The sheltered childhood of the working class in New Zealand: 1890-1912

The newborn working class in New Zealand took its first breath in the upsurge of union organising and the 1890 maritime strike, which was both the culmination of that upsurge and its defeat (described in my last post).

The most immediate political consequence of that upsurge was that the loose and shifting factions within the New Zealand Parliament crystallised into distinct class-based political parties for the first time. The first organised party to emerge out of this was the Liberal Party.

Longbeach, a South Canterbury sheep-run of 13,000 heactares, ran 28,000 sheep and employed 90 men in 1882. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library Reference: 1/4-019093; G

Longbeach, a South Canterbury sheep-run of 13,000 heactares, ran 28,000 sheep and employed 90 men in 1882. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library Reference: 1/4-019093; G

The falling price of wool had thrown into sharp relief the stranglehold that the big landowner-speculators held over both the land and the credit institutions, which was injurious not only to workers seeking to become farmers, but also to the emerging manufacturing capitalists. This landed gentry, which had resisted all previous attempts to curtail its political dominance, proved utterly incapable of resolving the crisis of the late 1880s, and the result was that a grand coalition, comprised of all those opposed to the big landowners, came together under the banner of the Liberal Party. (The landowners re-grouped under the banner of the Conservative Party, but were so soundly defeated that this party never really got off the ground.)

The foremost plank of the Liberal Party’s programme was the pledge to “burst up the big estates” of the landed gentry and open up the land for closer settlement by small farmers. The second, to impose a tariff on imported goods, with the aim of protecting local industry from cheap imports.

This was a programme for accelerated capitalist development; at its heart was the goal of growing a population of yeoman farmers, and thus developing a domestic market for local industries. The small layer of manufacturing capitalists, mostly in Dunedin, formed the core of the Liberal Party. But the popular base of the party lay in the organisations of workers. The Trades and Labour Councils, formed by the older craft unions of the skilled trades, were the party’s main organising centres.1 Laws for the protection of workers, including factory health and safety regulations, provision for union recognition and arbitration of disputes, and social welfare measures such as old-age pensions, formed the third major plank of the Liberal programme.

At about the same time, under the impact of the same events, a similar coalition of class forces formed a similar party around a similar programme in Australia. However, this party called itself a Labor Party. ‘Liberal’ would have been a more accurate name for that formation too. Understanding the essential similarity between these two parties is key to understanding the way the debate around the “Labor Party question” played out in the two countries.

The Liberal Party came to power in the New Zealand parliamentary elections held at the end of 1890, only weeks after the defeat of the Maritime strike. Their victory was even more sweeping in the next election in 1893, by which time a favourable turn in prices for the main export commodities was beginning; the long depression was coming to an end. The clique of large landowners was dislodged from its position of dominance in the state, and the Liberals took over the reins of government for the next two decades. Such was the strength of the bond between the Trades and Labour Councils and the Liberal Party, this government earned the nickname “Liberal-Labour” or “Lib-Lab.”


While the material conditions that gave rise the unusually privileged status of wage-labourers in the New Zealand colony had disappeared forever by 1890, the social and political attitudes arising from them proved far more persistent. The social pact by which the working class, defeated in the 1890 Maritime Strike, was won to support the Liberal Party was essentially an attempt to re-create those vanished conditions. Whereas in the earlier period, the favourable conditions were the natural consequence of circumstances in the colony, in the new situation they were to be reproduced by means of the forceful intervention of the state.

The Liberal Party implemented a large part of its programme over the next decade.

John McKenzie, Miniter of Lands in the Liberal government elected 1890

John McKenzie, Minister of Lands in the Liberal government elected 1890

The drive to ‘burst up the big estates’ was led by Minister of Lands John McKenzie, a Highland Scot with a deep hatred for landlordism. It centred on the Land and Income Tax Act of 1891, a graduated land tax with right of purchase by the government at the owners’ assessed value, combined with the Land Act of 1892, which created a new form of leasehold tenure, enabling small farmers who lacked the purchase price to settle the land. The Advances to Settlers Act of 1894 provided low-interest credit to new settlers.

