The 1913 Great Strike – class war 100 years ago

Mounted strike-breakers, mainly volunteers from country areas, line up across Auckland’s Queen Street during the 1913 waterfront strike. Behind them hundreds of strikers, shouting and throwing stones, try to prevent ships being loaded on the wharves. (Click for image credit)

Mounted strike-breakers, mainly volunteers from country areas, line up across Auckland’s Queen Street during the 1913 waterfront strike. Behind them hundreds of strikers, shouting and throwing stones, try to prevent ships being loaded on the wharves. (Click for image credit)

The last few days have seen the centenaries of a series of industrial disputes that sparked off one of the largest and most violent strikes in New Zealand’s history: the 1913 Great Strike.

The ‘great strike’ was in fact a series of strikes throughout New Zealand, occurring from mid-October 1913 to mid-January 1914. The Great Strike saw riots, gunfire and cavalry charges in the streets of Wellington, a general strike in Auckland that paralysed the city for a fortnight, and strikers controlling the coal mining areas of the West Coast for over a month. Around 14,000 workers went on strike at a time when New Zealand had a population of just over a million.

Wellington was the scene of the most violent events of the strike. The government organised large numbers of mounted special constables, recruited from farmers and other rural volunteers. They came into town to ‘restore order’, and were joined by ‘foot specials’: middle class volunteers from Wellington. A series of street battles took place with mounted specials with batons charging the strikers. Major clashes took place at Post Office Square, Featherston Street and Mount Cook. The city was divided between pro- and anti-strike forces, buildings were besieged and revolver shots were fired. Servicemen with fixed bayonets backed by machine guns were deployed at Buckle Street and on the wharves, but fortunately these weapons were not used. Many people were injured in the conflict but, somewhat miraculously, no one was killed.

A large group of Massey's Cossacks ride down Hanson Street, Wellington (click for image credit)

A large group of Massey's Cossacks ride down Hanson Street, Wellington (click for image credit)

The strike wave of October 1913 began with two relatively minor disputes. The miners’ union at Huntly went on strike on 19 October in protest at the dismissal of 16 men, all union activists. In Wellington, on 18 October, the small Shipwrights’ Union struck over travelling time, pay and conditions. This escalated into a major strike on 22 October, when a dispute arose between employers and the powerful Wellington Waterside Workers’ Union over a stopwork meeting held to discuss the Shipwrights’ Strike. Watersiders and miners around the country went on strike to support their fellow unionists. They were later joined by seamen, drivers and builders’ labourers. There was even a strike in Lyttelton by the local newsboys.

The great strike affected most port towns and coal mining settlements. Generally the ‘moderate’ unions refused to join the strike. In Auckland, however, there was a general strike from the 8–22 November, involving over 6,000 workers from moderate and militant unions.

The key issue of the Great Strike was in fact a power struggle, with militant unionists against organised employers and farmers, backed by the government. Most of the striking unions were affiliated to the United Federation of Labour (UFL), also known as the ‘Red Feds’, a union of militant and moderate unions (the UFL inherited the ‘Red Feds’ name from the militant unions that had been part of the Federation of Labour). They had withdrawn from the country’s industrial arbitration system in favour of direct negotiations with employers, reserving the right to strike. The Red Feds believed in establishing strong industrial unions able to control particular industries, with the ultimate goal of overthrowing capitalism and establishing a socialist society.

Crowds gather outside the gates to the Wellington wharves during the 1913 strike (click for image credit)

Crowds gather outside the gates to the Wellington wharves during the 1913 strike (click for image credit)

The strikers were opposed by the New Zealand Employers’ Federation and the Farmers’ Union, who saw the Red Feds as a serious threat to their economic power. Farmers and rural labourers formed the core of the mounted special constables, known derisively as ‘Massey’s Cossacks’. Rural people generally saw the strike as a threat to their livelihoods and viewed the socialist ideas of the strikers as an insult to their patriotic values. The specials were sent into the main urban centres to open up the wharves. Prime Minister William Massey’s Reform Party government gave full state backing to defeating the striking unions.

The strike was finally defeated in December 1913, although striking miners did not return to work until January 1914. Strikers were generally forced to join pro-employer ‘arbitration unions’. The employers’ victory was not complete, as the militant workers eventually regained control of many unions, while employers failed in their goal of destroying the UFL.

The strike also turned many ‘militants’ towards political solutions, rather than relying largely on industrial action to change society. They went on to found the Labour Party in 1916. The dramatic events of 1913 were soon swallowed up in the public memory by the cataclysm of the Great War of 1914–18 (the First World War), which broke out less than a year after the Great Strike.

A range of activities and projects have been organised to commemorate the 1913 Great Strike:

So, whether from the comfort of your own home or out on the streets, you now have an opportunity to relive the heady days of 1913.

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