Bert Roth Award 2016

The 2016 Bert Roth award was announced at our AGM; the judges’ report shows the strength of Labour History in New Zealand today.

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Putting together the short-list is always a pleasure in exploring the range of work that documents and values people’s lives, work and resistance. We read theses and books, streamed television and went on a walking tour.

The committee used the same criteria as last year: How well does the work reveal exploitation and people’s efforts to challenge exploitation?  Does it give voice to those whose histories remain out of view or marginal to mainstream history? Is it well written or presented and is the work accessible to the public?

Short List

  • Rosemary Anderson, ‘The origins of Cook Island migration to New Zealand, 1920-1950’, MA Thesis, University of Otago, 2015. (https://ourarchive.otago.ac.nz/handle/10523/5447)
  • Maria Bargh, A Hidden Economy: Māori in the Privatised Military Industry, Huia, 2015.
  • Andrew Dean, Ruth, Roger and Me: Debts and Legacies, Bridget Williams Books, 2015.
  • Ian Dougherty, The People’s University: A Centennial History of the Canterbury Workers Educational Association 1915-2015, Canterbury University Press, 2015.
  • Mary Durham, The Women of Pike River, 2015 (https://www.tvnz.co.nz/ondemand/the-women-of-pike-river)
  • International Socialist Organisation, ‘A Radical Walking Tour of Victoria University, 24 February 2015.
  • Mike Jonathan, Freezing Works, Māori Television, 2015. (http://www.maoritelevision.com/tv/shows/pakipumeka-aotearoa-new-zealand-documentaries/S06E001/freezing-works)
  • Ross Webb: ‘Your livelihood is on the line”: Freezing workers in Aotearoa/New Zealand 1973-1994’ MA Thesis, University of Auckland, 2015.
  • Melissa Williams, Pangaru in the City, Bridget Williams Books, 2015

We awarded the prize to Melissa Williams. Ranginui Walker described Melissa Matutina Williams’ book: Panguru and the City Kainga Tahi, Kainga Rua as a revelation, and we at LHP agree.  Through oral histories, Williams presents the stories of Te Rarawa ki Hokianga whanau who migrated from Panguru to Auckland city in the post-World War Two decades.  Panguru people speak to how they developed new home-places to ‘be Māori’ in the city – first the inner-city and then state housing suburbs – while simultaneously maintaining connections to Panguru tribal homelands.  She pays particular attention to how rangatahi negotiated these new spaces.  Work is central to this history – employment drew Panguru people to the City and people remade Auckland workplaces to continue tribal cultural practices in a place where they were a cultural minority.  Williams unpacks ‘workplace-whanau’ – a cultural set of Māori practices on the shop floor, controlled by Maori, which employers accommodated in order to keep their employees during labour shortages.  Brown Peita recalled when their management at the Auckland Electric Power Board decided to enforce the time period for breaks to discourage the cooking of kai:

One time our Pākehā bosses, didn’t like us cooking.  They told us, no more cooking. So, we went by the rules.  Smoko, ten o’clock, till a quarter past ten.  Twelve o’clock break ‘til half past twelve.  Three o’clock, till a quarter past three.  And one day, our boss [a Māori foreman] said, ‘We’re gonna beat em’….All the big bosses of the Power Board was there [the next morning when we] started pulling our cable.  Boss, looking at his watch, ‘Whoa!’ Usually we don’t stop when we start pulling a cable, but he said, ‘Whoa, smoko.’ So, went to smoko, come back, started pulling the cable again, and the cable stretched.  Ooh, the Power Board was jumping up and down.  And the boss said, ‘Well, you said to us stick to the rule…usually we don’t stop, we wait till we finished pulling the cable and then we have smoko.  But you want that rule, we’re gonna break your cable.’ So, they allowed us to go back to cooking again. Oh, beautiful.  Usually fifteen, twenty minutes, and we’re back to work again…leave the cook to do the clean-up. Great!’ (p. 204)

Williams explores the separate work spaces of Māori men and women and beautifully disrupts the demarcation between male breadwinners and female domesticity, which dominates Pākehā labour history of this period.

