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The 1913 General Strike: Relevant To Us In 2013?

The 1913 General Strike: Relevant To Us In 2013?

by Don Franks

This year marks the 100th anniversary of New Zealand workers' first general strike.

The 1913 dispute began over two incidents: Wellington shipwrights claiming a travel allowance, and union resistance to the sacking of miners in Huntly. Sympathy actions took place in other regions. By November 1913 various workers' grievances melded into a struggle of 16,000 watersiders, miners, labourers, drivers and others on strike, mostly in Wellington, Auckland and Christchurch.

Tension mounted, with army machine gun posts set up in the main centres and naval ships sent to guard the wharves. Workers' defiance was unabated and for several weeks New Zealand seemed almost at the point of revolution.

As in the 1890 maritime strike, the state recruited volunteers to help control the strikers and reopen the wharves. Thousands of strike-breakers were recruited, enrolled as ‘special constables’, and armed with wooden batons. Some also used their own firearms and horsewhips. Many were farmers who rode into town on horseback to be dubbed ‘Massey’s Cossacks’ by the strikers. Other volunteers were office workers from city businesses, patrolling contentious areas on foot. Groups of strikers hit back physically. In Auckland, when ‘Massey’s Cossacks’ marched down Queen Street to the waterfront, the strike committee called a general strike; most jobs stopped for several days. The government retaliated by arresting the striker’s leaders after which the struggle fell away.

The workers possessed valour, but insufficient resources or unified political purpose to beat the capitalist state.

At stake in this struggle was workers' power and freedom to control their own destiny. By 1913 some sort of confrontation between workers and bosses had become almost inevitable. The last century dawned on mass working class awakening. In 1909 militant unionists had formed the New Zealand Federation of Labour (the "Red Feds") an organisation opposed to the Liberal government's Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act. Internationally lauded as a prescription for industrial peace, the Act was revealed as a workers' straightjacket, requiring labour disputes to be settled through conciliation boards and arbitration courts. Over time, workers chafed at the restrictions of the arbitration system. It failed to match wages with living costs, didn't compel employers to pay for all hours of work, and left loopholes for employers to pay workers at less than agreed rates. Growing union membership in the early 1900s increased the Arbitration Court's workload to the point that unions could wait up to a year before getting a hearing. In 1905 an amendment to the Act made strike action and lockouts illegal where there was an award covering employers and workers, and another amendment in 1907 increased the penalties for striking illegally. Only unions registered under the Trade Union Act passed the following year could legally strike. With the forming of the Red Feds, affiliated unions withdrew from the IC&A Act and registered under the Trade Union Act. By 1911 the organisation's membership had doubled to nearly 14,000 workers, and by 1913 that army was on the march.

Helen Clark and the Red Feds

In 2006, the nintieth aniversary of the general strike was marked by two events. One was the launch of a book about the dispute, with this speech:

"On this internationally recognised day commemorating the achievements of the labour movement, we ... 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...

"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 standstill which became known as the 'Great Strike' in Wellington and the 'General Strike' in Auckland."

So said Prime Minister Helen Clark, when, "with great pleasure", she launched Revolution: The 1913 Great Strike in New Zealand, a book of essays about the period.

Helen Clark is no revolutionary. Nor, as a creator of Labour's strike breaking Employment Relations Act, is she a supporter of working class activism.

So, why her great pleasure recalling these troublemakers?

Clark's speech continued: "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."

Clark's observation is a tidy summation of the tragic wrong turn taken by the New Zealand working class. She just omits the anti-worker role played by her party.

In the years immediately after the 1913 strike Labour's top leadership began an ongoing project of putting workers in their place.

Labour party leaders rejigged rules to gain more complete control over party conferences, the selection of candidates and party policy. The 1920, 1922 and 1926 conferences were especially important in this. The party now had a loyalty pledge and it supported the arbitration system -- hated fetter of the 1913 militants.

Clark's heroes of the labour movement went on to "achieve goals" in direct contradiction to the aims of the 1913 strikers.

Harry Holland campaigned in 1922 against the Miners Union taking strike action in defence of their pay and conditions.

As war time Prime minister, Peter Fraser championed censorship, wage controls and conscription.

One time Chairman of the Red Feds, Michael Joseph Savage initially opposed the formation of the Labour party from the left. In 1911 he stood for the Socialists against Labour in Auckland Central. In due time he swapped socialist principle for the comfort of a career as a capitalist minister.

As a key member of the 1984-1990 Labour government Helen Clark was herself an achiever of political goals.

She was active privatising anti-worker reforms in health and education. Labour sacked elected area health boards and power board trustees, and paved the way for the privatisation of power boards. Dozens of state assets were sold including Petrocorp, Post Bank, Rural Bank, Air New Zealand, Telecom, State Insurance, Government Print, New Zealand Steel, Forestry Cutting Rights, Tourist Hotel Corporation, Development Finance Corp, Health Computing Service, Maui Gas and the Shipping Corporation. The privatisation of state-owned enterprises was an enormous handout to big business. They bought vast assets cheap and made fortunes out of them.

