Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 49, September 2005
There was a branch of the Thames Miners' Union at Karangahake. The Union operated an insurance scheme to cover injury and death and this was paid for by subscriptions on members. In this way the Union performed a valuable social function as there were no Miners' Pensions until 1915. Even then the pension was hopelessly inadequate, even when compared to the miner's meagre wages.
There were many disputes between the Karangahake companies and their employees and the Union acted in all these disputes on behalf of the men. About 1911 there was some agitation for the abolition of the Competitive Contract System in the mines, after the success of the Waihi miners in replacing it with a Cooperative Contract System. The Competitive Contract System, besides exploiting the miners, led to hostile competition between fellow workers. However the companies at Karangahake, especially the Talisman, opposed any reform and the movement failed.
The Karangahake Miners' Union was not connected with that of the Waihi miners, who in 1902 had formed their own arbitrationist union. In 1911 the Waihi miners voted for deregistration with the Arbitration Court. The defection of engineers, who formed an arbitrationist union, was an immediate cause of the 1912 Waihi strike. Nevertheless, the Karangahake miners were involved in the strike indirectly. They were addressed by both Bob Semple and Peter Fraser (president of the "Red Feds") before the strike and their union contributed £519.8.0 to the strike fund, by far the largest donation of an unaffiliated body.
There were two successive Miners' Union Halls at Karangahake, the first burnt down in November 1903 and the second, which stood in the township on the "lower road", was moved to Waihi in 1946, for use as the R S A Hall.
KARANGAHAKE MINERS' HEALTH
The danger of injury in the mines was high, and townspeople gathered quickly when they heard the siren which announced an accident. At least nineteen men lost their lives in the Karangahake mines over the years, and there were numerous serious accidents. Sources of danger included rock falls, misfires from explosives used to blast out quartz, unguarded or faulty machinery, and shafts. Sometimes medical aid could be slow in coming, and this added to the risk. From about 1905 onwards, a horse-drawn ambulance was kept ready in a small shed just off the main road at Karangahake.
After 1909 the Workers' Compensation Act legalised the claims of the miners against their employers for injuries sustained in the course of work. Before this time it was difficult to obtain any compensation. The Inspector of Mines investigated all accidents, but only in rare cases was the Mine owner or manager judged to be negligent, and, on these occasions, a relatively small penalty was imposed. A major cause of premature death amongst the miners was the dreaded phthisis or silicosis, usually known as "the dust". The fine quartz dust created by drilling and dry crushing was inhaled and settled on the lungs. Quartz dust, like powdered glass, has an abrasive effect. Those suffering from the disease often did not live long, and there was no cure. The Karangahake and Waihi mines were supposed to be better ventilated than those at Thames, but even so, the incidence of phthisis was high. In 1907 an anonymous essayist emphasized the devastating effects of phthisis, and the Royal Commission of Mines of 1911 recommended water drilling. The problem was also obviated to a degree by the introduction of wet crushing and better ventilation. However, the introduction of water drills led to bronchial and rheumatic complaints among miners.
Medical assistance was provided by nurses who lived in the district. The nearest doctor was usually in Paeroa, although for a few years there were doctors resident at Karangahake (Drs Craig and Cheesman). In 1930 a hospital was built at Paeroa. Before then the nearest hospital was at Thames or Waihi (built 1903). During the Influenza epidemic of 1918 both these hospitals were filled with patients, and medical staff and volunteers worked day and night. Temporary hospitals were set up to cope with the numbers stricken with the disease. In an attempt to control the spread of the epidemic, schools were closed down and fumigating rooms opened up. For some time, the Karangahake station waiting room operated as a fumigating room.