Skip to content

The Bert Roth Award for Labour History 2023

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.

The judges this year were Claire-Louise McCurdy, Mary Roberts-Schirato and Jared Davidson, with support from Grace Millar (who abstained from any decision making).

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?

The shortlist is a stellar one and was especially hard to judge. However, there were two works that especially fit the award criteria. One is a more traditional labour history – a biography of a trade union leader no less – but brimming with scholarship, story and collective struggle. Its use of oral history and the ability to place people in their wider context is a hallmark of great social biography. The second falls into the activist and History Workshop tradition, where the participants who made history come to reflect on, and intimately document, that history. Filling a gaping hole in the literature, this book stretches back and forward across time in evocative and important ways. Both of these works showcase the rich approaches to labour history, and people’s efforts to challenge exploitation.

With this in mind, we are pleased to announce that the joint winners of the 2023 Bert Roth Award for Labour History are Cybèle Locke for Comrade, and Marie Russell and her fellow contributors for Women Will Rise!

Book cover. Text reads Comrade: Bill Andersen A Communist Working-Class Life Cybèle Locke.  Image is a black and white image of people marching through the street.
Book cover. Text reads Women Will Rise Recalling the Working Women's Charter, edited by Gay Simpkin & Marie Russell. Black and white images of women trade unionists illustrate the picture


Comrade: Bill Andersen – A Communist, Working-Class Life by Cybèle Locke (Bridget Williams Books)

A union member as a teenager and Communist Party member by his twenties, Bill Andersen played a significant role in both union and national politics from the 1960s to the 1990s. Cybèle Locke’s Comrade draws a detailed picture of how his political convictions developed, informing both his working and private lives. The forces that shaped Andersen’s life as a working-class communist in New Zealand are gone but the story is an important one, both in relation to its own historical time and as a way of thinking about the politics of labour today.

‘In Defence of Living Standards: The Federation of Labour and the Politics of Economic Crisis, 1975-1987’ by Ross Webb (Thesis)

Departing from existing accounts of the Federation of Labour in novel and important ways, this thesis charts the FOL’s response to economic crisis as it unfolded on the ground. Rather than viewing the period as having an inevitable outcome, Ross Webb threads archival research and oral history together to highlight the debates, ideas and struggles as an open-ended labour history – one that sheds new light on a well-canvassed story while emphasising the importance of participatory union politics.

Jumping Sundays: The Rise and Fall of the Counterculture in Aotearoa New Zealand by Nick Bollinger (Auckland University Press)

Jumping Sundays is an extremely readable social history of the counterculture in Aotearoa New Zealand. Weaving multiple types of sources and experiences while attuned to the international context, Nick Bollinger charts a period of rapid social change – including feminist movements, the class politics of the Progressive Youth Movement, anti-war marches, numerous communes (and the question of Māori land rights), local music, and much more. Its design and visual aesthetic complement the content perfectly.

Keystrokes Per Minute by Storycollective (Podcast series)

This nine-episode podcast tells the story of workers in the Public Service typing pools – work that has been transformed by technology and economic restructuring. The podcast originated out of an oral history project and centres workers’ voices and stories. The podcast gives visceral sense of this work with the combination of people’s own voices and the sounds of typewriters.

Making Space: A History of New Zealand Women in Architecture edited by Elizabeth Cox (Massey University Press)

Making Space is a great contribution to two aspects of New Zealand history: the history of architecture as a profession and the history of architecture as a presence in the built environment. In addition to these histories, this beautifully produced book edited by Elizabeth Cox (who also contributed 13 of the 48 chapters), provides us with a detailed and fascinating account of how women slowly and often with difficulty became significant contributors to this field as it rapidly professionalised throughout the twentieth century.

‘Māori Workers in Colonial New South Wales, c.1803-1840’ by Rohan Howitt (paper, History Workshop Journal)

In this excellent paper, Rohan Howitt complicates the histories of indigenous mobility by charting the lives and relationships of Māori workers in colonial New South Wales. Rather than approaching these workers as individuals (such as travellers or seamen), Howitt examines the experiences of working-class Māori as a subaltern collective, highlighting the long-term nature of this community and their presence in places like The Rocks in Sydney. Rich with examples drawn from the colonial press, this paper considerably adds to our knowledge of expatriate Māori labour in the pre-Tiriti period.

New Zealand Nurses: Caring For Our People 1880-1950 by Pamela Wood (Otago University Press)

The changing relationship of the British Empire to ‘its southern edge’ as the imported Nightingale nursing system became a distinctive and autonomous New Zealand nursing profession, is central to this book. It is manifest in the increasing tension between the public’s view of ‘heroic, self-sacrificing, ministering angels’ and the nurses’ self-definition as ‘well-trained professionals’. Their voices are used to convey the unrelenting emotional work, physical labour and professional knowledge and skill called for in hospital wards, back block farms, city slums, and the natural and manmade disasters of earthquakes and war.

Takeout Kids directed by Julie Zhu (Documentary series)

These 15 minute ‘fly-on-the-wall’ videos document the everyday lives of four young people growing up in their immigrant parents’ restaurants and takeaway shops. Their parents work long, hard days, seven days a week. They all juggle shop work, schoolwork, homework and housework, and multiple languages. The director leaves it to the viewer to ask whether these ‘takeout kids’ will have different lives. 

Women and the New Zealand office, 1945-1972: Keystrokes to a rewarding life?’ by Sarah Christie (Thesis)

Sarah Christie’s thesis opens with a clear statement of the importance of the work she is writing about: ‘The work of female clerical staff of the post-World War II decades is obvious within the historical record. Screeds of immaculately typed pages, with their neatly justified margins and carefully tabulated lines of figures, are the historical artefacts of government departments and commercial enterprises’. The strength of this thesis is that it shows how the limited work options for women in this period structured their lives and how women navigated these limited options to build the lives they wanted.

Women Will Rise! Recalling the Working Women’s Charter edited by Gay Simpkin and Marie Russell (Steele Roberts)

This collection of essays shows the value of a charter as a campaigning tool and the importance of this Charter’s addressing of the implications of domestic and reproductive labour for conditions of employment. It details, clause by clause, what has changed since 1980 when the Charter was accepted by the Federation of Labour, with particular attention to the histories of sexual harassment and pay equity. It also documents how feminists fought for change, the time and work that went into firstly articulating, then communicating ‘a collective strategy to fight for a better world’, and the effectiveness of unions as a context for organizing.