Story: McLagan, Angus

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McLagan, Angus

1891–1956

Miner, trade unionist, political activist, politician

This biography, written by Len Richardson, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 4, 1998.

Angus McLagan was born in Mid Calder, Midlothian, Scotland, on 30 December 1891, to Angus McLagan, a limestone miner, and his wife, Agnes Campbell. He began work as a pit boy at the age of 14 and emigrated to New Zealand in 1911. One of a number of Scottish migrant coalminers who made their mark in New Zealand coalfields unionism in the days when coal was king, he was to be among the nation's most influential labour leaders in the interwar years.

McLagan found work as a miner in the Grey valley coal town of Blackball, on the West Coast. He was dismissed after the 1913 strike and worked for a period as a tunneller and bushworker. In 1919 he went home to Scotland for 18 months when his mother died. After returning to Blackball, he again worked in the mine until 1928.

He also made his mark in union affairs. Many officials of the New Zealand Federated Coal Mine Employees' Association, formed in 1915, believed that alliances with the wider labour movement had weakened the ability of the union to bring about reforms in the day-to-day operation of the industry. McLagan and a small group of activists demanded a more assertive approach. They hoped that by assuming the leadership of the labour movement the miners could campaign more vigorously for the nationalisation of the coal industry. At first the radicals made slow progress. But as the brief period of prosperity that accompanied the end of the First World War evaporated, their arguments and continued sniping at the national officials undermined the federation's credibility. It eventually collapsed and was reconstructed as the United Mine Workers of New Zealand (UMW) in 1923.

The ferment on the coalfields brought McLagan into contact with embryonic communist organisations, who had come to see the miners as a revolutionary vanguard in the struggle against capitalism. To McLagan, the committed apostles of revolution offered the prospect of rejuvenating mining unionism in ways that would more quickly achieve the immediate goal of state control of the coal industry. Whatever calculations were made, in 1926 the forces of communism and mining unionism came together. The headquarters of the Communist Party of New Zealand was transferred to Blackball and McLagan became national secretary of the Communist Party and of the UMW.

McLagan and the communists launched a sustained propaganda campaign. In the Workers' Vanguard and the miners' page of the Grey River Argus, they hammered out a persistent refrain: the miners could, by a policy of sustained industrial action, provide resistance to the constrained economic conditions of the 1920s. McLagan's role was primarily an industrial one, but he learned much from his association with the tightly organised communist cells. Among their ranks were Sophia Elizabeth Schluter and her husband, Jack Doyle, an uncompromising young activist. Sophie, as she was more commonly known, was part of the team that produced the Workers' Vanguard, and her editorial and proselytising skills were to complement McLagan's industrial advocacy. They married at Christchurch on 5 August 1930, following Sophie's divorce from Doyle.

Increasingly, McLagan began to assert more aggressively the miners' claim to leadership of the labour movement, a policy that brought him into conflict with the newly emerging voice of radical unionism, the New Zealand Alliance of Labour. As the economy contracted in the early 1920s, Alliance officials became more cautious about the use of the strike as a bargaining weapon, particularly after the failure of seamen's and railway workers' strikes in 1922–23 and 1924. McLagan and the UMW remained confident of the miners' ability to spearhead an attack on capitalism. When their attempts to win over the Alliance failed they decided to go it alone. But as the economic uncertainties of the late 1920s drove the majority of unions into a defensive mode, McLagan sometimes seemed reluctant to acknowledge that the greater part of the union movement lacked both the level of organisation and the economic power which would enable the miners to adopt a more militant stance. Events on the coalfields were soon, however, to bring about a sharp reappraisal of the miners' industrial strategy.

By the late 1920s falling demand for coal had led to intermittency of employment through work rationing. The policy occasioned bitter debate, especially among the communists. Since the rationing scheme effectively discriminated against young, single miners, it drove from Blackball a significant body of young party activists, including McLagan. Moreover, radical union orthodoxy held that rationing labour benefited the employer more than it did the workers and contained within it the potential to disrupt union activity. Relations between the communist activists and the miners soured, and McLagan found himself caught between endeavouring to implement Communist Party strategy and responding to the immediate problems faced by mining families.

For a time after leaving Blackball McLagan took labouring jobs, then worked in the mine at Brunnerton. He lived in Greymouth from 1938 and Rangiora from 1940. The rift between McLagan and the communists widened during 1928–29 as the party reluctantly accepted the fading of their hopes that the miners might act as a battering ram in the war against capitalism. The final severing of the connection came with the party's reaction to a prolonged lockout on the coalfields of northern New South Wales. The communist strategy in New Zealand called for a national coal stoppage; by paralysing trans-Tasman trade the party hoped to launch a pre-emptive strike against wholesale wage cuts. McLagan saw it differently. Intermittent employment and work-sharing had, in his view, weakened the miners' ability to sustain a potentially lengthy strike. He preferred to levy miners in support of the locked-out miners in New South Wales. The issue precipitated his expulsion from the Communist Party. New Zealand miners, however, experienced perhaps one of their most sustained periods of earnings in 1929–30 as markets once met by Newcastle coal fell into the hands of local companies.

