When the countryside marched on the town: Massey’s Cossacks in 1913

[Second of three articles on workers and farmers in 1913]

Both the Red Fed leadership and the IWW in Auckland proved unable to recognise the significance of the coming to power of the Massey government in July 1912, a few weeks into the Waihi strike, handicapped as they were by their syndicalist habits of thinking. In the syndicalist perspective, capitalist society would rapidly polarise into two hostile classes, the small but wealthy minority of capitalists and the large majority of exploited workers. This idea appears often in their propaganda, including the speeches of Harry Holland. (It is implicit in the famous IWW Preamble, for example). This led them to treat Reform as little different from the capitalist Liberal government that preceded it. The particular political character of the Massey government seemed to them to be of little significance.

Although it is true enough as a description of the general tendency of capitalist society, this class polarisation perspective nonetheless shows a blindness to the realities of capitalist political rule. As a minority class, the capitalists cannot rule alone. They must build their class rule on the political support of the petty bourgeoisie, the middle layers of town and country – the shopkeepers and professionals in the city, the small farmers in the countryside – and to let a few crumbs from the capitalist table fall to these layers. In order to overthrow capitalist political rule, the working class needs to break that alliance of classes, and make a political appeal win broad layers of the middle classes over to its side.

Family dairy farmers deliver milk to Midhurst Dairy Cooperative, Taranaki, about 1900. Photo: James McAllister, Ref: 1/1-009396-G. Alexander Turnbull Library

That possibility was opened by the advances of the Unity conferences in 1913, especially with the formation of a mass labour party, which could have been used to make such a political appeal to the small farmers as fellow wealth-producers who are also exploited by capital. But Massey’s campaign around the freehold had given him a major advantage. The Red Feds, being a union federation not a party, had paid little attention to the conditions and needs of the small farmers. When the next class confrontation loomed, the political advantage was overwhelmingly in Massey’s hands. The new United Federation of Labour hardly had time to take a single breath before it was plunged into two major disputes which had been prepared in close consultation with the Government and were launched with the Government’s full support.

The Massey government’s preparation had two components: on the one hand, he moved quickly to grant farmers on leasehold land the right to purchase the land freehold on very generous terms. On the other, he drafted draconian new anti-union amendments to the Arbitration law which were passed in August, designed to close the legal space available to unions which de-registered from the Act in order to retain their right to strike. Harsh additional penalties were added for punishing individuals and unions who took part in or aided ‘illegal’ strikes, and additional requirements were added for compulsory secret ballots, additional mediation, including the requirement that any union of ten or more workers intending to strike must notify the Minister of Labour beforehand and engage in any mediation organised by the Minister.

The first act in the renewed assault against the labour movement was launched against the coal miners at Huntly. It was a continuation and escalation of the union-busting campaign that had been under way in that coalfield since the time of the Waihi strike a year earlier.

In October 1912, as the Waihi strike neared its climax, the Taupiri Coal company had sacked the nine members of the miners’ union executive, and registered a scab union, while the small mining town of Huntly was occupied by 80 police. The company refused work to any miner who was not a member of the scab union, and eventually most miners were compelled to join it. The scab union then refused to enrol another 43 miners, who were blacklisted along with the original union executive. The working miners continued to fight these victimisations, and began to elect union militants to positions of responsibility in the registered union, gradually replacing the company agents. Some of these militants participated as delegates in the July Unity conference.

Huntly mine idled by strike in 1913. Photo: Auckland Weekly News 30 October 1913 p43. Ref: AWNS-19131030-43-1 George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries

On 6 October 1913 the company sacked a further 16 men, including three executive members of the union. Three days later the 560 miners voted to strike until the 16 were reinstated, along with the 60 victimised a year earlier. A second scab union was formed to replace the first one which had now become, from the employers’ point of view, an unreliable instrument, and was duly registered and recognised by the company as the workers’ representative.

