A book that changed the course of the class struggle

After a six-month strike, the struggle at Waihi came to a head in early November 1912, shortly after the arrival in Waihi of the Commissioner of Police John Cullen, a close friend of Massey’s Police Minister, Alexander Herdman. After a series of violent clashes on the street on the morning of Monday 11 November in which some of the scabs were seen to be carrying guns, Commissioner Cullen – himself implicated in a vicious assault on a striker – appeared at the union headquarters, and demanded that they stand down the pickets for 24 hours. The union agreed to this temporary truce, and that afternoon the scabs coming down from the mine paraded unhindered through the town.

Crowd of police and scabs outside union hall (building on right) shortly after it was stormed, 12 November 1912.

The following morning a mob of scabs, together with their police escorts, marched through the town to the mine, then suddenly veered towards the union hall.  With the pickets still withdrawn, the hall was occupied by only a half-dozen strikers instead of the usual hundreds of pickets. The mob overcame the defenders and, as shots were fired, forced their way into the hall, chasing down and beating the strikers who tried to escape out the back. In the melee, a cop took a gunshot wound and one of the strikers, Frederick George Evans, was felled by a blow from a police baton, and set upon by the thugs. Evans, thrown unconscious into a police cell and left untreated for hours, later died; the cop recovered.

The thugs now occupied the union hall, stole its safe and broke it open, distributing the correspondence and records it contained to the press.

Frederick Evans, striking mine engine driver murdered by cops and scabs in November 1912

Holland wrote: “If the police performed that housebreaking, safe-burglarising feat without a warrant (and we understand they had no warrant), they were acting in violation of every law. If they had a warrant, the fact would constitute added and irrefutable proof that the outrage was premeditated, Government-sanctioned, and police-organised. Those responsible for the work were either criminal law-breakers or parties to a most diabolical conspiracy.

“Having aided the toughs and scabs to forcibly seize the hall, the police of course permitted them to remain in possession of it. Meetings were held, with the chief scab presiding. The Mayor and other “prominent citizens,” including at least one clergyman, fraternised with the law-breaking scabs and thugs on whose souls the guilt of murder rested, and made speeches that were complimentary and eulogistic of the abominable work that had been perpetrated. A list of citizens to be driven out of Waihi was read and approved. The Police Commissioner and the police officers generally took no steps whatever to check the openly-proclaimed lawlessness that was rampant. On the contrary, the police threw in their lot with the law-breakers.

“Grog was served out to thugs, scabs, and half-caste Maoris alike; and, during the day, whisky-maddened, screaming gangs of from 20 to 50 went around, with police squads for bodyguard, and individual unionists were murderously attacked. The police saw to it that the unionists were given no chance to get together for defence purposes.  After the raid on the hall, the grocery store was raided, the doors were forcibly broken open in the presence, if not with the assistance, of the police; and the store and its contents taken possession of by the scabs.”

Anti-union press campaign frames strikers for the violence. Headlines from New Zealand Herald 13 November 1912

The riot continued for the rest of the day. Later the gangs of scabs began visiting the strikers in their homes, warning them to get out of town, promising beatings and arson of their homes if they stayed. At least one striker who refused to leave awoke that night to find his house on fire. Hundreds of strikers from Waihi were driven out of the town, and ended up as refugees in Auckland, living off the solidarity and support of other workers.

This was the greatest defeat on the picket line that had been inflicted on any Red Fed union since the founding of the Federation of Labour in 1909, in fact the biggest setback to unions in New Zealand since the defeat of the Maritime Strike in 1890. It was followed up by a barrage of propaganda in the newspapers proclaiming the imminent demise of the entire Federation. The Huntly coal miners, who had stopped work for a day in solidarity with the arrested Waihi unionists, now faced a mounting assault on their union, their entire union executive blacklisted from the mines and forced to leave town to find work, and a scab union operation gaining ground there too.

