When workplace disputes cannot be resolved between the workers and their employer or supervisor, both sides can ask an independent person or organisation (a mediator) to listen to their arguments. They may then settle their differences voluntarily, by conciliation. If voluntary agreement cannot be reached, the mediator may decide the dispute, in a process known as arbitration. New Zealand has a long tradition of using the government to mediate or arbitrate in labour disputes.
In 1848 several hundred Māori road-builders in Auckland went on strike when they learned they would be paid less than Pākehā doing the same work. Governor George Grey threatened to sack them if they didn’t accept the lower pay, and said, ‘If you don’t agree, there is the road.’ One worker is said to have replied, ‘There is the road for you. I suppose it is open for both of us.’1 These early equal-rights activists then walked off the job.
If no agreement can be reached through mediation or arbitration, industrial action may be used to try and convince one of the sides to change their position. A strike is when employees refuse to do their normal work. A refusal to work extra hours is called an overtime ban. Carrying out less work than usual is known as a go-slow or a work-to-rule. Employers can also take industrial action against their employees, by refusing to allow them to carry out their normal work. This is known as a lockout.
The first recorded wage dispute in New Zealand was in the Bay of Islands in 1821. Māori timber-workers stopped work because they wanted to be paid ‘for their labour in Money, as was the case in England, or else in Gun Powder’.1 They were probably being paid with food and other goods, and felt this was unfair. The outcome of their strike is not known.
New Zealand’s most famous early labour dispute was in 1840 when a London-born carpenter named Samuel Parnell was asked to build a house in Petone, near Wellington. He insisted on working no more than eight hours a day. There were only three other carpenters in Wellington at that time, so Parnell’s employer had little choice but to agree. After that, tradesmen arriving in Wellington were warned that if they worked more than eight hours a day without being paid overtime rates, they could be ducked in the harbour.
Workers in Canterbury, Dunedin and Auckland later claimed the same hours of work, making New Zealand one of the first countries in the world to demand a standard eight-hour working day. But there were no trade unions, no union awards (legally set pay rates and conditions) and no laws to enforce them, so for many years the eight-hour day relied on either a united workforce or agreement from employers.
From 1890 New Zealand workers have had a holiday on Labour Day, the fourth Monday in October, to celebrate the eight-hour working day.
Later, as unions were established, there were many more strikes in various towns and different industries, usually to try and win better wages or working conditions. In the late 1880s even schoolboys went on strike to protest being given too much homework. Almost 40% of workers were members of a union. However, the workforce was small and scattered, so striking workers seldom managed to overcome resistance from their employers.
In 1893 all 28 shearers at Benmore Station in the Mackenzie Country went on strike because they said rainy weather made the sheep too wet to shear. They accused the station manager of trying to disguise the situation by ‘shandy-gaffing’ (mixing wet sheep with dry ones). The strikers then guarded the roads leading into the station to keep out strike-breaking shearers (labelled ‘blacklegs’ or ‘scabs’). The men stayed out on strike for a week until some strike-breakers reached the station by a back route and took their jobs.
New Zealand’s first big nationwide strike began as a matter of principle in support of Australian unions. In August 1890 John Millar, the head of the Maritime Council, which united the seamen’s, wharf labourers’, miners’ and railwaymen’s unions, asked the Union Steam Ship Company to stop trading with Australia while a union dispute was raging there. The company refused, and employed non-union labour in Sydney Harbour to unload its ships. Its New Zealand crews then walked off the job in protest. Soon other seamen, watersiders and miners joined the protest action. About 8,000 workers were on strike at ports around New Zealand.
The strike caused enormous disruption to the country’s trade and transport networks. However, there was remarkably little violence, even when hundreds of farm labourers left their jobs to carry out the strikers’ work. In Dunedin, striking wharfies even served as special constables (temporary volunteer police) to help maintain order. After almost three months the strike was called off, in a total defeat for the seamen and the unions allied with them.
A Liberal–Labour government was elected soon after the 1890 maritime strike, and was anxious to avoid further large strikes. The new government believed that unions would not need to take such drastic action if they could negotiate with employers on a more equal basis.
In 1894 the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration (I. C. and A.) Act, drawn up by Minister of Labour William Pember Reeves, was passed. Unions registered under the Act had the exclusive right to represent all their members in a particular job or industry. It was compulsory for employers to negotiate with those unions over a dispute. First the dispute was heard by a local conciliation board. If no agreement was reached, the dispute went to a national arbitration court, which made a decision both sides were bound to accept.
