General strike in Auckland (1913), Bert Roth

Strikers and supporters march in Auckland, Nov 1913, in the vicinity of the gasometer, college hill and victoria street

Strikers and supporters march in Auckland, Nov 1913, in the vicinity of the gasometer, college hill and victoria street

It’s 100 years since an attempted general strike in New Zealand, so here’s an article from Bert Roth on the pinnacle of that dispute, the Auckland general strike of 1913. I don’t agree with everything he says, but Roth’s history is the best short overview of the events I have come across. Some more online material on the events in 1913 can be found on the Red Ruffians website, Frank Prebble’s pamphlet Troublemakers, Tom Barker’s memoirs, as well as no doubt many other sources. And Don Franks of Redline has written an article about the relevance of the strike to today.

H. [Bert] Roth. ‘General Strike in Auckland’ Here and Now, November 1956, pp. 15-17

In the third week of October 1913, Huntly miners and Wellington watersiders ceased work. Their action precipitated what was to be the most serious industrial dispute in New Zealand history, not to be eclipsed in magnitude until 1951.

Various theories were advanced as to the causes of the strike. According to the Prime Minister, foreigners were responsible. ‘If we had to deal with New Zealanders on both sides of the dispute there would have been no difficulty at all,’ said Mr Massey, himself an Ulsterman.

There is more serious evidence to suggest that the employers were anxious to provoke a dispute at a time favourable to themselves. It is equally clear that the watersiders, at least, were only too eager to take up the challenge and allowed themselves to be baited into a premature walk-out. The rashness of the corporal’s guard, to quote one labour leader, was to involve the whole army in a fight for which it was not prepared.

For a week the strike remained confined to Wellington and Huntly. Talks with the shipowners brought no results, but attempts to unload ships with voluntary labour were frustrated by the strikers. On 26 October, the first violent incidents were reported from Wellington, and the Auckland watersiders sent their president down to see what the position was. He was told that no settlement was in sight and on his own initiative he instructed his union to ‘let her rip’. Westport watersiders, also, spontaneously ceased work and, a day later, the United Federation of Labour called out the remaining waterfront unions.

In Wellington, riots and violence became almost continuous. ‘So far as the employers are concerned,’ reported the Wellington correspondent of the Otago Daily Times, ‘it is now war to the knife’; and Police Commissioner Cullen was said to have told his men: ‘If they won’t go, ride over the top of them’.

Auckland, however, remained quiet. In charge of the local police was Superintendent Mitchell who, a year earlier, had refused to take action against the Huntly strikers and who was suspected of having given at least tacit encouragement to the policemen’s trade union formed in Auckland earlier in 1913. Mitchell now refused to swear in special constables, and he promised that union pickets would not be interfered with as long as order was maintained.

This did not suit the employers who wanted to open the port. The Mayor and the chairman of the Auckland Harbour Board complained and the Government quickly replaced Mitchell (he was soon dismissed altogether). On 5 November the first mounted ‘specials’ — ‘Massey’s Cossacks’, as they were called — arrived in Auckland from the Waikato. They were stoned while riding through Epsom, and two days later 250 building workers on the Exhibition site ceased work because a ‘special’ had come near them in search of grass for his horse.

Vain Appeals to Employers

Massey's Cossacks or 'mounted specials' camped in the Auckland Domain 1913

Massey’s Cossacks or ‘mounted specials’ camped in the Auckland Domain 1913

The situation in Auckland quickly became explosive. Auckland workers had first hand knowledge of the violence which had marked the Waihi strike a year earlier. They had seen the strike leaders taken to Mt Eden gaol and, indeed, given rousing receptions to each batch of prisoners and had held mass meetings outside the prison gates. After the defeat of the Waihi strike, hundreds of miners who had been run out of town by the arbitrationists had come to live and work in Auckland and some of them already held leading office in Auckland trade unions.

Auckland workers did not want to see their town become another Waihi, and when the Waikato farmers set up camp in the Domain, the Strike Committee warned that a general strike would follow attempts to occupy the wharves and work the port. Several leading citizens, among them Messrs T. W. Leys, Ernest Davis, A. Sanford, Colonel Bell and Bishop Cleary, urged the Employers’ Association to take a conciliatory attitude, but all appeals were in vain.

Meeting at the Chamber of Commerce, a number of farmer volunteers secretly formed an arbitration wharf union. On 8 November, 800 specials, armed with revolvers, hardwood batons, and axe-handles, occupied the wharves and raided the offices of the watersiders’ union in Gladstone Buildings where they tore down a placard reading ‘Workers of the World Unite! One Big Union!’ That same day a general strike began in Auckland, the first in New Zealand history.

