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PETER FROST remembers the centenary of a general strike in New Zealand at the end of 1913


Towards the end of 1913 even remote New Zealand was feeling the influence of revolutionary industrial trade unionism.

Organisations like the International Workers of the World (IWW), the famous Wobblies, had been founded in the US in 1905 and its ideas, and its members, had travelled all over the globe.

The docks, mines, mills and logging camps of New Zealand were no exception. Talk was of unions, socialism and revolution.

Workers were realising that if enough of them could join together they might take over their workplaces and run them for themselves.

All this set the scene for the most important strike in New Zealand history in 1913.

It started with two small local disputes, one in the coal mining town of Huntly, some 50 miles from Auckland in the North Island.

The other was in Wellington where dockers and stevedores of the port – they called themselves watersiders – came out on strike. These two disputes soon spread to other ports and mines all over New Zealand.

Conservative prime minister William Massey had created his own Reform Party, backed by his conservative colleagues. Massey was a leading member of a nutty, right-wing, empire-wide, secret paramilitary organisation called the Legion of Frontiersmen.

In the 1911 elections, the Reform Party managed to gain more seats than the Liberal Party, but not an absolute majority.

With support from independents, the Liberals were able to stay in power until the following year, when they lost a vote of no confidence.

Massey was sworn in as prime minister on July 10 1912. He didn’t take long to make clear his hatred of any workers daring to organise in a union.

He and his conservative supporters believed that the unions were controlled by socialists and communists.

Massey’s harsh response to miners’ and waterfront workers’ strikes and the use of force to deal with the strikers would made him an object of hatred for the emerging and strengthening left wing in New Zealand politics.

Massey would become well known for his anti-Bolshevik and anti-Soviet sentiments.

He also disliked his own home-grown socialist elements like the Red Feds, the New Zealand Federation of Labour and the New Zealand Labour Party.

Prime minister Massey violently opposed any communist influence within New Zealand.

Later after the successful Bolshevik revolution in 1917, the Massey government passed the War Regulations Continuance Act, which continued the WWI emergency regulations, including censorship.

This led to a ban on communist books and publications that would continue until the first Labour government threw it out in 1935.

As the 1913 strike widened, Massey ordered the police to call for volunteers to help defeat the strikers and reopen the docks.

Strike-breakers were recruited and armed with wooden clubs.

Some of them also used their own guns and horsewhips. Many were farm workers who rode into town on horseback and were soon named “Massey’s Cossacks” by the strikers.

Others were middle-class clerks from city businesses, who patrolled the wharves on foot. Strikers fought back.

For several weeks New Zealand was on the brink of a violent workers’ revolution.

On November 5 1913 Massey sent two naval ships to the Wellington wharves while police and thousands of the special constables marched through Wellington to reopen the port.

In Auckland Massey’s Cossacks charged down Queen Street to violently attack pickets at the waterfront.

The strike committee called a general strike and the response and support stopped most work in the city.

By November 1913 about 16,000 watersiders, miners, labourers, drivers and others were on strike, mostly in Wellington, Auckland and Christchurch. The strike held firm for six weeks.

A desperate and vindictive Massey arrested and imprisoned the strike leaders. With effective leadership jailed the strike collapsed. The workers were forced back to work.

Many of these convicted as strike organisers would go on to lead the New Zealand Labour Party (founded 1916), New Zealand Communist Party (founded 1921) and the country’s strong and militant trade union movement.

A number of them would become ministers in New Zealand’s first Labour government in 1935.

This article first published in the Morning Star, November 2013

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