Red Feds and the Great Strike of 1913

Exactly 100 years ago New Zealand was experiencing its largest ever industrial dispute.

The Great Strike of 1913. In the end the 16,000 strikers and their United Federation of Labour were defeated, the employers, the reform government and their fascist "specials" (volunteer special constables) known as “Masseys Cossaks” had won. But that is not the full story - the class consciousness and confidence which made the Great Strike possible were earned and honed through the unifying organisation of the Federation of Labour known as the "Red Feds" in the years 1908 to 1913. This new mood was to have a profound effect for years to come."

Lessons of 1890
To understand the great strike we first have to look at the defeat suffered by the workers in Maritime Strike of 1890 and its aftermath. That defeat had convinced many in the union movement that strikes don’t work, political power and arbitration are the only weapons workers can use, and the only goals we can hope for are incremental improvements in pay and conditions. The first major challenge to this lesson was the Blackball miners' strike on the South Island's West Coast in 1908, which was also the first major strike in 17 years.

Blackball socialist group circa 1910

When socialist miner Pat Hickey and 6 other miners were fired in February, the union stood by them and demanded their reinstatement with missed pay. They had gone to the Minister of Lands to complain about poor safety and violations of the Coal Mines Act. There was also a dispute over meal times, which was only 15 minutes, the union had decided they should have 30 minutes. Because they were registered with the Arbitration Act, the law required they beg for a change to their award from an unsympathetic judge.

The miners instead chose to act! They would take their 30 minutes! When Hickey was ordered to return to work after 15 minutes he refused, was prosecuted and eventually fined.

The striking men refused to go back to work until their growing list of demands were met. Their demands were:

  • 30 minutes meal break.
  • No more 10 hour shifts – 8 hours only.
  • The men would be reinstated with pay.

The company dragged the union before the Arbitration Court which imposed a 75 pound fine, and ruled that the company could fire whoever they wanted to. But the union held firm, and - they also added a demand that the company pay their fine for them.

Unions throughout the South and North Islands gave financial support, which was also illegal under the arbitration act. Finally in May after 3 months of struggle the union won, the company directors agreed to all the unions demands.

This was a massive result, a huge turning point. William Massey the leader of the opposition Reform Party and enemy of the workers was outraged and said: “The act was openly defied, the decision of the court disregarded and the judge insulted”

Evolution of the Red Feds
After success at Blackball and the solidarity the strike received, the union movement grew more confident. Later in May Auckland tramwaymen struck, in June Wellington bakers struck. There was talk of starting a Federation of Labour. The American Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) influence was growing, the "wobblies" as they are known spread the message of One Big Union, Class War, Industrial Unionism and direct action.

Blackball Miners' Union and the State Miners' Union were two of the driving forces which helped create the new “Federation of Miners”. When it began in August 1908 it represented 2300 miners. Their motto was :
“THE WORLDS WEALTH FOR THE WORLDS WORKERS” - which was taken from the Wobblies.
The Federation of Miners grew rapidly in strength and numbers and won some battles along the way. At the 1909 conference the name was changed to “THE NEW ZEALAND FEDERATION OF LABOUR” and  it was no longer exclusive to miners. The miners were leading the workers of New Zealand towards One Big Union.

Over the next few years the Federation grew to include a long list of unions, many of whom left the arbitration system. Many of the leading Red Feds were heavily influenced by the Wobblies, and Daniel de Leon (who was a prominent Wobbly). According to DeLeonist theory, workers should simultaneously organise a socialist industrial union and political party. Union and party would help each other, the party would gain political power and the unions would take control of the means of production which would be run by workers' councils. The political party would form a government with the sole purpose of replacing themselves with a new government elected from the socialist industrial unions. In New Zealand the Federation of Labour and the Socialist Party were intended to fill these roles.

However, in 1908 the IWW in Chicago repudiated all political action. This was to cause one of the big debates which shaped the federation over the next few years. If the IWW was on the left of the Federation, there was also a tendency on the right who urged caution and did not see the Federation as a step towards revolution, they saw it as a means to increase the bargaining power of their unions. Debates about the nature, direction and tactics of the Federation went on, but they did not come to a head as long as the Federation was gaining ground and winning easy victories.

Miners during the Waihi strike of 1912

In 1912, The Auckland General Labourers Union, a Federation affiliate, lost their long battle with the Auckland employers' union, later that year the Federation lost another decisive battle in Waihi at the gold mine. Fred Evans a striking stationary engine driver was murdered by police and scabs as they broke into the union hall, they then violently drove the rest of the striking men out of town, ending the 6 month strike. After these crucial losses the debates from the left and right had to be settled. A Unity Conference was held with 32 affiliates of the Federation, 40 other unions, and 2 Trades and Labour Councils. The United Labour Party, the Socialist Party and the Wobblies were invited, ULP and SP did send delegates but Wobblies did not. The Unity Conferences were successful, the United Federation of Labour (UFL) and the Social Democratic Party were founded. Both organisations were dominated by DeLeonites of the old Federation and Socialist Party.

