FRIDAY Fast Five: Labour/labour

There's change afoot. Jacinda chugged up to the front steps of Parliament in the mode of transport of the people and promised the crowd in front of her an empathetic government. On the bus ride over, when asked by John Campbell "if there was a central tenet to her approach to the new role" she said it was empathy: "Empathy is the one thing that I think that's your foundation, that's your grounding, and we'll keep ourselves in constant check." She talked about bringing parties together to work for people who need it most. She hasn't said that everything's fine, that we have a rockstar economy. She has gone on CNN and told the world that we have problems with homelessness, poverty, domestic violence, pollution. 

And so, I've been thinking. Thinking about labour, work, unions and memory....

1. It sort of felt like fate. The day after weekend Winston announced his decision to form a government with Labour we came across a collection that spoke to the earliest days of the New Zealand trade union movement, that which would eventually form the Labour Party. The semi-hidden collection consisted of early union material belonging to trade unionist and secretary to many of Auckland's late 19th century unions, Arthur Rosser. Among the treasures was this letter book:

Auckland Tailoressess' Union letterbook, 1893.

Auckland Tailoressess' Union letterbook, 1893.

2. Harry's Last Stand is a podcast by Harry Leslie Smith, "a survivor of the Great Depression, a second world war RAF veteran and an activist for the poor and for the preservation of social democracy. He has written several books about Britain during the depression, the war, and postwar austerity." I first read Harry's work in the Guardian a few years ago. He wrote of his childhood spent in abject, crippling poverty. He wrote of his miner father who barely brought in enough money to keep a roof over his family's head, let alone enough to save them from hunger and cold and the disease that took his sister first the workhouse, then to a paupers grave because his family did not have access to healthcare or hygienic living conditions. HE also wrote of the unions and National Health Service which provided support structures for working people in a cruel world. 

Harry is now 94 and he hasn't slowed down. He hasn't slowed down because he believes, in Britain at least, we are heading back to the dark times of his childhood. His podcast is just what the title says it is - he's using the only weapon he has left, his words, to fight a system he believes is marching the rights of poor and working people into the past. Give it a listen - the episodes are short, around 10 minutes each, and the first one had me in tears within the first 15 seconds. 

3. I often think about working class history in museums but I've never thought too much about it being a discipline in it's own right. This interesting piece by Emma Griffin, Professor of History at the University of East Anglia, looks at the rise and fall of 'working class history' as a discipline which emerged as a necessary measure to counter the complete erasure of working people's lives from the history books. The author then writes of its decline:

"...we no longer need to justify our interest in marginalised groups. Now that the working class has been firmly established as a legitimate topic for serious academic enquiry, the rationale for being a separate sub-discipline has simply ebbed away. "  

4. ‘It wasn’t all bad’: representations of working class cultures within social history museums and their impacts on audiences by Elizabeth Carnegie

In this article, Elizabeth Carnegie explores the museum and its representation of working-class history as a dreamspace,"put another way I want to analyze how the ownership of memories affects both curatorial decisions and visitor responses to the expression of those memories. In order to do this I will consider the complex process of selecting and interpreting local histories."

She also brings up an interesting point regarding the ghettoisation of working people's history to that of protest and radicalisation, not to undermine those constructs but to point out that not all working people are radicals: 

"However, this view of working class history, which is shared by the People’s Museum Manchester and is also reflected in the collections of Edinburgh and Liverpool Museums can also be exclusionary, denying a forum for the largely non-radical lifestyle of the ordinary working class. Equally important for our understanding of the role of these museums is that they often strive to instill community feeling through suggesting uniqueness, just as communities are based on individuals acknowledging a shared experience, past, beliefs or cultural background." 

5. This is an old article by Joanna Blackman in Noted, but it's worth revisiting the arguments it explores to counter the idea that New Zealand is classless. Newsflash - it's not. It presents the research Professor Don MacRaild:

"New Zealand proved to be a more hierarchical and divided society than I expected," says MacRaild. "I expected there to be much less distance between the top and bottom in class terms. That was part of the mythology of New Zealand society in the 1970s; that the bottom end was higher up and the top end was lower down, so there was more of a compression and it was a more egalitarian and equal society.

Bear in mind that this was written in 2005. Where are we now?