Meanwhile, a dispute involving a relatively small number of workers on the Wellington waterfront was widening. In May, shipwrights – skilled workers who carried out repairs on wooden ships – had voted to cancel their registration with the Arbitration Act and join the Red Fed-aligned Waterside Workers Union, acting with the support of that union. In response to cuts in their conditions, the 40 shipwrights struck on 18 October. When the other members of the Watersiders Union held a stopwork meeting to discuss this dispute, they returned to find that their jobs had been given to other workers.  The 1500 Wellington waterside workers unanimously resolved that ‘No work shall be accepted until such time as the victimised men are re-instated.’ Picket lines went up at the wharves the following day. On 27 October, the Shipowners Federation declared that they would only deal with the waterside workers if they agreed to form a ‘fresh organisation’ to be registered under the Arbitration Act.

Waterside workers rally outside Queen’s Wharf, Wellington, during strike. Photo: Sydney Charles Smith. The ship ‘Northern’ can be seen in the background. Ref: 1/2-048927-G Alexander Turnbull Library

The belligerence with which the employers were escalating these attacks – and the provocative claim in both cases that it was the union which was breaking agreements – brought forth a furious response from workers around the country. Mass meetings and rallies of the Wellington watersiders and their supporters were held frequently over the following weeks. Within a few days the strikers had occupied and taken control of the Wellington wharves, driving out the small number of strikebreakers. Across the country, in solidarity with the Huntly miners, coal shipments were declared black. Watersiders in Auckland, and both watersiders and miners on the West Coast, decided to strike until both the Huntly and Wellington disputes had been settled. The UFL called out all watersiders nationwide at the end of October; all four major ports and most of the minor ones were shut down.

The employers and their government were ready for this extension of the strike, and showed themselves eager for a showdown with the unions. They were already in the process of mobilising the armed forces to back up the police. The small regular defence force, the Royal New Zealand Artillery, and the sailors of two British Navy warships were deployed, despite the hesitations of the Chief of the General Staff, Colonel Edward Heard, a British Officer, and the opposition of the Secretary of State for Colonies in the UK. Heard explained his position on the use of troops: “… the military will not be called out except in the very last resort, when rioters have taken control and cannot be dealt with by the civil authority. Many people do not realise the seriousness of the position when the military are called out. I have seen it in Ireland and know what it means, and that it is only as a last emergency that it should be used. If soldiers and sailors come out, they do not come out as police as some people seem to think, simply to look on. They come out as soldiers, with rifles, ball cartridges, and bayonets, and they come out to shoot if called on by the civil power to do so.”

Enrolling farmers as “Special Constables” at Otahuhu. Photo: Auckland Weekly News 13 November 1913 p44 George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, Ref AWNS-19131113-44-3

But the main weapon that was mobilised against the workers was mounted volunteer ‘special constables’ from the rural regions, which began to be recruited in the last days of October. The ground had been well prepared through the militarisation drive; the part-time Territorial Force created by the 1909 Defence Act now numbered some 25,000 men, the largest Territorial Force in the empire, who served under Heard’s direction as recruiters, officers, and a large fraction of the ranks of the ‘special constables.’

Farmers’ Union political campaigning was also key. The spectre of farm exports spoiling on the wharves during a prolonged strike was the fear drummed up to motivate small farmers to join the strikebreaking campaign, as both ‘special constables’ and strikebreakers. Regions where the Farmers’ Union was particularly active, especially the Manawatu, Wairarapa and south Waikato, supplied the largest numbers of specials. The Farmers’ Union was the main organisation recruiting specials among Waikato dairy farmers to break the strike in Auckland.

Special police entering Wellington by Hutt Road. Photo: Auckland Weekly News 13 NOVEMBER 1913 p048 Ref: AWNS-19131113-48-1 George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries

The first contingent of mounted specials arrived in Wellington on 30 October. They were dubbed “Massey’s Cossacks” by the workers, after the military caste of mounted peasants serving the oppressive czars of Russia.