Seamen and general labourers ceased work, as did carpenters, drivers, bricklayers, Harbour Board employees, shipwrights, tinsmiths and cooks and waiters. They were soon joined by timber workers and painters, furniture workers, brewery workers, and engine-drivers. Even jockeys and newspaper runners joined in, reported the Maoriland Worker.

Altogether, over 7000 men ceased work and thousands of others were rendered idle by the strike. The tram service, for instance, was suspended for lack of coal a day before the strike started, but the tramwaymen considered themselves on strike and were represented on the Strike Committee. The ‘strike fever’ positively embarrassed the committee, who would have preferred to see some unions remain at work and support the strike financially.

Restaurants and tea-rooms closed and hotel guests had to cook their own meals. Bars were closed by order of the magistrates for the duration of the strike. Hairdressers, bakers, and blacksmiths refused to serve the specials and paid a levy to the strike funds, and midwives, it was reported, offered to attend strikers’ wives without pay. Taxi drivers refused to carry specials and were called before the City Council and threatened with cancellation of their licenses.

Hardly any of the striking unions had any previous connection with the United Federation of Labour which conducted the strike. Some of the Auckland unions were still affiliated to the right-wing United Labour Party. The president of the Auckland District Council of this organisation was the Hon. George Fowlds, a wealthy draper. Far from leading his men into battle, Fowlds’ main concern at this crucial moment was for the safety of his business. ‘Some of the more criminal and extreme elements might want to take it out of me’, he wrote to a friend in Britain and he was not at ease until his friend had arranged for special fire and riot insurance policies.

On 10 November, several hundred strikers’ wives and children marched from the Trades Hall through Queen Street behind a banner ‘We Have Come to See the Cockies.’ The ‘cockies’ were concentrated on the waterfront where they had cordoned off lower Queen Street. It was not a place to take the children, for a variety of reasons. ‘An objectionable feature of the arrangements within the lines of horses’, reported the Auckland Star, ‘is that no provision has been made to clean up the roadway. The condition this forenoon was little short of disgraceful. The prevalent odour was distinctly unpleasant, and over a wide area of the thoroughfare where the hundreds of horses have been tethered or in service there were accumulations calculated to set up any kind of fever.’

The success of the Auckland strike encouraged the United Federation of Labour to call for a general strike throughout New Zealand ‘in order to preserve unionism against blackleggism’. The response was negligible and the Government at once retaliated by arresting the strike leaders, Young, Semple, H. E. Holland and Fraser, and in Auckland, Tom Barker, the young I.W.W. leader, who was arrested outside the Trades Hall where he had just finished selling 700 copies of his Industrial Unionist, ‘the most revolutionary paper south of the line’.

The Rot Sets In

Massey's cossacks lined up outside the Kauri TImber Company, Freeman's Bay, Auckland, 1913

Massey’s cossacks lined up outside the Kauri TImber Company, Freeman’s Bay, Auckland, 1913

For a week the general strike in Auckland remained solid. Business was at a standstill and three hundred Auckland shopkeepers signed an appeal to Members of Parliament asking the Government to bring pressure to bear on the Employers’ Federation and ‘not to allow their stubbornness to ruin our trade’. More than 7000 strikers attended a mass meeting in Victoria Park and a representative citizens’ meeting urged a peaceful solution of the conflict. Mounted specials deliberately rode along Hobson Street, past the crowds in front of the Trades Hall, but attempts to provoke incidents failed and the regular police quickly restored order.

The City Council employees were the first to return to work, followed by building and hotel workers. After the first enthusiastic week there was a revulsion of feeling, and each day more and more strikers resumed work. Some were threatened with loss of employment through the formation of rival arbitration unions, while others were lured by promises of higher pay.

The carpenters, one of whose members, Tom Bloodworth, was chairman of the Central Strike Committee, were faced with the arrival from Wellington of their national secretary who declared the strike illegal and threatened strikers with loss of union benefits. He was deeply shocked by what he saw in the Auckland office of the society. ‘The Strike Committee composed of our members turned the District Council, the organiser and lady collector out of the Society’s office’, he reported on his return to Wellington, ‘and took full possession themselves. They actually buried the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners, and the chairman of the Strike Committee sealed it by writing across the pages of our general rule book “R.I.P.” in large letters, and the Committee framed the rules, hung them on the wall, and draped them in black. Such diabolical work shows clearly that these members are not fit to belong to such a glorious and respectable organisation as the Amalgamated.’