But the Red Feds were not finished yet. Holland was determined to expose the facts of the events of the past six months to the glare of public scrutiny, and in the tragic aftermath of the strike this became possible for the first time. The dramatic events at Waihi were new – and deeply shocking – to many workers in New Zealand. This was the first time in New Zealand’s history that a strike had been defeated chiefly by the actions of armed thugs, the first time such scab violence had received the open and active support of the police, the first time loyal unionists had been run out of a town by a mob of scabs threatening their lives, the first time a striker had been beaten to death in the course of a strike. The public indignation at the anti-union bias of the police and civic authorities – first expressed in the demonstrations against the wholesale jailing of strikers a month earlier – grew and broadened, as the true, union-busting character of the struggle at Waihi became clear to many for the first time. Within a short time, this mounting indignation forced the government to release the jailed strikers.

Meanwhile, a propaganda campaign in the capitalist press swung into action, making a hero of the cop who knocked down Evans, framing the dead striker for shooting the cop, and thereby justifying his murder. The obligatory coroner’s inquest into the death was hastily convened in Waihi while the unionists were still banished from the town, and was about to be closed without taking any testimony from witnesses who were Federation supporters. Only unions registered in the Arbitration Court had status in the Coroner’s Court, the Federation was told. The coroner, William Wallnutt, had been a reporter for the notoriously anti-union newspapers, the Waihi Telegraph and Auckland Star. He had also presided over a meeting called to support the scab union in early July.

Harry Holland’s book on the Waihi Strike

Protests were sent from across the country against Wallnutt acting as Coroner in this case, given his record of bias. Holland rushed to Waihi to attend and report on the inquest for the Maoriland Worker, and succeeded in preventing it from being closed without taking testimony from the unionists. It was grudgingly agreed that the Federation of Labour would appear nominally for the relatives of the deceased. The testimony of strikers and their families at the inquest was reported in detail in the Maoriland Worker. Together with the testimony at the criminal trials in the following weeks, where some of the scabs as well as some of their victims were charged with assault and other crimes, this formed the core of Holland’s most widely-read piece of writing, co-written with Maoriland Worker editor Robert Ross and Frank O’Flynn in 1912, The Tragic Story of the Waihi Strike. The book was dedicated to “the splendid women of Waihi, who through storm and stress of the industrial war never wavered in their loyalty to their class.”

The Tragic Story was probably the most influential political document to be published in New Zealand since Te Tiriti o Waitangi, and it retains that distinction todayIt was written and published within weeks of the end of the strike, printed on the presses of the Maoriland Worker, sold in thousands of copies through the paper’s network of unionist distributors, and read and discussed by working people throughout the country over the course of the following year. There was an urgency about the task of distributing and discussing this book that was understood by all. The supporters of the Federation of Labour, from the top leaders to the ranks, knew that the Federation was fighting for its life, and this book was its chief weapon, its vindication.  

Workers at Foxton flax mill. Raw flax behind them, processed fibre on their knees. Photo: Manawatu Heritage.

Holland writes an interesting account of the kind of meetings that were organised around the book (and the efforts made by bosses to prevent them happening) in an article called In the Flax Country. The flaxmill workers of the Manawatu were an important component of the Federation of Labour. Like the shearers, it was one of the relatively few unions which brought together Māori and pākehā workers; also like the shearers, the union was also a bridge to the rural workers, in a region which was one of the organising centres of the capitalist farmers who formed the Massey government’s chief base of support. In one weekend in March 1913 in Foxton there was a well-attended Saturday street meeting on Revolutionary Socialism and Industrial Unionism, another on Sunday, also on the street, discussing Lessons of the Waihi Strike, and an evening meeting in the Town Hall on the Programme for Working Class Unity. Holland, Bill Parry from the Waihi mine workers union (who had been appointed as an organiser for the flaxworkers for three months), and the local flaxworkers’ union leaders spoke at all three. There had already been similar meetings at Shannon and nearby Whitaunui mill. Over the following week, Holland spoke at meetings of hundreds of workers in flax mill dining rooms or nearby streets at Rangitāne, Miranui, and Palmerston North, sharing the very crude accommodations provided for the workers at the mill workers’ camps. Sales of the Tragic Story were brisk at all the meetings.