As the reports came in from rural-based unions such as the flaxmillers, describing the recruitment and assembling of these strikebreakers, Holland underestimated the danger, telling a workers’ rally on 29 October that “…It was all very well for farmers to break a strike such as that at Timaru, where there were only a few places to be filled, but he would be very surprised if farmers would leave their work and come to Wellington to make “scabs” of themselves. “Scabs” would also be wanted at Huntly, Auckland, the West Coast, and other places, and he did not think they would be secured.”

Buckle Street, Wellington. Strikers protesting lodging the Specials in Defence Buildings face armed troops. Photo: Sydney Charles Smith. Ref: 1/2-049061-G Alexander Turnbull Library

But more specials kept arriving, despite efforts by the strikers to block the access roads to the city. By 4 November, there were more than one thousand mounted specials encamped in Wellington, plus another 500 ‘foot specials.’ They were accommodated first at the Post and Telegraph Store near the waterfront, and when they were driven out of there by strikers, at the Defence Department buildings in the suburb of Mt Cook. Workers protesting against their presence in Mt Cook were met by Royal Artillery soldiers on the access streets, armed with machine guns.

HMS Psyche in 1916, after it had been transferred to Australian navy

Wellington began to resemble a city in civil war. At night, strikers took up positions on the hills above the Hutt Road in order to intercept the specials arriving under cover of darkness, while searchlights on the warship Psyche lit up the battleground. Pitched battles between specials, police and strikers involving both batons and firearms took place on Wellington streets from 30 October, and the early battles favoured the strikers. Holland and other militants were addressing meetings of workers daily, sometimes several times a day.

“Referring to the presence in the harbour of a gunboat and of mounted police in the streets, he said it was because the workers had voted for the master class at the ballot-box, not recognising the class struggle. The employers now believed they had an opportunity to strike a staggering blow at organised Labour in New Zealand. They had precipitated the present struggle,” Holland told a workers’ rally in late October.

Mounted Specials turn and charge strikers in Featherston Street, Wellington 5 November. Photo: George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries Ref: 7-A10659

“If there is to be a general clash, he said, let it be swift and strong. If you have to fight, fight like hell! You cannot be defeated by the owning class. The shipowners cannot defeat you. Kennedy [head of the Union Steam Ship Company and Shipowners’ Association chairman] may sit in his office and scream to the heavens and Massey for the use of the Permanent Artillery, but that will not get a cargo on to the boats or off them. Luke [Wellington mayor] may lock the gates of the Basin Reserve, but that will not stop the meetings being held. They cannot defeat you. You will only be defeated if the members of your own class act treacherously towards you. A man who deserts in international warfare and goes over to the other side is called a traitor and is adjudged worthy of death, but he is not nearly so much a traitor as is the man who deserts from the working class side in such a struggle as this. Therefore, if it were not against the law to say it, I would say to you that there is no treatment too harsh for the blackleg who comes on to the wharf here… It would be a crime if any ship were sailed out of the harbour with “scab” cargo on board. (Applause.) It would be a crime if miners were to cut coal to be handled by “scab” labour. No tram should run with a “scab” on board, and no trains should move with “scab” goods.”

Specials’ camp in Auckland Domain. Photo: Auckland Weekly News 13 November 1913 p42. George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, Ref: AWNS-19131113-42-1

More specials arrived in Wellington, while an even larger number was mobilised in Auckland, where the mayor, James Parr, who had successfully defeated the General Labourers Union in early 1912, set up a Citizens’ Defence Committee which co-ordinated the assault together with the Farmers’ Union. A huge military camp was set up in the Auckland Domain, and similar street fighting took place in that city. (Both mounted and foot specials were also mobilised in Christchurch, Dunedin, and other ports, where they erected barricades and took control of the wharves, but there was little fighting in the streets.)

