The 1913 Great Strike

Page 3 – Outbreak of the 1913 strike

Two relatively small strikes sparked off the 1913 Great Strike. On 6 October 1913 the Taupiri Coal Mines Company of Huntly dismissed 16 miners, including three union officials, all of whom they saw as Red Feds. The Huntly miners voted to strike until the men were reinstated and walked off the job on 19 October. They remained on strike until January 1914. There was little trouble at Huntly, where the police took a conciliatory approach.

Wellington waterfront dispute

The waterfront strike sprang from a dispute between the Wellington shipwrights and the Union Steamship Company over travelling time, wages and conditions. The small shipwrights’ union was affiliated with the Wellington watersiders, one of the largest and most militant unions in the Federation of Labour. The shipwrights went on strike on 18 October.

A bad time to strike?

Some union leaders were skeptical about the chances of a successful watersiders’ and miners’ strike. October was a quiet time on the wharves. Shearing was just beginning, and the harvest and slaughtering seasons were still to come. It was also a poor time for a coal strike, with the weather getting warmer. With lambing and calving finished, many farmers were able to leave their farms to act as special constables or ‘scab’ labour.

On the morning of 22 October, watersiders held a stop-work meeting to discuss the shipwrights’ dispute. On returning to work they found their jobs had been allocated to other workers, a serious issue in a casualised occupation. The watersiders called a strike until they were reinstated in their jobs.

The Wellington shipowners immediately formed a ‘defence committee’ and cancelled the existing agreement with the watersiders. The employers offered to re-employ the workers, but only if the union agreed to register under the arbitration act or pay a bond against striking. The watersiders rejected these proposals.

The employers’ aim was to split the watersiders away from the United Federation of Labour (UFL) and force them back under the discipline of the arbitration system. The watersiders wanted to return to their jobs under the old agreement. On 29 October the watersiders handed the dispute over to the United Federation of Labour. Negotiations broke down over the employers’ insistence that the union register under the arbitration act. Employers’ defence committees in Wellington and Auckland openly sought the destruction of the UFL.

The strike spreads

Within a week watersiders around the country had struck in sympathy. The only ports that remained operating were Napier, Gisborne, Whanganui, Timaru and Bluff, all with arbitration unions, and Hokitika, which had no union.

Coal miners also went out around country. Pits from Hikurangi, north of Whangārei, to Nightcaps in Southland closed. Only a few small coal mines in Otago remained open, again with arbitrationist unions.

The gold mines did not go on strike. Waihī was still under the control of the arbitrationist victors of 1912, who opposed the Federation of Labour. The unions at the Waiuta and Reefton mines supported the strike but believed the best way to do so was to stay at work and contribute to the strike fund.

Seamen around the country joined the strike at different times. The militant Wellington branch of the Federated Seamen’s Union struck during the first week of November, when many seamen joined the street protests. In Auckland the seamen went out after special constables took over the wharves on 8 November.

How to cite this page

'Outbreak of the 1913 strike', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 13-Jan-2022