Story: Barker, Tom

Page 1: Biography

Barker, Tom

1887–1970

Tram conductor, trade unionist, socialist

This biography, written by Erik Olssen, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.

Tom Barker was born on 3 June 1887 at Crosthwaite, Westmorland, England, the eldest child of Thomas Grainger Barker, a farm labourer, and his wife, Sarah Trotter. As a boy he worked on farms, attending school part time, but left home after his mother died in 1897. Tom did farm work for several years and then went to Liverpool. Although under age, he joined the army. He attended night school, obtained his first stripe, but because of scarlet and then rheumatic fever he was discharged as medically unfit in 1909. Back in Liverpool he found work as a tram conductor. One day, according to his memoirs, Barker stuck his money-bag over the head of an autocratic inspector, saying, 'You take the bloody thing. I'm going to New Zealand…and you can go to hell and so can the trams too.'

After disembarking in Wellington in 1909, this fiery young man travelled to Auckland to join his sister and her husband, who had migrated some years earlier. He got a job on the trams in November and when Arthur Rosser, secretary of the Auckland Electric Tramways Union, called to collect his union dues, Barker's part in the labour movement began. He became active in the union, a small organisation dominated by the highly skilled motormen but with a heritage of conflict with the Auckland Electric Tramway Company.

Although still a practising Christian and a Liberal, like many single young men who had recently arrived Barker fell under the spell of the Auckland branch of the New Zealand Socialist Party, which maintained a vigorous presence in the inner city. Harry Scott Bennett, an outstanding propagandist for socialism and a brilliant lecturer, organised classes for activists and Barker enrolled. He was weaned from the church and persuaded to convert to revolutionary socialism and industrial unionism. In 1910 Barker organised the unskilled men on the tramways and became aggressive in demanding that the union adopt more militant strategies. In 1911 the union seceded from the craft-dominated Auckland Trades and Labour Council, affiliated with the 'Red' New Zealand Federation of Labour, and left the arbitration system. For the moment the tramway workers believed with Barker that 'an ounce of Direct Action is worth a ton of Parliamentary string-pulling, and Trade Council chin-wag'.

Although Barker never knew when to end a speech, he was lively and amusing and became a highly active stump-orator for the Socialist Party. Bennett's vision of revolutionary industrial unionism provided Barker with a goal for action and catharsis for his anger. As the Auckland socialists veered left, repudiating all forms of political action, Barker followed. In 1912, when the Auckland General Labourers' Union experiment with direct action degenerated into farce, Barker became truculent in his calls for more aggressive strategies, including a general strike. He now wrote 'Auckland activities' for the Maoriland Worker, the FOL's lively weekly, and became secretary for the Auckland branch of the Socialist Party.

In May, however, he announced his conversion to the Industrial Workers of the World, whose articulate local prophet, J. B. King, had been reaping where Scott Bennett had sown. The Wobblies – as they were known – measured the FOL against its own revolutionary view of irreconcilable class conflict and found it wanting. Barker agreed with them in damning the federation's failure to support the Auckland labourers and in believing that the federation's success at making agreements had reinforced its craft and sectional character. He supported moves to remodel the FOL in accord with militant Wobbly principles, and backed King's effort to commit the federation to fully support the miners' strike at Waihi. Following the FOL's stormy conference in May–June he reported, 'militants are all jubilant'. The Waihi strike dominated the rest of 1912. Barker consistently advocated widening the conflict and greeted the symbolic one-day general strike in October with euphoria, declaring that the class war had finally been declared. However, what began with a bang ended with a whimper; the strike was defeated.

In 1913, as Red Fed leaders tried to isolate the Wobblies, Barker retained his friendships with prominent Auckland socialists such as M. J. Savage and Peter Fraser, but remained aloof from the new organisations. When the 1913 waterfront strike began, however, he was in his element, quickly founding Industrial Unionist, New Zealand's first and only Wobbly paper, and encouraging the general strike. He was arrested for sedition in November, and remanded to the Supreme Court in Wellington for sentencing. When the police refused to supply him with an armed escort he persuaded the magistrate to trust him to make his own way to Wellington. After he and Savage journeyed down on the overnight express, Barker addressed a large crowd of strikers in Post Office Square and then made his way to the court. He was sentenced to three months' imprisonment in December but was released in January 1914.

In April he went to Sydney, where he quickly emerged as one of the most influential Wobblies. In 1918 he was deported to South America, and after working with the Industrial Workers of the World on the waterfront in Chile and Argentina he made his way back to Europe. He spent the 1920s in the Soviet Union and the United States, where he recruited technicians to assist Soviet industrialisation. In July 1931 and early 1932 Barker returned to New Zealand to negotiate an oil contract between the Soviet government and the Associated Motorists Petrol Company of New Zealand (marketed as Europa petrol), and in 1933 he travelled to Wellington for the arrival of the first shipment of Soviet oil to New Zealand.

He now settled in St Pancras, London. When Peter Fraser was prime minister of New Zealand in the 1940s, he always invited Barker to official receptions in London. Tom Barker was elected a Labour councillor in 1949 and from 1958 to 1959 was the Labour mayor of St Pancras. He died there on 2 April 1970 survived by his wife, Bertha, a Polish-born ballet dancer whom he had met in Moscow in 1921.

How to cite this page:

Erik Olssen. 'Barker, Tom', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3b7/barker-tom (accessed 21 July 2019)