Workers in the Margins by Cybèle Locke and Jagged Seas by David Grant - review

by Chris Trotter / 27 November, 2012
Cybèle Locke’s experience was a primary motivation in writing her history of postwar union activism – and the book is all the better for it.
Workers in the Margins

Too many people mistake history for a simple recounting of past events. But a catalogue is not a work of history. It is (at best) a chronicle. Most of the great chronicles were compiled by medieval monks and are imbued with the pieties and prejudices of their ecclesiastical authors. The historian, although no less beset with bias than the chronicler, has a different purpose.

History is all about using yesterday to illuminate today – and light a path to tomorrow. Chroniclers are content merely to describe the past; historians set out to shape the future. Telling the story of trade unions in New Zealand offers considerable challenges. The subject is, almost by definition, contentious. Not only is there an entrenched body of conservative opinion inveterately hostile to the whole concept of trade unionism, but there are also, within the trade union movement, strongly held and conflicting views of unions and their purpose.

It is into this latter debate that Cybèle Locke has plunged – Doc Martens and all. Workers in the Margins: Union Radicals in Post-War New Zealand is a spirited description of the political response of class-based institutions when confronted with the organisational solvents of race and gender. Locke unashamedly acknowledges her own experiences as a primary motivation in writing this history: “It is a radical community with whom I claim kinship … As an activist participant in the making of this history, I have an investment in it and an intimate connection that colours the way I write … It fuels my desire to write not just about what happened, but why what happened mattered – how history created hurt, and seeded hope.”

Workers in the Margins is a passionate book in which the bitter arguments of the recent past are powerfully rehearsed. Locke’s historical skills are most plainly on display in the book’s early chapters, examining the way Maori men in the freezing works and Pakeha women in textile mills, shops and offices used New Zealand’s comparatively progressive system of industrial relations to improve their condition. Where the book catches fire, however, is in its later chapters, where Locke describes the collision of the social movements of feminism and indigenous rights with the entrenched class-based politics of the male-dominated union movement.

The use Locke makes of her own experiences in the unemployed workers’ rights movement reveals not only the potent strength of marginalised people when inspired to follow US unionist Joe Hill’s dying injunction, “Don’t mourn – organise!”, but also the fatal weaknesses of an organisational model that attempts to reconcile the often contradictory demands of class, race and gender. The slow and painful death of the organisations of the poor and marginalised under the relentless hammers of neoliberalism in the 1990s is movingly depicted by a woman whose own spirit clearly registered the blows.

Locke’s book is history at its best, turning the searchlight of past experience onto issues that still challenge all those who would stand with the poor and disadvantaged. I wish I could say the same of David Grant’s Jagged Seas: The New Zealand Seamen’s Union 1879-2003. This book clearly demonstrates the difference between history and chronicle. The author’s bias here doesn’t so much mobilise as anaesthetise the reader, the detailed narrative plodding doggedly on all the way from 1879 to 2003. It’s exhaustive, meticulously researched and lavishly illustrated and it provides an important reference. But the seafarers had much more hurt and hope to offer us than this – they deserved a saltier storyteller.

WORKERS IN THE MARGINS: UNION RADICALS IN POST-WAR NEW ZEALAND, by Cybèle Locke (Bridget Williams Books, $49.99); JAGGED SEAS: THE NEW ZEALAND SEAMEN’S UNION 1879-2003, by David Grant (CUP, $55).

Political commentator Chris Trotter is author of No Left Turn: The Distortion of New Zealand’s History by Greed, Bigotry and Right-Wing Politics.
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