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‘Crew Cultures in the Tasman World’ wins 2019 Bert Roth Award

Text of the image reads 'Bert Roth award for Labour History 2019 Winner' David Haines and Jonathan West 'Crew Cultures in the Tasman World' Francis Steele ed., New Zealand and hte Sea Historical Perspectives, Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 2018.  The background image is peach and the front cover of the book (an illustration with various shades of blue and grey and suggestions of boats) and the LHP logo

The Bert Roth award, named for the late historian, is presented annually by the Labour History Project to the work that best depicts the history of work and resistance in New Zealand. The year 2018 was a strong year for labour history in New Zealand. As the shortlist below shows, the history of work and of struggles against exploitation by individuals and movements shows up in a diverse range of publications, innovative uses of social media, novels and film. From whalers in the 1830s Tasman evading and resisting authority to sex workers in the present fighting for decriminalisation, the shortlist demonstrates that labour history is alive and well in New Zealand.


David Haines and Jonathan West, ‘Crew Cultures in the Tasman World’ in Francis Steele, ed., New Zealand and the Sea: Historical Perspectives (Wellington: Bridget Williams Books)

Caren Wilton, My Body My Business: NZ Sex Workers in an Era of Change (Dunedin: Otago University Press)

Grace Millar, ‘Waterfronts and homes, 1900-1970’ in Francis Steele, ed., New Zealand and the Sea (Wellington: Bridget Williams Books)

Ian Dougherty, Pulpit Radical: The Story of New Zealand Social Campaigner Rutherford Waddell (Dunedin, Saddle Hill Press)

Gerry Hill, The Cooks and Stewards Union: A Memoir (Self-published)

Kim Workman, Journey Towards Justice (Wellington: Bridget Williams Books)

John Wilson, Local Lives: A History of Addington (Christchurch: Addington Neighbourhood Association)

Peter Attwell, The Hill of Memory (Auckland, Mente Corde Manu)

Peter Clayworth, ‘An Agitator Abroad: P. H. Hickey, Industrial Unionism, and Socialism in the United States, New Zealand, and Australia, 1900–1930’, in Greg Patmore and Shelton Stromquist, Frontiers of Labor: Comparative Histories of the United States and Australia (Illinois: Illinois University Press)

Alexander Turnbull Library, James Cox, Life 100 Years Ago

Heperi Mita (director), Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Film Industry

We have awarded the 2019 Bert Roth Award for Labour History to David Haines and Jonathan West, for their excellent chapter in New Zealand and the Sea, edited by Francis Steele. ‘Crew cultures in the Tasman world’ provides a ‘people’s history’ of those who worked across the Tasman sea from the 1830s onwards. This excellent article ticks all the boxes for the Bert Roth Award: it details exploitation and people’s efforts to challenge such exploitation; it gives voice to those whose stories remain out of view or marginal in traditional histories, and it is written in an engaging and accessible way. The early nineteenth century saw the British Empire’s “rage for order”, which included the control and discipline of “recalcitrant maritime labour.” Haines and West focus on the ‘men, and some women, who laboured aboard colonial ships and at shore-based camps on the Tasman’s margins’ and the “efforts of maritime workers to resist and elude authority.” This chapter also demonstrates how satire and humour, the “hallmarks of labour solidarity the world over”, were utilised alongside many other forms of resistance: “talking back, feigning illness and refusing to work, coordinated desertion, mutiny and violence.” Haines and West convincingly demonstrate that controlling unruly maritime labour was a key pretext for those who advocated British acquisition of Aotearoa. This is a fantastic, beautifully researched, historically-grounded chapter, with juicy examples that give us a sense of people’s lives in the Tasman maritime world.

Another innovative study that details working lives is our runner-up for the award. My Body My Business by Caren Wilton is a revelatory compilation of oral history interviews with eleven former and current sex workers, covering a wide range of personal and political stories across class, ethnic and gender binaries. From the daily experiences of sex work to the organising efforts of the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective and the decriminalisation of the industry in 2003, the reader is given an intimate insight into a world still stigmatised and seen as ‘a world apart’. Yet as Caren Wilton notes, it is a world both ordinary and extraordinary. As work, it has its own stresses, struggles, and solidarities. Yet like all workers, those interviewed grapple with the often-mundane aspects “of parenting, of friendship, of money, of love.” In doing so, Wilton succeeds in her goal to increase understanding, lessen the stigma of sex work, and document the impacts of decriminalisation on those involved. By sharing the unheard voices of the workers themselves, complete with stunning photography by Madeline Slavick, My Body My Business is an engaging and eye-opening account of life and work within the New Zealand sex industry.

