There is a tiny town in New Zealand called Blackball, population 300. It used to be a prosperous mining town at the beginning of the 20th century, but mining has disappeared from the region and now it is a very pleasant place with friendly and fascinating natives, a growing tourism business and arts and craft shops and some great scenery.
You have to like Blackball and its people. There was a hotel in town known as “The Blackball Hilton.” If you saw it you would appreciate the irony.
Well, it turns out that Hilton Hotels worldwide got wind of the fact that someone else was doing business using their name! Hilton was convinced that (a) it would hurt their brand, and (b) give the Blackball Hilton an unfair competitive advantage.
Attorneys got involved.
I don’t know how much was spent by both sides, but the Blackball Hilton was legally required to stop calling itself the Hilton.
I love it that the hotel is now called “Formerly the Blackball Hilton.” Apparently that satisfied the attorneys.
Anyway, I tell you that story because it is an interesting example of the way neo-liberal steroidal capitalism operates and it leads nicely to the story of why the town is famous.
Blackball has a reputation for being a hotbed of labour unrest in New Zealand. Workers at the Blackball mines instigated some of the longest strikes in NZ history and the New Zealand Labour party was founded there. It was also the headquarters of the NZ Communist Party for a while.
Today other than some mining memorabilia, the main indication of the town’s colourful past is The Blackball Museum of Working Class History which documents the history of the mining industry and organised labour both in the town and throughout the country and wider world.
In 1908 Blackball had a population of 500 and 170 of the men in town worked in the mine. Working conditions weren’t too flash. Workers regularly passed out because of bad ventilation and there were no facilities for washing up—that was something you did at home on your own time.
Management was apparently unsympathetic to suggestions for improvements. For example, the standard lunch break in NZ coal mines at the time was half an hour but lunch breaks in the Blackball mines were limited to 15 minutes.
Two Australians and a New Zealander who had worked in other mines told the Blackball workers about the disparity and decided to make an issue of it. Dubbed “The Wildmen” by management, they decided that given that they were working underground in dangerous conditions, a half an hour for lunch might be more reasonable.
The Wildmen started taking half hour lunches (they couldn’t go anywhere, they just ate more slowly down in the mine) and were promptly sacked by a vengeful management. The remaining miners went on strike as a sign of solidarity (yes, they used that word) and both sides settled down for a fight.
I know that how you view these sorts of things depends on your way of looking at the world, but I think we can agree that giving coal miners an additional 15 minutes to relax and eat their lunch probably wouldn’t have driven the mining company out of business and that the strike was probably more damaging in the long run than if they had just agreed to the extra lunch period in the first place.
If you read the accounts, there was right and wrong on both sides, with power plays, ego, greed and selfishness clouding everyone’s judgement. Not to mention, the strikers adopted a red flag, wore red rosettes in their lapels and took to calling each other “comrade” which must have scared the holy hell out of the rest of the citizenry.
But what is interesting is to focus solely on the issue of the 15 minute lunch breaks. During the strike, an Arbitration Court was held to try to settle the dispute. According to the official report, “The judge, Justice Sims, growled that he thought fifteen minutes was ample for a lunch break. [He then] glanced at the clock, noticed the time was 12:30 and stated that the court stood adjourned for lunch until 2pm.”
Why, you may be asking, is this issue from 1908 relevant today?
Because for one thing, in spite of the strike and decades of hearing about how important it is to empower employees and have a healthy workplace, it wasn’t until 2008 that NZ actually made it mandatory for employers to provide breaks and a half hour lunch break for employees. But in 2014 those requirements were removed. Employers no longer are required to provide breaks but are supposed to provide “reasonable compensatory measures.”
I’m pretty sure that the decisions about how much break and lunch time employees get are made by people who don’t have anyone watching how long they take for lunch. Not unlike the judge in the Blackball court, it’s easy to think that 15 minutes is plenty of time when you can take an hour and a half.
We met a few other visitors as we wandered around Blackball Museum and it was surprising how much conversation—and emotion—was generated by the issue of the strike and the treatment of the employees. At one extreme you had people who feel that organized labour has caused all economic and social problems and at the other extreme is the view that selfish, profit before anything, businesses are ruining the world.
Of course the answer is somewhere in between and the solution, I think, is for enlightened leaders and managers to just do what they think is right. When we got home we went to a seafood restaurant, Ika, in Auckland which is one of the first organisations to adopt a “living wage” for its employees. The living wage is calculated from cost of living data and is the hourly rate required to provide the “basic necessities” for a family of two adults and two children, with one adult working 40 hours and one 20 hours a week. The living wage in NZ is currently $19.25 an hour. The minimum wage is $14.75.
The increased earnings have enabled employees to pay off debt, get medical and dental care they had been deferring and actually start to save. The owner of the restaurant says that she thinks restaurants should make money because of the quality of their food and service, not because they don’t pay their employees.
PS—The food at Ika was fantastic!