The court also had the power to set wages. Its decisions gradually established a nationwide system of ‘awards’, setting minimum wages and working conditions for particular groups of workers. Strikes by workers or lockouts by employers were illegal while a dispute was being negotiated and once an agreement had been settled.
The I. C. and A. system was the first in the world and attracted great international interest. People arrived from the United States, France, Britain, Russia and elsewhere to study the ‘country without strikes’. Although later legislation made many changes to the original Act, the basic arbitration system remained in place for almost a century.
In 1906 the British labour leader Ramsay MacDonald visited New Zealand to study the arbitration system. He was not impressed, saying, ‘A trades union in New Zealand exists mainly to get an award out of the Arbitration Court … They cannot strike; it is no good their grumbling; they simply pay their fees into the union funds because they are legally bound to do it.’ A Wellington trade union leader told MacDonald, ‘Our laws have taken all the steel out of us.’ 1
The compulsory arbitration system appeared very successful for the first few years. Hundreds of new unions, mostly small and local, were formed. Although most workers were still not union members, wages and working conditions steadily improved, in part because economic conditions were buoyant. However, the larger and more powerful unions disliked the legislation because they were giving up the right to strike. Employers also opposed placing decisions on wages and working conditions in the hands of a judge, instead of relying on the labour market. From about 1902, the Arbitration Court became bogged down in so many cases that they could take up to a year to be heard. Dissatisfaction became widespread and in 1906 ‘the country without strikes’ saw its first strike since the Act was passed 12 years before.
In November 1906 Auckland tramwaymen stopped work for three hours after two members of their union were fired. This strike was illegal, but it succeeded in having the two men re-employed. More strikes followed, most significantly by freezing workers in 1907. These showed that unions could often win better results by striking than by following the processes of the arbitration system.
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.
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.
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.
Employers soon developed a tactic to deal with the unions that ignored the arbitration system. They encouraged non-union employees to form a new ‘arbitrationist’ union and register it under the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act. This happened in the gold-mining town of Waihī and the result was a long and bitter strike, the only New Zealand strike where someone was killed.
In March 1912 a small group of gold-mine engine drivers (who operated the machines that raised and lowered the miners in the mine shafts) formed a breakaway union under the Arbitration Act. The 1,000 members of the Waihi Miners Union stopped work in protest.
The strike became a violent conflict after an anti-union government headed by William Massey took office in July 1912. Large numbers of police were sent into Waihī, more than 60 strikers were jailed, and hundreds of strike-breakers were recruited. In October 1912 the mines reopened and strike-breakers were driven to work in horse-drawn wagons under heavy police guard.
On 12 November 1912 strike-breakers attacked the union hall, and striker Fred Evans was beaten to death. They then rampaged around Waihī, forcing the other strikers and their families to leave town.
The most disruptive strike in New Zealand history was in 1913. At that time many New Zealand workers were influenced by the idea, introduced from Europe and the US, of revolutionary industrial unionism. They believed that if enough workers could join together in a general strike, they could take over their workplaces and run them for themselves. Two small local disputes involving Huntly miners and Wellington watersiders spread to other ports and mines.
During the 1913 strike, many Wellington ‘special constables’ had their headquarters in the city’s exclusive Wellesley Club, which still operates in the downtown business district. Every night the ‘specials’ assembled at the club to begin nightly patrols of sites such as the government buildings and the Dominion Museum. Before heading out, some put on padded leather helmets to protect themselves against blows from strikers, resulting in ‘a great deal of wry humour’1 from club members.
By November 1913 about 16,000 watersiders, miners, labourers, drivers and others were on strike, mostly in Wellington, Auckland and Christchurch. This was an opportunity for employers and the Massey government to force the militant unions back into the arbitration system. As in 1890, the police called for volunteers to help control the strikers and reopen the wharves. Thousands of these strike-breakers were recruited, enrolled as ‘special constables’ (temporary police), and armed with wooden batons. Some also used their own firearms and horsewhips. Most were farm workers who rode into town on horseback and were soon named ‘Massey’s Cossacks’ by the strikers. Others were office workers from city businesses, who patrolled the wharves and other vital areas on foot. The strikers responded to their arrival with fierce street-fighting and sabotage.
For several weeks the country was on the brink of violent revolution. The government sent two naval ships to guard the wharves. On 5 November 1913 the special constables marched through Wellington and reopened the wharves. In Auckland, when ‘Massey’s Cossacks’ marched down Queen Street to the waterfront, the strike committee called a general strike and most work in the city stopped for several days. After six weeks the government arrested the main strike leaders (including several future labour ministers) and the strike petered out.
