The strike that finally ended New Zealand’s reputation as the ‘country without strikes’ broke out in 1908 in the West Coast mining town of Blackball. In the Blackball mine, miners had only 15 minutes to eat their ‘crib’ or lunch – and their manager wanted to increase the working day to 10 hours. The union decided to challenge the arbitration system by striking for a longer crib time and an eight-hour day. In February 1908 one of the union leaders, Pat Hickey, refused to finish his pie at lunchtime when the manager told him his 15 minutes were up. Hickey and six of his supporters were fired. The rest of the Blackball Miners Union went on strike in protest.
Can’t pay, won’t pay
During the 1908 Blackball strike, the Arbitration Court held a hearing in nearby Greymouth and fined the Blackball miners 75 pounds. When the men refused to pay, their personal possessions were seized and auctioned to raise money for the fine. The striking miners then warned local people not to bid for the goods, so the auction raised pennies instead of pounds.
For three months the miners resisted every effort to force them back to work. Finally the mining company gave in, gave the sacked men their jobs back and agreed to their demands. This was a massive blow to the arbitration system, and had an impact on unions all around the country. The various local miners’ unions joined with other unions in a national Federation of Labour, nicknamed the ‘Red Feds’ by their critics, which insisted on negotiating directly with employers, with considerable success.
Changing the I. C. and A. Act
John Millar, who had led the 1890 maritime strike but later became minister of labour, amended the compulsory arbitration system in 1908 to try to restore its authority. He sped up the processes of the Arbitration Court. Some industries, such as those supplying water, gas, electricity or coal, were classified as essential services. Unions and employers covering these services had to give advance notice of any strike or lockout. (In the 2000s, this requirement still existed, but the list of essential services also included prison officers, professional firefighters, hospital and ambulance staff, airline and shipping staff and biosecurity officers.)
However, Millar’s amendments were not enough to persuade some militant unions to return to the arbitration system. A few large unions such as the watersiders and miners formed the backbone of the first Federation of Labour. These unions were made up of large groups of workers who relied on each other in difficult and often dangerous conditions. They formed strong bonds which helped them to support each other during strikes and other industrial disputes.