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Tragedy at Pike River Mine wins 2014 inaugural Bert Roth Award

In 2014, the Labour History Project has awarded the first Bert Roth Award for best work in New Zealand Labour History. Nominations for the Bert Roth award includes any contribution to field of labour history in the 2013 calendar year – an event, a publication, a film, an article or, conceivably, a sustained body of work over a long period of time.

We took a broad perspective on the definition of labour history, including non-paid labour as part of our understanding of what could be nominated. There was a wealth of labour history produced in many forms in 2013, which after considerable thought we selected a short list of 7 works.

Short List:
Hazel Armstrong, Your Life for the Job

Rachel Buchanan, Stop Press: the last days of the newspapers

Jared Davidson, Sewing Freedom

Anne Else, The Colour of Food

Rebecca Macfie, Tragedy at Pike River Mine

Susan Upton, Wanted a Beautiful Barmaid: Women Behind the Bar in New Zealand, 1830-1976

Lloyd Carpenter, ‘“A petty and spiteful spirit on the part of the company”: The 1881 Cromwell Company Strike at Bendigo, Otago’, Labour History, No. 105, 2013: 187-210.

When we assessed labour history works, we also took into account the following criteria:

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?

It was a difficult decision but in the end, we selected Tragedy at Pike River Mine: how and why 29 men died by Rebecca Macfie as the winner of the 2014 Bert Roth Award.

Drawing on over 100 interviews, Macfie, with meticulous attention to detail, takes you through a step by step process of how many mistakes were made, safety regulations sidelined, danger signs ignored, whistles blown, and then ignored, along the road to the Pike River Mine disaster on November 19 2010. Every person who was part of this tragedy is given fair treatment, no matter the position they took. Characters are well-rounded and human, occasionally monstrously so. It becomes blindingly obvious that good people don’t count in rotten systems.

Macfie also details how the government and company attempted to control the story of the disaster once it had occurred and is an important correction to the contemporary media coverage which lionised CEO Peter Whittall. To anyone who remembers the days between the first and second explosion, Macfie’s discussion of the way false hope was kept alive when anyone who knew anything about coal-mining knew that everyone must be dead, is particularly powerful. Macfie reclaims the past from media spin and demonstrates the importance of labour history.

This specific account of the Pike River Mine disaster can also be read writ large: of how unregulated, unfettered capitalism, cloaked by public relations spin and accompanied by neutered unionism, destroys lives and environments.

In this vein, Hazel Armstrong’s Your Life for the Job: NZ rail safety 1974-2000 booklet also addresses how privatization and deregulation – particularly in relation to safety – costs so many lives in the railways between 1994 and 2000. Poignant photographs and poetry eulogize the deaths caused by cost-cutting. What is inspiring is the role of Rail and Maritime Transport Union in mobilizing and campaigning to bring about a ministerial inquiry and re-regulation of the industry with legislation in 2005. Of course the fight continues.

We just don’t hear about it much…for very good reasons that Rachel Buchanan describes in Stop the Press: the last days of newspapers, another strong candidate for this award. This is a brave account of how the newspaper industry has been downsized and outsourced, almost into oblivion. Buchanan takes us from her own jobsite as an outsourced subeditor, contracted by Fairfax Media for Australian newspapers (other teams subedit for NZ nsps), to the soon to be closed Tullamarine printing plant in Melbourne to the downsized Tasman Mill in Kawerau.

Jared Davidson, in Sewing Freedom, was another strong candidate for the award. He meticulously pieced together the life of Philip Josephs, a Latvian-born Jewish tailor who immigrated to New Zealand via Scotland in 1905. Josephs, he argues, was not only central to anarchist organising amongst New Zealand’s radical working-class in the early twentieth century, but embedded such radicalism in an international anarchist movement. Davidson, brings early twentieth century anarchist culture in Wellington to life – and was a lovely backdrop for the 1913 Walking Tour of Wellington, which I participated in last year.

Lloyd Carpenter’s article on the Bendigo Gold strike of 1881 reminds us of the continuity of workers’ resistance outside of the time periods that have received most attention from labour historians. He documents the particularly vicious tactics of employers to try and get workers to return to work. One of the strengths of this article was Carpenter’s focus on the way the history of the strike can still be seen in the landscape and the buildings that remain.

Both women’s work and service work have been under-served in New Zealand labour history and Susan Upton’s Wanted a Beautiful Barmaid makes a substantial contribution in rectifying this omission. Her work concentrates on the way Barmaids have been seen, understood, discussed, and often legislated over a 146 year period. In doing so Upton reveals the wider social context for the treatment of barmaids and how barmaids’ own voices have been overlooked and silenced.

Anne Else’s food memoir The Colour of Food also explored women’s work. More personal than the rest of our nominees, this beautifully written e-book told Else’s life history through the meals she ate and the meals she prepared. Else describes significant changes in the work of home cooking as New Zealand food culture changed. As Else was deeply involved in the New Zealand women’s liberation movement, her memoir also explores the politics of unpaid labour, and the monumental challenge women mounted to the status quo in the 1960s and 1970s. Else demonstrates the importance of personal stories and individual lives.