12 September marks the hundredth anniversary of the second-deadliest single mine disaster in New Zealand history. On that day in 1914, an explosion ripped through the Ralph coal mine in Huntly, in the Waikato region south of Auckland, killing 43 miners. The force of the explosion was such that it ripped the clothing from the bodies of the miners, and blasted one of the cages used to lower men down the shaft right to the top of the shaft. The death toll would undoubtedly have been even higher, but for the fact that the explosion happened on a pay Saturday, when only 62 of the mine’s usual 250 miners were working.
The mine had been considered free enough from firedamp (the highly flammable gas mixture, mostly methane, which accumulates in poorly-ventilated coal mines) to be worked using naked-flame miners’ lamps. (This was despite the fact that there had been previous exposions of firedamp at the mine, including some involving injury to workers). A Royal Commission set up to investigate the disaster concluded that there was some methane build-up in an old part of the mine, which was ignited by a miner’s lamp. That in turn ignited coal dust. “Had the provisions of the [Mines] Act been strictly adhered to on [the day of the incident], the explosion would have been averted,” the Commission reported. ”We consider, therefore, that no regular or systematic examination for gas was made in the old workings.” The Commission held the mine manager responsible for the lax safety inspections.
The Huntly coal mines had been one of the chief battlegrounds of the emerging class-struggle labour movement in the preceding years. Waikato miners were among the first unions to break with the arbitration system and affiliate to the ‘Red’ Federation of Labour in 1908. They had suffered relentless retaliatory assaults from the combined forces of the bosses, the courts and the capitalist Reform government of William Massey over subsequent years.
During the prolonged strike at the nearby Waihi gold mine in 1912, 80 striking Waihi miners were arrested and transported to prison in Auckland. As part of nationwide protests against these arrests, the Huntly miners walked out in a one-day protest strike. Returning the next day, they were locked out for another week by the bosses, and their entire union executive was sacked. The miners refused to start work without their union executive. A scab union was organised, and registered under the Arbitration Act, and the little town of Huntly, with a thousand inhabitants, was occupied by 80 police.
At the time of the 1914 mine explosion, Harry Holland was still recovering his health, having recently been released from jail. The task of formulating the Federation of Labour’s response to the explosion fell to Robert Semple, who quickly made his way to Huntly to report on events for the Red Feds’ newspaper, the Maoriland Worker. In an article written a few weeks after the explosion, Semple pointed to the connection between the assaults on the union and the mine explosion.
“The awful disaster that crashed down upon the mining community of Huntly on September 12, with its appalling loss of life and its resultant desolation, has caused thousands of working men in this country to ask themselves many questions. And one of the first of these questions is: Would the explosion have occurred had the bona fide union not been crushed out, had no reign of terror been instituted, had the powers which belong to the miners under the law not been torn from their grasp by the terroristic methods of the local employers, backed by the Employers’ Federation and the Massey Government?
“Two years ago the miners of Huntly controlled their own industrial organisation, the Waikato Miners’ Union – affiliated with he N.Z. Federation of Labour. At the head of the Union were honest and capable men, and the union itself exercised a powerful protecting influence over the industrial conditions and the lives of the men. Strict inspections of the mine were carried out by the miners’ own check-inspectors…
“Because the Waikato Miners’ Union safeguarded the lives and interests of the miners, and interfered with the profit-making interests of the exploiting class in doing it, the smashing of the union became part of the program of the combined employers. Accordingly, when in the waning days of 1912 the miners remained away from work for one day for the purpose of protesting against and denouncing the Waihi outrages and brutalities for which the Massey Government was responsible, the opportunity was seized to institute the wrecking campaign.
“The whole of the Miners’ Executive were victimised; scab agents were set going by the employers, and Huntly was invaded by the Government’s police. In due time the first bogus “union” was created, having been “organised” directly under the employers’ auspices and by the employers’ agents. Less than half-a-dozen men were used as the employers’ tools. When the “union” was registered by the Labour Department on November 1, 1912 it had not a single financial member. When its “agreement” with the employers was filed a little later in November, it still did not have a solitary financial member. That “agreement” shattered all existing arrangements. It was made without the knowledge and without the consent of the miners who were to work under it. A petition, signed by practically all the Huntly miners, against the registration of the new “union” was disregarded. A demand that the names of the parties who signed the agreement—on behalf of the miners—should be furnished to the miners was peremptorily refused by Mr. Massey.
“Having got their bogus “union” and its faked “agreement” registered—having made the law the prostitute of the master class—the next move was to refuse employment to all miners who were not members of the scab “union.” The next move was to refuse membership to such miners as had offended the company by their activity in union matters and their honesty of purpose in safeguarding the lives and interests of the miners.
“The plan of victimisation was systematically prosecuted. Nearly all the best men of Huntly were victimised. Marshall, Duncan, Fulton, Allen, and others found their jobs gone—and their wives and families sentenced to want and misery by the Company. That men had long years of service with the Company did not count. That they were practical miners of the highest class did not count. What did count (and it counted against them) was that they had been true to their own class—that they had regarded the safety of human life and the welfare of the race as of larger import than the Company’s profits.
