“Farmers’ sons with whom we have no quarrel” – workers reflect on the 1913 defeat

Last of three articles on workers and farmers in 1913 in New Zealand

The day after the call for a general strike went out, five leaders of the fighting unions in Wellington were arrested, including UFL Organiser Robert Semple, UFL Vice-President Peter Fraser, George Bailey, chairman of the strike committee, Tom Young of the Seamen’s Union, and Harry Holland.  Semple, Bailey and Holland were charged with sedition, Fraser with incitement to violence. Auckland IWW organiser Tom Barker was arrested and charged with sedition the next day.  A meeting of strikers protesting the arrests filled the Opera House; a further 500 were turned away.

Leaflet for protest against arrests of strike leaders. Graphic: Ref: PUBL-0062-03 Alexander Turnbull Library

By 14 November the Sydney Morning Herald was reporting that the number of men working the ships on the Wellington wharves exceeded 400, including ‘men who worked on the wharf before the strike’, and that there had been little response to the UFL’s call for a general strike other than from drivers.

Semple addressing strikers at mass meeting in Auckland. Photo: Auckland Weekly News 6 November 1913 p47 Ref: AWNS-19131106-47-3 George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries

Only Auckland and the West Coast towns of Westport and Greymouth (where miners and waterside workers made up most of the workforce) remained shut tight. On 16 November 12,000 strikers and their supporters rallied in Victoria Park, Auckland. But by 18 November, 700 members of the scab union were working the wharves in Wellington. On that day, the Athenic left Wellington harbour fully laden with a shipment of dairy produce, cheered by a large crowd. The captain had been presented with a “an illuminated address, signed by Mr. Wilson, president of the New Zealand Farmers’ Union.”

Athenic departs Wellington. Photo: Auckland Weekly News 27 November 1913 p4 Ref: AWNS-19131127-44-4 George Grey Special Collections Auckland Libraries

With support waning, the Auckland strike committee called off the city-wide general strike on 23 November. The city had been at a standstill for nearly two weeks and, outside of the waterfront, largely under the control of the strike committee. The watersiders, seamen, labourers, and drivers remained on strike. With scab-loaded ships starting to arrive in Australia, and hence the possibility of support actions spreading to Australia, they were not yet ready to give up the fight. But even in Auckland the number of waterside workers joining the scab union and returning to work was growing.

Waterside workers, coal lumpers, miners and other workers in Sydney showed themselves more than willing to extend the hand of solidarity to their embattled counterparts in New Zealand. For over a week, they refused to load or unload ships from or bound for New Zealand, or to supply them with coal. But William Hughes, President of the Waterside Workers Federation and Labor MP, once again managed to grind down the spirit of solidarity and stymie the solidarity actions. This marked the end of the deep ties of trans-Tasman solidarity which had been an important element in every major battle in Australasia since the Maritime Strike of 1890.

By the end of November it was becoming clear that the workers had lost the struggle. Over the course of the next month, unions called off solidarity strikes, and militant workers bowed their heads and applied to join the scab unions in order to go back to work. Where they could, the workers tried to go back as a body, accepting the best terms they could get collectively. Many militant unionists were blacklisted, especially in the mines, including 16 at Millerton and 19 at Denniston. Pat Hickey estimated a total of about 1,000 workers were blacklisted; the Maoriland Worker suggested the number was more like 2,000. The heaviest blows of all fell on the miners at Huntly; a further 70 workers were blacklisted in that mine, in addition to the original 60. Officials of the scab union at the Huntly coal mine physically evicted the Miners’ Union representative from their offices in January 1914. Blacklisting was also especially widespread on the Auckland waterfront; many workers were forced to leave town to find work.

Scab union officials occupying Huntly Miners’ Union office and evicting officials of the genuine union. Photo: Auckland Weekly News 22 January 1914 p54 Ref: AWNS-19140122-54-2 George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries

The most broadly-supported and sustained act of labour solidarity by the working class of New Zealand in its entire short history had proved no match for the employers, backed by their state, using farmer-strikebreakers as their chief weapon. The political weakness of the working class movement had been laid bare in a most pitiless manner.

