Solidarity Library

Sunday, August 27, 2006


Class collisions in NZ: 1913, 1951, 1991

It takes two wings to fly


Three great struggles, three great defeats – each one more serious than the last. The vivid legacies of 1913, 1951 and 1991 continue to sweep across New Zealand’s historical landscape like the intersecting beams of three vast searchlights. In their glare we find illuminated not only the balance of class forces prevailing at the time, but also the level of political sophistication attained by the working class movement as a whole.

Naturally, there are a multitude of lessons to be drawn from each one of these mass industrial conflicts, but the most important lesson is stark and simple. For working class people to advance their interests across a broad front they must first acquire the habits and instincts of independent political – as well as industrial – action.

The General Strike of 1913 was the culmination of seven years of escalating working class militancy – beginning in the coal fields of the West Coast and gradually spreading into the working class suburbs of the main cities, Auckland and Wellington in particular. By 1912 the movement had acquired institutional form in the New Zealand Federation of Labor – quickly dubbed the “Red Feds” by the newly-launched newspapers of an increasingly apprehensive employing class.

Through their own lively newspaper The Maoriland Worker, edited by radical journalist Bob Ross, the Red Feds encouraged “the workers of hand and brain” to view themselves as the only truly necessary class in modern industrial society. The employers and their hangers-on were branded parasites, an oppressor class destined to be swept away through the revolutionary collectivism of organised labour.

It was a youthful, optimistic, energetic and surprisingly naive industrial movement, which scorned the earnest theorising of Germanic social democracy in favour of the “direct action” of American “Wobblies” and Latin America’s anarcho-syndicalists. New Zealand’s cumbersome system of industrial conciliation and arbitration was derided as “labour’s leg-irons”.

According to the Red Feds, unions registered under the Liberal government’s internationally acclaimed IC&A Act of 1894 were little better than agents of the state – the employers’ state. The militants saw themselves as a unique, Antipodean expression of the revolutionary zeitgeist of the new 20th century. In this respect the Red Feds represented the first assertion of New Zealand’s identity as a Pacific culture, rather than an Atlantic one. The contrast with the loyal, Anglophile attitudes of the traditional craft unions could hardly have been more stark.

And this, in a sense, was the Red Feds’ Archilles Heel. In a colonial society that was still overwhelmingly rural and imbued with a deep and genuine attachment to Imperial Britain – the “Mother Country” – the Red Feds were regarded as a frightening and alien minority. Outside the big cities and mining towns, their constituency was almost non-existent.

The inescapable political reality, however, was that without the support of an overwhelming majority of the population, the anarcho-syndicalist revolutionary formula could not work. In 1913, the process of winning that majority had only just begun. What’s more, with the new and employer-friendly government of Bill Massey in power in Wellington, rural and urban conservatives were equally determined to bring the Red Feds’ agitation to an end.

With this in mind, the Red Feds were provoked into action by a combination of mining, agricultural and shipping interests, and the long-prepared plans of the deeply reactionary New Zealand Farmers Union were set in motion. Massey militarised his rural base by swearing in farmers as “special constables”. Descending upon Auckland and Wellington in their hundreds, “Massey’s Cossacks” broke up the Red Feds’ picket lines by brute force. Augmented by the permanent police force and secretly-seconded officers from the regular army, the Special Constabulary swiftly broke the back of Red Fed resistance.

Had the syndicalist forces in Wellington acted with more decisiveness and dispatch, it’s possible they could have sealed off the capital and established a revolutionary government. For a few crucial hours, as historian James Belich notes, parliament lay open and undefended before the strikers. But even had the Red Feds possessed the will to seize political power (which they did not), they couldn’t have held on to it. Like the Paris Commune of 1871, a Wellington Commune in 1913 would swiftly have succumbed to the vengeance of a decidedly counter-revolutionary countryside.

The Maoriland Worker itself pronounced the political epitaph of the 1913 General Strike: “The odds against us were too great, 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.”

Labour Party’s compulsory unionists

Less than a year after the crushing of the General Strike, the age of revolutionary innocence was brought to an end by the onset of the First World War. That conflict would, in its turn, give birth to the world’s first socialist state – a geopolitical fact which focused the minds of revolutionaries everywhere.

Back in New Zealand, the leadership cadre of the Red Feds – Harry Holland, Mickey Savage, Peter Fraser, Bob Semple – were not slow to absorb the lessons of the pre-war period. Industrial muscle alone, they realised, wasn’t enough to win and hold state power. Political muscle, strong enough to forge a substantial majority for change, was also required. In 1916, united by their opposition to wartime conscription, the reformist and revolutionary wings of the labour movement finally came together to form the New Zealand Labour Party.

The years following the First World War were a period of severe economic stress for most working class New Zealanders – especially after 1929, when the whole capitalist world was hit by the Great Depression. Though the IC&A Act remained in force, the union movement was steadily undermined by a combination of government-employer hostility and rapidly rising levels of unemployment. Militancy became a hazy memory, something out of the good old days before the war.

