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A Striking Truth Wins 2018 Bert Roth Award

The Labour History Project awards the Bert Roth Award for labour history work – an event, a publication, a film, an article or, conceivably, a sustained body of work over a long period of time – produced in the previous calendar year. We take a broad perspective on the definition of labour history, including non-paid labour, and pose the following questions:

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?

Winner: Helen McNeil, A Striking Truth

We have awarded the prize to Helen McNeil: by connecting the personal and the political in her novel The Striking Truth, she has created a highly readable and very accessible study of a period of dramatic change in the economy and labour relations, the outcomes of which continue to impact our lives.

Helen McNeil grew up in Kawerau, a town which owes its existence, beginning in 1953, to the Tasman Pulp and Paper Company. As McNeil explains in an essay for The Spinoff, the Company ‘looked after its 2000-odd workers, their families and their town’. Her novel A Striking Truth explores how this changed in 1986, when Tasman became Fletcher-Challenge, New Zealand’s first multi-national.  The plot is fast-moving. With a large cast of vivid and convincing characters, telling their stories in voices that carry class, ethnicity and gender, McNeil details the 86-day strike (lockout according to the Company), which ‘almost killed the town’ in 1986.

It’s a great read. The locals are fictional, but most outsiders, unions and bosses, are recognisable; their first names have not been changed. Although the details of work at the mill and the impact of the strike do locate the reader’s sympathies, this is not a simplistic tale of goodies and baddies. The characters struggle with the baggage they bring, the commitments they have made, the loyalties they have forged, and the betrayals they must survive, as they are forced to come to terms with changes they have so little power over. The male-dominated mill and union are strong features of the book, but equal attention is given to family support roles during the strike, particularly by women, and private households, the school, library and marae are central to the plot. With a divide and rule public relations campaign, the Company moved to break the power of the Pulp and Paper Workers’ Union, revealing the deep inequalities between Capital and working-class families. In 1986, it was a sign of times to come.

Runner Up: Renée, These Two Hands: a memoir

In this beautifully crafted memoir, Renée feeds us her memories of a writer’s life, one for each of her 88 years, set free from chronology. Renée’s working-class hands are always busy and words used sparingly provoke the reader’s imagination. This is a rich, emotional read – prepare to laugh from your belly as Renée holds her sister’s suitor at bay with a cat called George; feel the unresolved questions of a father’s suicide and the long-term traces of colonial violence in her whakapapa; learn to love Renée’s fierce mother, Rose. Craft work – the art of writing, reading, teaching, gardening, directing, acting, and cooking – is carefully unpacked and the fruits of this labour on display. Read it as a ‘how to’ manual if you will.  Interspersed between diary entries are snippets from Renée’s plays, novels, short stories and poems, which whet the appetite for more. ‘I knew we were the have-nots and others were the haves’, Renée writes. Working-class women are etched into Renée’s writing, thanks to her upbringing and British women writers who explored feminism. Each new landscape is crafted by gardening hands, which becomes an increasingly communal effort as Renée grows old. The final patchwork is a conversation with her moko on land, love and change: ‘I regret nothing’, she tells her.

Short List

Not the Day Job, For Pete’s Sake: The Political Songs of Peter Conway

After Peter Conway’s death, his union band, Not the Day Job, got together with other musicians and singers to produce this CD and ‘ensure his music lives on’. And it certainly does. Peter was a committed trade unionist, and spent his adult life ‘tirelessly fighting alongside working people for industrial, economic and social justice’. The CD includes protest songs (Make Don Uncomfortable), songs on historical events (Remember Waihi) and solidarity songs (When We Walk Hand in Hand); most songs could be described as all three.  Impressive and engaging arrangements enhance their power and communal possibilities.

Along with the songs, the CD cover is a form of labour history. It includes photographs identifying the band and the singers, and moments from Peter’s personal life. The booklet covers a brief biography, background to the development of the CD, and a list of contributors to the Pledge Me campaign with their comments. Most importantly, it provides the words to each song, with an explanation of the context and its musical development, most of which were written by Ross Teppett.

While each song can and should stand on its own, together they make up an album to be experienced in sequence. They compare and contrast in style and structure, and reflect into each other in topic and meaning. The last song on the CD, “Are You Alright”, has been sung earlier by the band with the Solidarity Sisters, but this time Peter is singing alone, and the song goes on  ‘Are you OK?  Are you getting by – In this world today?’  He wasn’t – and he couldn’t. Placing Peter’s version of the song at the end evokes the pain and sadness his whānau and friends continue to feel for his death. It also affirms Peter’s political commitment, humanity and musicianship.