Not-so-defeated Wellington watersiders march back to work as a body, led by union band. Photo: Auckland Weekly News 01 January 1914 p39 Ref: AWNS-19140101-39-1 George Grey Special Collections Auckland Libraries

Defeat forced the unions back into the straitjacket of the Arbitration laws, but not even the triumphant Massey could turn the clock back to the days of the ‘land without strikes.’ Despite the extreme restrictions on union activity listed on the law books, the relationship of forces was such that workers retained their collective dignity, their right to organise, and an elementary class-consciousness. On the Wellington waterfront, some 1,400 of the 1,600 unionists who had gone on strike marched back to work as a body on the first day after the strike was called off, stopping along the way to listen to speeches and cheer the leaders of the defeated union. It was, as Truth commented, “a sight as unique in industrial history as it is prophetic of the future.” It was not long before militants began to assert themselves and to transform the scab unions into genuine unions once again – in some cases, this happened when the ‘union’ held its first meeting. The scab union that held out longest was on the Auckland waterfront, but in early 1916 even that union finally opened its doors to all workers and suspended its scab president. However, the days of class-struggle-led unions operating outside the Arbitration system, “relying on the strength of their combination, and with a full recognition of class solidarity,” were over for the time being.

There were attempts in the course of the strike to appeal to the small farmers.  Graphic: DP McNab pamphlets Dunedin Public Libraries REF: 331.89 WEL

More lasting and, in the long term, more disastrous than the defeat on the picket line, was the political defeat of the working class movement by the mobilisation of small farmers, and the political divide between toilers of town and country that it established. That divide remains firmly in place a century later, a cornerstone of class collaboration in both town and country.

Confronted with the mounted specials, the first response of the union workers was to heap vilification and abuse upon the “clodhopper constables” as on any strikebreakers. But using such expressions of prejudice against the toilers of the countryside only compounded the problem. Even as the union-busting farmers were loading the ships, other farmers were contributing meat to the strikers’ food depot. The Maoriland Worker did attempt to split the farmers politically along class lines, appealing to the rural wage-workers and small farmers to reject the alliance with the capitalist farmers and other exploiters. A series of articles, unsigned but almost certainly from Holland’s pen, took this approach.

Most of Special Constables were small farmers. Te Kuiti special constables arrive in Otahuhu. Auckland Weekly News 13 November 1913 p44 Ref: AWNS-19131113-44-2 George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries

An article in the November 5 issue directly appealed to farmers: Don’t be a Scab. It looked at the origin of the word ‘scab’ for a strikebreaker in the ‘scab’ disease among sheep, where the farmer has to separate the infected sheep to avoid infecting the whole flock. “The squatters [capitalist farmers] are filling the city of Wellington with misled mounted men from the sweated, cheated, and impoverished workers on the monopolised country land. These men are expected to make war against the only movement which promises in any way to win a man’s chance in life, even for these countrymen now on horseback. These mounted men are expected to “scab” on the waterfront and to ride down all protest, in this effort to do among the watersiders what the watersiders would be doing should they undertake to spread the “scab” among the squatters’ sheep. Only this act of the squatters is as much worse than that, as men are of more concern than sheep.

“The watersiders are better paid than the farm laborers, solely because of their union. The watersiders are helping in the effort to build a union for the farm laborers in order that those very labourers may have a better chance. But these men from the farms on horseback are trying to destroy the Watersiders’ Union, to lose what chance they have for bettering their own condition, and at the same time make the organisation of country labor, absolutely impossible. What has the country labourer to say to a “square deal” like that? Don’t be fooled. Don’t be a “scab.”

A further article entitled The Farmers’ Suicide explains how the Union Steam Ship Company exploits both workers and small farmers.

“We at least shall never forget that it is the members of the Farmers’ Union who have opposed the organisation of the Agricultural and Pastoral workers, and in the case of our fellows in Canterbury have succeeded in preventing them from even obtaining an award under the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, which they profess to love so much when unions like the miners and waterside workers are able to look after themselves without its doubtful benefits. The talk of the farmers about arbitration is so much hypocrisy.

Union Steamship Company monopolised maritime transport, at the expense of both workers and farmers. USSCo poster from 1913.