More and more, working people turned towards their parliamentary representatives for salvation. Rather than being a political movement inspired and informed by the experiences of workers in daily struggle against the capitalist economic system, the Labour Party became a vehicle for the hopes and dreams of workers crushed by its collapse. In this grim context, the violent overthrow of the ruling class became a pipe-dream. For most working families, a job and a home would be revolution enough.

As it turned out, the First Labour Government gave them all of that and more. 23 years after the defeat of the General Strike, Savage and Fraser were finally able to build the industrial and political army they had lacked by making union membership compulsory. Now, surely, organised labour had the resources to make itself invincible?

But union membership by compulsion produced a very different working class movement to the one based upon union membership by conviction. Inevitably, the masses of conscripted members – especially those working in industries that had been largely unorganised prior to 1936 – became passive adjuncts of unscrupulous union bosses and their Labour Party patrons. As a result, the Federation of Labour – reborn in 1937 – became a bastion, not of syndicalist fervour, but arbitrationist conservatism.

Once again world war intervened, but this time New Zealand was in the hands of a workers’ government. Under Peter Fraser, the full potential of the political and industrial fusion dreamed of by the Wobblies was realised, although it’s doubtful whether the young firebrands of 1913 would have been encouraged by the results. Lacking revolutionary objectives, and denied the democratising influence of an active rank-and-file, most New Zealand unions swiftly adapted themselves to Fraser’s regulated wartime economy.

Most, but not all. On the wharves, in the mines and at the state-owned railway workshops, union militancy resurfaced. With the end of the Second World War, radicalised rank-and-file workers began to dream of resuming organised labour’s forward march. In 1945, the militants forced the nationalisation of the Bank of New Zealand, and by the late 1940s Fraser and his lieutenants were under pressure to rein in the unions. Not only were their wage demands eating into the employers’ regulated profits, but with the world entering the “Cold War” between Western capitalism and its erstwhile wartime ally, the Soviet Union, left-wing union militancy was a luxury Labour couldn’t afford.

No better second time round

History began to repeat itself. In 1949, the Labour government was defeated and the employer-friendly National Party took office. Then the union movement split, with the militants walking out of the 1950 Federation of Labour conference to form the Trade Union Congress.

The TUC contained within its ranks the cream of the New Zealand union movement. The watersiders, in particular, had built a radically democratic union sub-culture and felt confident enough to risk a confrontation with the state itself. Anxious to strangle this infant TUC Hercules in its cradle, the shipping companies, backed by the National Party, provoked a confrontation with the watersiders. Within days 20,000 workers belonging to the TUC were either locked out or striking in solidarity.

Once again the historical precedents held. Like Massey before him, National prime minister Sid Holland militarised the conflict by calling on the armed forces to break the union resistance. Invoking the spectre of “communist union wreckers”, he promulgated emergency regulations which effectively suspended New Zealand’s democratic institutions for the duration of the conflict.

Guarding his back as he mugged Lady Liberty was the Federation of Labour. With its passive mass of conscripted members denied all knowledge of the unfolding conflict by Holland’s ruthless censorship of the news media, and the FoL’s conservative leadership hell-bent on crushing their radical TUC rivals, the potential of organised labour to resist the employers’ onslaught was never realised.

The Labour Party, too, could have mobilised its not inconsiderable membership in solidarity with the TUC, but years of red-baiting and an unwillingness to rejuvenate its ranks had left it morally, politically and physically enfeebled. The best its leader, the aging Walter Nash, could offer was that he was “neither for nor against” the watersiders.

It was 1913 all over again: a small but militant minority pitted against a largely unsympathetic majority. Admittedly, the state’s repression of the TUC in 1951 was much fiercer, and went on for much longer, than its campaign against the Red Feds in 1913, but the outcome was the same. In a snap general election held to vindicate Holland’s decision to crush the watersiders, the National Party was returned with 51% of the votes cast.

Union moderates strike Devil’s Bargain

The 1951 Waterfront Lockout marks one of the most important turning points in New Zealand history. Much more than militant unionism was crushed in that great struggle. Defeated alongside the watersiders were the distilled energies and visions of a generation of young New Zealanders who had come through the years of depression and war with their ideals intact. Men and women who had seen and done some terrible things in the course of the global struggle against fascism were determined that the sacrifice of so many millions shouldn’t be in vain. They wanted to build a better world.

Like the Red Feds of 1913, they seemed to glimpse the outlines of an alternative future for New Zealand. It was a future in which New Zealanders would no longer be beholden to one or other of the great Anglo-Saxon powers, but would feel free to strike out in new directions. New Zealand would be a “pacific” nation in both senses of the word. First, as a people dedicated to assisting the peaceful resolution of international tension and conflict. Second, as a nation located geographically, diplomatically and emotionally in the South Pacific. It was time to stop thinking of ourselves as an offshore island of Great Britain.