“With the wrecking of bona fide unionism, all power of inspection and control of other matters making for the safety of the miners was torn from the hands of the miners themselves. Fulton, the check-inspector elected by the miners in accordance with the provisions of the Mining Act, was refused the right to enter the mine, and it was intimated that one of the Company’s satellites would act as check inspector. The Company, which had captured the machinery of the Arbitration Law, deliberately and insolently set the Mining Act at defiance. The Mines Department, forced by the unions, took action in the law courts, and the Company was fined £1, an infinitesimal amount (considering that by its action the Company was endangering human life), which we might be pardoned for comparing with the fines inflicted upon workers bailed before the courts during strike periods. However, the fine, paltry as it was, emphasised the miners’ right to appoint their own check inspector; but the Company was of course able to meet the situation by making things so hot for Fulton that he had to break up his home and leave the district in search of work. So extreme was the hatred of the exploiters towards Fulton that he was pursued from job to job, his dismissal being secured time after time, until his circumstances became such that his family was faced with the danger of starvation, until the workers came to his assistance.
The period following the defeat at Waihi was one of intense political discussion among workers across the country, as they struggled to absorb the lessons of the events at Waihi, including the direct strike-breaking role of the government and police, and the treacherous role of the pro-arbitration unions of the Trades and Labour Councils. A Unity Congress was held in July 1913 to re-unify the labour movement in the wake of these discussions. With 391 delegates representing 61,000 workers, it was the largest conference of unionists ever held in Australasia to that date.
The tide of unionism was still rising. This fact enabled the genuine unionists at Huntly to take over the scab outfit, replace the company agents with their own elected officials and turn it into a true union. A second strike by the Huntly miners against victimisation of the union safety inspector and other workers occurred, coinciding with the Great Strike 1913, centred on the waterside workers of Wellington and Auckland. This upsurge too ended in industrial defeat, and the consequences were felt at Huntly.
Semple picks up the story in the Maoriland Worker article:
“Of course, it was only a matter of time when the bona fide unionists were able to lift out the agents of the employers, and take control of the union once more. This was done, and the miners once again elected their own officials. When the Unity Congress was held in July of last year, the Huntly miners once again offended both employers and Government by having representation thereon, and by joining the United Federation of Labour. The Company once more instituted a campaign against the unionists, apparently with Government assistance —and once again a number of the very best men were driven out and their wives and children sentenced to starvation. Reasonable proposals from the miners to meet the employers in conference were arrogantly refused; and then—when the number of victims had mounted up—manhood asserted itself in spite of everything, and the miners heroically struck in support of their cruelly victimised fellow men and their wives and little ones. Among those peremptorily sacked on this occasion was W. Patterson, the men’s check inspector.
“An astounding revelation was made when a second scab union was formed in Huntly under the employers’ directions for the purpose of defeating the first scab union (formed by the employers), the first having ceased to be a scab concern. Like the first, the second scab union was “formed” and registered, and its “agreement” was also registered, without the consent of the miners. Once again the Arbitration Law was prostituted, once again the Labour Department was used as an instrument to crush honest unionism and to build up a bogus concern that was designed to defeat the intention of the Arbitration Act itself and to carry out a campaign of terror for the employers. This second bogus union was manipulated and controlled by practically the same agents of the Company as the former one. If possible, its methods wore more vicious, more savage, more cruel, more reckless. More and more men were hounded out. More and more women and children made to suffer. The Government sent police and armed thugs to assist in this work.
“Men who spoke fearlessly in the Huntly meetings were first threatened by “executive” officers and next discharged by the Company. The time came when no man dared to make a complaint about anything. The miners were really without a union, and without protection of any kind. For two years (with the exception of the period during which the miners had control of the first bogus union), they have been positively at the mercy of the employers. The searching inspections previously carried out by capable men who had the confidence of their fellow workers are no longer possible. Consequently that measure of protection and safety for the lives of the miners has vanished.
“The supreme tragedy of the explosion ended the so-called “agreement” fixed up through the scab union, by reason of the new conditions entailing the use of safety lamps. The company at once offered an increase of one penny per ton. One whole penny per ton. Every miner knows that the use of safety lamps (the necessity of which is apparent) will mean a diminished output, a decrease in the earnings of the miners of from 20 to 50 per cent, considering the nature of the Huntly seam. The mine owners want the miners to pay a price in decreased wages for the use of the safety lamps. It is alleged that while dead bodies were yet in the mine, while Huntly was in mourning and overwhelmed with grief and tears, certain ghouls were meeting secretly and fixing up the basis of a new “agreement” to bind the miners when work should be resumed.
“The men at first refused to return to work, but later decided to start pending an award of the Court, on the understanding that the decision shall be retrospective. The extent to which the influence of the Terror still prevails was made apparent when out of a meeting of 300 only 70 could be got to vote to return to work, while only 20 dared to vote against. The men in the meeting knew that the eyes of the Company’s agents were upon them —and they knew the power of victimisation.”
How little has changed after one hundred years. A century later, there is still an appallingly high death rate among workers in the forests and mines, on the wharves and farms, and in the factories of New Zealand.
96 years after the Huntly disaster, on November 2010, an explosion at the Pike River coal mine on the West Coast claimed the lives of 29 mine workers. Like the Huntly disaster, the Pike River disaster was the result of an inadequate safety regime due to the de-unionisation of the workers, and was driven by the company’s greed for profits at the expense of safety. As at Huntly, miners’ union representatives were effectively excluded from the investigations into the tragedy. As at Huntly, legal proceedings against the mine owners responsible ended in farce.
The need Semple points to in his article of a century ago, for the workers themselves to take responsibility and control of job safety into their own hands, through their union, remains a matter of life and death.