May Day in Blackball

Over May 4th and 5th, the small West Coast town of Blackball held its annual May Day celebrations. Blackball is an old mining town, and one of the places where the union movement first began in Aotearoa. It soon became a hotbed of the radical workers movement, and remained so until the depression in the 1930s – the New Zealand Communist Party was even headquartered there for a time.

These days, the town has a permanent population of just 360, with many local residents employed at the Roa underground coal mine nearby. The town also gets a number of tourists every year, situated as it is in a beautiful part of the West Coast close to a number of walking tracks.

For the last 13 years, locals have started again celebrating May Day, with a march and other events occuring over the weekend closest to May Day every year. This year, a forum was held between the Save Happy Valley Coalition and locals, to discuss coal, the environment, the campaign to save Happy Valley (around 2 hours drive to the start of the track from Blackball) and the West Coast.

The forum, and subsequent discussions over the rest of the weekend, began a process of real engagement between SHVC and Coasters – in general, while there were undoubtedly disagreements, everyone left with a strong awareness of our commonalities and many with a commitment to furthering these.

Below is the speech I gave to the forum, as one of the four SHVC speakers. The other speakers were a Blackball resident, forum organiser and unionist; a miner from the Roa mine and EPMU member; and an EPMU organiser that works with miners employed by Solid Energy at their Stockton mine (near to Happy Valley).

Hi, my name’s Asher Goldman. I thought I’d start with a brief introduction and background on myself, because I firmly believe that it is only once we understand where we are all coming from that we can begin to imagine any future working together.

I’m 22, and was born and bred in Wellington. At age 17 after dropping out of high school one year earlier, I spent around a year in Israel, working with Israeli and Palestinian children on co-existance projects. This has continued to be an inspiration to me, as an example of two seemingly intractable sides being able to look past their apparent differences and realising that, as their future lies together, they need to develop methods of cooperation and shared understanding.

Since returning to New Zealand in 2004, I have worked with children in minority groups on self-confidence issues, and done freelance journalism. As of last year, I am a fulltime writer, on issues of religion, politics and the environment. Through researching climate change, I decided to get involved in the Save Happy Valley Coalition in late 2005.

I’m very excited to be a part of this panel, here in Blackball, a town with such a rich history of worker’s struggle. Blackball is, of course, one of the places where the worker’s movement in New Zealand really began to step up in the early 1900’s, culminating in such events as the miner’s strike of 1908 and the great strike of 1912.

Of course, union activity has never just been limited to involvement in workplace struggles. Environmental, indigenous and political struggles in New Zealand and all over the world have a long history of union support and involvement.

In the late 1960’s and early 70’s, the New South Wales branch of the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) instituted over 40 “Green bans” on various construction projects around Sydney that would have destroyed areas of native bush and low-income neighbourhoods for motorways and high rise apartments. The BLF enacted the green bans after requests from local community action groups, as a method of preventing development when legal avenues had been exhausted – without the involvement of the union labourers, nothing could be demolished or built.

To the BLF, like the New Zealand unions that were involved in action against nuclear ship visits, apartheid in South Africa and the war in Vietnam, these involvements in areas perhaps considered outside traditional union activity came naturally. They knew that when their collective power was realised, they could create huge change that would not only benefit their members, but local communities, wider society and the environment.

Since the imposition of the anti-worker Employment Contracts Act of 1991, union activity in New Zealand has undoubtedly taken a hard blow. With solidarity and political strikes banned, activity has generally been confined to workplace struggles. Unions are on the rebound however, with the EPMU’s “fair share” campaign, Unite’s SuperSizeMyPay and last year’s lockout of NDU Progressive Enterprise workers all recent prominent examples. Could we also see a resurgence of union solidarity on struggles not directly related to workplace issues?

Where then, does the West Coast community fit into this picture? Can miners and their unions on the Coast take a leading role in moving the West Coast towards social and environmental sustainability?

Coal mining in New Zealand will end. Of that, there can be little doubt – it is a comparatively easy target that Governments increasingly pressured to take action on Climate Change will make use of, at some point. If we take that as a given, the question then becomes not “what to do about coal mining?” but rather “if coal mining must end, on who’s terms will it be?”

We should have no doubt that if it is left to the Government or big business to dictate the terms of the end of coal, workers in the coal industry and their local communities will lose out. In a system where economic interests reign supreme, all of us here today lose out. When we reach the end of coal on the Coast, it won’t be the owners or executives of Solid Energy or Francis Mining taking the economic hit – they’ll return to their plush homes and find other natural resources and workers to exploit to continue making their profit.

The only way for Coasters to ensure that you are not left behind is for you all to take the initiative, to dictate where the Coast will move after coal, and the steps to take between where you are today and where you want to be in the future. It is not our position, as Save Happy Valley, to be telling you what you should do – rather, it is our responsibility to offer you all our support and solidarity in order that you can choose your own future.

SHVC has failed thus far to constructively engage with Coasters, and for that I do genuinely apologise. Today, I hope, we can all begin this engagement. Over three years into our campaign, we can all agree this is late in coming, but rather than holding back, can we now we move forward from here? If we realise that, in the long term, our interests in equality and autonomy are aligned, even if in the short term they appear to diverge, then we can discuss, as equals on a bedrock of mutual respect, what practical steps we can take to support and show solidarity with each other, even on matters where we might disagree.

It could begin, on a simple level, at the upcoming contract negotiations with Solid Energy. They will, no doubt, attempt to use the Save Happy Valley Coalition as their excuse to refuse pay increases. One only has to glance at CEO Don Elder’s pay packet of around $670,000 and its frequent increases and bonuses to realise the farcical nature of this claim. I will support you 100% in getting your desired pay rise in any way I can, and, from our newfound basis of solidarity, I would hope that you all call Don Elder and the rest of the executives on the falsity of their claim and refuse to allow them to distract you from their own selfish interests.

It is in their interest of Government and big business to further widen the divide between workers and environmentalists – it is in all of ours to bridge it.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak today.

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One Response to May Day in Blackball

  1. [...] think Asher’s attempts to build solidarity with the miners on the coast, despite being apparently objectively at odds with their way of life is a worthwhile [...]

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