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Tooth and Veil wins 2021 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 work, 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?

2020 was a very strange year, with intense reminders of how much history matters. The memory of The Tulane, the ship that the New Zealand administration allowed to bring influenza to Samoa, echoed throughout New Zealand and the Pacific. The splash made by the statue of Edward Colston as he was thrown into Bristol harbour was heard around the world. It was a strange and difficult year for so many people, and we commend all those who produced labour history in such uncertainty.

Each year constructing the shot-list and selecting the winner is a revealing and rewarding experience for the judging panel. The works short-listed show the depth and breadth of labour history in New Zealand. Again we are reminded of the importance of both the lives and struggles documented in these works, and the importance of remembering them.

Winner: Noel O’Hare, Tooth and Veil: The Life and Times of the New Zealand Dental Nurse, Massey University Press, 2020.

The 29th of March 1974, when dental nurses from all over the country marched on parliament and won a substantial pay increase, is the centre of Tooth and Nail. O’Hare’s compelling history indicates why this event was so important, and what it tells us about the society in which it took place. Formed in 1921, by a Colonel who had been appalled at soldiers’ teeth during the Great War, the school dental service was clearly tied to a particular understanding about the state’s interest in citizen’s bodies. To lessen opposition from dentists, dental nurses were not given professional training, but instead they were taught skills in a system that emphasized control. Oral history provides a vivid sense of how little control dental nurses had over their own work, and how their employers surveilled their home life as well to ensure their respectability. O’Hare also provides a sense of how the refusal to treat women workers as professionals and invest in training and equipment, led to worse outcomes for children’s teeth and more pain.  The march of 1974 was not just about pay, but about a wider challenge to petty systems of control. O’Hare draws out the connection between the dental nurses’ strikes and the wider changes in New Zealand society of the 1970s. However, the victory of the dental nurses in 1974, like so many victories of the 1970s, was soon threatened by neo-liberalism. Dental nurses had managed to break through some of the ways their work was devalued because they were women, but rather than being able to use their victory to build the better service they dreamed of, they soon had to fight a rear guard action against cuts. O’Hare’s work is a compelling account of a single industry, filled with the voices of those who worked in it.  By providing such a detailed account of this particular example, he sheds light on wider struggles and changes in New Zealand society. 

Runner-Up: Mark Derby, Rock College: An Unofficial history of Mt Eden Prison, Massey University Press, 2020.

Mark Derby recounts the 150 years of Mt Eden prison chronologically focusing on key events and people; unlike the more official histories of prisons and penal policy, he pays attention to the lived experience of imprisonment. From archival sources and interviews with former prisoners and staff, he tells the inside story of the building and its inmates, describing the way the grim Victorian-style stone building defined the lives that could be led within it. Many people who have appeared in other works short-listed for this award, appear in Rock College: Māori, resistant to colonization, who were executed and buried in the grounds of the prison, Tamasese, leader of the Mau movement, campaigning for Samoan independence, union leaders, labour organizers, striking miners, conscientious objectors, and children who had been subject to state care, who were further punished in a unrelenting system. For at least three decades, New Zealand politicians have campaigned on policies ‘hard on crime’, vastly increasing the number of prisoners (especially Maori) and denying them humanity and citizenship by reducing them to ‘çrims’. By telling Mt Eden prison’s history through the experiences of its inmates, Mark Derby has restored their individuality and given us their voices.

Jim McAloon, ‘Raw Material Drawn from the Remotest Zones’: Aotearoa/New Zealand and Capitalism’s Pacific Frontier, 1770s-1830′, New Zealand Journal of History, 54, 2, 2020. (Link subscription only)

In this thought-provoking article, based on the 2019 J.C. Beaglehole Lecture, historian Jim McAloon argues that the history of these islands between the 1770s and 1830s might be understood in the context of ‘an expanding disruptive capitalism’. McAloon draws on a wide literature to provide a new way of thinking about pre-Treaty of Waitangi Aotearoa. Supplementing scholarship that explores maritime, environmental, and histories of iwi and hapū-led trade, McAloon argues that a focus on capitalism could place the history of these islands in its global context. Like McAloon’s previous work, ‘Class in Colonial New Zealand’, this article challenges us to think about our history differently. McAloon’s reframing of the period between the 1770s and 1830s as one shaped by capitalism has implications for future research into the labour history and these islands.

Jared Davidson, ‘The History of a Riot: Class, Popular Protest and Violence in Early Colonial Nelson’, Labour History Project website, 2020. (Now published by Bridget Williams Books)

‘On Saturday 26 August 1843, pay day for the gang-men employed on the New Zealand Company’s public relief works, acting police magistrate George White frantically prepared for the confrontation to come’. So begins Jared Davidson’s fascinating ‘micro-history of collective revolt’. Davidson shines a light on histories of resistance – ‘combinations’, petitions, public meetings, go-slows, work refusal, violence, and armed revolt strikes among Nelson’s Labourers. Davidson provides a vivid account of the events surrounding ‘the tumultuous pay day of 26 August 1843’, and also attempts to explore the who, how and why of the events and how the New Zealand Company countered the power of the gang-men after their show of defiance. Like McAloon’s article, Davidson explores the relationship between colonisation and capitalism: how did class composition and class conflict, both overt and covert, play out in colonising contexts?

Delwyn Blondell, ‘“A Bright Eye to the Main Chance”: Brogdens’ Navvies – British Labourers Building New Zealand’s Railways’, MA thesis, Massey University, 2020.