On 21 November, the timber mills reopened with adequate staff. Eight hundred carpenters had by now resumed work and the painters announced that they would return. By the end of the second week, half the strikers had resumed work. The Central Strike Committee saw no alternative to calling off the general strike and on 23 November it advised all unions to return to work on the following day, Monday, with the exception only of the transport union — watersiders, seamen and drivers. Some unions, notably the bricklayers and general labourers, decided to continue the strike but otherwise the orders of the committee were obeyed. The general strike in Auckland came to an end.

The British warship Pyramus, which had been kept in Auckland, its searchlight trained on Queen Street while its crew drilled on the wharves with fixed bayonets in full view of the strikers, was now transferred to Lyttelton where the specials were waiting to occupy the wharves. On leaving Auckland the captain of the Pyramus thanked the specials, telling them that ‘Deeds like this help one to realise the cause of the greatness of the British Empire’. When Mr Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, was later asked in the House of Commons why the British Government had departed from traditional policy by letting the Navy be used in an industrial dispute, he replied that this action had been taken at the express wish of the New Zealand Government.

On 25 November the trams resumed and next day the hotels reopened. The following day there were riots in Auckland and thirty-eight men were arrested. Arbitration unions were formed for drivers and seamen, and on 4 December the scratch crew of the Maheno, largely farmer volunteers, assaulted C. T. Reeve, a prominent member of the Auckland I.W.W., who was about to embark for Sydney.

In the presence of detectives who had come to search his luggage Reeve was attacked, dragged off the ship and prevented from sailing. Policemen on the wharf, reported the Otago Daily Times, ‘made as if to interfere’ but did not. Charges of assault arising out of this incident were dismissed because the culprits could not be found, but a Sydney crowd took revenge on the Maheno’s crew with the result that one of them bad to be taken to hospital.

Causes of Defeat

Although the general strike in Auckland had lasted only a fortnight, the waterfront strike continued for almost another month. The Auckland watersiders held out to the bitter end, and they refused to surrender even after the seamen had come to a separate agreement with the employers. On 19 December, when a special conference officially called off the strike, Canham, the president of the Auckland watersiders, was one of the minority of four who voted against surrender.

As in 1890, the employers had insisted on total annihilation of their opponents, but in 1913 they needed the full help of the State to carry them to victory. Even then it took fifty-eight days (two days longer than in 1890) and a total cost of nearly a million sterling to break the power of the ‘Red’ Federation. Major causes of the defeat were the defection of the railwaymen and the meagre assistance received from Australia, as well as the lack of resolution shown by the Federation leadership.

‘Now they return to work’, wrote a correspondent in the New Statesman, ‘thousands of missionaries of discontent; sullen, knocked about, gaoled, but each a ferment, each a nucleus of disaffection against the existing social system and each a pioneer towards better things.’

During the months which followed the strike great efforts were made to rebuild the movement. One by one the bogus arbitration unions collapsed or were taken over by the strikers, and soon only the Auckland and Greymouth wharf unions remained closed to genuine unionists.

At first, very few Auckland strikers were able to find work again on the wharves. Prospective members of the new arbitration union had to undergo a rigid cross-examination and known Federationists were automatically excluded. Some of the more notorious ‘Red Feds’ were forced to go gum-digging in the Far North, where they put to good use a quantity of gelignite sticks which had been stolen during the strike and had caused the police much needless concern.

It took more than two years of bitter struggle before the Auckland wharf union opened its doors to the strikers. ‘For six solid months I worked on the wharves’, wrote a former Wellington striker who had joined the Auckland union under an assumed name. ‘I was silent — one had to be in those days, but I learned many things. There were three hundred men outside the gates who could not come inside to look for a job. If they did, they were liable to prosecution. To be seen making friends with those honest strikers meant a “freeze”, but we made friends on the quiet. We organised us best we could to capture the union for the genuine Labour Movement.’

Early in 1916, these efforts at last bore fruit. In quick succession the Auckland wharf union took three important decisions: to open wide its doors to all who wanted to join, to suspend its arbitrationist president, and to join the new Waterside Workers’ Federation which had been organised in Wellington on the initiative of Jim Roberts.


~ by vomitingdiamonds on 29/03/2013.

One Response to “General strike in Auckland (1913), Bert Roth”

  1. […] From the archives: General strike in Auckland (1913), Bert Roth […]

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