“However, quite apart from these facts the attitude of the Farmers is absurd. The Waterside Workers are fighting the shipping combine. Surely the farmers who care to reflect have to admit the truth of our contention, that the Union Shipping Company has fought the farming interests more than the United Federation of Labor and the Social Democratic Party combined. The Union Shipping Company has raised both freights and fares. It has succeeded in various ways in running out all competition, with but one exception… The farmer is interested in the transportation of his products, but the Union Shipping Company, which the Watersiders are chiefly fighting, is the one concern above all others that has raised the cost of transportation…

“The shipping combine is a vampire that is oppressing Labor, bleeding the farmer, and robbing Now Zealand, and the waterside workers and the United Federation of Labor should be supported in their attempt to break its tyrannical power. The Social Democratic Party, the political expression of the United Federation of Labor, is the only party that is capable of ending this difficulty. We stand for the establishment of a State-owned ferry service and mercantile marine.”

Unfortunately, it was too little, too late to affect the outcome of events in 1913. For the most part, the unions defaulted on this question. The key failure in this respect was from the Shearers Union, which organised a central and skilled set of rural workers and had affiliated to the Red Federation early in 1911. Shearers Unions had led some of the hardest-fought struggles in Australia in previous years, and these experiences were undoubtedly brought to New Zealand by the highly mobile itinerant workforce. With many small farmers and farmers’ sons in their ranks, as well as Māori workers (some of whom had also volunteered as strikebreakers) this union could have become a bridge to the small farmers and rural workers generally. In the event, the opposite happened: the Shearers’ Union Executive stood aside from the struggle, citing the pressure from farmers in their ranks as their reason. Three organisers resigned in protest, publishing their reasons in a letter to the union members published in the Maoriland Worker.

“… our Executive’s action practically amounts to a command that the Shearers must scab on the organised Labor movement of this Dominion. AND WE DARE NOT DO IT. In Australia we have built up a reputation for clean unionism—the Australian Shearers have never yet been guilty of organised scabbery—and neither they nor the Shearers Of New Zealand desire to carry the stigma now… On the wharves at Wellington and Auckland there are heavily-armed sheep-owners, landowners, squatters and farmers, from the Wairarapa and Masterton and Gisborne and Hawkes Bay and many other centres, doing scab duty as special constables…  And our members are instructed that they must remain in the sheds to shear the wool from the backs of the sheep belonging to these scab specials – wool that will be duly loaded (as some of it has already been loaded) by scabs who are sworn in as special constables – cargo that no unionist will touch when it gets to other ports. LET US KEEP OUR HANDS CLEAN. We surely cannot afford to so scab on our brothers… Let us remember that the very fact of our cessation of work would make the men at present scabbing on the waterfront feel that they were needed at home.”

The defeat inflicted on the picket line, compounded by the economic effects of the Great War in rural regions, precluded any further progress along these lines for some time to come. Holland would return to the question of the farmers only towards the end of the War.

Holland and the other jailed leaders, meanwhile, turned to the task of preparing their legal defence. Bail was refused: putting the class-struggle leadership out of action immediately and for a long period of time was a means of keeping the working class from rising again. Holland’s wife Annie and son Allan assisted in the defence work from outside jail, finding documents and newspaper reports and bringing them to him in prison, and sending regular reports on the strike to the international socialist press.1

In all the cases, the basis of the charges of ‘seditious utterance’ and ‘incitement to violence’ was that the accused unionists had urged workers to assert their right of self-defence if they were assaulted by cops or specials. In Holland’s case, the fact that he described the Governor-General, Lord Liverpool, as “the gilded popinjay, the figure-head of capitalism in New Zealand” was also cited. The charges against Holland related to speeches he gave at workers rallies on 26 October and 2 November. It was charged that in a speech on 2 November, he addressed the sailors of the warship Psyche, telling them that “if they should be ordered to fire on any body of men, women and children of the working class, they should remember where their class interests lay, and point their guns accordingly.”

Before a courtroom packed with his supporters, Holland pointed out that the basis of the charges against him was not notes made by police at the time of the speeches, but highly inaccurate summaries of his speeches given in reports by newspapers that were “unscrupulously unfair to the workers from beginning to end of the strike. Nothing was too base for these papers to utter, no act of misrepresentation too glaring for them to commit.”  He presented the court with an alternative accounts of the relevant speeches given in the Maoriland Worker2 He argued that since he had already been acquitted of charges relating to the speech of October 26 by a Magistrate, to be charged again in the Supreme Court over the same speech amounted to double jeopardy.