Other works on the short-list resonated with Pangaru in the City in interesting and important ways. Williams focuses on the 1950s-1970s and a time when work was reasonably secure.  Others work on the short list explored the time that followed. Ross Webb’s MA thesis ‘“Your Livelihood is on the Line”: Freezing Workers in Aotearoa/New Zealand, 1973–1994’ draws on oral history to unpack the workplace and union culture of freezing workers at Westfield and Tomoana freezing works.  It focuses on workers’ negotiation of a time of disempowering economic change in the late twentieth century.   Webb allows workers to tell their own stories of camaraderie and whanaungatanga in the works and demonstrates how such solidarities and kinship ties spilled over into local communities.  He pays attention to how ethnic and gender identities moulded and sometimes disrupted class solidarity.  This thesis is beautifully illustrated and makes for powerful and poignant reading.

Andrew Dean’s Ruth, Roger and Me: Debts and Legacies is a labour of love and will resonate with the ‘children of the Mother of All Budgets’ – those of us who entered the workforce and tertiary education post 1991.  It is a highly personalised account, revealing neoliberalism as a political ideology and exploring how its implementation gave us the student loan scheme, poverty wages, unpaid internships, casual contracts, unemployment, under-employment and the spiralling cost of housing. Dean traces the emotional cost of neoliberalism: discomfort and disconnection.  In a conversational style, he reminds us that the architects of these policies went to university for free, were eligible for benefits that covered the cost of living and benefited from state housing and full employment.

Maria Bargh’s work on Māori contractors in the defence industry helps answer the question – what work do people do now? Her book is based on in-depth interviews she did with contractors and these contractors articulate crucial questions about their lives and experiences.  Bargh gave space for her interviewees to explore the complications of their position. Bargh questions how to conceptualise the Māori economy and the role of the military in that economy. Williams and Bargh’s work also explores another thread through these nominees – the movement of Māori and Pacific people to, away from and around New Zealand

Freezing Works a documentary available on demand, tells the story of a small group of New Zealand Freezing Workers, mostly Māori, who travel to Iceland to work in their short freezing works season.   Connected back home with e-mails and skype in a way those who had travelled from Panguru to the city could never imagine being, Freezing Works shows what contemporary migration for work looks like.  In it the New Zealand migrants reflect on their experience.  One interviewee says: “here we are, over here, taking their jobs.”  In a time of economic crisis where migrants easily emerge as scapegoats, telling the stories where those who travel are portrayed as ‘us’ rather than ‘them’ is an important alternative.

The final work that explored the movement of Māori and Pacific Island people was Rosemary Anderson’s MA thesis about Cook Island migration to New Zealand.  She placed the Second World War firmly in the centre of this history – which creates interesting contrasts with Bargh’s work. She discusses the scheme to allow young Cook Island women to come to New Zealand to work as domestic servants in detail.  She explores what life was like for women before they left, how they dealt with work while they were here and argues that the importance of this scheme has been underestimated in understanding Cook Island migration to New Zealand.

Not every work on the short list explored the same themes – nor should they. Ian Dougherty’s The People’s University: A Centennial History of the Canterbury Workers Educational Association 1915-2015 is an impressively detailed history of the organisation that was set up in 1915 by a ‘loose coalition’ of Christchurch academics, trade union leaders and Christian socialists to provide university-level education – at that time ‘too much the privilege of the few’ – to working people.  By documenting the engagement of students, tutors, volunteers and staff over one hundred years of innovation, retrenchment and adaptation to social, economic and political change, the author provides a particular angle on labour history; Canterbury WEA’s surveys of their participants, and evaluations of their programmes against their founding principles, reveal changing understandings of gender and gender roles and shifting definitions of ‘working class’, ‘work’ and ‘worker’.

Some aspects of The Women of Pike River are a story that is familiar to our audience.  Both the initial exploision and the terrible response, have by now been well documented (including by Rebecca McFie in Tragedy at Pike River the first winner of the Bert Roth award).   The documentary, concentrating on the women who lost husbands, partners and sons, takes what you already know, but brings you away from an abstract event to the experiences of the survivors.  The documentary shows families’ struggles both for some kind of recognition from the justice system and to remember their loved ones in the absence of bodies. It emphasises the importance of remembering not just the horror of the totality of what happened, but the experiences of the people involved.

In March of 2015, at the beginning of the new University year, the International Socialist Organisation organised a radical walking tour of Victoria University, run by Dougal McNeill. This tour covered students’ resistance from the 1930s to the present day. Past struggles are all around us, as this walking tour brought out the layers of history that had taken place at Victoria and would be forgotten unless we remembered them. As well as covering some of the more famous protest movements – student struggles over education and their involvement in anti-war and anti-apartheid movement – the tour also covered moments that are not as well known. Dougal pointed out the house of Blair Peach, who studied at Victoria University and died at the hands of London police.  There is no record of his history anywhere – and most students now would not have heard his name.