The New Zealand contributors to Wobblies of the World: A Global History of the IWW, Mark Derby and Peter Clayworth

Wobblies of the World opens with a proud proclamation that this is the first-ever global history of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and its coverage is vast, from Finnish Labor Radicalism and the IWW in Northern Ontario, to the 1913 Dublin lockout, to South Asia and South Africa. Mark Derby and Peter Clayworth’s contributions puts New Zealand labour history in its international context and on the international stage. Derby’s chapter details the relationship between the IWW and Māori. The IWW, Derby points out, were one of the few organisations that embraced working class solidarity across racial and ethnic lines, writing that of all the international labour movements of the early twentieth century, the IWW has been described as ‘certainly the most consistent in organizing workers of color.’ In New Zealand, Derby writes, ‘the Māori population could count on few political allies among the non-Māori majority and faced many powerful opponents, overt or otherwise’. Derby details the life of Percy Short, a radical who spoke te reo, the Shearers’ Union, which Derby describes as ‘one vigorous national organisation that attempted to bridge the divide between the races’, the establishment of the Maoriland Worker, and Māori language articles. Derby concludes that the IWW raised issues regarding historical loss of tribal land which ‘now stand at the centre of New Zealand political life’, but certainly did not in the early twentieth century.

Clayworth’s chapter details the life of Patrick Hickey, and his relationship with the IWW, describing his transition from ‘an ally into a bitter opponent of the Wobblies’. Hickey’s career as a radical, Clayworth writes, ‘ran parallel to the birth and growth of the IWW’. Hickey, a New Zealander who adopted socialism and revolutionary industrial unionism while working as an itinerant miner in the United States, changed his views about the IWW following the brutal police repression of the Waihi miners’ strike. He turned to electoral politics and advocated that workers ‘must gain control of the state’s coercive structures’.

Both Derby and Clayworth have played a broader role in making an international audience aware of developments in the New Zealand’s labour and radical history, and their contributions to Wobblies of the World is just one example.

Charlotte Macdonald, ‘Why Was There No Answer to the ‘Servant Problem’? Paid Domestic Work and the Making of a White New Zealand, 1840s-1950s’; Margaret Tennant and Lesley Courtney, ‘‘The Karitane’ The Rise and Fall of a Semi-Profession for Women’; Barbara Brookes and Catherine Smith, ‘Styling Gender: From Barber Shops and Ladies’ Hairdressers to the Unisex Salon, 1920-1970’, in the New Zealand Journal of History, Vol. 51, no. 1, April 2017.

Editors Caroline Daley and Deborah Montgomerie are to be commended on this fine volume of the NZJH that celebrates 50 years of the journal by focusing on women’s and gender history. The contributors reflect on Raewyn Dalziel’s ground-breaking 1977 article ‘The Colonial Helpmeet: Women’s Role and the Vote in Nineteenth-Century New Zealand’, which centres on the relationship between women’s everyday work and gaining the vote. We shortlisted three contributors that focused on women’s occupations: paid domestic work, Karitane nurses and hairdressers.

Charlotte Macdonald asks, ‘Why was it that at the same time as the ‘modernization’ of homes and families in much of Australasia saw the ‘inevitable’ decline in domestic servants, that a household labour force flourished and became ‘blacker’ both in North America and South Africa?’. Macdonald elegantly explores Māori resistance to recruitment and unpacks New Zealand’s racially-constructed immigration policies that were based on the ideal of a ‘white New Zealand’ to explain why demands for domestic servants were never fulfilled. Margaret Tennant and Lesley Courtney focus on the rise and fall of the semi-profession Karitane nursing, specialist baby nurses who went into people’s homes to assist in mothering, representing the Plunket Society. Through this meticulously-researched case study they chart changing constructions of womanhood from the late 1950s to the 1970s and the boundaries between ‘health’ and ‘social welfare’. Barbara Brookes and Catherine Smith contrast barber’s saloons with ladies’ hairdresser salons, between the 1920s and 1960s, and explore how masculinity and femininity were performed and given meaning in separate spaces before the rise of the unisex salon. Authors pay careful attention to change through time, who held the purse-strings at home, affordability and a growing youth culture.

