The Blackball Strike and Labour History

What a great thing it is to be celebrating a union victory. The labour movement is good at celebrating our defeats but not so good at celebrating our victories.

Andrew Little’s comment at the seminar during the Blackball 08 Commemoration points to the importance of the Blackball Strike. The strike marked the start of the militant revolt against New Zealand’s arbitration system which dominated industrial relations in the years before the First World War. The eleven week strike began as a protest over ‘crib’ time – the miners were only allowed fifteen minutes for lunch. The strike is often referred to as the ‘crib’ or ‘tucker time’ strike. At an Arbitration Court hearing in Greymouth a couple of weeks into the strike, Justice Sim pronounced fifteen minutes adequate for ‘crib’ before adjourning for an hour and a half for luncheon. The strike began after the mine manager sacked seven men, all of whom were members of the Socialist Party. Attempts by Labour Department officials to broker a settlement were unsuccessful.

News spread and there was strong union support for the Blackball miners, particularly from other West Coast mines. Crucially, however, the union at the nearby Tyneside mine at Brunner and the Greymouth wharfies’ union didn’t support the strike. They refused to cut the supply of coal to the Blackball mining company’s vessels or to stop loading them.

The Labour Department prosecuted the union for striking. During the Arbitration Court hearing of the case, Jack McCullough, the Workers’ Representative on the court, mediated an agreement between leaders of the Blackball union and the company’s directors. This included reinstatement of the seven men. Accepted by a special union meeting, the compromise was repudiated by another meeting the following day and by the company. Union leaders toured New Zealand to get support. £1600 – about $NZ230,000 in today’s terms – was raised, half from mining and other West Coast unions.

The strike dragged on with further unsuccessful attempts to negotiate a resolution. Finally the company gave in and conceded the union’s demands. It was a great victory. On the other side of the island, the Canterbury Trades and Labour Council burst into spontaneous applause at the news. The sequel to the strike was highly embarrassing for the Arbitration Court. It had imposed a £75 fine on the union for striking illegally. The union refused to pay. The court ordered that the fine be collected from individual union members. Sheriffs seized goods from Blackball mining families and held an auction to raise money for the fine. The miners took over the auction, the union was the sole bidder and a derisory 12/6d was raised.

One of the main events during the commemoration of the strike at Blackball at Easter (21-24 March) 2008 was a well-attended seminar on the history of the strike and its contemporary relevance. A number of the speakers spoke again at a TUHP seminar on the strike in Wellington on May 10 2008. Many of the papers questioned, revised and added to the history of the strike and its place in NZ labour history.

The first speaker at the Blackball symposium was Eric Beardsley, whose 1984 novel Blackball ’08 was influential in telling the story to a new generation. He stressed the importance of the flooding of the Tyneside mine (see review of Brian Wood’s book, this issue) for the union’s victory.

Peter Clayworth spoke about Pat Hickey, one of the union leaders who became a national figure after the strike. Countering some historians’ views, he argued there was no evidence that Hickey and other radicals plotted the strike to attack the arbitration system, rather that they were opportunists.

Melanie Nolan’s paper summarised the existing historiography. She used McCullough’s experience of the strike to explore the diversity of socialist and labour perspectives in the years before the First World  War. Like Wood, she looked at the employers. Improved organisation and advocacy through employers’ associations, new doctrines of efficient management and anti-unionism meant this was also a period of growing employer militancy.

Graeme Colgan, Chief Judge of the Employment Court, presented an analysis of the four court cases during and after the strike. A notable feature of the litigation was that while the union took unsuccessful action against the company, all proceedings against the union were taken by the state through the Labour Department. Mark Derby discussed the importance of understanding the international context of the strike.

To illustrate the point he told the stories of two people born on the West Coast — Lola Ridge and Len de Caux — who became active in the United States anarchist and labour movements.

Neville Bennett’s paper looked at the economic and social aspects of the strike. He contended that falling living standards at Blackball, a new and remote settlement where necessities were scarce and expensive, may have contributed to the miners’ willingness to strike. The West Coast and Blackball are often said to have been the birthplace of the Labour Party. My own paper argued that the mass base for Labour was created in working class electorates in the cities through the political campaigns organised by the ‘moderate’ advocates of an independent labour party to win workers away from the Liberal Party.

Peter Franks. From TUHP Newsletter 44, October 2008.