Title: Coal Flat

Author: Bill Pearson

Publication details: Paul’s Book Arcade, 1963, Auckland

Digital publication kindly authorised by: Paul Millar

Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

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Coal Flat


page 281


Bernie O’Malley drove up the main road of Coal Flat. He noticed the signs of the strike—the men standing in groups at street corners, the fact that there were men of working age to be seen in the town at all at ten in the morning, the policeman on guard outside the pub. It reminded him of strikes in his own youth when he had been a miner himself and an active organizer—him and Bob Semple and Pat Hickey and Paddy Webb—like the 1908 strike when the Government had taken the furniture from the miners’ houses and put it up for auction to pay for a fine, only no one would bid for it because this was the West Coast. He still chuckled when he remembered the bailiff standing on the platform in Stevens’s Hall in front of his loot of tables and duchesses and wash-stands, bikes and sewing-machines and brass band instruments. The miners had taken the day off and Pat Hickey jumped on the platform and pushed the bailiff out of the way and warned the bargain-hunters from town that young Jimmy Bowers the boxer and a few of his mates from the mine would be dealing with them if they bid. And all the bidding was left to the man the union appointed, Bob Gregory, and he’d got the lot knocked down for 12s. 6d.

But those had been bitter days and harder. These workers now had had their own Government in for twelve years, they were secure, well-paid, well-fed and slept comfortable; yet they kept going on strike here and there all over the country, a few days at a time, over the most trivial of issues, especially during the war; because the shops were out of tobacco, because the butter ration wasn’t enough for their cut lunches. They were slow to realize that with a Labour Government they had to co-operate. Who was there to fight, now that the mines had been nationalized?

He recalled with affection his own fighting days, when tall and unruly-haired he had paced platforms agitating and gesturing, roaring his slogans to strong applause; his articles for the Grey River Argus; his election campaigning. It was only eighteen miles from here that he had been arrested in 1915 for refusing military service; he and fellow Ministers had hidden for months in a cave in a sea-cliff on the other side of the Paparoas; his slogan was Conscript Wealth as well as Manpower, and he had gone to gaol for his convictions. In the last twelve years he had seen his life’s work come to fruition. Without revolution, without upsetting the social order, Labour had exploited the exploiters. They had turned back the page 282 profits of the employers to the employees. Social security, a forty-hour week, compulsory unionism, compulsory arbitration and a series of wage increases had brought in the day of the common man who lived comfortably in one of the few comfortable countries in an uncomfortable world. The world had learnt from them; only the other day he had seen an article in an old World Digest about New Zealand the Social Laboratory. British Labour had learned from them. What he had fought for was altering the course of the world’s history. It had all come right and there was nothing more to be done.

Except to keep the system oiled. This local dispute was only a minor issue. It was the watersiders the Government was mostly worried about, a union full of agitators who would undo Labour’s work if they could. The Government was not openly interfering in this issue. The miners’ strike was confined to Coal Flat. The dredge company directors had lobbied the Minister of Labour to intervene but he had preferred to let the dispute solve itself. It all hung on the beer boycott. The Licensed Victuallers’ Association had lobbied the Minister too but he told them the dispute didn’t concern them. But he asked Bernie to look into it because it was in his electorate, and because he was afraid that if anyone in other towns broke the boycott, there might be further strikes. ‘Your easiest bet is to persuade the dredge manager to find some excuse to sack this bloke that’s still working,’ he said. Bernie chuckled; he had an old prejudice against scabs. he wondered if he should ask Dinnie Flaherty, the priest, to get Herlihy to stop drinking.

He could afford to be liberal about this dispute: he had quite a few shares in breweries, but it wasn’t the brewers who had put the price up, it was the publicans. If the boycott spread brewers would of course suffer, but so far the boycott was confined to the Coast. He was a drinking man himself and he took the side of the drinkers: the publicans would just have to pull in their horns. That was the trouble with this country nowadays: everyone wanted to make money. It was probable the dredge company directors would order the manager to get rid of their solitary worker anyway; they couldn’t be expected to go without their turnover because of one man. Anyway the gold-dredging industry didn’t have much future left; he reminded himself that when he got back he must sell those gold shares of his.

He was tall and vigorous for seventy. His hair was thick, though white, and he had a thick white moustache. He dressed plainly in a navy serge suit. He was a straightforward man and steered clear of the political intrigues of Wellington, avoided drinking-parties and the luxurious social functions that made him feel like a fish out of page 283 water. He still lived in a modest little wooden house, in faded orange paint, in a faded little street in Greymouth, the same house he had lived in before he got into Parliament. Parliament hadn’t robbed him of the rough blunt approach on which he relied when he talked to working men.

He stopped first by the post office when he saw Ben Nicholson and Jock McEwan. He pulled up and got out of the car. He slipped his hands into his pockets and sauntered to them as if it was the most casual of meetings.

‘Well, Ben,’ he said. ‘I haven’t seen you for a while.’

Jock stared at him suspiciously. Ben grinned and said, ‘Hello, Bernie. Doing your rounds?’

