One of the themes I wove into my book on New Zealand coal mining involved its radical work force. Coal miners – mostly imported from Britain – were viewed as a breed apart in colonial-age New Zealand. Not least because they brought their radical ‘union’ thinking with them, wrapped up in evangelistic Methodism.
The problem wasn’t the Methodism – it was the radicalism. And that image remained, growing by the 1880s into a pro-unionist movement urging workers’ rights, particularly improved conditions on the coal-fields. That fell over with the Maritime Strike of 1890, which broke the early power of the unions. But it re-emerged, this time in context of international workers’ rights movements.
The turn of the twentieth century – ostensibly – brought New Zealand’s years of ‘red’ agitation. The coal miners and their allies in the maritime unions were, apparently, going to overthrow New Zealand’s capitalist system in a violent communist revolution. Apparently.
The fact that just 4000 coal miners were thought capable of this gives perspective to the hysteria.
The reality? I checked it out. The centre of the ‘red’ movement was in the union hall at Runanga, where miners regularly met to discuss their movement’s agenda and aims. They called each other ‘comrade’ and on the face of it this looked like the very hot-bed of revolution that authorities feared. Except….e-e-e-e-xcept that their discussions had very little to do with revolt and quite a lot to do with making arrangements to buy and distribute classic literature to members. The hall itself was sponsored by local businesses, whose advertisements – those quintessential expressions of capitalist enterprise – flanked a placard urging the workers of the world to unite.
There was the usual range of opinion among them, of course. Some were quite dramatically radical. But most were not. What the bulk of these – er – ‘radicals’ – wanted, in fact, wasn’t the overthrow of the system that fed them – they wanted a better deal for themselves. And while there were ambitions to enter government, that was always going to be done through the existing system – by political party, through democratic election.
They did it, too, in the end – though it took until the fourth decade of the twentieth century for the miners’ party, Labour, to become government.
Conservative elements feared the worst, but these former coal-mining unionists-turned-politicians proved remarkably conservative when they entered power in late 1935. Their main focus was on getting New Zealand back on its feet again – and making sure that people who were beset by poverty not of their own making would never again suffer hunger, homelessness or be unable to get medical help. The Prime Minister, former mining unionist Michael Joseph Savage, called the approach ‘applied Christianity’. And it was.
That was New Zealand under the coal miners.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014