During the First World War strict emergency regulations banned strikes in key industries such as mining and the wharves. Some union leaders such as Harry Holland went to jail for speaking out against the war.
In the following years, the attitudes of employers and unions towards the arbitration system varied depending on the current economic conditions. Only about 25% of workers belonged to a union. When times were good and labour was in short supply, the unions resented the Arbitration Court’s restrictions on their ability to negotiate better wages. When the economy declined and unemployment rose, the employers attacked the system because it made it harder for them to cut wages and reduce working conditions.
In 1921 prices for agricultural exports dropped sharply and the Arbitration Court was given temporary new powers to set wage rates for the whole country. The Court’s first ‘general wage order’, which lowered all adult wages, was issued in 1922. In March 1931 a further downturn resulted in a further 10% cut in wages.
From 1932, compulsory arbitration was abolished, and unions were usually powerless to resist reductions to wages and conditions. Rising unemployment during the 1930s economic depression meant there were plenty of people to take the places of striking workers.
Even so, nearly all the 300-plus members of the Christchurch Tramways Union went on strike in 1932 after their employer sacked some staff, including union president Jock Mathison. There were violent clashes in Cathedral Square as strike-breakers took over the trams, and striking workers used iron bars and stones to block their way. After a fortnight the strikers returned to work with their demands unmet. However four years later, after the first Labour government had come to power, Mathison was elected to the board that ran the trams, and the men’s working hours were reduced.
The 1935 Labour government extended the arbitration system to cover many more workers, including office workers and government employees. Nationwide unions became legal, and union membership was compulsory – any worker covered by an agreement negotiated by a registered union had to join that union. Union membership increased rapidly under this new system, until nearly half of all workers belonged to a union. Compulsory arbitration was reinstated in 1936. A new Federation of Labour was set up, since the short-lived first Federation had disappeared after the disastrous 1913 Great Strike.
For staff at an Auckland meat-freezing works, work hours increased from 40 to 44 hours a week during the Second World War, but without a pay rise. In 1945 they protested by occupying the freezing works at Westfield, Southdown and Horotiu, and the cool stores on Auckland’s King’s Wharf. Hammocks were slung inside the Westfield works for strikers to sleep in. The country’s first ‘stay-in’ strike won a pay increase to reflect the longer hours of work.
During the Second World War, regulations made all work stoppages illegal. Unions agreed to increase their working hours and keep wages stable for the sake of the war effort. However some union members felt that this policy of economic stabilisation protected the profits of employers at the expense of workers, and several small strikes broke out in protest.
After the Second World War, booming economic conditions and a shortage of skilled labour encouraged unions to press for better conditions for their members. High inflation was making life hard for workers and their families, so the government’s policy of resisting wage increases was fiercely opposed by strong unions. However, the Cold War atmosphere meant that this militant union activity was regarded with hostility, even by the Labour government. In 1948 a go-slow by Auckland carpenters gained higher rates of pay, but another go-slow in 1949 resulted in a lockout. Within days all building work in the Auckland area came to a standstill. The government backed the employers and refused social security benefits to the locked-out carpenters. The Federation of Labour supported the government, the union was deregistered and its militant leadership discredited.
During the 1949 election campaign the National Party promised to limit militant unionism, and won power. The new government was on a collision course with the watersiders, the most radical union in the country. In 1950 the ‘wharfies’, headed by the uncompromising Jock Barnes, led a walkout of militant unions from the Federation of Labour. They set up a rival Trade Union Congress which opposed the arbitration system.
In February 1951 the wharfies began the most expensive industrial dispute in New Zealand history. They had already negotiated a 6% wage increase with their employers. When the Arbitration Court then issued a general wage increase of 15%, the ship owners offered to pay watersiders only the 9% difference rather than a full additional 15%. In protest, the wharfies stopped working overtime. Their employers ordered them to work the extra hours, and no longer hired them when they refused. The union regarded the dispute as a lockout by employers, but the ship owners insisted that the refusal to work overtime was an illegal strike.
Women and children felt some of the worst effects of the emergency regulations introduced during the 1951 waterfront dispute. Labour MP Mabel Howard called the dispute ‘a war on women’,1 because the wives of strikers had to survive with no income, and it was illegal for anyone to help them. The regulations applied to children too. In Wellington’s Clifton Terrace primary school, strikers’ children were separated from other pupils during playtime in case they illegally shared their lunches.