As more specials filled the cities, the balance of forces turned increasingly in favour of the employers and their government. The employers, sensing an opportunity to smash the militant unions once and for all, broke off negotiations to end the dispute on the Wellington waterfront, demanding nothing less than total capitulation: the registration of a new union of waterside workers under the Arbitration Act.

Part of crowd at mass meeting in the Basin Reserve on Sunday October 26. Photo: Auckland Weekly News 6 November 1913 p45 Ref: AWNS-19131106-45-1 George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries

Further mass rallies of the waterside workers and their supporters took place in Wellington in early November. The largest was a rally at the Basin Reserve and Newtown Park on 2 November addressed by George Farland of the Watersiders Union, Lou Glover for the Strike Committee, Pat Hickey for the UFL, Tom Young of the Seafarers, Harry Holland and others. This rally involved, by some estimates, 8,000 to 10,000 people, one-quarter of the population of the city.  Some of the most violent street fighting took place on 4 November, when mounted specials charged the crowds.

Special Constables guard scabs loading cargo on the ‘Athenic’ at Queens Wharf, Wellington. Photo: Sydney Charles Smith. Ref: 1/2-048780-G Alexander Turnbull Library

On November 6 the first attempt was made to load a ship using scab labour. A massive mobilisation of specials and police took control of the wharf and prevented the workers getting access, while a small number of scabs began load the Athenic, a large ocean-going vessel carrying passengers and freight to the UK. Since press reporters were being allowed through the cordon onto the wharf, Holland, still on crutches after his accident in July, attempted to get access as editor for the Maoriland Worker, but was turned back and abused and threatened by the scabs. The scabs, the press noted, were members of a new union of waterside workers that had been formed and registered under the Arbitration Act.

Strikers face off against Specials who have taken control of Queen Street wharf entrance, Auckland Photo: W Beattie. George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, Ref: 7-A10660

Attention then shifted to Auckland. On 8 November, 800 specials, armed with revolvers, batons and axe handles, invaded and took control of the Auckland waterfront, where they forced their way into the union office and tore down a placard reading ‘Workers of the World Unite! One Big Union!’ Fourteen unions struck in protest, including, along with the 900 waterside workers, tramway and Harbour Board workers, 200 seamen, 600 carpenters, 700 drivers, 200 coal miners at Hikurangi, 500 timber workers and 400 general labourers. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that 5,000 workers were on strike, and another 3,000 were idled by shortages of coal or other strike-related reasons. By this time 2,000 specials were camped in the Auckland Domain, many of them members of the Legion of Frontiersmen. The warship Pyramus trained its searchlight on Queen Street. Sailors from the ship drilled on the wharves with bayonets fixed.

Sailors from HMS Pyramus readying ship’s searchlight for use against strikers. Photo: Auckland Weekly News 20 November 1913 p54 Ref: AWNS-19131120-54-6 George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries

With the movement taking on the proportions of a general strike in Auckland, the UFL called out unions across the country for a one-day general strike on 10 November.

Ships idled by strike wait in Auckland harbour. Photo: Auckland Weekly News 13 November 1913 p47 Ref: AWNS-19131113-47-2 George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries

“In view of the gigantic conspiracy to smash organised labour, and the life-and-death struggle throughout New Zealand, in order to preserve unionism against armed blackleggism we call upon your union to make it common cause by refusing to work till armed scabs leave the city. Auckland Is solid. Will you follow? Labour’s defeat means labour’s annihilation,” the call read.

To be continued…

(Previous article in the series: The other exploited producers – origins of the class of small farmers in New Zealand.)

2 responses to “When the countryside marched on the town: Massey’s Cossacks in 1913

  1. Pingback: The other exploited producers – origins of the class of working farmers in New Zealand | A communist at large·

  2. Pingback: “Farmers’ sons with whom we have no quarrel” – workers reflect on the 1913 defeat | A communist at large·

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