Story: Ngā uniana – Māori and the union movement

Page 1. Māori rural workers and unions

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Māori were active participants in the union movement from its early days in New Zealand, particularly in parts of the workforce where they were most numerous.

Joining the workforce

Māori entered the capitalist workforce as their tribal heartlands were eroded. Māori land-holdings were reduced from 26.8 million to 3.4 million hectares by 1921. Much remaining Māori land was marginal – too small to farm, or of poor quality – and had multiple owners. Historian Michael King described the Māori workforce prior to the Second World War as ‘a rural proletariat, part of it land-owning but not land-using; part of it disinherited by the loss of land.’1 Māori workers became increasingly reliant on cash incomes from seasonal labouring, public works and domestic-service work. Kanataraki (Māori work gangs – a borrowed name from the English word ‘contract’) remained largely kinship-based, involving men, women and children.

United we stand

Bob Tūtaki of Ngāti Kahungunu was a shearer and union organiser in the Taihape and Hawke’s Bay areas from 1909. He encouraged the formation of the New Zealand Workers’ Union in 1919, saying ‘Let us stand up with one common mind ... stick together, everybody, remember that old Maori philosophy, “Tatau tatau”, meaning altogether.’2 Tūtaki became a full-time organiser and an executive member of the union; he was also active in the Labour Party, contesting the Eastern Māori seat against Āpirana Ngata in 1928.

The Amalgamated Shearers’ and Labourers’ Union

Māori engaged in shearing work as early as the 1850s. Māori shearers were first recorded organising for higher pay at Petane, Hawke’s Bay, in 1863.

The New Zealand branch of the Amalgamated Shearers’ Union of Australia was established during the long depression of the 1870s and 1880s. The Māori membership increased dramatically when union rules and regulations were published in Māori, and Māori organisers were hired to canvass shearers. By 1914, 1,000 of the 4,093 members of the Amalgamated Shearers’ and Labourers’ Union were Māori – many of them in Hawke’s Bay and on the North Island’s East Coast.

The union became the New Zealand Workers’ Union in 1919, and Māori played significant roles in local organising. Female shed hands also joined; in 1937, the New Zealand Workers’ Union had 500 women members, nearly all Māori.

The Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act

The Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1894 encouraged the formation of unions, made conciliation and arbitration between employers and workers compulsory, and established an award system to regulate wages and conditions. However, shearers, freezing workers and farm labourers were not covered by the Act – so many Māori workers did not have recourse to compulsory arbitration. Māori rural workers joined union campaigns to seek recognition under the Act; shearers and freezing workers were successful in 1915, and farm workers in 1936.

Bad bosses

Hiwi Maynard, an executive member of the New Zealand Workers’ Union, reported to the national conference in 1939 that many Māori land development scheme workers had ‘deplorable’ housing conditions3 and were being taken advantage of by incompetent supervisors. From his experience, money was divided unevenly among workers and stand-down periods were unfairly distributed.

Land development scheme work

In 1933, at the height of the economic depression, it was estimated that 40% of Māori were unemployed. Māori were eligible for unemployment relief providing they registered, and many did.The main assistance offered by the United and Coalition governments was Māori land development scheme work. The schemes enabled tribes to borrow public money, administered by the Department of Native Affairs, and develop Māori land on a communal basis, which would subsequently be subdivided and settled.

While this provided some relief, Māori delegates of the New Zealand Workers’ Union became concerned that Māori were paid less and suffered worse conditions than Pākehā labourers on equivalent relief schemes, and they demanded redress. The newly elected Labour government in 1935 moved quickly to legislate compulsory unionism for private-sector workers and to increase Māori relief scheme rates to equal Pākehā rates – but it was the New Zealand Workers’ Union that organised to ensure the legislation was implemented and Māori scheme workers had a union to belong to.

  1. Michael King, ‘Between two worlds.’ In The Oxford history of New Zealand, edited by Geoffrey W. Rice. 2nd ed. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1992, p. 290. Back
  2. John E. Martin, Tatau tatau: one big union altogether: the shearers and the early years of the New Zealand Workers’ Union. Wellington: New Zealand Workers’ Union, 1987, p. 58. Back
  3. New Zealand Workers’ Union report of 23rd annual conference, 27 June–3 July 1939, Wellington, p. 101. Back
How to cite this page:

Cybèle Locke, 'Ngā uniana – Māori and the union movement - Māori rural workers and unions', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 June 2022)

Story by Cybèle Locke, published 11 Mar 2010