The government issued drastic emergency regulations, giving it the power to seize union funds, use the armed forces to replace strikers, and prohibit strike meetings or publications. Supporters of the wharfies were even forbidden to write favourably about the strike or give food to strikers’ children. Other unions came out on strike in protest at these regulations. Soon 22,000 watersiders, freezing workers, miners, hydro-electricity workers and drivers had stopped work.
For 151 days parts of the country were under siege. Navy seamen were used to move coal from remote West Coast mines to the port of Westport. Protest marches in the main centres were violently broken up by police. The watersiders concealed printing presses in their houses and distributed hundreds of thousands of illegal pamphlets telling their side of the story. However the government stood firm. By the time the dispute was called off, more than a million working days had been lost. The New Zealand Waterside Workers’ Union was forced to split into small unions for each port. Most of its leaders, including Jock Barnes, could not go back to their old jobs on the waterfront.
After the upheaval of 1951 there were very few industrial disputes until the early 1960s, even though the country had a shortage of labour, so unions had bargaining power with employers.
However in the 1960s and 1970s the number of strikes reached an all-time high. High inflation meant that prices were rising faster than workers’ wages. In June 1968 the unions applied to the Arbitration Court for a general wage order for all workers. The court chose to keep wages at the same level. Public faith in the state arbitration system was permanently damaged and industrial disputes rose by 70% the following year.
Some of New Zealand’s earliest political strikes were in the late 1930s when Japan was invading China and preparing for world war. New Zealand watersiders refused to load scrap iron for export to Japan because they knew it would be made into weapons and ammunition. ‘My old frying pan is not coming back to rip the guts out of any New Zealander,’1 said Auckland wharfie Paddy Roonan.
The 1960s and 1970s saw a rise in strikes called to make a political point to the government. The country’s first political strike had been during the First World War, when miners struck to oppose military conscription. From the early 1960s unions held small strikes and trade bans to protest sporting contacts with apartheid-era South Africa, involvement in the Vietnam War, Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor, trade with Chile’s military junta, French nuclear testing in the South Pacific, and other issues.
The 1978 Māngere Bridge dispute is the longest in New Zealand’s industrial history. When the new bridge across Manukau Harbour was nearly complete, most of the workforce was due to be laid off. Some carpenters and labourers protested at the company’s offer of redundancy payments. The company refused to negotiate, and in May 1978 all 140 carpenters and labourers working on the bridge were sacked. Their unions banned other workers from taking the jobs of the dismissed men. They picketed the site (holding protest placards, they prevented people from crossing their picket line) to make sure no work was carried out until the dispute was settled.
The bridge stood unfinished for almost two and a half years. The number of active picketers fell to 16 before work began again with better redundancy agreements.
New Zealand’s only nationwide general strike was in 1979. It began after the Drivers Union and transport employers agreed on a wage settlement and the government stopped the settlement. The Federation of Labour called a one-day strike of all its members in protest. On 20 September 1979 almost 300,000 workers took part in marches around the country. The government called the strike an ‘absolute fizzer’, but it agreed to refer the drivers’ dispute to the Arbitration Court, which upheld the original agreement.
Traditionally strong unions such as those of the seamen, watersiders and miners were becoming less important, as new technology changed their roles and weakened the bonds between workers. In this period professionals and public servants such as engineers, teachers and nurses took industrial action, often for the first time.
Union members were raising more personal grievances with their employers, and these required a simpler process of conciliation than traditional industrial disputes. Legislation during the 1970s and 1980s established an industrial mediation service and removed penalties for striking while a dispute was being arbitrated. Government-sponsored arbitration grew less important as employers and employees negotiated directly.
When work stops because of an industrial dispute, often it is not only the workers themselves who are affected. Their families also feel the impact of lost household income. In long strikes in isolated mining towns such as Ōhura and Glen Murray, where the mines were the main employer, the whole community felt the effect of lost wages and hostility between employers and workers.
During a strike, members of the public may miss out on some goods or services. But if the public agrees with the workers in a dispute, they may accept the disruption and offer the workers financial and other forms of support.
One issue which led to industrial disputes on New Zealand ships was the food provided to the crews. Their evening meal, served at 8 p.m., was traditionally known as the ‘black pan’ meal because in the days of steamships it was cooked over the coals in the ship’s boiler on a stoker’s shovel.
In the 1970s and early 1980s crews of the Cook Strait ferries went on strike. Especially before the days of cheap air travel, the ferries were vital to the flow of freight and passengers between the North and South islands. Sailings were mainly disrupted by bad weather or mechanical problems, but industrial disputes caused the most resentment from stranded passengers. During several long ferry disputes between 1971 and 1983, the government launched ‘Operation Pluto’. Passengers and cars stranded by the strikes were flown between Wellington and Woodbourne airbase at Blenheim by commercial airline and air force planes.
