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?
Housing crises, racist immigration policies and practices, employers arguing that laws that lessen exploitation limit their freedom, this year’s short-list is full of explicit and implicit resonances for the strange and volatile times we find ourselves in. The people discussed in these works answer urgent questions about how to survive, how to build a good life, how to build solidarity, and how to resist. Collectively this year’s short-list shows vividly that there are always alternatives, and the actions we take matter.
Winner: Julia Laite, The disappearance of Lydia Harvey, Allen & Unwin, 2021
In 1910, Lydia Harvey was working as a servant in Karori and hating it, a few months later she was arrested in London for soliciting. Reporters wrote scandalised copy about ‘white slavery’ and she was discussed in the New Zealand Parliament. Julia Laite tells her story, and the story of the lives that intersected with hers. The records (and the silences) that exist of Lydia Harvey, the police officer who arrested her, the woman who ran the home she stayed with, the journalist who covered her case, the man who trafficked her, and his partner, are detailed with a wealth of contextual research. Julia Laite brings out the dreams and desires of her subjects, as well as their actions, from the fragmentary records that survived. She shows New Zealand as part of wider networks of communication and exploitation, the meanings given to sex work and the impossible double-binds working-class women were caught in. Throughout it all she holds onto the importance of Lydia Harvey’s life and the choices she makes. She shows us again and again that Lydia Harvey was making her own history, but not in circumstances of her own choosing: when she moved to Wellington, left working as a servant, agreed to go to Argentina, refused to do what her employers and clients expected, agreed to testify against the man who had trafficked her, and built a new life for herself in Australia. The ending captures the author’s approach:
When Lydia Harvey made her brief mark on the historical record, she told us she wanted safe and valued work that paid a living wage. That she dreamed of a life made meaningful by travel and adventure, by pleasure and comfort. She said that she wanted respect and justice What would I say to Lydia Harvey if I could? I would tell her that one day, perhaps, we’ll live in a world where this is never too much for anyone to ask.
Runner-up: Rebecca Macfie, Helen Kelly: Her Life, Awa Press, 2021
Helen Kelly: Her Life by Rebecca Macfie provides a valuable account of the life of a campaigner who fought for the employment rights of New Zealand workers. She eventually became the president of the CTU and as her career progressed towards this point the regulatory environment surrounding unions became steadily more unfriendly and confrontational. Macfie presents her subject as someone always ready to stand up for the rights of those most affected by this antagonistic environment. Some of the strongest sections of this biography contain Macfie’s clear and detailed account of the sustained attacks, beginning in the 1980s, on unions and the interests of workers in New Zealand. The labour movement and unions in New Zealand still feel the effects today and Macfie provides a thorough and enlightening guide to how these successful initiatives to undermine the power of organised labour were carried out. Helen Kelly died, too young, of cancer and Macfie’s extensive research and skilful interweaving of the personal and the political does justice to her life as well as to the times she was living in. Macfie has provided an accessible account of the changes to working-life and the attacks on the union movement in the last 50 years, which lays out to readers that the current situation: low wages, insecure work, and deepening inequality, was not inevitable and people were resisting every step of the way.
Morgan Godfery, ‘In Kawerau one thing impedes the effort to vaccinate Māori: New Zealand’s history’, The Guardian, 19 October 2021,
Tasman Mill was built in the 1950s; Māori provided the land for the mill and its workforce, there were costs, particularly to the Tarawera river, but the crown promised prosperity and security. Morgan Godfery places present day Kawerau in the context of the breaking of that promise in the 1980s. He interweaves his own story with the story of the town where he was born; demonstrating the way work, the conditions of work, and the conditions under which people don’t have access to work, shape lives and places. Morgan Godfery illuminates both the present and the past, in the context of vaccination as a fight for the future.
Elinor Chisholm, ‘”Come Quickly! The Bailiffs Are In!”: Resistance to Eviction During the Depression in New Zealand’, New Zealand Journal of History, 55(2), 2021, pp. 32-50.
Elinor Chisholm brings together accounts of eviction resistance during the great depression. Stories of neighbours, friends and comrades, gathering at a house to ensure that those living there cannot be evicted are powerful. Elinor Chisholm discusses eviction resistance the wider context of the Unemployed Workers Movement, and other mechanisms tenants used to provide better homes, cheaper rent, and more housing security. The current housing crisis brings out particular urgency and resonance to her research.