Grace Millar’s ‘Waterfronts and homes, 1900-1970’, another essay in New Zealand and the Sea, challenges us to look beyond the waterfront as a discreet world of work, to domestic spaces – workers’ homes – and how homes shaped and were shaped by waterfront work across the twentieth century. The unpredictability of the sea, of ships and therefore of waterfront work meant waterfront workers lived close to ports, in tight-knit working-class com-munities that suffered from poor housing conditions. Decisions to take militant action at work were governed by how issues impacted households – precarious work, unsafe conditions, work clothes covered in obnoxious substances such as lampblack. Millar draws on oral history to give us crucial insights into the ways households and communities governed when worksite disputes began, how strike-breaking was defined, and when disputes were ended.

Another book on our shortlist detailing struggles against exploitations is Ian Dougherty’s Pulpit Radical: The Story of New Zealand Social Campaigner Rutherford Waddell. The name Rutherford Waddell, if recognised at all today, is likely to be associated with a sermon on “the sin of cheapness” which triggered a royal commission on sweated labour that led to legislation improving the conditions of working people in New Zealand. Feminists might make a connection with the name Harriet Morison and the founding of the Tailoresses’ Union. Born in Ulster in the mid-nineteenth century, Rutherford Waddell emigrated to New Zealand as a Presbyterian minister in 1877. In this biography, Ian Dougherty sets out to establish, comprehensively and in detail, that Rutherford Waddell’s long life of commitment and campaigning ranged far more widely than labour issues. He lists the “remarkable array of (Waddell’s) campaigns and causes” in his final chapter: ‘economic reform, labour reform, poverty, housing, trade unionism, penal reform, eugenics, votes for women, Irish home rule, free education, kindergartens, technical education, prohibition, gambling, censorship, church union, religious education, Presbyterian parishes employing deaconesses and supporting their own overseas missionaries, conservation, game bird importation, and the popularisation of literature’. The book paints a vivid portrait of a remarkable man, both visionary and of his time. The accounts of many of the campaigns have direct relevance to working class history, but the three (of twenty-nine) chapters concerned with the sermon and its consequences, The Sin of Cheapness (1881); The Tailoresses’ Union and The Sweating Commission (1890) are a major contribution to New Zealand’s labour history. Dougherty’s research is extensive; it seems unlikely that there is any relevant primary source he has not located, including the great many written by Rutherford Waddell himself. As a core resource on conditions of work and employment for women and men in the new colony, the formation of the first female union in New Zealand, and the legislation that resulted from the royal commission, these chapters, at least, are essential reading.

During the period immediately after Waddell’s campaigns, Pat Hickey was travelling the world, learning and spreading the gospel of industrial unionism, as told by Peter Clayworth in ‘An Agitator Abroad: P. H. Hickey, Industrial Unionism, and Socialism in the United States, New Zealand, and Australia, 1900–1930’. In this fine rendering of the life of Patrick Hodgens Hickey, Peter Clayworth explores the importance of transnational mobility in spreading ideas of revolutionary industrial unionism and socialism at the turn of the twentieth century. Hickey’s travels as an itinerant worker in America, and a miner in Bingham Canyon, Utah, during a period of intense class conflict, led him to join the Western Federation of Miners and Socialist Party of America. Hickey brought the two-pronged revolutionary industrial and political strategy home with him to Blackball and Runanga mining communities in New Zealand, and with Australian activists Paddy Webb and Bob Semple helped form the Red Fed – the New Zealand Federation of Labour. When Hickey became disillusioned with the IWW, and the lack of united anti-war effort, he drew on transnational networks to establish his family in Melbourne in 1915. The family would cross the Tasman twice more before Hickey died in 1930. Peter Clayworth pays careful attention to both the revolutionary possibilities of migrant transnational networks but also their limitation to white, English-speaking workers.

Alongside biography, autobiography and memoir provide key insights into the lives of campaigners for social justice. The list of the Cooks and Stewards Union and the Seamen’s Union’s accomplishments is extensive, and it’s great to have them captured and condensed by this book by Gerry Hill, former Auckland Branch Secretary of the Union and later an elected official of the New Zealand Seafarers Union. Well-illustrated with images, The Cooks and Stewards Union: A Memoir captures many important stories from a union that was first established in a Port Chalmers’ pub in 1884; it was one of Aotearoa New Zealand’s first national unions, and it stood strong for 105 years. Hill writes from the heart, with an activist’s passion, and with a unionist’s sense of solidarity to his contemporaries and accountability to those who came before. Similarly, Kim Workman’s memoir, Journey Towards Justice is an engaging, highly readable account by a campaigner for restorative justice and prison reform. The memoir details more than Workman’s work in these areas, however. The books details Workman’s life as a jazz musician, a policeman, a public servant in the Ombudsman’s office, State Services Commission, Corrections, and in Māori Affairs. But the focus is on Workman’s life on the job. Along the way, Workman encountered racism and a broken prison system which in turn inspired him to become an advocate for justice reform.