In 1872, John Brogden and Sons brought over 1,000 British labourers to New Zealand to build the new railway network. Delwyn Blondell’s thesis explores the experience of these men, the world they came from, and their lives in New Zealand. She depicts a particular work culture that valued independence and informal resistance, but was not inclined to formally organize into unions. Her thesis is an important reminder that migration has always shaped work and work culture in New Zealand (a particularly timely reminder at a time when the borders are closed and life for migrants is harder than ever). 

Matt Morris, Common Ground: Garden Histories of Aotearoa, Otago University Press, 2020.

Matt Morris provides a very different perspective on the relationship between work and the colonisation of Aotearoa, by focusing on gardens. He captures how important gardens were to survival in the 19th century and complicates the picture of New Zealand as a waged labour economy, including an account of an employer complaining that workers put more energy into gardens than they do into their work. Morris brings together a wide range of sources, and the account is particularly enriched by illustrations, both of gardens themselves and advertising material related to gardening. He is passionate about ordinary gardening, arguing that it was a site of both conformity and resistance.

Margaret Tennant, Geoff Watson, Kerry Taylor, City at the Centre: A History of Palmerston North, Massey University Press, 2020.

This beautifully designed and richly illustrated book tells the story of the people of Palmerston North. Margaret Tennant and Simon Johnson’s chapter, ‘A City at Work’, provides a broad overview, from the 1870s ‘bushmen’ to Palmerston North’s transformation into a rural service centre. It details the collective organisations that formed to address accidents, illness, wages, and conditions, from the friendly societies to trade unions. In addressing a wide ranging and long period, the chapter zeroes in on a number of case studies, from the Longburn freezing works, retail workers, to the skilled trades sector. This ‘urban biography’ takes a distinctly social history approach and adds much to our understanding of New Zealand labour history in a local context.

Helen Peters: ‘Going up North: Unmarried Mothers and the New Zealand State, 1950-1980’, MA thesis, Massey University, 2020.

The core of Helen Peters’ thesis is interviews with women who were classified as unmarried mothers from the 1950s to the 1980s. Rather than looking at mother and baby homes, Peters examines women who made private arrangements. Her thesis is labour history in two ways. The first is that she documents the terms of conditions under which women experience pregnancy, give birth, and raise or are not allowed to raise infants: reproductive labour. She also documents how key the labour of ‘unmarried mothers’ was to the New Zealand economy in these decades – as homes and farms relied on the work of women who had few options because of shame and stigma. She shows careful sympathy and discussion of their experiences and documents the difference that the Domestic Purposes Benefit made.

Elizabeth Orr, Pay Packets and Stone Walls: A Memoir of Women’s Causes and Love of the Land, Steele Roberts, 2020.

This comprehensive history of equal pay and pay equity in New Zealand is enriched by its location within a memoir written by “a woman with a cause, an activist, an advocate” who was part of the campaign for over 50 years. Elizabeth Orr documents the ways legislation was mis/interpreted and undermined and resisted by employers, by unions and by subsequent legislation. As well as providing insight to aspects of the equal pay struggle that are not well documented, the memoir format allows Orr to explicitly make the links between the present and the past. She explains: “As I…recuperated at home [from a fall] I had plenty of time to contemplate the success of the Kristine Bartlett Pay equity case and Bill English’s poor pay equity bill that followed it. I decided my memoir needed to focus on pay equity”. There are warnings for the future in this version of the past.   

Melani Anae, The Platform: The Radical Legacy of the Polynesian Panthers, Bridget Williams Books, 2020.

In this powerful memoir, Melani Anae begins with the question: ‘Did the PPP [Polynesian Panther Party] platform drive my life’s work or did my life experiences drive the three-point platform and the continuing work of the PPP? In answer, Anae weaves her personal story – being brought up Samoan in Auckland City – with others who formed the Polynesian Panther Party to challenge everyday racism in New Zealand society. To bring an end to the Dawn Raids, the Panthers forged a revolutionary ideological platform – to resist racism, empower and educate Pasifika peoples to liberate themselves and lead their communities. As Anae makes clear, the platform has endured, informing our present and future.

Oliver Sutherland, Justice & Race: Campaigns against Racism and Abuse in Aotearoa New Zealand, Steele Roberts, 2020.

Justice & Race is Oliver Sutherland’s stark and illuminating account of campaigns led by the Nelson Māori Committee, Nelson Race Relations Action Group and Auckland Committee on Racism and Discrimination between 1969 and 1986. They challenged institutional racism in police, justice and social welfare systems at a time where Pākehā largely believed New Zealand had the best race relations in the world. Campaigners, such as Sutherland, exposed how often Māori and Pasifika young people were targeted by police, compared to Pākehā, and document the horrific treatment of those taken into state custody, particularly Lake Alice psychiatric hospital. ACORD worked closely with the Polynesian Panthers, challenging police behaviour on the streets of Auckland, so it is very much worth reading Justice & Race alongside The Platform.

Will Hansen ‘“Every Bloody Right To Be Here”: Trans Resistance in Aotearoa New Zealand, 1967 – 1989’, MA Thesis, Victoria University of Wellington.

Will Hansen’s thesis explores trans survival and resistance in the 1970s and 1980s. Hansen combines careful archival work, with a range of oral history to uncover three key strategies: community building, pride, and normalising. Access to and exclusion to different forms of work is a key thread running through this thesis. Some trans people kept their identities hidden, so they can continue their work. Others were excluded from most forms of work, and so a combination of sex work and trans-run coffee shops, provided both economic survival and places of community. Hansen’s thesis pays particular attention to the way building community was a key act of both resistance and survival, but does not simplify or romanticise this process.

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