Industrial unity and a party of labour – the Red Feds’ 1913 ‘turn to political action’

At first glance, the discussion at the Unity conference in January 1913 seems to be about an uninteresting question of organisational forms. The leaders of the United Labor Party (ULP) favoured a single loose union federation that also acted as the political voice of the working class (as the ULP itself had combined the functions of union and political party). The Federation leaders favoured one centralised trade union organisation, organised along industrial lines, and a separate political party which both unions and individuals (including individuals outside the working class) could join on the basis of agreeing with its working class programme. But these debates on organisational questions concealed fundamental differences of political outlook.

Edward Tregear in about 1896. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library
Reference: 1/2-030365-F

Edward Tregear (ULP) spoke of the impossibility of disentangling industrial from political matters. He was “unable to find any industrial question which did not touch upon the national, that is, the politics of the whole of the people.” In response, Federation leader Peter Fraser argued that “the conference had merely to consider the best form of organisation, both political and industrial. A line could not be laid down, on one side of which were political matters and on the other industrial; but the two fields could be, generally speaking, separated, and even if unionists were united only on small matters, more could be accomplished by united action.”

Peter Fraser in 1918
Photo: National Library

The Wellington waterside workers’ delegate added, “On the wharves there were men who were supporters of the Massey [Reform] party, others of the Ward [Liberal] party, others of the Socialist Party and others of no party at all; politically they differed but on industrial questions they all agreed. When rebuffed by the boss they acted as one.”

Mills (ULP) spoke in favour of a single federation of industrial organisations, but “if [that] meant merely that the carpenters and blacksmiths and farm labourers and miners and waterside workers and so on should be combined into one group, with one central authority or executive having supreme control in all disputes, that was on most dangerous ground.”

Harry Holland in 1896

Holland replied that the need for One Big Union was the central lesson of Waihi. “The toughs who kicked the life out of Evans were every one of them carried there by railway trades unionists, operating under a system that practically made them scabs; and this was so not because the railway workers were worse than any others, but because of their loose system of sectional unionism … unionism [that] was not based on a recognition of the class struggle. One Big Union, to be worth anything, must be based on the class struggle … an organisation, not with the executive controlling the organisation, but with the organisation controlling the executive.”

Despite the widely differing perspectives put forward by the opposing sides and the strong personal antipathies, the momentum towards unity was compelling on both sides. Unity was achieved largely on the terms proposed by the Federation of Labour. After six days of serious discussion, the conference agreed on a Basis of Unity, the central task of which was to issue a call for a second conference in July, at which would be inaugurated a single United Federation of Labour, incorporating in its constitution a Preamble modelled closely on the class-struggle Preamble of the IWW. At the same conference a Social Democratic Party would be inaugurated. The July conference would be, in the words of Robert Semple, “the Parliament of Labor – the greatest Parliament ever seen in New Zealand, defying the political parliament to carry out the things Labor does not want.”

Holland was jubilant, telling the January conference, “The working class movement has before it today one of the most magnificent possibilities that the working class has ever had in any country of the world. … never before in the history of a single country have the working class organisations come together and unitedly agreed upon an industrial course of action. …

On the political party, he was a little more guarded. “When we come to the political side of the question, we have met together as people with wide personal differences, wide differences of opinion, and we succeeded in sinking them, and still the political proposals set forward here represent a great revolutionary movement if you will agree to them. Personally, I am against any platform of palliatives – the party I represent is against it… While we can commit our party to nothing, we would not create a division. We have unity on the revolutionary objective…”

William Thomas Young, leader of Seamen’s Union and of United Labour Party, appointed to head the Unity Committee. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library

The conference appointed a Unity Committee consisting of five Federation leaders (Semple, Fraser, Webb, Parry, and Hickey) and Holland for the Socialist Party, together with Mills, Tregear, Young, Belcher and Hunter for the ULP, to prepare the July conference. This committee fanned out over the whole country over the next few months, speaking to their own unions and at public meetings in the four main cities and more than forty smaller centres, building the upcoming unity conference. Holland addressed meetings on “The Basis of Unity – its revolutionary aspect.”

“In the wretched past we have fostered sectionalism, and our sectionalism has wrought for us nothing but confusion and defeat and humiliation. The Basis of Unity makes for the breaking down of sectionalism – to relegate to the shadows of the tyrannous past the experience of union scabbing on union. United, an injury to one will be held to be an injury to all. It may be that we shall not enter upon the strike lightly; but when we do strike we shall strike as an organised force, and our blows will ring on the anvil of class interests from end to end of New Zealand. The National General Strike will be a weapon in the hands of the well-organised workers to be dreaded by the historic foes of the workers. The local general strike, or even the local sectional strike, will no longer represent the fiasco we have so often seen it represent. The very fact of our close organisation and our solidarity of interests will often render the strike unnecessary. In the pitiful past we have gone to the political battlefield divided and disorganised—and our divisions and disorganisation have ensured our enemies’ victory. The Basis of Unity makes for class solidarity on the political field, because it rests on the sure foundation of a recognition of the class struggle, and because it further recognises that it is on the political field as well as on the industrial field that the stern and mighty battles of conflicting class interests must be fought.”