Timeline of the 1913 strike
The Red Feds did not plan or execute the strikes of 1913, but they did lay the groundwork and played an important guiding role. In fact the red fed leaders were not looking for a big confrontation yet – the timing of the strike was favourable to the bosses, both seasonally and strategically - it was spring, a quiet time on the docks and coal mines, and also a quiet time on the farms, which meant farmers could be persuaded to leave their farms and go to the city to smash the skulls of striking workers. Strategically, neither the UFL nor the SDP had yet built enough strength for a major confrontation. With the benefit of hindsight and some wishful thinking, my personal opinion is that had the confrontation happened a few years later after inspiration of the Russian Revolution and after the senseless imperialist slaughter of WWI, it could have resulted in a successful socialist revolution in Aotearoa.

The great strike started with two unrelated disputes in Huntly and Wellington.

In Huntly the Taupiri Coal company sacked 16 Red Fed workers, three of whom had just been elected to the union executive. The union struck for their reinstatement and requested the UFL take control of the dispute.

In Wellington shipwrights were in dispute over traveling time and their right to join with the wharfies' union. The wharfies had a stop work meeting to discuss the shipwrights and refer the situation to the UFL, when they returned to work they found that their jobs had been given to other men. 1500 watersiders struck with the demand that their men be reinstated.

The employers had wanted to split the watersiders from the UFL and force them to register under the Arbitration Act. The watersiders handed the dispute over to the UFL. In Auckland 28 October, the watersiders handling coal stopped work to support the Huntly miners, next day all the watersiders stopped. Watersiders and coal miners around the country struck in support.

Attempts by the UFL to defuse the situation were knocked back by the employers. The employers federations wanted to crush the UFL, and the new Reform Party Prime Minister Massey was keen to help.

He aimed to bust open the wharves with a combination of violence and scab labour. A police union had briefly been active recently and Massey doubted their loyalty. He called up the volunteer special constables and also heavily armed troops, and had gunboats stationed off Auckland and wellington. The specials which became known as Massey's Cossacks, and were mostly drawn from the country side. Mostly on horseback, their purpose was to terrorise and brutalise the striking workers.

There were pitched battles on the streets and wharves of Wellington between striking workers and the Cossacks, at one point troops with bayonets and machine guns took the waterfront. Thousands more specials arrived in Wellington, The Royal New Zealand Artillery took Buckle Street and stationed heavy machine guns at each end. The Sydney Herald reported “A sort of modified civil war” in Wellington. The armies of the rich were showing the workers where they stood.

On the 5th of November the Cossacks and police used force and violence to open the wharves and bring in scab labour. Harry Holland, Peter Fraser, Bob Semple and Tom Young of the UFL and Tom Barker of the Wobblies were arrested for sedition. The strike in Wellington was losing.

In Auckland the Cossacks were recruited and organized by the Farmers Union - patriotism, religion, contempt for workers and dairy products rotting on the wharves were all used to motivate the farmers of the Waikato.

The Farmers Union did not just provide these fascist troops, they also used their power to ensure that no negotiations or agreement would be made without their say so, a resolution wasn’t what they wanted, they also wanted the UFL to be crushed!

The wharves of Auckland were forced opened by the Cossacks and police on November 8th.

Straight away the IWW who had always been stronger in Auckland successfully pushed for a general strike throughout the city. Between 6,000 and 10,000 workers struck. Red Fed unions and arbitration unions took part. Next the Wobblies appealed to the rest of the country to


The UFL also called for a 1-day general strike throughout the country. The calls for a nationwide general strike got a mixed reception, the Wobblies didn’t have the same influence outside of Auckland. Auckland's general strike lasted 2 weeks and the last of the striking wharfies went back to work in January 1914.

So, The Great Strike of 1913 and the Red Feds had been crushed. Workers were forced to accept arbitration unions. The employers backed by Massey and his Cossack thugs had won. But even after this defeat, the process of organizing and fighting class war had produced a new unity among the workers, who were now much more class conscious than before. The workers knew they were working class and they knew who their class enemies were.

Nobody who opposed the strike remained a labour leader, in some unions no-one who opposed the strike could get work in the industry. Federated Seamen's Union had a stamp on their card saying “LOYAL MEMBER 1913 STRIKE” If you did not have that stamp, good luck trying to get work.

Masseys Government had brought in the Labour Disputes Investigation Act which destroyed the Red Fed tactic of unions leaving the arbitration system. New tactics were needed, and so arbitration unions were taken over by Red Feds with massive support from the rank and file. And by 1914 all union leaders were self declared socialists.

During the strike it had been shown that an arbitration union could with sufficient solidarity and bargaining power completely disregard the legal system, after the strike the rank and file had acquired the unity and discipline to act without their union officers. The Red Feds had not succeeded in breaking the chains of the Arbitration Court, but they had learned to wriggle out of them.

The Department of Labour wanted all arbitration unions who struck to be prosecuted, but Masseys Goverment and the Arbitration Court did nothing. They were afraid of the consequences. The UFL itself faded away over the next 2 years, eventually the Alliance of Labour succeeded it followed by the Federation of Labour.

Until 1950s the membership card of the NZ Labour Party was a real socialist party and listed their one essential aim as “the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange”.

The SDP which had been formed at the Unity Conference, became the New Zealand Labour Party in 1916, and immediately started to poll respectably, In 1935 the Labour Party was elected to government with former Red Feds at the helm.

-Eoin, SA

Parallels with Dublin lockout Dublin experienced a similar but more protracted and brutal industrial dispute. Employers feared the growth of industrial unionism and were willing to kill workers and sacrifice months of profit for the goal of eliminating the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. The motivation and attitude of the bosses in Dublin was very similar to the employers federation in NZ.


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