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Revolution: the 1913 Great Strike in New Zealand

Monday 1 May 2006

Rt Hon Helen Clark
Prime Minister

Launch of
Revolution: the 1913 Great Strike in New Zealand

Museum of Wellington City and Sea,

5.30 pm

Monday 1 May 2006

May Day, the first of May, is a very appropriate day to launch this important volume of essays on the Great Strike of 1913. On this internationally recognised day commemorating the achievements of the labour movement, we can also acknowledge a significant chapter in the history of organised labour in New Zealand.

The 1913 strike was a very significant event in New Zealand's industrial relations history. Along with the 1890 maritime dispute and the 1951 waterfront lockout, it stands as one of the three major industrial confrontations in our history.

This important collection of essays came out of a Trade Union History Project conference in November 2003 to commemorate the ninetieth anniversary of the 1913 strike. The book addresses a major gap in New Zealand's historical writing. Despite its importance, 1913 has hitherto been largely neglected by historians. James Belich noted in his general history that while 1913 was not the Russian Revolution, it does seem to have been something rather closer to a class war than most historians allow.

Only four days ago I launched a book from the other side of the industrial fence - the history of the first 120 years of employer organisation in Auckland. Publicity about the book by its promoters suggested that it "helps correct a long bias of history writing in favour of government and unions."

While the assertion of such bias is not a view I share, it is useful to have different perspectives on our industrial history, and I commend Melanie Nolan on editing this important work.

The 1913 strike involved a higher proportion of the workforce than did either the 1890 or the 1951 disputes. The strike lasted eight weeks and involved 16.7 per cent of unionists. Few would have predicted that New Zealand's workers would beat their British equivalents to a national stoppage. But fully thirteen years before the British General Strike of 1926, much of New Zealand was brought to the eight-week stand still which became known as the 'Great Strike' in Wellington and the 'General Strike' in Auckland.

1913 is also very significant because it was one of the seminal events that led to the formation of the New Zealand Labour Party in 1916. The strikers were defeated, but as Peter Fraser said, “the militants might lose every battle but they won the campaign.” The excesses of the Massey government – particularly its use of the special constables, Massey’s Cossacks, against the strikers, helped unite the various labour factions into one party. Leaders of the 1913 strike like Fraser, Harry Holland and Michael Joseph Savage learned the hard lesson that the labour movement could not achieve its goals through industrial action alone. When the Labour Party was formed in 1916, the party was united in seeing the importance of political action and parliamentary politics in achieving economic and social change. That insight of ninety years ago remains highly relevant today.

This book is not a romantic story, but rather a clear-headed account of the broad social implications of what was much more than an industrial dispute: it was a battle over democracy itself.

It is most appropriate that this book is launched at the Museum of Wellington City and Sea. Here we are surrounded by the history of the 1913 strike. The museum building housed the offices of the Wellington Harbour Board, a strong supporter of the Wellington Employers, Farmers, and Citizens Defence Committee which mobilised opposition to the strike. Across the road is Post Office Square. On 24 October 1913, 1500 watersiders gathered there and moved across to break through the barriers stopping them entering the waterfront. At that moment, The Dominion reported, “the demeanour of the strike had completely changed.” It had become an issue of law and order and class conflict. Extraordinary scenes followed on Wellington’s streets. The 1913 strike was one of the most turbulent and violent industrial disputes in New Zealand’s history.

Later in the year, the Museum will display an exhibition of the 1913 strike which has been curated by Mark Derby, one of the contributors to this book. Strike 1913: War on the Wharves will open in August and run to November. The exhibition will be a fitting companion to this publication. I hope that a large audience, particularly young people, will get the benefits of this cutting-edge labour history research.

This book is the product of a great deal of voluntary effort by those who have worked on it, particularly by the editor, Melanie Nolan. Edited volumes are, by their very nature, a compilation of the insights of different minds on aspects of an issue. The common purpose of the thirteen contributors has been to tease out the various aspects of what was a turning point in New Zealand history: The reader will learn about the strike as it affected the state, the police, the strikers, the militants, the moderates, and the country's rulers. The role played by women and men is also considered. This is a very rich and well presented history.

Special thanks are due to Melanie Nolan. It was her idea to transform the contributions to the 2003 conference into a book. Her enthusiasm and dedication have been crucial to making the book happen. I congratulate Melanie, the contributors, the Trade Union History Project and Canterbury University Press on a very fine effort. It is with great pleasure that I launch Revolution: The 1913 Great Strike in New Zealand.


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