Over the next two decades, some 1.3 million acres of land were purchased from large landowners, mainly in the South Island (for which the owners were generously compensated). About 7,000 farmers were settled on these lands over the twenty years from 1891, mainly on leaseholds. A far larger area of land, some 2.7 million acres, was acquired by the Crown from Maori owners, mainly in the North Island, and on-sold to settlers. An additional half-million acres of Maori land was purchased directly on the free market in this same period. Maori were excluded from the credit provisions of the Advances to Settlers Act.2 Thus McKenzie, fiercely opposed to the dispossession of the Scots, became a leading agent of dispossession of the Maori.

The economic basis for the rapid creation of a new class of small farmers lay in a technical advance made a decade earlier that revolutionised farming practices in New Zealand: refrigerated shipping. In 1882 the first cargo of frozen meat from New Zealand was unloaded in Britain in good condition. Suddenly, it became profitable to run sheep for their meat as well as their wool, and within a decade 21 freezing works were established.

cans of milk being delivered to an early dairy processing facility, Manawatu. Photo: Palmerston North City Library

Cans of milk being delivered to an early dairy processing facility, Manawatu.
Photo: Palmerston North City Library

Equally important, refrigerated shipping made it possible to transport perishable dairy products, especially butter and cheese, to markets in Britain, and so dairy farming for export became viable. Dairy farming involved much more intensive use of the land, and was better suited to small holdings. Dairying developed especially on the North Island lands newly acquired from the Maori owners. The population and economic centre of gravity of the colony shifted northwards.

The price of land is ultimately determined by the income that can be earned from that land. As more intensive use of the land became possible, the value of the land rose accordingly, and another round of land speculation began, with the big landowners once again holding the advantage. (The first big round of land speculation in the 1870s is described in this post). While the Liberal Party presented itself as a party of the common man against the wealthy landowners, the landowners in fact profited handsomely by selling off a part of their estates at high and rising prices. Selling for cash enabled them to diversify their investments and, when land prices later fell, to buy back cheaply what they had sold dear. The big farmer-speculators remained a central component of the capitalist class.

The chief importance of the second plank of the Liberal programme, the tariff, was that it cemented the political bond between the worker and the manufacturing capitalist. A New Zealand Protection Association was formed in 1884 to press for “a re-adjustment of the tariff in favour of New Zealand industries.” It drew active support from Members of Parliament who later formed the Liberal Party, as well as from many in the trade union movement. The Otago Trades and Labour Council had already in 1881 called for a protective tariff, (along with the cessation of immigration, its natural corollary) as a solution to problems of unemployment. A tariff enacted in 1888 was greatly extended in scope in 1895, and in 1903 the tax on some foods and other items commonly consumed by workers was reduced. The tariff was opposed by the big farmers, who gained nothing from it, and who sold their product in foreign markets and thus feared the imposition of retaliatory tariffs by these countries.

Of all the laws passed by the Liberal government, the most far-reaching in their effects were the labour laws. The Factories Act of 1891 prescribed minimum rights of workers in matters of holidays, hours of work, overtime, the working week, and factory conditions. Subsequent amendments extended these gains to women and young people working in shops and offices, extended the protections in a range of occupations with special conditions such as coal mining and shipping, and guaranteed payment of workers wages in the event of employer bankruptcy. The franchise was extended to women in 1893, after a campaign which included delivering a petition of 32,000 signatures to parliament.

The centrepiece of this labour legislation was the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act, introduced in 1894 and amended extensively over the next decade, which had the twin goals of encouraging the formation of unions and suppressing strikes. Unions which registered under this Act agreed, in return for some protections, to submit to settlement of disputes over wages and conditions of work to compulsory arbitration by a three-person Arbitration Court (one employers’ representative plus one workers’ representative, presided over by a judge of the Supreme Court.) The Court thus came to set minimum wages through its rulings. The Registrar of Industrial Unions had to approve the union’s rules before registration was agreed, and the Court treated each branch of a union as a separate unit. (Wide variations in wages within a single industry resulted from this.)

Among the smaller craft unions, many had long looked to arbitration of disputes by ‘independent’ parties as a means of avoiding strikes and building a partnership with their employers. These unions, the ones least affected by the defeat of the Maritime Council, were the first to register under the Act, and gained wage increases and improvements in hours and conditions. (Even among the unions built along industrial lines the idea of arbitration had some support, for example from John Millar of the Seamen’s Union.)

