Brutal lockout in New Zealand mill town a stark portrait of capitalism’s failed hopes and broken promises

Morgan Godfery

In 1948, when my Koro (grandfather) was born, the town of Kawerau was little more than a strip of old homesteads on the road between Rotorua and Whakatane. It had a Presbyterian church and a marae, but the nearest school and store were in the next town over – a 10-minute drive through rolling farmland and drained wetlands. Yet only six years later, when Koro was enrolled at the “native school” in 1954, Kawerau had become a city of concrete and steel. High-rise factories were built, chimneys and pipes were constructed and drills were imported to open hidden seams of geothermal steam as the Tasman Pulp and Paper Mill took shape. At its height, the mill had more than 2,000 men working on site and was responsible for 20% of the country’s exports.

In its day Tasman was the ideal model for what state capitalism could achieve. Within Koro’s first five years the government had established a joint stock company, laid a rail line from Kawerau to the port of Tauranga, extended the port’s wharf, constructed the newsprint machines to guarantee the mill’s success, and recruited hundreds of American managerial staff, British engineers, Finnish paper workers and Pacific Island labourers to man the new mill. Tasman became the largest pulp and paper mill in the southern hemisphere. Kawerau went from a kāinga (settlement) of no more than a couple hundred people to a town of thousands of people from around the world….