Workers’ unions grew from the 1890s and people increasingly used protest marches to publicise their issues, and to seek support from bystanders and the media during industrial disputes.
During economic downturns when work dried up the jobless typically looked to governments for relief. In 1886 about 500 Auckland unemployed, ‘many of them on the verge of starvation,’1 marched through the city demanding work. Sometimes the state was unable to help. In 1908 Christchurch unemployed organised a ‘begging procession’, where they went round city shops asking for food.
During the 1930s economic depression the jobless protested their plight with regular marches – culminating in the 1932 riots where frustrated protesters rampaged in the streets and clashed with police.
Standing by their men
Observers reported how Waihī women were steadfast in their support of the strike: ‘[T]heir voices are shrill with excitement as they join in the cheering and the hooting. That … [they] are restless is abundantly indicated by their presence in large numbers in the streets at all times, children of tender years who simply must be looked after being brought along in perambulators.’2
Union protest, Waihī
Among the first places where workers used protest marches in an industrial dispute was Waihī in 1912. Gold miners protested the formation of a breakaway union by striking. Their employer reacted by employing strike-breakers. Strikers, their wives and children protested by marching through Waihī streets in ardent shows of solidarity. When strike-breakers and police stormed the miners’ hall, unionist Frederick Evans was shot and later died.
Conflict arose during the 1913 waterfront strike in Wellington. On a number of occasions protest marches of striking wharf-workers and their supporters, with brass bands and various trade banners, clashed with horse-mounted police and special constables. Dozens of people on both sides received bloody beatings.
Protest marches also featured prominently in the divisive 1951 waterfront dispute. On May 2 a march of 1,000 placard-waving unionists set out from Wellington Trades Hall to march to Parliament. Their path was blocked by police at the corner of Dixon and Cuba streets. Scuffles between police and protesters broke out, but union leaders persuaded the marchers to disperse calmly.
Things were less peaceful in Auckland. On 1 June a protest march up Queen Street by several hundred unionists was attacked by baton-wielding police. In the melée that followed 22 men were badly injured. The unprovoked attack highlighted rising antagonism between police and protesters. Unionists named the day ‘Bloody Friday’.
In 1938 the Christian Pacifist Society started regular sandwich-board processions through Wellington streets.
A decade later the movement demonstrated against military conscription. In Nelson, 16 pacifists marched to the cathedral steps and held a rally. Hooligans heckled the group and manhandled the pacifists’ leader, Barry Barrington. When police finally moved in, it was Barrington they arrested.