The history of local communities has always been a strong strand in New Zealand labour history. Local Lives: A History of Addington by long-time journalist John Wilson and the Addington Neighbourhood Association is a well-published, lavishly-illustrated ‘history from the bottom up’ of Addington, a unique working-class suburb of Christchurch. Beginning with an account of tangata whenua, this readable book guides us through themes of class, place, work, war, religion, sport, crime and others that wove their way through the community of Addington. From the origins of street names to the daily experience of working in the Addington Railway Workshops, Local Lives successfully combines industrial heritage with human stories of place. The outcome of 14 years work, this book is an encyclopaedic yet accessible guide to working-class Addington that will undoubtedly be a useful source for years to come.

We have also included a creative work in our shortlist with Peter Attwell’s The Hill of Memory. This novel about the 1913 waterfront strike is an engaging starting place for young (and older) adults concerned about how little they know of New Zealand’s labour history. The story is told from the remembered experience of 17-year old Johnnie Hargreaves, and his best mate Joe whose brothers are watersiders and union members, striking for greater surety of employment and improved working conditions. The boys’ presence at the battle of Buckle Street and the ‘riot’ in Post Office Square changes from observation to action as they are caught up in the conflict between strikers and ‘Massey’s Cossacks’, the farmers on horseback the government brought in from rural areas to break the strike. Discrepancies between accounts of the strike in the newspapers and in the Maoriland Worker make Johnnie suspicious of the accuracy of the reports from the front as the novel continues into World War One, documenting the fates of the strikers, Joe’s brothers and Johnnie’s sister Hetty, who was engaged to one of Joe’s brothers. Life-long guilt from the consequences of their planned action motivates the elderly Johnnie to confront the past half a century later and record the events of 1913 and its aftermath for his daughter. This device enables the author to describe social and political changes as part of the narrative. An impressively detailed picture of living and working conditions in 1913, and a survey of New Zealand’s history across the first half of the twentieth century – conditions on the wharves, the impact of the strike, World War One, the founding of the Labour Party, the Influenza epidemic, the 1935 election of a Labour government, the 1951 lockout – is created, embedded in the lives and actions of the characters in the novel.

For the first time, we have included a twitter account in the shortlist. James Cox: Life 100 Years Ago is an innovative project – part of WWW100 ‘Life 100 Years Ago’ – and is a fine example of how social media can be used for historical and archival ends. Using the unique, miniature-sized diaries of rural labourer James Cox, the Alexander Turnbull Library shared daily extracts on Twitter in ‘real time’, as if Cox himself was sending the tweets. Tweets such as “I walked to Carterton and back. I got my first months pension” and “I did some more mowing today both morning and afternoon. I was not too well… Anderson and Peter mow also and we are getting it down. Anderson does most of the work” were linked to digitised images of the original diaries. The result was a highly engaging, ever-changing account of the life of an itinerant worker during the years of the First World War for an entirely new audience, especially students.

Lastly, we have included the film Merata, a beautiful documentary that tells the story of the life and career of Merata Mita. Mita made landmark documentary films such as Patu! (1983), Bastion Point Day 507 (1980); she also contributed to films that documented some of the key industrial disputes of the day, including the Mangere Bridge dispute and Kinleith. Her feature film Mauri (1988) is the first in Aotearoa New Zealand solely directed by a Māori woman. After Mita’s death, her youngest son, Heperi Mita, explored her very extensive archive; the film documents his own discovery of his mother’s early life and work. Merata is full of unseen archival footage, including Mita’s appearance on a 1977 Television production, Māori Women in a Pākehā World, where she details the difficulties of raising a family alone in the city in the late 1970s. Merata is very much a whanau story: Heperi films his older siblings telling their stories of the sacrifices involved in her career as a film-maker, especially in her early career: the political backlash and the impact on the home of police brutality during the filming of Patu!. It is also an international story celebrating Merata Mita’s contribution to indigenous film-making around the world.

The award was judged by Cybèle Locke, Claire-Louise McCurdy, Jared Davidson and Ross Webb.