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Dead Letters wins 2020 Bert Roth Award

The Bert Roth Award for Labour History, named for the late historian Herbert Roth, is presented annually by the Labour History Project. It is awarded to the work that best depicts the history of work and resistance in New Zealand published 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?

The works examined this year come in a range of forms, from film, to journal articles to dissertations, to books and span a range of topics: from Māori in the early nineteenth century trans-Tasman world, to a love-struck miner evading conscription on the West Coast bush, to protest movements and worker militancy in the 1970s, and to more contemporary campaigns for health and safety in forestry.

All of these works demonstrate that labour history is alive and well in Aotearoa New Zealand in the many forms in takes. They all exemplify the argument made by James Green in his book Taking History to Heart. Green writes: “Historical narratives can do more than redeem the memory of past struggles; they can help people think of themselves as historical figures with crucial moral and political choices to make, like those who came before them”.


Image of a certificate text 'certificate of award Bert Roth Award for Labour History Jared Davidson for Dead Letters, 2020 Winner, Presented by the Labour History Project on 11 August 2020'

Jared Davidson, Dead Letters: Censorship and subversion in New Zealand 1914-1920, Otago, 2019.

In his excellent book, Dead Letters, archivist and historian Jared Davidson introduces us to a range of extraordinary characters whose stories and struggles challenge the nationalist narratives of the war. These historical characters, as introduced in the blurb of the book, include ‘a feisty German-born socialist, a Norwegian watersider, an affectionate Irish nationalist, a love-struck miner, an aspiring Maxim Gorky, a cross-dressing doctor, a nameless rural labourer, an avid letter writer with a hatred of war, and two mystical dairy farmers with a poetic bent’. What connects this cast of characters is that their activities, their letters, and in some cases their activism against the war, was of interest to the New Zealand state. The letters they wrote, to loved ones, friends, and comrades, were never delivered, but were intercepted by the state. They are now held at Archives New Zealand, in the Special Registry File, where Davidson discovered them 100 years later. In telling their stories, Davidson not only provides a compelling historical narrative, he also contributes to our understanding of the First World War home front, to the early history of surveillance, to the history of political and industrial activism and dissent (often in the most surprising places!), and more broadly to New Zealand social history and the history of the modern state. 


Certificate - text reads: Certificate of Award Bert Roth Award for Labour History Tony Sutorius for Helen Kelly - Together 2020 Runner-up presented by the Labour History Project on 11 August 2020'

This year’s runner up is the film Helen Kelly-Together, by Tony Sutorius.  Remarkably, it follows Helen through the last year of her life. As one of the judges for this Award Paul Maunder wrote when reviewing the film, ‘There is something of the Greek Tragedy here, that such a humble, capable woman should be stricken at a young age when, quite simply, the leadership of the country was a logical future role.’ Born into a union activist family, her childhood was surrounded by the political and she became a union organiser then president of the NZCTU. When she resigned, she remained active, assisting in the campaigns being waged by the Pike women and by Forestry workers – both with, ironically, a health and safety theme. She became close to these women who in turn surrounded her with aroha as she entered the final period of her illness. Helen also became, during this time, a vocal advocate for medical cannabis as a pain relief drug of choice. The film becomes then an extraordinary celebration of working-class solidarity and reveals only too well, the bumbling collaborators with capital that often people the bureaucracy, collaboration that is most often hidden from view. In terms of the other criteria for this award, the ultimate exploitation is the unnecessary and preventable death of working people and film is an accessible medium for all. The NZCTU was mounting a campaign for Helen Kelly – Together to be shown widely as part of Workers Memorial Day. Unfortunately, the lockdown prevented this. Hopefully the campaign will be resurrected for 2021.

Stephanie Gibson, Matariki Williams and Puawai Cairns, Protest Tautohetohe: Objects of Resistance, Persistence and Defiance

This stunningly beautiful book centres on the materials of protest – objects, images, symbols and slogans – and gives them back their history. Protest materials are grouped around a range of issues: the dishonoured Te Tiriti o Waitangi, war, nuclear weapons, Māori land and language loss, apartheid, women’s, LGBTQI and civil rights, class struggles and economic rights, and the environment.  

Barbara Brookes, Jane McCabe and Angela Wanhalla. eds., Past Caring? Women, Work and Emotion, Otago, 2019.

‘Care is literally stitched into every aspect of our lives….so vital it has been taken for granted…and unnoticed in historical and philosophical enquiry.’  The eleven essays in this collection seek to make care visible, documenting individual histories, diverse cultural perspectives and very different spaces and locations to explore the questions of gender, justice and morality that are raised by the tensions and contradictions between the constructions and the realities of caring work.

Hilary Stace, JB Munro: Community Citizen, Wellington, 2019.

Hilary Stace tells the remarkable story of John Munro who had polio and began his career as a youth worker. He then worked for the Crippled Children’s Association before becoming an MP in the Kirk Government where he succeeded in steering through parliament the Disabled Person’s Community Welfare Act to assist people not covered by the newly brought in ACC Act. The DPCWA also contained the first Accessibility Building Standards. A brilliant fundraiser he was shoulder tapped by IHC which he led for many years, fighting lengthy battles to deinstitutionalise and to obtain inclusive education and employment for people with learning disabilities.

Caitlin Lynch, Director, Harriet Morrison – Fighting for Fairness, 2019.

This tightly constructed 9-minute film restores Harriet Morison, secretary of the Tailoresses Union, and the working class women she mobilised to sign the 1892 suffrage petition to our understanding of the past. By connecting that campaign to the on-going campaign for pay equity for care workers, the film affirms uniting and organising as crucial for change, and alludes to how much is still to be achieved. 

Max Nichol, An ‘Organ of Student Opinion’? Alternative Print, Protest, and the Politics of Education in Salient, 1973-1989, MA Thesis, Victoria University of Wellington, 2019.

The chaotic camaraderie of the Salient office in Victoria University’s student union building powered the radical student left, and kick-started careers in journalism, publishing and writing. This incisively argued, even-handed thesis records two decades of the newspaper’s roller-coaster trajectory, and firmly establishes its significance for the left-wing culture of the period.

Rachel Standfield and Michael J. Stevens, ‘New Histories but Old Patterns: Kāi Tahu in Australia’ in Victoria Stead and Jon Altman, ed., Labour Lines and Colonial Power: Indigenous and Pacific Islander Labour Mobility in Australia, Canberra, 2019. 

Rachel Standfield and Michael J. Stevens embrace Tracey Banivanua Mar’s methodological strategy to locate mobile Kāi Tahu labour in the Trans-Tasman maritime world. Kāi Tahu whakapapa and narrative bring indigenous people, such as Tokitoki and Jacky Snapper, out of the margins of European accounts.  

Toby Boraman, ‘Indigeneity, Dissent, and Solidarity: Māori and Strikes in the Meat Industry in Aotearoa New Zealand During the Long 1970s’, International Review of Social History, 64, 1, 2019, pp.1-35.

Erudite, exhaustively researched and drawing on international as well as local scholarship, this is an impressive contribution to the academic study of labour history. The crucial role of Māori, as both workers and union activists, in one of this country’s major industries is established concisely and decisively