Mining unionism was also threatened by the appearance of small co-operative mining ventures. McLagan saw these as threatening the UMW by potentially providing a source of coal during any industrial stoppage. Consequently, in the late 1920s, as the co-operative miners grew in number and established their own organisation, McLagan tried unsuccessfully either to bring them into the UMW or to seek their neutrality in industrial disputes. More disturbing, in McLagan's view, was the trend for such groups to enter into agreements with mining companies to work sections of existing mines and deliver coal to the owners for an agreed price. McLagan labelled these arrangements 'tribute mining' and saw in them the seeds of union disintegration.

The struggle against this tendency to fracture, especially on the West Coast coalfields, lay at the centre of mining unionism's problems during the depression. At Blackball a small party of tributors, supported by a substantial police presence, defied union and community for some 15 months. McLagan's exhortation to local unionists drew heavily on a sense of historical injustice. He called for the miners to 'Fight it out to a finish'; they did so for more than a year, before reluctantly conceding defeat.

The tribute dispute at Blackball and those that followed at Charming Creek and Denniston during 1931 and 1932 raised the spectre, at least in the minds of conservatives, that McLagan might lead the miners in a revolt against the Forbes–Coates government's deflationary economic policy. McLagan's options were, however, more circumscribed than many contemporaries realised. He struggled to maintain the union's membership base in the face of pit closures and irregular operations, and against the steady drift of miners into co-operative and tribute ventures. McLagan pursued a dogged but cautious path which limited the erosion of wages and maintained the structure of the UMW intact. In 1934 he orchestrated a campaign that ensured, in large measure, the restoration of the previous wage rates in the coal industry.

Like many coalfields radicals, McLagan had doubted the value of political action. The depression and the increasing prospect of a Labour government winning office led him to a more pragmatic assessment. He supported re-affiliation with the New Zealand Labour Party, which the UMW had abandoned in the 1920s. He promoted unity during 1936 and 1937 as struggles between rival union groupings threatened to undermine the newly elected Labour government. And he played a critical role in the National Industrial Conference called in 1937 to define the relationship between the industrial and political wings of the labour movement. McLagan emerged from it as the inaugural president of the fledgeling New Zealand Federation of Labour, a position he was to hold until 1946.

By aligning the UMW more closely with the Labour government, McLagan was able to push on with the long-standing objectives of mining unionism: a national industrial agreement and the nationalisation of the coal industry. The former was achieved by negotiating first with the state and then demanding that private operators match the agreement reached. At the same time, the government began buying up smaller mines for which the upturn in the coal industry came too late. There was pressure from radicals on the coalfields for McLagan to press more firmly for the immediate nationalisation of the larger mines rather than accept Labour's piecemeal policy of picking up capitalism's cast-offs. Despite such criticism, he remained, at the end of the 1930s, firmly entrenched as leader of the UMW.

By arresting the decline into which the coal industry was gradually but inexorably succumbing, the outbreak of war in 1939 returned to the miners some of the economic muscle they had lost. It also catapulted McLagan to the centre of power. In 1942 he was appointed to the Legislative Council and became minister of industrial manpower. In this capacity he found himself confronted with a major coal strike in Waikato; 182 strikers were found guilty of having breached the Emergency Regulations by engaging in an illegal strike, and were sentenced to imprisonment. McLagan prevailed upon Prime Minister Peter Fraser to set aside the sentences and place the Waikato mines under a form of dual public and private control. Some accused McLagan of having set aside the law in the interests of class loyalty and pursuing a policy of nationalisation by stealth. S. G. Holland, the leader of the New Zealand National Party, seized the chance to resign from the joint War Administration. The outcome encouraged radicals and communists on the coalfields to demand the nationalisation of the entire industry.

McLagan resigned from the Legislative Council in 1946 and was elected MP for Riccarton. From 1946 to 1949 he served as minister of labour, and of employment, mines and immigration. He had to confront those within the trade union movement who wanted more radical reform. He had been one of the principal architects of the stabilisation policies of the war years. By continuing with these, the Labour government, supported by the Federation of Labour, sought to avoid a repetition of the inflation and economic disruption that marked the years following the First World War. Critics saw this as accepting too readily the constraints of the capitalist system. McLagan defended stabilisation as ushering in the 'orderly progress of New Zealand in a gradual transition from capitalism to socialism'.

He clashed openly with unions who challenged the government's economic programme and came to see the hand of international communism in union opposition to stabilisation. In 1948 he deregistered the Auckland Branch of the New Zealand Carpenters' and Joiners' Union and accepted the registration of a rival organisation, thereby breaking the communist control of the union. And in 1949 he supported the Federation of Labour in its attempts to isolate the New Zealand Waterside Workers' Union which had become the leading critic of stabilisation. McLagan remained MP for Riccarton until his death at Christchurch on 4 September 1956. He was survived by his wife, two sons and two daughters.

Angus McLagan brought to the ranks of New Zealand unionism a sharp intelligence and an unparalleled knowledge of both the coal industry and mining unionism. His mastery of detail and tenacity in the cut and thrust of public debate were aided by his meticulous recording in shorthand of arguments and speeches. Uncompromising where necessary, he was rarely so committed to an ideology as to ignore industrial and economic realities. Never as comfortable in the political sphere as in the industrial, his ability to win the support of mining union officials during the Second World War made him indispensable to the Labour government. As a union official he brought to the United Mine Workers a doggedness of purpose and a grasp of the problems facing the coal industry rarely, if ever, matched in the history of New Zealand coalmining unionism.

How to cite this page:

Len Richardson. 'McLagan, Angus', first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol. 4, 1998. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4m23/mclagan-angus (accessed 18 October 2017)