggle against capitalism. As Len Richardson points out: ‘Coalminers occupy a special place in the history of industrial radicalism in New Zealand’. Socialists of many shades considered them ‘a revolutionary vanguard destined to bring capitalism to its knees’—to employers they were troublemakers holding back the progress of modern development. Regardless of how they are painted, there is no doubting the importance of miners in New Zealand’s labour history.

Miners were some of New Zealand first migrants, transplanted from the English coalfields to the ‘New World’ in the late 1870s. Unfortunately for the colonial coal masters, these miners brought with them the ‘twin evils’ of Methodism and unionism, and in 1884 formed the first miners’ union in Denniston. They quickly went about organising their own Federations to accommodate the diverse situations of the coalfields—the Amalgamated Miners’ and Labourers’ Association in the 1880s and the more successful Miners’ Federation of 1908. Meanwhile, during the Maritime Strike of 1890 miners took strike action in support of the general seamen’s strike.

The latter Federation was the result of a dramatic strike in the town of Blackball —traditional home of New Zealand radicalism. Growing militancy was stoked by the arrival of radicals like Patrick Hickey and the propaganda of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Their advocacy of direct action and revolutionary industrial unionism related to the miners’ disenchantment with the labour laws of the day, such as the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration (ICA) Act, which disallowed unions from striking. In 1908 the formation of a New Zealand Socialist Party branch signalled the rise of revolutionary ideas in the valley.

From 1907, ‘Blackball miners and their employers had been on a collision course’ over conditions, Richardson says, so when seven miners were fired for taking 30 minutes ‘crib-time’ instead of the 15 imposed by the company it was the final straw. All 120 Blackball miners ceased work on 27 February 1908. This was a deliberate challenge to the ICA Act and the Arbitration Court tried to intervene, but community solidarity was too strong.

After three months the company gave in, sending waves of enthusiasm for direct action throughout the country. The resulting Miners Federation grew into the ‘Red’ Federation of Labour, whose preamble stated ‘the working class and the employing class having nothing in common’. This ‘baptism of fire’ did not end in Blackball however, for the Red Feds soon found themselves involved in two of New Zealand’s most violent labour struggles: the Waihi Strike of 1912 and the Great Strike of 1913.

The Red Feds encouraged class struggle free of ‘labour’s leg iron’: the ICA Act. Affiliated unions, including the miners of the Waihi Trade Union of Workers, began to de-register from the ICA. So in 1912 when 30 engine drivers in Waihi re-registered under the ICA (reportedly encouraged by the bosses), the union struck in protest. On 13 May, Waihi came to a standstill. However the strike failed. Intense police repression and violence saw the balance of power shift to the bosses. During what became known as the ‘Black Week’, the Miners’ Hall was stormed, striker Fred Evans was killed by a police baton to the head (becoming the first worker do die in an industrial dispute in New Zealand), and unionists and their families were driven out of town as police stood by.

On the heels of the Waihi Strike came the Great Strike of 1913, in which miners played an important part. In October, Huntly miners called a strike when the company dismissed two union executive members, while in Wellington the watersiders struck when the Union Steam Ship Company refused to pay travelling time for shipwrights. Strike action soon spread. Miners on the West Coast took wildcat strike action without waiting for official sanction, and shut down the ports of Westport and Greymouth. Fearful of the miners’ militancy, explosives were shifted from the Runanga state mine to a private munitions magazine in Greymouth.

The Great Strike involved some 16,000 workers and resulted in a general strike in Auckland. Massive demonstrations and union control of the waterfront was eventually broken with ‘Massey’s Cossacks’—farmers enrolled as special police—and the hand of the state. Before long naval ships in the port of Wellington had their guns trained on the city, machine guns lined the streets, and soldiers with naked bayonets protected ‘free’ labour to re-open the docks. By December, strike leaders were arrested for sedition, the strike collapsed, and the coalition of government and employers gained a complete victory. Miners, true to their fighting spirit, were some of the last to return to work.

After the Great Strike, miners battled employers over conditions and the contracts system, until the outbreak of the First World War threw up new a new issue: conscription. When the government introduced a national register of men of military age, West Coast miners threatened industrial action to halt what was perceived to be the first-step towards compulsory conscription. A ‘go slow’ was put in place in late 1916. The government promptly assured miners that if called up their appeals would be favourably heard, but nonetheless miners were refused exemption until coal production was back to normal rates. In April 1917, miners on the West Coast struck, demanding that all military conscription cease. A compromise was made—legal action against the strikers and the refused exemptions were dropped in exchange for a promise of no strike action for the duration of the war. Although radical anti-conscriptionists on the Grey Valley were unsatisfied, the miners accepted the government’s terms.

Throughout the 20th century, miners were also heavily involved in  revolutionary political groups. As well as the aforementioned New Zealand Socialist Party and the IWW, miners were members of New Zealand’s first Communist Parties. West Coast Marxists were involved in the New Zealand Marxian Association (1918), the Communist Party of New Zealand (1921), and the West Coast Communist Federation (1922). In 1925, Blackball became the  headquarters of the Communist Party, whose secretary in 1927 was also the secretary of the United Mine Workers, a federation of miners formed in 1923.

From the 1919 Alliance of Labour and the unemployed workers’ unions of the Depression years to the 1951 Lockout, miners featured in the many struggles of labour against capital. However the defeat of 1951 signalled what Richardson describes as the ‘slow and lingering death of mining unionism and the communities that sustained it’. Mining no longer played the crucial role it had during its development, technologies changed, and communities fragmented. Yet miners’ struggles continued, and will continue as long as mining  and capitalism exist. As recently as 2009-2010, miners at Stockton, Spring  Creek, Rotowaro and Huntly East took industrial action against Solid Energy, showing that the struggles of miners in New Zealand are far from history.

Len Richardson, Coal, Class and Community: The United Mineworkers of New Zealand 1880-1960, Auckland University Press, 1995; Bert Roth & Janny Hammond, Toil and Trouble: The Struggle for a Better Life in New Zealand, Methuen, 1981.

Reproduced courtesy of The Spark.

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