The Labour Party has successfully appropriated the revolutionary tradition of Blackball on the West Coast of New Zealand, and sadly they continue to subvert it for their anti-worker agenda. This political theft was dealt with by Chris Trotter in his column on Friday. Trotter correctly points out that all the ‘Cabinet Ministers and high-ranking trade union officials’ who turned up in Blackball for the recent centenary celebrations of the historic 1908 strike were there ‘to celebrate the myth of Blackball, not the reality’. And the reality is that the miners’ illegal strike had little in common with the reformist Labour Party that emerged a few years later – in fact, according to Trotter, the new moderate party represented the repudiation of the insurgency and militancy of Blackball [Read more below]
The mythology of Blackball centres around the false idea that the miners strike led to ‘the birth of the Labour Party’. Chris Trotter says it was anything but that. The revolutionary impulse of the Blackball strikers was opposed to a moderate Labour-type party. Not only were they demanding a 30-minute lunch break, they were launching an illegal strike against the state’s anti-worker industrial regime. Instead of submitting to the state’s compulsory industrial conciliation and arbitration rules, the workers wanted to take matters into their own hands. As Trotter says, ‘Reformists legislate for a 30-minute meal-break. Revolutionaries take it for themselves’. And the fact that the miners won made this even more significant. The victory produced, according to labour historians, ‘an electrifying effect on unions throughout the country’, and led to the creation of the militant ‘Red Feds’ labour organization – which has very different politics to the Labour Party. Therefore, according to Trotter, this tradition has had to be repacked in a new myth:
To prevent the Blackball Miners' Strike from becoming an alternative historical touchstone - a reminder of what militant trade unionism and revolutionary socialism could achieve - the founders of the Labour Party shrewdly incorporated it into the creation-myth of their new, moderate, political movement. So, at Blackball last weekend, the labour movement's big-wigs weren't so much marking militant trade unionism's first great break- out, as celebrating its recapture.
Sadly, most of the media continue to swallow the Labour Party line about Blackball, and things have mostly been no different this year. See, for example, TV3 reporting on the centenary celebrations.
A good exception, was an article in The Press, entitled 'Blackball unionists paint the town red'. The article reported that one great-grandson of a Labour Party founder who had returned to Blackball for the celebrations, Ken Meadowcroft, thought that ‘Labour did not do as much for workers' rights these days’. And ‘around the bar of the Blackball Workingmen's Club on Thursday, there were few tears shed that Prime Minister Helen Clark, who was invited, was not coming’. In fact another report said that Clark’s image was used on the pub’s dartboard! This probably has something to do with how anti-worker the current Employment Relations Act is. Many strikes are now illegal under Labour's act, including political strikes. So Blackball miners would be breaking the law under the present Labour Government and Helen Clark would have them jailed.