The Pike River Mine Disaster and the role of the Unions

UWM Hall
The original Miners Union Hall in Runanga (just north of Greymouth on the West Coast of Aotearoa/NZ) dates from 1908, it was burnt down in 1937 and the replacement still stands as a symbol of the United Mine Workers’ union.

Pike River was a failure of the unions to insist on health and safety conditions for the miners under both Labour and National Governments. The deregulation of industry was started by the 4th Labour Government under Lange. It was symptomatic that under Labour the unions fell into line with its policies and failed to put up a serious fight against the monetarist deregulation of the economy at the cost of many workers lives. Today, state-owned Solid Energy which owns the mine refuses to re-open it to recover the bodies. All the evidence that would condemn those who built and ran an unsafe mine will remain buried with the dead. We say open the mine and rebuild the United Mine Workers Union as part of a Red Federation of Labour!

Labour’s Failure

This failure was belatedly recognized by Bill Anderson, secretary of the Northern Drivers, who regretted ‘pulling’ industrial action at Marsden Point in the months before the election in 1984 on the promise that a Labour Government would meet their demands. So comfortable was the union bureaucracy with the Labour Party, that the unions were completely unprepared for the onslaught of Rogernomics. The outcome was the return to a rip, shit and bust economy of follow the money all the way to the bank and bugger the consequences. Rip, shit and bust means scavenging the resources of the semi-colonial frontier for the ‘health and safety’ of the rate of profit. One ventilation fan at the bottom of its shaft says it all. Had this been in the days of the Ministry of Mines rescuers would have done what they are trained to do and assessed the situation without ringing an insurance broker. So, what happened? Neo-liberal Corporatization and privatization!

Labour had no answer to neo-liberalism. Having emerged in the 1930s as a serious political force representing workers and working farmers and implementing a policy of economic nationalism, the end of the post-war boom destroyed the conditions for protectionism. This became obvious when the last Muldoon Government resorted to ‘think big’ to defend economic nationalism. The incoming Lange Government faced an international capital strike and quickly imposed the neo-liberal reforms of Finance Minister Roger Douglas. The deregulation under Rogernomics shocked Labour supporters who still had illusions in parliamentary socialism. Yet Labour’s political existence was always that of responding to crises by making workers pay for them while at the same time claiming to be defending the unions and historic gains in workers’ rights and living standards.

If we go back to the ‘golden age’ of Labour, the depression and onset of WW2, we can see clearly that Labour was protecting the profitability of semi-colonial capitalism in the only way it could by increasing the rate of exploitation of its working-class constituency. Economic nationalism hides the interest of global capitalism and its national capitalist allies behind the fig-leaf of a non-class or classless, equal opportunity society. Yet workers kept resorting to class struggle to which Labour responded as the conditions dictated.

Depression welfare became workfare and emergency regulations. Wartime brought conscription and strike breaking, which then became postwar attacks on union militants. The Nordmeyer Government (1959-62) taxed workers’ consumption. When the post-war boom ended in stagflation the Kirk Government (1972-75) faced the oil crisis with attempts to halt inflation. By the 1980s the crisis of NZ capitalism demanded the end of economic nationalism and the onset of economic rationalism. The 4th Lange Government (1984-89) imposed the shock therapy of Rogernomics, and 5th Clark Government (1999-2008) continued the neo-liberal policy settings.

From Red Fed to Dead Fed 

The history of the miners’ union on the West Coast from the days of the Red Fed to today tells us what went wrong and what we need to do. The miners were the backbone of the Red Federation after 1908 – the same year as the Blackball Strike. And it was the miners alone that kept the tradition of the Red Fed alive well into the post WW2 period. The miners alone, of all the industrial unions, were able to stay out of the Arbitration Court because they could not be replaced in the mines by unskilled scab labour. They fought directly against the bosses and their state and won more workers control over the workplace than any other union. They opposed Conscription in both wars and won an exemption for miners. The UMW (United Mine Workers) was always led by strong leaders who worked through the Red Fed days or the WW1 period and carried on the militant traditions of syndicalism, socialism and communism in the mines.

