Give the Coasters a Break!
A mining couple, Buller, c 1945. From Coal, Class, and Community
Over at indymedia Jonathan Oosterman has been reporting on the failure of an occupation by eco-activists to stop the creation of the Happy Valley mine near Buller. Jonathan writes that:
Even if the West Coast Regional Council does its job and adequately monitors the mine, great spotted kiwi and endangered snail habitat will have been made uninhabitable for a significant period of time, if not forever, another 5 million tonnes of coal will have been dug up and burnt, contributing to climate change, and a beautiful valley will have been destroyed. And for what? The coal isn’t even going to help supply electricity, because it’s for export.
Never before has a greenfields mine project been allowed to proceed when it was known it would destroy as much as 10% of the habitat of a nationally endangered and absolutely protected species, such as the powelliphanta “patrickensis” snail.
Climate change considerations were essentially ignored by the resource consent hearing commissioners. In other words, the greatest potential cause of future world suffering was sidelined as being of too little significance. Such a mindset is suicidal.
I remember Jonathan and his brother leading a group of young people who camped outside the US consulate in Auckland to protest the invasion of Iraq – it was as much as I could do to turn up a couple of times a day with some teabags and a shamefaced ‘good on ya mate’. I admired Jonathan then, and I admire him now for being prepared to camp out in a pretty rough neck of the woods like Happy Valley.
Once again though I find myself disagreeing with my old mate Strypey, who responds to Jonathan by arguing that:
The Coast is one of the most willfully backward parts of the country, both culturally and environmentally and their local government, media and business interests are almost indistinguishable.
It is economic backwardness which is really behind the antipathy of many Coasters to anti-mine and anti-logging campaigns. The West Coast is a good example of the erratic and uneven development that capitalism creates, especially in under-developed, export-dependent nations like New Zealand. Boom and bust have created a population which is desperate for new jobs.
But the Coasters have a proud tradition of labour activism, centred on the coal mines of the Buller and Gray Valley areas. The Coasters of the mining town of Blackball created the Red Federation of Labour, the Communist Party and (rather less gloriously) the Labour Party.
Strypey should read Len Richardson's classic book Coal, Class and Community, which documents the struggle of the coal miners on the Coast and in other parts of NZ for better pay, safer conditions, and a better world beyond the mines. Richardson shows that during the 1913 general strike the West Coast miners created a crisis for capitalism, taking over towns and setting up committees resembling the workers' councils (soviets) which have been a feature of workers' revolutions overseas.
Richardson quotes the speech a representative of the Westport Strike Committee made at the height of the 1913 strike:
The strikers control the coast...There is a Mayor in Westport, but he has been set aside, and everything is controlled by the strikers...if this is going to be a contest to see who is going to control, then we are prepared to make it a contest...We had our fellow workers brutally murdered in Waihi. There is no one instance from the workers’ ranks where we have caused any bloodshed. Now, if we are going to shed our blood, why should we look on our women and children being clubbed, and offer no retaliation? Now if they want a revolution they can have it. (pgs 150-151)
Worried by the prospect of mutiny, the Massey government declined to use the armed forces to put down the strike, relying instead on 'special' police constables who were mostly farmers
angered by the closure of the country's ports. Unlike the Bolsheviks four years later, the syndicalist Red Feds lacked policies that could appeal to working farmers, as well as wage workers. 'Massey's Cossacks' crushed the revolution.
Richardson's book also shows the long history of miners' support for progressive causes, including the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War and later the anti-conscription movement.
Like workers throughout Aotearoa, the Coasters suffered terribly from the effects of globalisation, aka Rogernomics, in the 80s. The Coasters actually suffered even worse than most, because Rogernomics coincided roughly with the end of the energy crises that had marked the 70s, and a decline in demand for coal.
The recent alliances between business and workers in support of mining and logging operations are the result, not of some sort of cultural 'backwardness', but of the weakness of the union movement and the failures of the left, including the environmental movement.
