Story: Fagan, Mark Anthony

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Fagan, Mark Anthony

1873–1947

Miner, trade unionist, politician

This biography, written by Len Richardson, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.

Mark Anthony Fagan was one of a number of Australian miners who arrived in New Zealand in the first decade of the twentieth century and had a profound influence on the development of the labour movement. The son of a mine manager, Patrick Fagan, and his wife, Maria Cribben, he was born at Gaffney's Creek, Victoria, on 17 November 1873. He attended Waratah school, Tasmania, until the age of 10, and as a young man worked his way around the mining towns of Australia. He married, but had separated from his wife by about 1900, when he crossed to New Zealand. He took up work as a quartz miner in the Globe Mine, near Reefton, on the South Island's West Coast.

Fagan quickly made his mark in union affairs and in January 1910 became secretary of the Inangahua Miners' Union. Industrial relations in the mines were deteriorating as employers sought to organise a system of competitive contracting rather than wage labour. Fagan saw such contracts as putting speed above safety and increasing the risk of industrial diseases, most notably miner's phthisis (miner's lung); his own health had been impaired by the early onset of this disease. Attempting to improve working conditions in the mining industry was to become his lifelong preoccupation.

As union secretary, Fagan found himself at the centre of a radical reconstruction of the New Zealand labour movement initiated by West Coast coalminers. The Inangahua miners had supported the formation in 1909 of the New Zealand Federation of Labour, a national organisation whose syndicalist-inspired programme proclaimed the general strike as labour's ultimate industrial weapon. Elected to its executive in 1910, Fagan was the voice of thoughtful militancy within the 'Red' federation. Unlike more radical spirits, who depicted the state-sponsored arbitration system as a 'leg-iron' to be cast off speedily, he saw it as offering a degree of protection to working people.

Fagan's attitude to labour relations became clear during the industrial upheavals of 1912–13. As the competitive contract system expanded on the Inangahua goldfields, his response was to impose a ban on all contracting work. The issue became complicated when employers introduced new hammer drills and insisted that they be worked by a single miner rather than the customary two. The miners refused and were locked out. Radicals within the Federation of Labour wanted this dispute, and similar troubles on the Waihi goldfields, handed over to the federation's national executive and a general strike proclaimed. Fagan resisted and, after a six-month stoppage, negotiated a compromise in which Inangahua miners accepted contracting and mine owners conceded that the new drills should be worked by two miners. In sharp contrast with Waihi, the Inangahua union survived the dispute intact.

The experience confirmed Fagan's preference for strengthening local organisation. He steadfastly refused to sever the Inangahua union's links with the Court of Arbitration and limited his members' involvement in the 1913 waterfront and general strikes to giving financial assistance. And, in the realignment of the labour movement that followed the collapse of the strikes, Fagan did not spare the radicals: 'Certain people in this country had gone about preaching sabotage, anarchy, and syndicalism, and nothing better could happen than that these people should have their heads chopped off.' Such sentiments matched the prevailing mood and in 1914 he was elected secretary-treasurer of the United Federation of Labour (UFL). Fagan hoped that the UFL would, in conjunction with the Social Democratic Party, provide a basis for labour unity and a surer way of achieving workplace reforms.

In the years after the 1912–13 disputes, Fagan spent much of his time publicising the dangers of miner's phthisis. This campaign led to his growing involvement in Reefton's community life. He served on the Inangahua Hospital Board and was secretary-treasurer of the local chapter of the St John Ambulance Association. Moreover, much of his day-to-day work as a union official was devoted to seeking compensation for miners afflicted by phthisis. The disease had been excluded from the 1909 Workers' Compensation Amendment Act, and although the Mining Act was amended in 1910 to provide a limited degree of assistance, fuller recognition of the disease awaited the Miner's Phthisis Act 1915. This legislation owed much to Fagan's persistent advocacy and the parliamentary pressure exerted by his friend and fellow Red Fed, Paddy Webb, who had been elected MP for Grey in 1913. On 10 September 1917, in Christchurch, Fagan married Monica McKittrick (née Gardiner), a widowed hotel-keeper with three children.

Such was Fagan's standing in the Grey valley that, when Webb was imprisoned in 1918 after refusing military service, he was suggested as a New Zealand Labour Party candidate in the subsequent by-election. Fagan's Catholicism, while lightly held, was a potential asset in a district where Catholics were numerous, as was his opposition to military conscription: he was thought to be involved in smuggling deserters to Australia. Despite his impressive credentials, however, the party preferred another Australian socialist, Harry Holland.

None the less, from the 1920s politics came increasingly to dominate Fagan's life. He resigned as secretary of the Inangahua Gold and Coal Miners' Union in 1924 and the following year unsuccessfully contested the Motueka seat for Labour. He moved to Petone in 1928 and the following year organised the by-election campaign which saw Walter Nash elected MP for Hutt. In 1930 he was appointed to the Legislative Council by Sir Joseph Ward's United government. There he was a persuasive goldfields advocate and helped promote the extension of the unemployment relief scheme to gold prospecting.

Fagan was a member of the Labour Party's national executive in 1930 and helped draft its manifesto for the 1935 general election. After Labour's victory, he was included (without portfolio) in its first cabinet – one of four fellow Australians chosen by Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage. He also served as leader of the Legislative Council from 1936 to 1939. In the ideological and personal conflicts that beset the first Labour government, Fagan was a loyal ally of the party leadership and a close friend of Savage.

From the late 1930s, however, the combined impact of miner's phthisis and diabetes forced adjustments in Fagan's political life. In 1938 he retired from the Wellington Harbour Board, on which he had served since 1933. In 1939, after briefly serving as acting minister of customs during Nash's absence overseas, he resigned from cabinet to become Speaker of the Legislative Council, a position he filled until his death, in Petone, on 31 December 1947. Monica Fagan had died in 1932; there were no children of the marriage.

How to cite this page:

Len Richardson. 'Fagan, Mark Anthony', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4f1/fagan-mark-anthony (accessed 26 April 2019)