William Pember Reeves, Fabian socialist, architect of Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act

William Pember Reeves, Fabian socialist, architect of Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act

The workers whose unions had been smashed in the Maritime Strike were less enthusiastic about the Arbitration Act, but were not in a strong position to resist this state interference in their affairs. They were, in the words of William Pember Reeves, one of the architects of the legislation, in a “chastened and pacific frame of mind. They had asked for arbitration, and the employers had spurned them. They were disposed to think unusually well of arbitration.”3 Union membership had dropped from 60,000 in 1890 to about 8,000 in 1894.  Some workers looked hopefully to this “Law to encourage the formation of Industrial Unions and Associations” as a means of rebuilding their strength.

The benefits of the Arbitration system, such as they were, were largely confined to the skilled trades, especially at first. Unions grew in number and size, but not uniformly. Rural workers were excluded, as were most women workers. Nevertheless, total union membership began to grow again from 1895, and by 1900 there were nearly 15,000 union members registered under the Act.

Coal miners at Denniston on the West Coast managed to reorganise their union independently and in secret in 1895. When the bosses got wind of this, they sacked sixteen of the men involved, but were forced to reinstate them when the union was registered and came under the provisions of the Act. Other coal miners and watersiders followed the same path; however, the Watersiders and Seafarers took more than a decade to rebuild their unions and regain the wage levels they had in 1890. 4

The greatest advantage to unions registering under the Arbitration Act was the “preference clause” often granted by the Court from the late nineties onwards, under which employers were legally bound to hire union members in preference to non-union workers – the very issue at stake in many of the strikes leading up to the Maritime Strike of 1890. This clause alone gave a great incentive to unions to register under the Arbitration Act. By the early years of the new century almost all the unions that existed in New Zealand were registered. By 1907 there were 290 unions registered, with a combined membership of 45,614, protected by the tariff and preference clauses, the conditions of their awards enforced by a small army of government factory inspectors.5 There was not a single strike for twelve years after 1894. The union leaderships were left with little to do except collect membership dues and prepare the legal submissions to the Court; union members had nothing to do except pay the dues as required by law.


If the Maritime Strike marked the birth of the working class, the decade and a half following the election of the Liberal Party marked its sheltered childhood. Working class organisation in unions grew rapidly under the paternalistic protection of the bourgeoisie, in political dependence on it, leaning on the coercive power of the bourgeois state. It was, as one politician described it, “as though we vaccinated the people by liberal measures to prevent them from having the small-pox of socialism when adults.”6

The governments in Australia and New Zealand at this time went further than any others in the world towards buying the support of workers by means of reforms, and integrating the organisations of the working class into the capitalist state apparatus. Class collaboration became institutionalised to a degree not seen elsewhere at the time.

It was as if the whole country had become a utopian commune on the model of Robert Owen’s New Lanark, all underpinned by a rising general prosperity from 1895 onwards. New Zealand became the toast of the bourgeois world, and liberal and radical commentators came from across the world to observe the ‘country without strikes’.7 Policies in both New Zealand and Australia were variously described as the “social laboratory of the world” and an “experiment in state socialism.” Among the visitors were Fabian socialists Sydney and Beatrice Webb from Britain, US writers Mark Twain and Henry Demarest Lloyd, and French scholars André Siegfried and Albert Métin. The accounts they wrote of these visits, especially Siegfried’s Democracy in New Zealand, are worth reading today. Siegfried notes a pervasive ‘patriotic vanity’ among New Zealanders.8  (Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin read Siegfried’s book and wrote some interesting comments on it, which I have summarised in this post.)

The idyll could not last; the infantile stage of development of the working class came to an abrupt end after 1906.  It began with a fight against Arbitration, and quickly grew into a many-sided revolt against all forms of class collaboration. Within a few short years a mass movement towards an independent political party of the working class had developed.

