The 1913 Great Strike

Page 7 – The defeat of the 1913 strike

The leaders of the United Federation of Labour were unenthusiastic about the strike from the beginning, but felt obliged to lead actions that had been decided on through democratic processes.  They believed the strike was a tactical mistake, in that it put the UFL at risk before the new federation had built up its resources. In spring watersiders and miners had the least economic leverage and farmers were free to enrol as special constables.  

The seizure of the wharves in Wellington and Auckland greatly reduced the strikers’ industrial power. Similar takeovers by ‘scab’ arbitration unions soon happened in other ports.

When the UFL leaders called for a general strike in the main centres on 10 November, the response was poor. While many arbitrationist unions gave financial support to the strike, few outside Auckland were prepared to join it. The situation was made more difficult by the arrest of many of the strike leaders on 11 and 12 November.

Social Democratic and Labour parties

While the strike was still going, in December 1913, James McCombs won a by-election for the Social Democratic Party, becoming MP for Lyttelton. The Social Democratic Party had been formed at the July 1913 Unity Conference to act as a parliamentary party promoting socialism. Paddy Webb was elected as Social Democratic Party MP for Grey in July 1913. In 1916 the Social Democratic Party combined with the United Labour Party to become the New Zealand Labour Party.

A further blow came with a Supreme Court ruling in early December that it was illegal for arbitration unions to financially assist strikers from other industries.

Considering the strike lost, the Federated Seamen’s Union negotiated independently with the employers and returned to work on 17 December. The UFL then announced that the waterfront strike was over, and the watersiders returned to work on 22 December. Most miners’ unions did not return to work until mid-January.

The unions now agreed to return to work under the arbitration system. The more militant leaders of the UFL, such as Hickey and Semple, soon lost their positions at the head of the federation. The most radical unionists from the IWW, such as Tom Barker, departed for Australia.

The strike was not a complete defeat for the unions. The employers and farmers failed to destroy the UFL, which survived to evolve into the Alliance of Labour and later the Federation of Labour. The Red Fed militants in the mines and on the waterfront set about taking control of the new arbitrationist unions.

By demonstrating the power of the state to crush industrial action, the strike convinced many unionists to become more involved in political action with the goal of gaining power through the electoral system. Strike leaders Bob Semple, Peter Fraser, Paddy Webb, Bill Parry, Dan Sullivan and Michael Joseph Savage all became ministers in the 1935 Labour government.