Jon Henning, ‘The Unpaid Child’, New Zealand Journal of History, 55(1), pp. 50-71
In New Zealand, it was routine for children to work in factories without being paid, until the passage Employment of Boys or Girls without Payment Prevention Act in 1899. Jon Henning’s excellent article explores the political fight to pass this legislation and ensure child workers the most basic of rights: to be paid. The article takes care to detail the arguments against unpaid child labour – including that it would force employers to close, that consumers couldn’t afford higher prices and a suggestion that the bill interfered ‘a little too much with the freedom’ both bosses and children. Employers have been repeating these arguments against an additional public holiday, sick leave and fair pay agreements, seeing them used in practices that are recognised as wildly exploitative, exposes those arguments for what they are.
Cybèle Locke, ‘The New Zealand Northern Drivers’ Union: Trade Union Anti-Racism Work’, 1937–80’, Labour History, 120, 2021, pp. 21-47
How to build anti-racist culture in trade unions, is as relevant now as it was in 1960, when the Northern Drivers Union developed an anti-racism policy. Cybèle Locke explores what led up to this moment, and what developed as a result of it. She opens with two examples of anti-racist union solidarity, the 1937 opposition to a Māori being excluded from the 1937 All Black to South Africa and Ngati Whatua’s 1943 blockade to prevent their eviction from their village at Ōrākei. These two threads, of internationalist solidarity and local experiences, weave through Cybèle Locke’s account, as she shows that for Northern Drivers Union ideology, experiences, and relationships layered on top of each other to create more resilient anti-racist practices. Trade union solidarity with Māori demands was a choice that both Māori and Pākehā workers made again and again.
Jacinta Ruru & Linda Nikora (eds), Ngā Kete Mātauranga, University of Otago Press, 2021.
Biographical accounts feature strongly in this shortlist, which shows the different ways that a well told account of a particular life can reveal much about the world. Ngā Kete Mātauranga: Māori Scholars At The Research Interface shares the real and personal challenges of Māori scholars in a (largely) Pākehā academy who have often faced personal and professional difficulties and had to ride the tensions between cultural differences to gain and keep their place in the academy. Being at the ‘cutting edge’ of the research interface is both exciting and potentially damaging too. Weighing up the costs as well as the rewards is something these scholars all have in common. It is also beautiful example of strong design aesthetics, which draw readers into very human stories with photos of each of the scholars in the volume. A fascinating insight into the hard mahi of the academic world, and also a warm engagement with research which ranges from marine science to oral history.
Margaret Wilson, Activism, Feminism, Politics and Parliament, Bridget Williams Books, 2021.
Margaret Wilson’s autobiography also covers four decades of neo-liberalism, in this case from the centre of Parliamentary and Party political processes. Fer chapter on Employment Relations documents how deeply embedded neo-liberalism had become in the State and its officials. The virulence of the attacks on her from business, the media, the Opposition and some of her colleagues limited the extent to which her new employment legislation and codes of minimal employment standards could affect any form of structural change. It was in this government that Margaret Wilson’s name became widely known for a number of ‘firsts’, among them being New Zealand’s first woman Attorney General and Speaker of the House of Representatives. What is much less widely known is that she was disabled. The amputation of her leg with cancer in her mid-teens required her to fundamentally rethink not only her future, but how she would cope with daily life. She chose a life of activism, campaigning for the rights of women and equality for all under the law, assuming that if people knew she was disabled it would be seen as an exclusionary weakness. The refusal of Parliamentary Services to make changes to the Speaker’s chair to alleviate the unrelenting pain it caused her, on the grounds that money was not available, is possibly the most egregious example of general attitudes to disability.
Brad Flahive & Alex Liu, Once a Panther, Podcast, 2021.
In this extraordinary podcast, those involved in Polynesian Panthers tell their own stories, fifty years after the group was formed. Through six episodes the series explores the lives of Pacific People in 1970s and 1980s Aotearoa. During this time, the police invaded homes in dawn raids to arrest ‘overstayers’, in the pursuit of government’s immigration policy; this series provides often painful experiences to the listener. But there’s also joy, hope and hilarity. Melani Anae, Alec Toleafoa, Will ‘Illolahia, Tigilau Ness and Wayne Toleafoa share their memories of learning to organise protests, engaging with lawyers like David Lange to provide legal information to young people, navigating sometimes fraught relationships with parents, the Springbok Tour and the sacrifices and relationships activists made through the dawn raids period.
From 6 July to 13 September 2021 this fantastic account live tweeted the protests and tour that had taken place 40 years earlier. Tweets contained images, documents, quotes, and a day by day account of this crucial moment in New Zealand history. A joint project of Wellington City Library and Wellington City Archives, substantial research was undertaken to make this history accessible and available. The photographs and documents provide a vivid and vibrant resource for accessing a moment of important resistance.
Judges: Emma Jean Kelly, Claire-Louise McCurdy, Grace Millar, Mary Roberts- Schirato