As the capitalist prosperity continued after 1895, workers realised that the wage awards of the Arbitration Court were not keeping pace with the rising cost of living. The Court became clogged with a backlog of disputes. Dissatisfaction grew. In November 1906 Auckland Tramwaymen struck to force re-instatement of two sacked workers, in direct defiance of the Arbitration rules – and won. Three months later, freezing workers in Wellington struck for higher wages, joined by another 500 freezing workers from other regions, and also won their demands.

The Liberal government bared its anti-worker teeth. John Millar, the former Seamen’s Union leader from 1890 who was now Minister of Labour, demanded prosecutions for this defiance of the Arbitration Act; the striking freezing workers were fined £5 each.

The protests spread to the coal miners, who had gained relatively little from Arbitration. Miners at the Blackball Mine were protesting that they were only given 15 minutes ‘crib-time’ (lunch break) at the coal face instead of the usual 30 minutes. When seven workers who insisted on taking a half-hour break were sacked, all the rest struck. (When the case came before the Arbitration Court, the judge famously remarked that he thought 15 minutes was ample time, then noticed that the time was 12.30pm, and adjourned the Court for lunch until 2pm.) Despite fines of £75 levied on the workers, the strike remained solid for three months, with messages of support and financial contributions coming in from across the country. The company eventually backed down, reinstated the men and increased crib time to 30 minutes.

The spell of the Arbitration Act had been broken. A fighting miners’ union was quickly re-established locally under the leadership of the Blackball militants, then, through a series of conferences in 1908, a national Federation of Miners. The Federation established close ties with its counterpart in Australia. To get around the legal prohibitions on striking under the Arbitration Act, they cancelled their registration under that Act, and registered under the previous Trade Union Act of 1878.

Patrick Hodgens Hickey, [ca 1908] Photo: National Library of NZ PAColl-6181-57

Patrick Hodgens Hickey, [ca 1908]
Photo: National Library of NZ

At its conference in 1909 the Miners Federation changed its name to the New Zealand Federation of Labor, and began actively seeking federation with unions in other industries. They became popularly known as the Red Feds. “Relying on the strength of their combination, and with a full recognition of class solidarity, the workers can win for themselves conditions which the Arbitration Court would never concede,” stated Pat Hickey, chairman of the Federation of Labor, in 1910. 9 Shearers, brewery workers, and the key union of waterside workers joined the Federation. Its membership grew to 15,000 by mid-1912.

At its 1912 conference the Federation adopted the preamble of the Industrial Workers of the World, which stated, “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace as long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life. Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organise as a class, take possession of the earth and the machinery of production, and abolish the wage system.”

As the adoption of this statement indicated, the changes in the working class precipitated by the revolt against Arbitration were not just organisational. The open proclamation of class struggle in the Federation of Labour preamble reflected a profound change in mass consciousness. The working class was becoming conscious of its own distinct class interests. Socialist ideas were spreading.

Utopian and bourgeois socialist ideas had circulated since the late 1880s. Edward Bellamy’s utopian novel Looking Backward enjoyed long popularity, as did the pamphlets and single-tax nostrums of Henry George; the Fabian Essays in Socialism had a champion in William Pember Reeves, the Liberal Minister of Labour and architect of the Arbitration Act. Reeves, who described himself as a Fabian Socialist, contributed to this literature himself with Essays on Communism and Socialism and State Experiments in Australia and New Zealand.

A Socialist Party was founded 1901 with a quite different social base and a different kind of socialism. This party gained a following among the unskilled workers: the miners in the first instance, waterside workers, slaughtermen, labourers. The leaders of the Blackball strike for the 30-minute crib-time were members. Although it was always a very heterogeneous organisation politically (a large number of its members had arrived in 1900 as a group, with the aim of setting up a utopian colony) Marxist ideas featured prominently among the pamphlets they distributed.

Cover of first issue of Socialist Party newspaper, Commonweal, 1903. Slogans include: Shorten working day and lengthen life, No Child Toilers, Solidarity of Labour, Production for Use, Not for Profit, A commonwealth when wealth is common.

Cover of first issue of Socialist Party newspaper, Commonweal, 1903. Slogans include: Shorten working day and lengthen life, No Child Toilers, Solidarity of Labour, Production for use, not for profit, A commonwealth when wealth is common.

