From 1908 to 1912 the most militant unions took part in a series of strikes with the backing of the ‘Red’ Federation of Labour (FoL). The Red Feds, as they were known, were inspired by European syndicalists and American ‘Wobblies’ (Industrial Workers of the World). They preached class war, industrial unionism and direct action. They scoffed at the Arbitration Court as ‘labour’s leg-iron’,1 laughed at craft unions as dinosaurs, and dismissed the main political parties, Liberal and Reform, as tools of the capitalist system.
The FoL made significant progress in winning wage increases and building up membership until 1911–12, when major defeats, including the Waihī miners’ strike, stalled its advance. The leaders of the federation then tried to find common ground with the craft unions, which were still organised into trades and labour councils. In 1913 two huge Unity Conferences brought together the militant and moderate unions in the United Federation of Labour (UFL). Small groups of activists on the wharves and in the mines believed that this new federation should call a general strike to create a socialist republic.
The confrontation these activists hoped for arrived in 1913, with a series of strikes which closed all the main ports and many of the mines. As in the disastrous strike of 1890, employers brought in large numbers of strike-breakers – except this time they were organised into separate unions registered under the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act. The strikers were defeated after widespread violence.
After the strike, the government made it harder for unions to leave the arbitration system and the Court of Appeal made it illegal for arbitration unions to take action not associated with obtaining an award.
Alliance of Labour
After the 1913 defeat the UFL adopted a cautious strategy. But in 1917–18, as the First World War ended, militant unionism was revived. The Bolshevik revolution in Russia and a new wave of syndicalism terrified conservatives. The UFL began to promote the idea of One Big Union and worker control of industry. Many union members were alarmed at this and dropped out of the movement.
In 1919 the UFL was taken over by a new organisation, the Alliance of Labour, which advocated industrial unionism, class war and direct action. Its constitution stated that the One Big Union, representing all union members in the country, would overthrow capitalism in New Zealand and introduce a socialist society.
Ready for revolution
The minutes of the Petone Marxian Club show that its members, along with many other people, believed that New Zealand’s socialist revolution was just around the corner. The club resolved, at its first meeting in October 1912, to meet at 8 p.m. every Monday ‘right up to the day of the Revolution’.2
The Alliance fought with the newly-formed Labour Party for the loyalty of the workers, insisting that socialism could only be achieved through industrial organisation and struggle. The government finally succeeded in forcing the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants to withdraw from the Alliance, and encouraged the formation of another craft union, the Railway Tradesmen’s Association. A new mood of caution affected the entire labour movement, including the communists, who had considerable influence within the Seamen’s Union and the Miners’ Federation for a time.
Unemployment soared during the economic crash of 1930–33, until almost 13% of the adult male workforce was jobless or on relief work. The unions lost members and influence. Craft unions in the building trades, the worst affected, almost collapsed. The leaders of the most powerful national union federations – F. P. Walsh of the seamen, Jim Roberts of the watersiders, and Angus McLagan of the miners – spent more and more time fighting against each other.
By 1933 the Unemployed Workers’ Movement was larger than any union in the country and the New Zealand Legion, a semi-fascist body, had more members than the Labour Party. Many of the unions which relied on the state as an employer collapsed or became inactive. Union membership fell and the number of strikes shrank to almost none.