The rise of the Red Fed

The defeat of the 1890 Maritime Strike, a general strike of transport-related unions, smashed up the first wave of union militancy in these islands. Union membership was knocked back from 63 000 to just 8 000, and the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1894 was passed.

The arbitration system ended strikes completely. It applied to unions that registered under the Act, and most did, despite the loss of independence to be able to take legal industrial action or even determine their own rules. The unions, which were mostly local craft unions, accepted, even welcomed, the Arbitration Court handing down awards because they were too weak to take the employers on.

Unionism grew slowly but steadily. In 1896 there were 75 unions with 8,230 members registered under the Arbitration Act. A decade later 258 unions with 34,978 members were registered.

The British Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald visited in 1906 to study the arbitration system. He wrote: “A trades union in New Zealand … exists mainly to get an award out of the Arbitration Court. The awards are given as a rule for two years, consequently there is no incentive for the workmen in that particular trade to do anything for at least two years. They cannot strike; it is no good their grumbling; they simply pay their dues into the union funds because they are legally bound to do it, and they take little interest in trades unionism as an industrial or political factor. One of the leading trade unionists of Wellington told me, ‘Our laws have increased our size, but they have taken all the steel out of us.’”

Roth says, “During the first five years of the Arbitration Court wages had outdistanced the cost of living, but between 1901 and 1906 real wages declined.” In 1906 there had not been a single strike for twelve years, but in November 65 tramway workers in Auckland struck illegally one afternoon over sackings and won before the evening was out. It was the first defiance of the Arbitration Act, if not a defiance of a Court award.

“Within three months, however, Wellington slaughtermen struck at the very heart of the arbitration system. On 12 February 1907 some 140 men at the Petone and Ngahauranga freezing works near Wellington ceased work when the employers refused to raise wages from 20s. to 25s. per 100 sheep or lambs killed. After being out for a week they accepted an offer of 23s. and the strike in the Wellington area came to an end, but meanwhile slaughtermen in the other freezing works joined the dispute. Altogether 517 men took part in the strike and 1,637 were rendered idle for periods ranging from one to 20 days. Over 21,000 working days were lost in the dispute, which ended only when the new rate of 23s. was accepted everywhere.”

Dissatisfaction with Arbitration was growing and there were stirrings of independence from the Liberal Party within the union movement. The radical New Zealand Socialist Party had been founded in 1901 followed by a union-instigated Independent Political Labour League in 1904.

In 1908 Wellington bakers and again the Auckland tramway workers went on strike. But the seminal action of that year was a strike at the Blackball mine, West Coast. The rule at this mine was that the meal break was only 15 minutes and was to be taken where the miners were working underground. The union resolved to inform the Company that henceforth they would take 30 minutes for their meal break. A mine manager stood over socialist ring-leader Pat Hickey with a stopwatch. After 15 minutes Hickey was ordered to resume work, but he refused.

Roth states: “Hickey was charged under the Mining Regulations, fined in the Magistrate’s Court, but the agitation continued. The manager finally dismissed Hickey, Webb and five others, the entire committee of the newly formed Blackball branch of the Socialist Party, whereupon on 27 February all 120 men at the mine ceased work until the dismissed men were reinstated.” Despite being prosecuted and fined, the union stood firm. After three months the union won the reinstatement of the sacked miners and the 30 minute meal break. Fines on the unionists were paid anonymously.

The upshot of the successful Blackball defiance was that the socialists agitated and over the course of two conferences in 1908 the individual coalmining and goldmining unions formed a Miners’ Federation. The following year the Miners’ Federation opened the door to others by changing their name to the Federation of Labor.

Most of the mining unions cancelled their registration under the Arbitration Act. “When the State Miners’ Union in November 1909 went on strike over a dispute involving trucking, the strike was legal because the union had cancelled registration and there were no prosecutions once a settlement had been reached. This lesson was not lost on New Zealand unionists.”

The Federation of Labor, the Red Fed, was militant and gave its central executive the power to “conduct strikes through its local representatives, raise strike levies and call out affiliated unions without prior local ballots.” The Red Fed leaders were preponderantly Socialists: Paddy Webb was President and Bob Semple was appointed national organiser. The moderate Trades and Labour Council movement were “unable to match the fighting spirit of the miners, or compete with the burning oratory of a Semple who stumped the country with an Appeal to the Workers of New Zealand proclaiming: “The Working Class and the Employing Class have nothing in common; there can be no peace as long as the few who constitute the Employing Class have all the good things in life and while millions of the working class suffer hunger and want. Between these two classes a struggle must go on until all the toilers come together on the Political, as well as on the Industrial fields.””

From its miners’ unions’ base, the Red Fed expanded with the affiliation of the Shearers, Auckland Brewery Workers, Auckland General Labourers, the Carpenters, the Christchurch General Labourers and the Waterside Workers. A great asset for the Red Fed was their acquisition in 1911 of the Shearers’ Union monthly, the Maoriland Worker, which was transformed into a weekly newspaper with a circulation of 8,500 by May 1912.

Success after success came for the Red Fed as concessions, greater than could be got through arbitration, were wrung from employers by the threat of action. But then the Federation suffered a setback. Roth explains:

“The more the unions turned from the Arbitration Court, the more the employers clung to it. When the Auckland General Labourers, led by Peter Fraser, put forward new wage demands early in 1912 the employers refused to make any arrangements outside the Court. There were rumours of an imminent labourers’ strike or even a general strike of all Federation affiliates in Auckland, but the Red Fed leaders hesitated to call out their troops which gave the employers time to act. Auckland local bodies met their workmen behind the union’s back and by offering some wage increases induced the formation of a breakaway union, the Auckland Suburban Local Bodies’ Labourers’ Union, which promptly registered under the Arbitration Act. … The Red Federation was, for the first time, outmanoeuvered. The dispute revealed how weak were the ties of loyalty that bound more recent affiliations to the Federation, as well as the indecisiveness of the federation leaders when faced with determined opposition. More importantly, it taught the employers the usefulness of a new weapon, the formation of “arbitration unions” where the existing union had cancelled its registration, which made it possible to use the machinery of the arbitration system against militant unionists.”

As well as offering a pay rise to induce the labourers to join an arbitration union, the employers had laid plans with the region’s farmers to break a Red Fed strike. Armed with their new tactics, the employer class prepared to battle the menace of the growing Red Fed. The decisive struggle took place later in 1912, and will be described in a subsequent article.

[All quotations are taken from Bert Roth’s Trade Unions in New Zealand.]