In response to the accusation that he had instructed the sailors to defy their orders, he said “I find myself imperilled by the law on the one hand, because I am alleged to have advised someone to use violence against someone else; and again imperilled by the law because I advised someone NOT to use violence – not to kill men, women, and children… 3

“I am not physically in a condition to endure the hardships of a prison, but I would tell Your Honour in all earnestness – even if it meant spending the remainder of my life in a jail – that on every occasion that working men who happen to be soldiers are required to shoot down other working men in dispute with their exploiters, the blood of manhood that throbs in these veins of mine, my own knowledge of what is fundamentally right and wrong, and my own sense of duty to my fellow men would not permit me to do other than to urge the soldiers not to shoot.”4

None of these arguments prevented the jury from finding Holland guilty, nor the Chief Justice (and former Premier) Robert Stout from sentencing him to twelve months in jail for sedition. In delivering the sentence, Stout said, “Anyone knows what happened during the strike: some men, waterside workers or others, chose to assault others, and these men were not hitting them or obstructing them in any way… Violence and disorder have come in every case not from the rich classes, but from the working classes.” The others accused received similar sentences.

Despite his frail health, Holland did not dread this term of imprisonment as much as his earlier ones in Australia, and he told his wife not to worry, because “whatever happens, I shall have a chance to rest my knee.” The prison was in Wellington, at the centre of the strike movement, and there were frequent demonstrations of supporters outside. (Eventually the prisoners asked that these be called off for fear of violence against the protestors, since the prison guards had been issued with live ammunition). And he was not alone in jail: together with the other imprisoned leaders he could begin the process of reflecting on the tumultuous events of the past two years.

That process of reflection and evaluation had begun even before the sentences were handed down. A preliminary balance sheet entitled Long Live the UFL appeared in the Maoriland Worker in January.

“The members of the United Federation of Labour, an organisation but six months’ old, have passed through their first great fight. The odds against us were too great, the knowledge of the requisite tactics too little understood, the method of organisation too incomplete to meet the forces of the employers, the farmer scabs, and the armed and legal power of the State. The U.F.L. unions have been compelled, almost without exception, to register under the “Arbitration” Act…

“These are times that try men’s souls, and knowing the worth of those thousands of workers who made common cause with the men on strike, we urge them to link up with an organisation that, in spite of its youth and immaturity, was able to give the capitalists of New Zealand the biggest fight they have ever yet had to face…

“The class struggle in the Dominion is only at its early stages… Whilst still mainly an agricultural country reactionary ideas may prevail, but even the agricultural worker learns to revolt…

“The advanced form of capitalism with its combinations is already here; ere long New Zealand will have its proletarian class precisely the same as in the older countries… Unionism, industrial unionism, industrial unionism of a militant type, will become an essential necessity for maintaining the semblance of a decent standard of existence…  Important and necessary as the political movement is, it must never become a lop-sided growth; the industrial organisation must not be neglected for parliamentary success… A political victory gained at the House of Representatives, which found our industrial organisations incapable of assuming those essential functions which they would be called upon to fulfill, would be the sure presage of disaster.”

Despite this prescient warning, that is just what unfolded over the subsequent years. Since 1905 the working class movement had been advancing throughout Australasia, this forward motion compensating to a large degree for errors and missteps by the class-struggle leadership, and limiting the resulting setbacks. Now, in New Zealand at least, that movement had been thrown into reverse, the class relationship of forces had become more unforgiving, and the price to be paid for errors, false hopes and poor judgments, correspondingly higher. It was in this weakened, chastened state, with Holland and most of the other class-struggle leaders behind bars, that the movement would face its greatest test yet: imperialist war.

  1. Holland’s letter to his son Allan from jail, November 1913. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.
  2. Holland, H.E. Twelve months for sedition. Harry Holland’s speech from the dock and the Chief Justice’s remarks in delivering sentence. Pamphlet, The Worker Printery, Wellington, 1914, page 8.
  3. Ibid, pp10-11.
  4. Ibid, p9.

Links to previous articles in this series:
1. The other exploited producers – origins of the class of working farmers in New Zealand
2. When the countryside marched on the town: Massey’s Cossacks in 1913


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