The UMW had a fractious relationship with the Labour Party until WW2 when the leadership under McLagan (Secretary of UMW and President of the FOL, and from 1942 Minister of Manpower and later Minister of Labour) collaborated with the Labour Government to impose economic stabilization in the name of the war effort. The miners fought for and won wage increases and the nationalization of mines during the war and then battled against the Holland National Government that came to power in 1949 determined to smash the militants and re-privatise the mines. The critical test came in 1951 when it was the miners who held out longest against the Wharfies’ Lockout and the ‘state of emergency’ which saw militants locked up and open-cast miners used by the National Government to isolate the militant miners and destroy their power.

Right through this history of struggle the underground miners could assert their industrial power because of their skilled work making it difficult to be replaced by strikebreakers. Open-cast mining did not require the traditional skills of underground mines. On the West Coast during ’51 it was only the Stockton opencast mine that could be worked by Navy strikebreakers. Clearly, the high point of miners’ control of the work place was the workers’ inspections of mines which meant the union did not wait on the managers or the Mines Department to shut down production for health and safety reasons.

It was the loss of this hard-won worker control over working conditions and health and safety that marked the end of the tradition of the Red Fed and the reduction of miners to no more than drivers and mechanics who could be easily replaced by scabs. In the aftermath of ’51 the UMW was no longer able to live up to the tradition of the Red Fed and eventually amalgamated with the EPMU (Engineers Union) in the CTU (Council of Trades Unions) AKA the state-arbitration Dead Fed.

It was the Dead Fed that led to the Pike River Disaster. Had the Union still been in control of work and health and safety conditions, the Pike River mine would have never been built and the disaster could have never happened. The UMW and the whole union movement after the defeat of ’51 gave away their independence when they affiliated to the Labour Party conceding to Labour Governments the authority to dictate conditions in the workplace.

Yet even under the neo-liberal repeal of the Ministry of Energy in 1998 (See Peter Ewen, Pike: Death by Parliament ‘Ayes and Noes’) that allowed Pike River mine to be built, the EPMU could have taken a stand and challenged the many failings in design and operation that would not have been allowed in Europe, the US or even China. (On the debate over the role of the EPMU at Pike River see With the end to workers’ inspections of the workplace, the Pike River Mine was always a “disaster waiting the happen”.

Forward to the reborn Red Fed 

If we isolate the conditions that led to workers control historically we find that it is based on unity, organization, and international solidarity. The Red Fed united militant unions in which many members were recent migrants from Europe or North America. Influenced by anarchism the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) their political perspective was broadly syndicalist – the belief that unions were a sufficient basis for workers’ power against the capitalist state. However, syndicalism falls short of understanding the need to smash the capitalist state. The defeat of the General Strike of 1913 showed that workers had to build political organs such as workers councils and militias to counter the state force used to smash the militant unions.

The objectives of a Red Fed today would have to embrace a revolutionary socialist program to fight for a Workers’ Government that would implement a socialist plan. This would shift the syndicalist concept of workers’ control from control over the workplace to socialist control over the state and economic planning.

A UMW of the 21st century would demand the nationalisation of energy under workers control (i.e. socialization) to shut down unsustainable production unsustainable energy sources such as coal and gas (and nuclear!) and demand the redirection of production towards sustainable sources of energy such as Hydro, wind and solar.

To achieve this, it is necessary to mobilise the rank and file through strikes and occupations, breaking with the union bureaucracy and the capitalist exploiters the bureaucracy serves. Capitalism cannot survive without exploiting the labour of workers. Workers have the power to withdraw their labour and to occupy workplaces against the use of scabs and strike breakers. Workers militias would defend the occupations from state and para-military forces.

But to do this, we need a Workers Party that represents the interests of workers independently of the bosses and the union bureaucracy, and a Transitional Program for the seizure of state power and for building a socialist future.

Len Richardson. Coal, Class and Community: The United Mineworkers of NZ. AUP, 1995.
Paul Maunder. Coal and the Coast: A Reflection on the Pike River Disaster. Canterbury University Press, 2012.
Rebecca Macfie. Tragedy at Pike River Mine: How and Why 29 Men Died. Awa Press, 2013. Peter Ewen. Pike: Death by Parliament. Pit Pony Press, 2014.