Holly Walker, The Whole Intimate Mess, BWB

Published by BWB excellent ‘short books on big subjects’ series, The Whole Intimate Mess: Motherhood, Politics, and Women’s Writing details Holly Walker’s life as a New Zealand Member of Parliament for the Green Party. This is an incredibly honest personal essay, exploring the pressures of a political career and family life, and Walker’s eventual resignation from parliament. Walker suffered intensely from post-natal anxiety and depression, and this, alongside her demanding career and husband’s illness, brought her to breaking point. As Walker writes, ‘I leaned in so far I fell over and cracked into little pieces’. But Walker’s book is successful not only in its honest and sobering portrayal of motherhood and work,  it has also sparked broader discussion on the topic. In her review of Walker’s book, Alison McCulloch wrote the following:

It’s sobering to wonder whether — were Parliament actually organised around real people’s lives — Holly Walker might not have had to suffer in the way she did, and might still be pursuing her dream career. And if that were extrapolated to all workplaces and communities, to wonder how much of the post-natal distress other women suffer might be eased, or better acknowledged, or treated. Not all of it, certainly. But some of it.

Prue Hyman, Hopes Dashed? The Economics of Gender Inequality, BWB

Hope’s Dashed? is a must-read for anyone working to eradicate gender inequality in Aotearoa New Zealand. The strengths of this book are in the detailed analyses of the complexities of gender inequalities, and the documentation of the interconnectedness of all inequalities. Hyman argues that a feminist analysis is crucial to understanding women’s economic and social position, and why gender inequalities have not disappeared. She explains that despite the positive changes brought by feminist activists since the mid-1990s, neoliberal policies that sustain a dual economy of haves and have-nots also ensure gender inequalities continue: ‘ethnicity, class, marital status, age and other demographic characteristics continue to interact with gender to stratify society’ (7-8).

The primary indicator of economic activity, gross domestic product (GDP), continues to ignore unpaid labour—household and caring work—most of which is done by women. Unpaid productive and reproductive work remains relatively invisible, and for welfare beneficiaries, seriously stigmatized. In the paid labour market, a combination of lower levels of unionisation and collective contract coverage, a substantial increase in precarious work, women’s greater involvement in unpaid work, and gender differences in employment and occupation adversely affect women’s labour market status.

Describing her personal nightmare as a ‘50 per cent future, where women occupy half the jobs at all levels but nothing else has changed—race and class inequality and differentials generally are unaffected’ (95), Hyman identifies ‘radical labour market policies’, universal policies that could produce equal outcomes: increasing minimum wage provisions (and workers’ minimum rights and entitlements as set out in law), bringing minimums more in line with the ‘living wage’, and a universal basic income to recognise and value unpaid work. If we are to bring about a ‘truly compassionate society’, Hyman writes, ‘[i]t means rejecting the orthodox prescriptions that brought us the recent and ongoing global economic, financial and environmental crises. It means questioning received wisdoms—such as the need for ever more growth. It means moving to greater cooperation and less competition. It would be based on the recognition of our real interdependence, not on… individualism’ (129).

Tony Simpson, Along for the Ride, Blythswood Press

Tony Simpson’s political memoir opens with the following lines: ‘I went to school on my first day at Wairakei Primary in Christchurch in 1950 fully prepared to co-operate with the authorities and came home that afternoon at three o’clock with a deep, abiding and lifelong hatred of oppressive government’. This opening line sets the theme for the rest of the book, which details the roots and then the expression of Simpson’s healthy disrespect for authority. Simpson describes growing up working-class, his university years, his entry into the public service, especially in broadcasting, his union involvement with the PSA as an organiser, and his overseas experience in the UK. Simpson returned to New Zealand in the early 1980s, leaving Thatcher’s Britain and arriving home for the last term of Muldoon’s National Government and then Lange’s Fourth Labour Government, exploring his work with Jim Anderton and the Alliance Party. But Simpson was not just a union activist living through turbulent times. He is also, as many of us know, a historian who has published numerous key texts of New Zealand history, including The Sugarbag Years and Te Riri Pakeha. Simpson’s highly readable memoir details a pivotal time in New Zealand political and labour history and his role in it.

Judges: Cybèle Locke, Claire-Louise McCurdy, Ross Webb