The 1913 Great Strike

Page 2 – Class war comes to the workers' paradise 1890-1913

In 1890 New Zealand’s watersiders’, miners’ and seamen’s unions were defeated in the Maritime Strike, but a Liberal government was elected with strong working-class support. In 1894 the Minister of Labour, William Pember Reeves, introduced the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act. This established a system of compulsory arbitration between employers and unions which chose to register under the Act.

The arbitration system

The unions, too weak to strike after the defeat of 1890, were happy to accept compulsory arbitration. The law:

  • guaranteed legal recognition of unions registered under the Act;
  • made Conciliation Board and Arbitration Court decisions legally binding on employers and registered unions;
  • outlawed lockouts by employers and strikes by registered unions.

Unions at first generally regarded the arbitration system as beneficial, while many employers saw it as limiting their powers. With no significant stoppages between 1894 and 1906, New Zealand became known internationally as ‘the country without strikes’.

The birth of the Red Feds

By 1905 many workers had become disillusioned with compulsory arbitration. The Arbitration Court refused to adjust wages to match inflation. Ideas of socialism and revolutionary industrial unionism were finding a ready audience. Flax workers, seamen, watersiders and miners were particularly receptive. Revolutionary industrial unionism encouraged workers to unite in large unions based around industry rather than occupation, with the ultimate goal of establishing socialism. The unions covering the skilled trades tended to view these new ideas with suspicion and stayed in the arbitration system.

The Blackball miners’ strike of 1908 challenged the arbitration system. A new generation of union leaders, including Pat Hickey, Paddy Webb and Bob Semple, openly advocated class war. After Blackball, miners’ unions combined in the New Zealand Federation of Miners. Many federation unions deregistered from the arbitration system, legally enabling direct negotiation with employers and the right to strike. In 1910 the federation embraced non-mining unions, becoming the New Zealand Federation of Labour, popularly known as the Red Federation or ‘the Red Feds’.

The world’s wealth for the world’s workers

In the early 20th century worker mobility was high and travelling activists spread political messages. North America was a major source of radical ideas. Pat Hickey, a New Zealander who had worked in the USA, brought home the socialist message he had learned from the radical Western Federation of Miners and from the Socialist Party of America. Canadian agitator H.M. Fitzgerald promoted the ideas of the Socialist Party and the Industrial Workers of the World, while his compatriot J.B. King was another militant advocate for the IWW.

A steady stream of unions deregistered from the arbitration act, making gains through direct negotiation and a series of strikes. The New Zealand Employers’ Federation and the Farmers’ Union were deeply worried. They decided the arbitration act was the most effective way of controlling militant unions. In 1912 the Employers’ Federation established an organising and defence fund ‘to combat socialism, syndicalism and anarchy’.[1]

Class war at Waihī

In 1912 the employers developed a new tactic, encouraging workers to set up arbitration unions at workplaces with established Red Fed unions. This undermined the power of militant unions, as agreements reached by arbitration unions legally applied to members of the Red Fed unions as well.

The Waihī strike of 1912 broke out when the powerful Red Fed-affiliated Waihi Trade Union of Workers refused to work with an arbitrationist engine drivers’ union. The strike, at the country’s largest gold mine, resulted in the destruction of the Waihi Trade Union. Strikers’ families were expelled from the town and striker Frederick Evans was killed.

The heavy police intervention at Waihī was a consequence of William Massey’s conservative Reform Party taking power in July 1912. Massey was prepared to use the full force of the state force against militant unionists, an approach that was enthusiastically supported by the recently appointed Commissioner of Police, John Cullen.

The Unity Conferences, 1913

Following the Waihī strike the radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), staunch believers in direct industrial action, attacked the Federation of Labour for failing to give enough support to the strikers.

For their part, the moderate arbitrationist unions, who had refused to support the strike, were shocked at the level of force employed by the government. Moderate and militant unions attended two Unity Conferences, both held in Wellington, in January and July 1913. At the July conference a new enlarged United Federation of Labour was formed, including militant and some moderate unions. This development deeply worried the Employers’ Federation and the Farmers’ Union, who were determined to destroy the United Federation.



[1] ‘Private and confidential: New Zealand Employers’ Federation Circular no. 67, 1912’, bound in Reports of Proceedings New Zealand Employers’ Federation 1903-1908, Alexander Turnbull Library.