The 1984-1990 Labour Government also hit workers with their Goods and Services Tax (GST) initially at 10 per cent, then later raised to 12.5 per cent. GST enabled the rich to transfer part of their “tax burden” to the poor and lower the tax rate on high incomes. Working class people already on tight budgets were hard hit by the extra 12.5 per cent cost on everything.

Labour party leaders certainly saw "the importance of political action and parliamentary politics in achieving economic and social change". Change in favour of the rich, at the expense of the workers who created society's wealth.

“Cossacks and Comrades”

The other 2006 General Strike related event was an exhibition; “Cossacks and Comrades” . This was jointly sponsored by the Auckland University of Technology. Institute of Public Policy and the NZ Police, along with a number of unions, to ‘commemorate’ the “1913 Waterfront Dispute”. Comrades and Cossacks had as its centrepiece the release of new police research on the 1913 strike. In a press release promoting the event, academic Cath Casey, police ‘strategic analyst’ Cathie Collinson and police spokeswoman Catherine Gardner described the research as a contribution to “the international review of police of models of reservism”. An article in Auckland's Central Leader paper quoted Cathie Collinson as saying "This is a crucial piece of research because we need to know what works for different policing styles."

On Monday the 24th of November a small number of activists picketed the Comrades and Cossacks conference and exhibition at Auckland University of Technology. The picketers objected to the way union officials and the police were co-sponsoring this 'commemoration' of an event which saw state violence against workers on a scale unsurpassed in New Zealand history. The Communist Workers Group denounced the exhibition as:

".. a falsification of history that seeks to relegate class struggle to the museum and promote the bosses’ agenda of ‘class peace’. For unions to co-sponsor and fund such an event is an act of class betrayal."

The CWG concluded: "It’s time to rediscover the militant labour heritage of 1913, and the revolutionary Marxist heritage of 1917."

I would not disagree with those sentiments and have voiced similar rhetoric myself.

But without making a serious analysis of today's actual conditions, our rhetoric remains useless hot air.

1913 and 2013

The New Zealand of 1913 was populated by a working class made up of several different layers. There were minority sections of radical union militants seeking a better life, through united direct action. There were layers of white collar workers, rural farm labourers and some blue collar workers supporting the government, and many uncommitted toilers in the middle.

The working class was divided in other ways: most unionists were men; even by 1921 only around 2% of the female workforce belonged to unions. In industries where women were unionised, such as the clothing and textile industries, they played little part in running the union. Except in the Dunedin Tailoresses’ Union, all union leaders were men, and apart from Māori in the Shearers’ Union, almost all union members were Pakeha.

A positive feature of the 1913 working class was the small but significant number of radically minded ordinary workers. Across the country this current studied Marxist and other revolutionary literature, particularly Industrial Workers of the World syndicalist literature. The aims of the syndicalists were to replace the capitalist system with a form of unionised worker control. Much syndicalist thinking was romantic idealism, but there is no doubting its uncompromising class attitude. (I was commissioned to perform IWW songs at the 2006 Wellington book launch and spent several hours researching and rehearsing the torrid revolutionary lyrics. At the last minute I was instructed by the function organisers to can the words and just play the tunes instrumentally.)

Today, there is no syndicalist or socialist current in New Zealand's working class. Repeated local and international failure has discredited the ideal of socialism. Neither is there an identifiable current of working class conciousness. The handful of activists who denounced the Comrades and Cossacks conference achieved quite wide publicity, but their agitation aroused no mass worker indignation.

In the run of 2013 life, union membership continues to decline. The few isolated union actions are almost all rearguard struggles attempting to hold the line against further cutbacks. Some lockouts have enjoyed degrees of financial support from other unionists, but solidarity strikes remain illegal and a memory. Workers' expectations have been driven almost into the ground -- union publicity seeking support for today's heroic protracted stand of Auckland watersiders depicts a child saying "All my daddy wants is a roster."

This year there will be gatherings and speeches commemorating the 1913 general strike. Some union officials will probably draw an unbroken line between the Red Feds and unionism today, but they have no entitlement to that. Arbitration is not opposed or even questioned by today's union leaders, who, against all the evidence, tell their dwindling membership the Labour party is "their friend".

Outside of union offices, commemoration of the 1913 workers struggle is not likely to attract much interest from today's workers. Many are struggling, but few look to a socialist solution. As Dean Parker emailed me last week: "Lots of people in the red, but bugger all reds."

Yet the basic social contradictions all remain. Exactly as in 1913, workers are exploited at the point of production. Casualisation, generational unemployment and economic inequality continue to grow, casting a growing shadow of social dislocation. Domestic violence, alcoholism, suicide and medical prescriptions for depression are ingrained features of modern New Zealand, as is widespread working class poverty, currently misnamed 'child poverty'.

Last century's general strike is a reminder that the working class and the capitalists have nothing in common and that workers can only win liberation by their own unified revolutionary struggle.

Just how we concretely achieve that is the hard question. The first step is believing it to be necessary and possible.


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