Labour Weekend is meant to signal the start of summer. But it usually means high winds, torrential rains and a bit of snow dumped somewhere. When I was at High School it also meant the change over to summer uniform. So there would be the desperate attempts at tanning, and hoping Mum wouldn’t notice how short my uniform had got. Because of course the shorter the better.
But we have Labour Day off on the 4th Monday in October to commemorate the struggle of unions and working people for an 8 hour working day. With all the changes to employment laws and casualisation of labour it seems more important than ever (to me) that we do acknowledge the rights of workers to a living wage and safe working conditions.
This poem by my father is about my my Mother’s Grandfather James (Jimmy) Fulton who was key member of the Waikato Miners Union, a founding member of the Federation of Labour (known as the Red Feds), and a life long advocate of workers rights.
While my political activism consists of writing derogatory comments about Paula Bennett on the interweb. (and such fun that is too) I am very proud of my Great Grand Father and the work he did. It also must be recognised that his family paid a big price for his activism. He was away a lot, his views wouldn’t have always been popular and in the end he was black listed from the mines, so he had to start a new life as a dairy farmer.
Down through Huntly the river winds. Past sacred Maori hills, beside the railway line.
Men have come from every clime. Come to work the big Huntly mines
Jim’s come here from the old Tynneside. With men from the valley’s, men from the Clyde
He’s five foot six, but he’ll stand tall. We’re mining men and we’re brothers all
There’s a bosses bully on every shift. Get the better of him, you’re on the last cage lift.
Complain at all, you’ll work a three foot seam. There will be water at your feet, creaking beams
From bank to bank it’s a ten hour day. Eight hours work, six shillings is the pay
Jim puts salts in the scabs tea. Jim tried to kill the boss’s bully.
If someone is fired he calls it victimisation. He even talks of nationalisation
Jim, Jim you better mind, Jim Jim you’ll be down the line. We don’t want socialists around our Huntly mines.
Then there was trouble at Waihi. They worked in the gold mine there your see
There’s the dust and noise of the big battery. Count on a fifteen year working life expectancy
But things went wrong at Waihi
Before Evan’s was killed, or was it assassination. Jim was one of the miners federation.
They supported a strike that almost stopped this nation. They lasted twenty seven weeks on strike pay
More than seventy of their leaders were locked away
The coroner and the police all in the mine owners pay. It is a black mark against our justice to this day
So they stopped for a day in Huntly town. To show that miners are brothers the world around
Mine owners said, that suits us fine
Union coffers are empty, they haven’t a dime. We’ll get rid of the socialists in our Huntly mines
They’re all locked out from that day. A thousand men, no strike pay.
When kids go hungry, mothers say. Go back to work, strike another day.
Soldiers bayonets will break any picket line. They’ve gone back to work in the Huntly mines.
But Jim, Jim you are down the line. You and your union will never work again in a Huntly mine.
Jim’s on a farm out of Huntly town. To an eight ton a day man, it’s a big comedown
He’s cutting scrub, learns to plough. He’s from old Durham town, never milked a cow
When the wind blows from the west you can smell the coal. And it’s hard to farm when it’s not in your soul.
He’s a commie and red fed to the folks around. And a hero forever in Huntly town.
Jim tried to give a lot more than he got. But has slept more than forty years in an unmarked plot*
This is my story of a man I didn’t see. Smaller and yet so much bigger than me.
by William Wallace McConnell
* The final verse had a change of tense made since my mother Edith and her brother Bill had a headstone placed over the grave of old Jimmy and their grandmother.