Story: Unions and employee organisations

Page 3. Reviving the unions, 1890–1913

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1890 Liberal–Labour government

After the 1890 election, held during the maritime strike, the new Liberal government needed the support of pro-labour politicians. This Liberal–Labour government brought in new laws which allowed the union movement to recover.

The Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration (I. C. and A.) Act 1894 prevented the formation of nationwide unions and required workers to form unions based on their craft, not their workplace. But it established an Arbitration Court and enabled workers to form unions which could choose to register with the court. Their employers were then legally obliged to negotiate with those unions. In 1897, in one of its first cases, the Arbitration Court required the Union Steam Ship Company to negotiate with the seamen’s union, which it had blacklisted after the 1890 strike.

The alliance between the unions and the government resulted in the 1898 introduction of the first old-age pension in the English-speaking world. Providing support to workers who could no longer look after themselves and their families was a common function of employee organisations. In New Zealand, however, the unions chose not to provide this support themselves, but to work with the government so everyone was supported through state policy.

Return to the unions

Between 1897 and 1907 more and more skilled workers began flocking back to their unions. The Arbitration Court set their minimum wages, determined working hours and conditions, and classified the skill levels of countless jobs. The court and union leaders also worked to exclude or limit potential competitors for the jobs of union members – including youth, women and racial minorities, especially the Chinese.

Union awards included ‘preference’ and ‘blanket’ clauses.

  • A preference clause meant that employers were legally required to hire union members in preference to non-union staff. By 1906, 115 out of a total of 159 awards contained some kind of preference clause.
  • A blanket clause meant that when a union applied to the court for an award, it could specify the individual firms or businesses that award would apply to. Many businesses protested, but without success.

State sector unions

Many people expected that unions in the expanding state sector would register with the Arbitration Court, but they did not. The two largest unions in the public sector, the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS) and the Post and Telegraph Officers’ Union, negotiated directly with their employer, the government. In 1910 these were the only national unions in New Zealand, and also the largest. Almost one-sixth of all union members belonged to the ASRS, a general-purpose union covering unskilled and skilled staff in a wide range of trades.

Growth of unionism

The revival of unionism among the unskilled began in the main towns between 1900 and 1905. In 1901 there were 175 unions registered under the I. C. and A. Act, with a total of 18,000 members. At first they had little influence, but they could still require employers to negotiate with them before the Arbitration Court, which would make a legally binding decision (an award). The growing popularity of socialism and syndicalism (the theory that a worker-run society could be established through a general strike) contributed to the growth of the union movement.

Between 1908 and 1912 more unskilled workers joined their local unions than ever before, and many of these unions formed national federations. By 1913 New Zealand was one of the most unionised societies on earth. In 1921, at the peak of the voluntary unionism era, there were over 400 unions, with almost 100,000 members in total. Over 20% of the male workforce was unionised.

Women and Māori unionists

Most unionists were men; in 1921 only around 2% of the female workforce belonged to unions. In industries where women were unionised, such as the clothing and textile industries, they played little part in running the union. Except in the Dunedin Tailoresses’ Union, all union leaders were men, and apart from Māori in the Shearers’ Union, almost all union members were Pākehā. Some believed that the unions should lobby the government for a ‘White New Zealand’ policy, to exclude non-white immigrants from poorer societies who might undercut their wages and conditions.

It was only in the white-collar organisations that women were a significant proportion and were actively involved in running their organisations. In 1905 women members of the New Zealand Educational Institute, the professional organisation for the country’s teachers, secured equal pay for male and female teachers. However these organisations did not see themselves as unions. Most registered as incorporated societies if they wanted legal status. Some, like the Nurses’ Association, were actually hostile to unions.

How to cite this page:

Erik Olssen, 'Unions and employee organisations - Reviving the unions, 1890–1913', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 April 2024)

Story by Erik Olssen, published 11 Mar 2010