Revolution or spectacle, Don Aimer

Revolution: The 1913 Great Strike in New Zealand
Melanie Nolan (ed)
Canterbury University Press in association with the Trade Union History Project, $34.95,
ISBN 1877257400

The track record of revolutions is dismal. Failure, betrayal and despair almost assuredly await you.
Just hang on to memories of your brief heady days of visionary hope for humanity, of camaraderie and sleepless activity as you fought to forge the future. In 1913 there was no revolution and no prospect of revolution. Yet the photo on the cover of Revolution shows men running for their lives in Wellington, while a distant force of cavalry charges toward them. This was not your average day at the office. So what was going on?

Two disputes – in the Waikato coalmines, and on the Wellington wharves – flared with bewildering speed into bitter confrontation between unionists and the forces of order, certainly one of the more spectacular civil conflicts in New Zealand.

With too few police available, locked-out wharfies stormed the wharves and rampaged, while ships clogged the harbour. Ten days later, the Government, to protect non-union labour on the wharves, deployed militia recruited mainly from the country. The Specials – Massey’s Cossacks – were the catalyst for conflict, a thousand or more men on horseback, armed with heavy truncheons, a chilling occupying force, “with”, as Pat Lawlor put it, “the sinister sound of massed hoof beats” in the streets. Reciprocal hatred between farmers and city workers boiled over as unionists reacted with rage to this provocation. The Specials in the Buckle Street army depot were protected by machine guns. Over 2000 unionists fought with stones as mounted men charged, while shots were fired on each side. The New Zealand Herald said that the “whole of the Waikato was gripped in the fervour of prosecuting a righteous crusade to preserve social order and the butter stocks.”

In Auckland, the Specials were met with a general strike of up to 14 unions, but it was all in vain. The wharves were captured by the Specials, the employers had arbitration unions registered and the defeated workers had no option but to join them to get work again.

What it all meant is still being debated. That’s history for you. Revolution is not the first study of the strike. The basic text is Erik Olssen’s The Red Feds: Revolutionary Unionism and the New Zealand Federation of Labour 1908-14, but  Revolution is a significant addition in two ways: it fills out details with a wealth of new research, and it offers alternative arguments and fresh insights into what the strike meant for New Zealand society. The book germinated from a seminar held by the Trade Union History Project in 2003.

It has 13 essays by professional historians, some eminent in their field, some with post-graduate research experience, while Melanie Nolan, the editor, contributes an overview. It is much more than a collection of seminar papers. The editor has been active and determined, because each essay is presented in a similar format with a well-argued conclusion, and most are underpinned by primary research, with between 40 and 100 supporting references sensibly appended to each chapter instead of being stuck in a bunch at the end. Just be aware that the language is sometimes condensed and this is not a light read for Sunday afternoons.

The special joy of the collection is that leading historians argue with each other and open up critical issues for re-examination. Thus Richard Hill says that the state was determined to use its coercive power in a decisive showdown with the unions to enforce a return to arbitration procedures. Miles Fairburn, while not rejecting the general intention, suggests that the Government played it by ear and just muddled through. The difference is in the fine print, but sometimes fine print may determine history. It seems notable that, a week after the dispute began, Prime Minister Massey chaired a conference of employers and union representatives at which the hard-bitten socialist leadership of the United Federation of Labour endorsed a settlement proposal. Had it been accepted by the watersiders, there would have been no coercive showdown – not then anyway.

Hill tends to portray the watersiders as victims of a capitalist conspiracy enforced by a compliant state. They were not – they could have had a settlement that other unionists saw as liveable with and they chose to reject it. Why did they do that? In looking for clues, we go back to Miles Fairburn, a real battler who also takes on Erik Olssen. The Fairburn précis of Olssen is that the rank and file wharfies made a mistake: they misjudged their own strength and were guilty of stupidity because they were wild, truculent and reckless. Fairburn doubts this is the right answer, but leaves the question unresolved.  Yet it is profoundly important, because 1913 is one of a number of occasions when militant unions embarked on an apparent course of industrial suicide, 1951 being an outstanding example. If, by implication, this is to be a judgement on the militants throughout the course of the 20th century, then it seems to be a summary one, which should be more deeply explored.

Although for most unions industrial disputes were about negotiating amelioration, they were clearly something else for the watersiders. The slogans which kept cropping up were that it was about standing fast, that it was better to lose than not to fight: liberty or death. How are we to understand this different dimension, and are there clues in Revolution?

Yes, there are, starting with Melanie Nolan who considers “manliness” as a motivator (“a man who won’t stand by his mates is no man at all”), and also cites suggestions that periodic protest, shared among brothers, was a vital way to claim masculinity. In that world, solidarity and mateship ran deep. An injury to one was an injury to all.

This takes us beyond the notion of stupidity in negotiation, although gender attitudes alone don’t seem sufficient to explain the waterfront dimension. Donald MacRaild and Mark Derby take us further, each looking at the challenge of capitalism to working people. Inherent in MacRaild’s  account of the growth of militant unionism in the British parent society is the critical importance of class in deforming relationships between people in the workplace. Tom Paine told all men that they were equal, yet in employment it was your lot in life to know your place, and to be bullied and badly paid. Derby looks at a particular response, that of the Industrial Workers of the World, an American organisation influential in New Zealand in the build-up to 1913. It found the capital-worker relationship so unseemly that it rejected the legitimacy of employers, and advocated revolution by general strike. This is what sent a frisson up Massey’s spine.

While these are useful clues, it is clear that most workers did not react like the watersiders, and Peter Franks shows that the majority of unions, and especially those covering skilled craft workers, were reluctant to strike and generally supported the arbitration system. Centres like the waterfront, the freezing works and transport were characteristically militant, but even here it is easy to over-generalise. David Grant teases out in a masterly way the Byzantine politics of the Seamen’s Union, where giant egos competed and there were pro- and anti-strike factions – it was not always big issues that governed union politics. It is beyond Revolution’s scope to pin down the dark moth of militancy, but the value of the book is in exposing the need for a reappraisal.

Erik Olssen’s wrap-up is that the episode clarified minds on all sides, with the radicals and the unions putting away revolutionary dreams in favour of politics as a tool for the future. Kerry Taylor demurs, pointing out that denunciation of capitalism continued through the 20th century via the Communist Party and the militant sector of unions. Tension was endemic within working-class ranks and splits would sometimes break open. The 1913 strike swung radical leaders like Fraser and Semple into a quest for political unity in the working class, but it would be surprising, given trends in Australia and Britain, if they had not got there anyway. So dare we characterise 1913 as more of a spectacle than a generator?

Perhaps, having emerged into the future from the tunnel of the 20th century, with the waterfront a playground and the freezing works reprocessed, it will be easier to see events as a single fabric. The proletarian segment begins to look like an enclave, sometimes with allies, sometimes without. They certainly marched and stormed and waved their banners. They captured the limelight, and there was a romantic glow to their staunchness, unremitting advocacy, and solidarity. How far it was a sideshow and how far they influenced the social changes of the century is a question for History 101. It is a tribute to Revolution that it reopens these issues.


Don Aimer is a Wellington writer and reviewer who used to work for unions.


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