‘Oh, just passing by,’ Bernie said.

Jock spat. Coal Flat wasn’t on the road to anywhere except Roa.

‘Just passing the time of day,’ Bernie said. ‘Thought I’d slip over and look at the old village.’

‘Is that what they pay you for in parliament?’ Jock said.

‘Who’s your cobber?’ Bernie asked.

‘This is Jock McEwan, the union secretary,’ Ben said. ‘You must have seen him at your last meeting up here.’

They shook hands.

‘Well, as a matter of fact, Jock, last night was the first night for a month I’ve been to bed before midnight. We can’t stickle for a seven-hour day up there.’

‘When do we get our seven-hour day?’

Bernie slipped his thumbs under the armholes of his waistcoat and rocked gently on his feet. ‘Well, it should be soon, Jock. When production allows it. You’re not getting much coal out at the moment. What’s the trouble, Ben?’

‘We’re on strike, Bernie.’

‘What’s the dispute?’

‘It’s a sympathy strike. The dispute’s at the dredge.’

Bernie looked around him. ‘Come and have a drink,’ he said.

Jock stared at him. ‘Who are you working for now? The publicans?’

‘Didn’t you know about the boycott?’ Ben asked.

Bernie looked worried: he had been saying, ‘Come and have a drink,’ before any deals for so many years that he had forgotten the boycott. He put his finger to his nose and looked conniving. He pursed his lips and rocked his head up, then down. ‘Ah, I see. When in Rome….’ More suddenly he said, ‘I heard the publicans are thinking of giving in.’ He hadn’t, but he wanted to regain their goodwill.

page 284

‘They will,’ Ben said. ‘We can go without beer, but they can’t go without their living.’

‘There’s still a bit of union discipline on the Coast, I see,’ Bernie said.

‘There wouldn’t be so much if your crowd had their way,’ Jock said.

‘Ah, now Jock, you’re being a bit hard,’ Bernie said. ‘I don’t deny there’s some Tories in disguise on our side, but we’re not all tarred with the same brush. There’s one or two of us with principles. You say I’ll have to go to the dredge, Ben? Where’s the union man hang out?’

Ben told him. Jock said, ‘You won’t find him in any mood to bargain. We don’t compromise in the Flat.’

Bernie turned to him suddenly, learning forward with his thumbs still in his waistcoat. ‘You’re a communist, aren’t you?’

‘I’d like to see the beggar that said I wasn’t,’ Jock said.

‘You know, Scottie,’ Bernie said tacking obliquely into a crescendo of anger. ‘When you left the Clyde you got on the wrong boat. You should’ve gone to bloody Russia!’

They stared at him as he got into his car and drove to the president of the dredge union. When he got there the secretary was there too. He sounded them to see if they were ready to consider returning to work, but neither of them would budge. They said that already Herlihy had stopped working, and it was up to the management to let them know if he had been suspended.

O’Malley found Thompson working with the clerk in the dredge office on the shore up the road from the dredge. Thompson didn’t recognize him at first and Bernie concluded that he was not an important fellow.

‘Your union men tell me this fullah Herlihy is off work,’ Bernie said.

‘That’s right, Mr O’Malley,’ Thompson said. ‘But we haven’t sacked him. He’s off colour. I’ve been to his house. He says he’ll be back in a day or two.’

‘Good God, man, don’t you know your chance when it falls into your lap?’ Bernie said.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Don’t you want this dispute settled as quickly and easily as you can? Well, tell the union you’ve sacked him.’

‘Herlihy’s a good worker, Mr O’Malley. I’m not throwing him away for the union.’

‘Well, you’re throwing away your shareholders’ money, that’s what you’re doing. You’ve got to get this dredge back to normal as soon as you can. If you let this go it might drag on for months.’

page 285

‘You could make them take it to arbitration.’

‘Well, we won’t. It’s a minor affair and we’re going to let it settle itself. I’ve seen your directors in Wellington and I tell you they’re sick of hanging on for the sake of one man.’

‘The directors gave me full liberty of action.’

‘How long ago?’

‘Two months back. I was on the phone to them only last week.’

‘Well, they’ve changed their minds since. If they say so, you’ll have to sack the man and he might be back working then and then he might have a claim on you for damages. You can get rid of him now while he’s off.’

‘What reason could I give for sacking him?’

Bernie grinned shrewdly and rocked on his heels. ‘Absenteeism,’ he said.

Thompson shouted, ‘Of all the—scabby tricks! I couldn’t do it, O’Malley. I’m not a politician!’

Bernie said, ‘If you get rid of him now while he’s off, you might be able to take him back later.’

‘The union would still object.’

‘Well, meet them, offer them terms, bargain. Anyway I’m told the union only want him suspended. Now’s your time to get this settled. You can’t hold up industry for the sake of one man. If you let this chance go, you can’t expect the Government to help you.’

Later in the day, Thompson met the executives of the union. They agreed to start work the following day provided that Herlihy was suspended for as long as he had worked while the strike lasted. A condition of his being re-employed was that he should support the beer boycott until it finished.