Robert Hogg, Socialist Party leader who opposed unity process. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library
Reference: 1/2-010286; F

Not all the class-struggle forces were so enthusiastic about these developments. While the Socialist Party nationally concurred with the unity proposals and voted to merge itself into the new Social Democratic Party, opposition to this course developed among some sections of the party, especially in its Wellington branch, which warned against dissolving the Socialist Party. Harry Holland and Robert Ross, both strong supporters of the unity proposals, were members of this branch but found themselves in a minority. Holland attempted to bring disciplinary action against the recalcitrants, one of whom, Robert Hogg, was deputy editor of the New Zealand Truth, and published his opposition in that paper.

The Auckland IWW also demonstratively stood aside from the unity movement, justifying its stance by criticisms of some ambiguous and class-collaborationist statements made by members of the Unity Committee at meetings to build the July conference. It pictured the unity scheme as the Federationists capitulating to the ULP. “When this unity scheme was before the public eighteen months ago, the objections, urged so strenuously by the federationists, were that single-tax clubs, professional men, parsons, etc, could gain admission. All these objections – if the above utterances count for anything – can be urged against the proposed organisation today.” (Industrial Unionist, 1 June 1913, p2).

In April, Harry Holland was appointed editor of the Maoriland Worker, when Robert Ross returned to Australia. On both a political and a personal level, this was a big step forward for Holland, allowing him to exercise his journalistic and propagandistic skills in full measure, while also giving him a degree of economic security that he had not enjoyed for a long time. A dispute with the Socialist Party in Australia over payment for the articles he wrote for the Australian socialist press while in New Zealand had soured his relations with the party there. His visit to New Zealand, originally planned to be of limited duration, was becoming more permanent.

The July conference turned out to be, as Semple had predicted, a parliament of labour such as had never been seen before. Nearly four hundred delegates, representing 60,000 workers in 250 union branches, ULP and SP branches, and Trades and Labour Councils, gathered in Wellington for nine days, and emerged with a single trade union federation, the United Federation of Labour (UFL). As had been the case with the old Federation, it was to be left up to the individual unions whether to remain within or de-register from the Arbitration system, provided that the Arbitration laws not be used to form scab unions during disputes, as they had at Auckland and Waihi. There was a clear understanding that the UFL was to be progressively transformed from a federation of craft and industrial unions into one big industrial union. A rump of the ULP and the union of Railwaymen withdrew from the conference in protest against this course.

The Maoriland Worker celebrated the success of the July Unity conference, with pictures of the delegates on its front page 

This was the largest union conference ever held anywhere in Australasia, and its outcome was a huge step forward for the working class in New Zealand. Holland’s confidence and optimism were fully justified. Reports in the capitalist newspapers deplored the fact that the Federation had won leadership of the United Federation.

In addition, the working class would now have a broad-based political voice independent of capitalist interests, the Social Democratic Party (SDP). The political character of this party was more inchoate – inevitably so, given the politically diverse forces that had come together to create it – and while the leadership of both organisations was predominantly in the hands of the class-struggle wing of the movement, there was one decision of the conference that must have caused Holland and the other revolutionary leaders some disquiet: the conference rejected by a margin of 175 to 161 Holland’s motion to adopt the class-struggle Preamble that had been adopted in January.

Rather than backsliding, this decision simply reflected the fact that the July conference brought in a much larger range of the pro-Arbitration unions than had been the case in January, and these sections of the workers had not yet been won to a class-struggle perspective. (Not to mention the fact that, in the course of the debate, many of the ULP delegates actually admitted to being employers themselves!) All the same, it underscored the fact that the misgivings of the Wellington Socialists were not without merit. Within a broad-based political formation such as the SDP was, it was entirely necessary and justified for the revolutionary vanguard to retain its own identity and organisation. This was one of the unresolved questions that dogged the IWW in North America. Holland looked to the broad-church German SDP in this question, which provided no useful lead. In the end, the Wellington SP took a stance of opposing the unity proposals altogether, turning its back on a major advance of the class – the first truly national movement of the working class since the Maritime Strike of 1890 – and thereby condemning itself to the role of a lifeless political sect.

The outcome of the July conference filled the capitalist rulers with alarm. The Auckland Employers Association decried the “far-reaching and drastic proposals being adopted by the congress which, if given effect to, would seriously prejudice the development of trade and industry throughout the whole of New Zealand… its end and aim appeared to be the destruction of the employing class, the resolutions adopted being, in the opinion of the Association’s Executive, decidedly socialistic and menacing to the peace and welfare of the whole community. … The employers had won all their fights so far [and] would win all along if they had proper organisation—the United Labour Party possessed men of brains and culture. These men were being led to the “red federation,” and he wanted to warn the employers against being gulled into a state of false security because these adherents to the United Labour Party sometimes spoke fairly.”

The decisions taken at the Unity conferences undoubtedly strengthened the unity of the labour movement, deepened the engagement of the working class in the political struggle towards the conquest of power, and widened the space for its class-struggle left wing. However, overcoming the errors and weaknesses of syndicalism was not something that could be achieved in a single blow. In a very short time the working class would be confronted with a formidable alliance of enemies, the formation of which had received scant attention. For this mistake they would pay a heavy price.

Within six months of the conference, the capitalists had dealt a massive blow to the working class on the industrial front and an even bigger political blow; Holland found himself once again behind bars. Just over a year after the conference, in the heaviest blow of all, the workers would be dragged into a full-scale imperialist war.


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