Story: Unions and employee organisations

Page 1. Early unions, 1840–1880

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The first organisations that represented the interests of employees in New Zealand were small, local trade unions, generally formed by settlers from England and Scotland. They had often belonged to a union in their own country, and were certainly familiar with the idea of organised labour.

Around the 1870s, the New Zealand government was keen to bring farm labourers and skilled craft workers into the country. The National Agricultural Farm Labourers’ Union (NAFLU), formed by farm workers in Britain, told employers that if wages and conditions were not good enough, farm labourers would migrate to countries such as New Zealand. The NAFLU worked closely with the New Zealand governments of the 1870s to supply workers. Many other unions of skilled workers in Britain also used emigration to pressure their employers.


John Lomas was a skilled coal-miner from the north of England. The Westport Coal Company brought him out to work in New Zealand without realising that he was also an experienced and committed unionist. As soon as he arrived he wrote home to the Barnsley Chronicle: ‘Things about this Colony are generally painted in too bright colours.’ Work was short and ‘everything is dear’.1 His employers were furious.

First local unions

There were few employee organisations before the 1870s. Those that were set up usually fought a single battle, then disappeared. When workers disagreed with their employers, they used tactics devised in Britain. Petitions, marches and boycotts were common, and were used during the 1850s to campaign for an eight-hour work day. People also walked off the job to obtain better pay or conditions.

Skilled craft workers had the strongest traditions of union organisation. As towns grew, so did many businesses, and where several skilled staff worked together they often formed a trade union. Typographers, who set the type for printers and newspapers, brought to New Zealand a tradition of unionising each workplace, forming a group known as a chapel. From time to time the various chapels sent delegates to form a wider union. Other unionists from Britain, especially members of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers and the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners, formed branches of their unions in New Zealand.

The longest-surviving New Zealand union was the Carpenters and Joiners Union, formed in 1860. In the 2000s it became part of the Building Trades Union.

Unions gain legal recognition

The desire for an eight-hour work day and a 48-hour working week was often the trigger to form a union. Other triggers were the determination to resist piecework (which paid workers by how much they produced, instead of a fixed wage) and to establish a maximum number of apprentices in relation to skilled tradespeople. These early organisations all set up benefit societies to provide income for their members’ families in case of death or illness, and were generally respectable and conservative.

Most employers had served apprenticeships in their trades, then worked as journeymen (skilled tradesmen) for several years, so they were very familiar with the customs of their craft. Neither employers nor employees wanted conflict – they both believed that problems at work were caused by greed and selfishness. In most cases they reached agreement quite easily. In 1878 Parliament, without any debate, gave legal status to unions. The different regions of New Zealand had very little trade with each other, and most products were made locally, so these early employee organisations stayed small, local, and limited to skilled men.

Shearers, seamen and miners

Workers from Australia, who already had strong union traditions, became important in the rural workforce. In country areas, where most settlers and almost all Māori lived, workers formed influential unions. In the 1870s unionised shearers demanded a rate of £1 per 100 sheep shorn. In some districts they won, but as the price of wool fell in the late 1870s, they could not maintain this rate and their organisations collapsed.

Shearers and seamen believed that they should support each other, and they developed more forceful methods of negotiation than urban workers. In the 1870s Australian seamen’s unions crossed the Tasman to New Zealand to increase their bargaining power. With the growth of the railways and the increasing number of steamships, new and larger coal mines opened, mainly on the West Coast. The owners often recruited miners from Britain, who brought strong union traditions and set up permanent organisations in New Zealand.

  1. Quoted in Len Richardson, Coal, class & community: the united mineworkers of New Zealand, 18801960. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1995, pp. 21–22. Back
How to cite this page:

Erik Olssen, 'Unions and employee organisations - Early unions, 1840–1880', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 June 2024)

Story by Erik Olssen, published 11 Mar 2010