Socialist ideas came to New Zealand from countries where the working class was larger and more experienced, and where class-struggle currents of socialism were already established. Ben Tillett, a central leader of the London Dock Strike of 1889, toured New Zealand in 1897, and spoke against workers supporting the Liberal government. Tom Mann, the other main leader of that strike, also toured in 1902 and helped to set up new branches of the Socialist Party.

Socialist ideas also arrived by way of links to the labour movement in the US and Australia. Pat Hickey, the miner who led the Blackball strike, had worked in the US, where he had been a member of the Western Federation of Miners. Experienced class-struggle unionists, often fleeing blacklisting and other forms of persecution in Australia, arrived after each labour battle across the Tasman. Leaders of the Blackball strike who went on to become leaders of the Red Feds included Robert Semple and Paddy Webb, both experienced miner-unionists from Australia.

The United States was the chief source of revolutionary socialist and anarchist literature. “Our favourite pamphlets were those of Kerr and Co of Chicago” Hickey said in his Red Fed Memoirs.10 Writings on industrial unionism and socialist politics by Eugene Debs and Daniel DeLeon, anarchist pamphlets by Peter Kropotkin and Emma Goldman, IWW publications, and a few pamphlets by Marx and Engels were sold widely.

The Socialist Party grew in tandem with the Federation of Labor, many of whose leaders were party members.

The outstanding expression of the advance of both was the Red Feds newspaper, the Maoriland Worker,11 which the Federation of Labour had acquired from the Shearers Union. When the Red Feds took it over, they appointed an experienced socialist journalist from Melbourne, Bob Ross, to edit the paper. Under Ross’s editorship, the paper flourished. Run on a shoestring budget, it nevertheless managed to appear every week from 1910 onwards, and its readership grew to 10,000 in 1912. The content of the Maoriland Worker was a mixture of detailed reporting on labour disputes sent in by worker-correspondents from around the country, reports on the progress of the socialist movement internationally, campaigns of solidarity, and analytical articles and discussion pieces, together with gossip and humour mocking capitalist figures and their sycophants. It carried numerous advertisements for political books and for public meetings on working class political questions.

This, then, was the state of affairs in 1912. A youthful and inexperienced working class was just becoming self-conscious, testing the limits of what was possible in struggle, gaining confidence in themselves, and testing out new political ideas and new leaders in the process. In the words they themselves often used to express it, the workers were striving towards their manhood.

But many workers were not yet ready to ‘rely on the strength of their combination’ and break free of the protections of the Arbitration Act. They were watching the new Red Fed leaders carefully to see if they could be trusted. For the first five years after 1906 the bourgeoisie and its Liberal government were on the defensive as the Red Feds pressed forward. In 1912 the counter-attack began in earnest.



  1. Condliffe, J.B. New Zealand in the making, Allen and Unwin 1959, pp.177-78
  2. Boast, Richard Buying the Land, Selling the land. Governments and Maori land in the North Island 1865-1921. Victoria University Press 2008. p.260
  3. Reeves, William Pember, The Long White Cloud, Ao Tea Roa, London 1898
  4. Roth, H.O., Trade Unions in New Zealand Past and Present. Reed education 1973, pp.21-22
  5. Roth, op cit p.24
  6. Dr M.S.Grace, a former army surgeon from the Taranaki Wars, appointed to the Legislative Council 1870-1903, reported in Timaru Herald 14 August 1894
  7. Lloyd, Henry Demarest, A Country Without Strikes, New York, 1900
  8. Siegfried, Andre, Democracy in New Zealand, London 1914 p.62
  9. NZ Federation of Labor Annual Conference 1910, p13.Quoted in Roth, op cit, p.30
  10. Hickey, Patrick Hodgens, Red Fed Memoirs, NZ Worker Print 1925, (facsimile reprint by Wellington Media Collective 1980) p.9
  11. Nearly all the issues of the Maoriland Worker are available online at Papers Past, a website of the National Library of New Zealand.

4 responses to “The sheltered childhood of the working class in New Zealand: 1890-1912

  1. Really interesting and very well written! I’ll be checking out the rest of your posts 🙂

  2. Pingback: Capitalist farmers and family farmers | A communist at large·

  3. Pingback: Why the founding of the Labour Party was a historic advance | A communist at large·

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