Strypey is out of the ballpark when he suggests that the Coasters are committed to 'neo-liberalism'. What both workers and bosses on the Coast favour is an economic nationalist, or regionalist, alternative to neoliberalism, where local and central government brings together workers and bosses and intervenes in the economy to give them opportunities. And this is exactly the model of politics that the dominant strand of the Kiwi left advocates - it can be found in the press releases of the Green Party, in the speeches of CTU leaders, on the website of the Alliance, and all over indymedia itself (see, for example, John Anderson's recent story on a factory closure in Palmerston North).
It's a bit rich for the left to bag the Coasters because they have made alliances with their bosses and successfully lobbied government to create jobs for them. The left has to go a bit deeper, and see how the logic of economic nationalism and class collaborationism always leads to unfavourable outcomes like the Buller mining concession. With its organisations smashed and its consciousness weakened by anti-union legislation and massive unemployment, the working class of the Coast has been prepared to trade away its progressive traditions and make an alliance with business in which it inevitably occupies the place of the weaker party. But what about the consequences of similar exercises in economic nationalism sponsored by the left?
For instance, left outfits like the Greens and the Alliance advocate the introduction of the cabotage system of shipping in NZ waters. If introduced, cabotage would lead to the loss of hundreds of jobs currently held by workers who are not citizens of this country.
Cabotage-like regulations already govern the flow of labour into NZ, and union support for them has extended to the systematic dobbing in to the police and immigration authorities of 'illegals' working in the building and horticultural sectors. Economic nationalism also sees the local left supporting neo-liberalism at the point of a Kiwi gun in the Pacific and elsewhere. The Greens backed the invasion and recolonisation of the Solomons last year, because they regard local capitalism as progressive, and believe that Kiwi workers and Kiwi bosses are on the 'same side'. The occupation of the Solomons has facilitated the strip logging of the islands, but the Greens daren't mention that.
We can all see the damage that Buller mining will cause to the environment, but what about the damage that economic nationalism causes the people and the environment of the Third World? Why do the Greens oppose to the logging of rainforest on the West Coast, but turn a blind eye to the logging companies that operate in the rainforests of the Solomons, protected by ANZAC troops?
Economic nationalism is a cause as well as a symptom of the situation facing the union movement. The ease with which neo-liberalism conquered New Zealand in the 80s can be explained largely by the alliance between the Labour government and the union movement, which was unable to fight effectively because it lacked independence. Last year, the umbilical cord between Labour and the unions enabled Helen Clark to split our anti-war movement, buying anti-war unions off with a commitment to the UN and leaving militant protesters out in the cold without mass backing for direct action. Without the aid of organised labour, we were reduced to well-meaning stunts like the consulate camp-out.
The environmental movement by and large shares the nationalist outlook of the rest of the left - it focuses on lobbying the government, and has little or no interest in the idea of a working class challenge to environmental orthodoxy. The militant fringes of the environmental movement are isolated from the working class, and in some cases buy into a 'culturalist' politics which makes the average 'consumer' 'part of the problem, not the solution', and urges lifestyle change and direct action by small groups of 'eco-warriors' rather than class struggle as the way forward. But direct action without mass working class backing is still lobbying, albeit lobbying with a raised voice. What other agent but the state can small groups of militants expect to implement their programme? The leadership of the Green Party shows that today's lifestyle radicals are tommorrow's economic nationalist left establishment.
Eco-activists have to link their demands for a better natural environment to proposals which address the needs of poor families struggling to survive in isolated regions like the Coast. It is not good enough for the Green Party to fob desperate workers off with promises of second-rate jobs in the tourism sector. Coasters with a proud tradition of dignified and reasonably well-paid work do not want to clean tourists' crap out of latrines in our national parks for ten dollars an hour, twenty hours a week. The regions need real industries which can create real jobs.
And if the Happy Valley mine goes ahead, the best way to limit environmental damage is to make sure that a strong union branch is built on the site.
Fancy a career change Jonathan? ;)