Although industrial disputes were much less common in the early 2000s, they could still sometimes affect large numbers of people.
In August 2006 more than 500 supermarket distribution workers in Auckland, Palmerston North and Christchurch went on strike for a nationwide pay agreement. They were then locked out by their employer. Soon stocks of some items began to disappear from the supermarket shelves. However, the locked-out workers received many donations of cash and gifts of food. They returned to work after four weeks when the employer promised to sign a national pay agreement.
In June 2008 more than 2,000 house surgeons and registrars at public hospitals around New Zealand went on strike for 48 hours, after their pay negotiations broke down. Thousands of patients in hospitals around the country were affected, and hospitals asked people to avoid using emergency departments unless absolutely necessary. Four months after the strike, employers agreed to an increased pay deal with the union representing junior doctors.
For almost a century after it was passed in 1894, the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act gave trade unions a dominant role in New Zealand industrial relations. In 1991 there was a rapid fall in union membership as a percentage of the labour force when the Employment Contracts Act (ECA) made union membership voluntary, and allowed anyone to bargain on behalf of workers.
Employees could choose to work under either an individual or collective employment contract, which affected only the specific employers and employees who signed the agreements. Bargaining over contracts and disputes was entirely voluntary. Unions had no special status in the process because the ECA promoted direct bargaining between employer and employee. If they could not agree, the dispute went to an Employment Tribunal and, if necessary, to an Employment Court. By 1999 the Tribunal had a backlog of over 3,000 cases, so it took up to a year to deliver a ruling.
In 2000, after the election of a Labour government, the Employment Relations Act (ERA) once again promoted mediation to resolve industrial disputes. Under the ERA, an employer and employee or union must deal with each other in good faith and not do anything to mislead each other. The Act set up free mediation services for employers and employees. If no agreement could be reached, or if one side refused to attend a hearing, the Employment Relations Authority (which took over from the Employment Tribunal) could decide on the case. If either side was unhappy with the decision, they could go to the Employment Court, which had to consider further mediation before making a final decision.
After the Employment Relations Act was passed in 2000, more than a hundred new unions were registered under the Act. These were mostly very small, and they included the first-ever union covering professional rugby players.
Union membership remained voluntary, so individual workers could still negotiate their own terms of employment. However, collective bargaining by unions was encouraged. A collective agreement is a contract between an employer and a union. An individual union member could negotiate extra terms to this contract if they were consistent with the collective agreement.
Under the ERA workers could legally strike while their union was negotiating a collective agreement or when there was a serious health and safety issue at work. Workers in essential services, such as the supply of fuel, power and water, or emergency services, were required to advise their employer in advance of a planned strike.
As in the first years after the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1894, since the 1990s New Zealand has had a very small number of strikes compared with similar countries. This was partly due to legislation such as the Employment Relations Act, which encouraged industrial disputes to be solved by mediation at an early stage. It also reflected New Zealand’s internationally low rate of union membership – in 2008, only about one in five workers belonged to a union. As in other developed countries, New Zealand had a high proportion of part-time and temporary jobs, making it much harder for workers to combine in industrial actions such as strikes.
Nolan, Melanie, ed. Revolution: the 1913 great strike in New Zealand. Christchurch: Canterbury University Press in association with the Trade Union History Project, 2006.
Olssen, Erik. The red feds: revolutionary industrial unionism and the New Zealand Federation of Labour 1908–14. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Richardson, Len. Coal, class & community: the united mineworkers of New Zealand, 1880–1960. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1995.
Roth, Bert, and Janny Hammond. Toil and trouble: the struggle for a better life in New Zealand. Auckland: Methuen New Zealand, 1981.
Roth, H. Trade unions in New Zealand past and present. Wellington: Reed Education, 1973.
Scott, Dick. 151 days: the great waterfront lockout and supporting strikes, February 15–July 15, 1951. Auckland: Reed, 2001.
A documentary about the 1951 waterfront dispute, on the NZ On Screen website.
The Centre for Labour, Employment, and Work at Victoria University, Wellington, researches all areas of industrial and employment relations.
The Labour History Project, formed in 1987, records and celebrates the history of working people, working life and trade unions in New Zealand.
The CTU is the central organisation for trade unions in New Zealand, representing over 350,000 union members in more than 40 affiliated unions.
The Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment provides support to employers and employees to create safe, fair and rewarding workplaces.