At Miranui flax mill near Shannon, the union brought together Māori and pākehā workers. Photo: Manawatu Heritage

The discussions that the book prompted changed the course of the class struggle. A defeat of the militant Waihi Union on the picket line was transformed into a victory for the class-struggle forces on the plane of political struggle, in ways that could not have been anticipated by anyone.  The Red Fed propaganda campaign centred around this book became the clearest possible demonstration of the possibility and necessity of class-struggle fighters winning support by means of argument and persuasion, the winning of hearts and minds, in conjunction with industrial struggle. In short, of the necessity for political struggle alongside of industrial struggle. And as a side-effect, it raised the profile of Harry Holland, who had understood better than anyone the importance of forcing open the inquest into Evans’ murder and reporting the facts of those fateful days.

The Tragic Story brings together the sworn statements from strikers and their families about the days of “lawless law and order” that took place in Waihi on November 12 and its aftermath, or, as Holland describes it, the “unabashed subversion of the law to the interests of the mine-owners.” [p93]  That was shocking enough – the anti-working class bias of the police, the courts, the newspapers, and the clergy was a revelation to workers just waking up from the period of the ‘land without strikes.’

But the book goes much further than that. It details the real causes of the strike, misunderstood for so long outside the mining industry: the appalling conditions of work, held in place by the competitive contracting system, and the refusal of the Arbitration Court to remedy these problems. It describes the solidarity demonstrated by the rest of the Federation and by workers in Australia, listing the amounts of money donated by each union to support the strikers, and a full and detailed balance sheet.

The Tragic Story denounces all those complicit in the crimes against the Waihi miners, not just the capitalists and their uniformed, clerical and civilian servants, but also their ideologues and propagandists. In particular, it excoriates the treacherous conduct of the Trades and Labour Councils (TLCs), the United Labour Party (ULP) with which the TLCs had fused, and the pro-Arbitration Unions in general for their refusal to extend solidarity to workers under attack, their joining forces with the bosses in trying to starve the Federation workers into submission – in some cases, their active participation in organising scabs – and their violation of the fundamental principles of unionism.  The blows struck by the Tragic Story fell particularly hard on these forces.

“Professor” Walter Mills in 1904 Photo: Wikipedia

Throughout the six months of the strike, the ULP and its chief spokesperson, Walter Mills, had been advocating a strategy of arbitration of industrial disputes combined with ‘political action’ at the ballot box, relying on the power of the vote in preference to the ‘American system of warfare’ which the strike represented. They had put forward disingenuous proposals for “unity” of the labour movement behind this strategy, and under the banner of the United Labour Party they had set out to destroy the Federation of Labour in order to achieve this goal. When the strike went down to defeat, they appeared to have achieved the outcome they wanted. But as the discussion around the outcome of the strike intensified and the facts revealed in the Tragic Story became widely known, Mills, the ULP and the TLCs became increasingly isolated and discredited for their role in the defeat.

The Federation leadership, meanwhile, drew the conclusion that the principal reason for the defeat at Waihi was not so much the state intervention as the failure of the working class to unite in defence of the Waihi miners. Some prominent supporters of the principle of Arbitration, notably Edward Tregear, former Secretary of Labour in the Liberal government and one of the prime movers of the Arbitration legislation, broke ranks and publicly dissociated themselves from the way the ‘15-member clause’ had been used to break unions at Auckland and Waihi. The Federation began their own campaign for unity among unions which wanted to overturn this union-busting clause. In late November they called a conference for the following January to consider ‘The Basis of Unity,’ inviting all unions, including the pro-Arbitration ones, to send representatives.

By the time the conference convened, the tide of the discussion was running in favour of the very voices who had seemed so conclusively beaten only two months earlier. Now it was the United Labour Party that was dragging its feet on unity.

On the other hand, the unity campaigns, the defeat on the picket line, and the role of the state in that defeat all posed with greater urgency than ever before a question that had long divided the class-struggle forces in the New Zealand labour movement – just as it had divided the IWW itself at its 1908 convention. This was the question of working class political action.

Harry Holland was one of the few participants in this discussion who had both a firm opinion and a wealth of experience on the question of working class political action, and in the political shifts and realignments of the crucial year of 1913 he sensed a great opportunity. His goal was nothing less than the one he had laid out in Labor Leg-ironed: One Big Union along the lines of the IWW, to fight scientifically, and uncompromisingly, with never a section of the workers scabbing on any other section, together with unity on the political field, in one big revolutionary socialist political party. As with all things, Holland had to be all out or all in. He was all in on this campaign.

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