Most historians lay the blame for the events of 1951 squarely at the door of Sid Holland’s National government. This is unfair. Holland could not have succeeded in breaking the militant unions without the active collaboration of the Federation of Labour. The so-called “moderate” unions, had they chosen to stand alongside their brothers and sisters in the breakaway Trade Union Congress, would have swiftly brought the Holland government to terms. The big question, which still echoes down the years, is: Why did the FoL stand back and let Holland smash the militant unions?

The answer is simple: they wanted to survive. National had pledged itself to abolishing compulsory unionism, and the “moderate” union leaders – many of whose members were little more than passive conscripts – feared that the demise of compulsory unionism would be followed in relatively short order by their own. And so they entered into a Devil’s Bargain with Sid Holland and his employer allies. We will allow you to destroy the radicals and the visionaries of today, and – even more importantly – we will help you to suppress the radicals and visionaries of tomorrow. In return, you will guarantee our right to continue operating as responsible “bread and butter” unions.

Such was the Faustian pact that condemned New Zealand to economic and cultural vassalage for the next twenty years. Barely two years after the lifting of the emergency regulations, Holland’s government was sponsoring that protracted orgy of “patriotism” known as the 1953 Royal Tour. “Mother England’s” apron strings had become an embarrassing (at least for the British!) fetish. Nothing was “good” unless it came from “Home”. Every morning, from Northland to the Bluff, tens of thousands of shivering children lined up in front of their schools’ flagstaffs to sing “God Save the Queen”.

And the unions? Those supposed schools of socialism simply stagnated into dingy dens of dubious deal-makers. A raft of post-1951 legislation forbade them from expending union funds on anything other than negotiating agreements. The once-vibrant union press was reduced to printing pallid newsletters. Red-baiting became the surest route to the top. For many years, the Wellington Engineers quizzed every prospective union office-holder with Joe McCarthy’s infamous: “Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?” It was illegal to so much as whisper the word “scab”. Inevitably, anti-communist organisations like Young Catholic Workers moved in to occupy the ideological vacuum. By the mid-1960s, the union movement had become a bastion of social conservatism.

The Devil collects his due

It was the “Nil Wage Order” of 1968 that finally broke the spell of 1951. The inflationary pressures building up under the New Zealand economy drove the rank-and-file to demand that their wages at least kept pace with the cost of living.

It was the workers in key strategic industries – freezing workers, drivers, electricians – who led the way, but by the early 1970s a strike wave of unprecedented size was sweeping the country.

The employers demanded action, but the National Party – now led by Rob Muldoon – needed the votes of socially conservative, blue collar union members to stay in office. His alternative to smashing the unions – a series of wage and price freezes – only made things worse. In 1979, the FoL felt confident enough to call the first general strike since 1913. By the early 1980s, Muldoon had run out of options. In 1983, he finally relented and allowed his minister of labour, Jim Bolger, to abolish compulsory unionism.

The Devil had come to collect his due. Thirty years of political inertia and “bread and butter” economism had left the unions utterly unprepared to deal with the loss of their conscripted membership. Desperate, they turned to the one organisation still willing to help – the Labour Party.

But the Devil had beaten them to it. All those years of driving radicals and visionaries out of the union movement meant that a new generation of young New Zealanders had signed up to the Labour Party without passing through the working class first. Kept away from union members, radicalism had found a new and receptive audience among middle class university students. It was a very different sort of “Left” that was driving the Labour Party in the 1980s – so different, in fact, that by 1987 it could hardly be called “Left” at all.

Frantically, the unions affiliated to Labour scrabbled around to find a few good men and women to woo the Lange-led Labour government back from the brink. But not even the saintly Sonja Davies could dissuade these Thatcherites in Labour clothing from committing political suicide – and dragging the whole union movement into the abyss with them.

The victims of the fourth Labour government were the workers forced to accept sub-inflation wage deals and/or surrender hard-won conditions, and the tens of thousands made redundant or unable to find work. They turned to their unions for a way out of the slow-motion social disaster in which they were trapped.

A successful General Strike that never was

With National regaining power in late 1990, it was clear that the union movement would either have to fight – or die. What a traumatised working class hadn’t counted on was the shift in the balance of class forces that had taken place within the union movement itself.

The newly-formed Council of Trade Unions, unlike the old FoL, admitted civil servants and other state employees as well as private sector workers. Better educated and earning higher incomes than most of their working class comrades, these administrators, teachers and nurses were torn between their public duties and their class obligation to stand in solidarity with all those working class families about to be abandoned to the tender mercies of private sector employers.

From the very summit of the union movement the rank-and-file received not the slightest inspiration. Though they turned out in their many tens of thousands to protest against the National’s Employment Contracts Bill, the leadership of the CTU steadfastly refused to move the struggle to the next level. Though mass meeting after mass meeting of workers called for a General Strike, the CTU leadership temporised and equivocated. Though the unemployed and beneficiaries were ready to make common cause with the unions, and though the campuses were ripe for action, the state sector workers and the “moderate” unions voted against a CTU co-ordinated campaign of mass industrial action.

Even at this late stage, a bold political party might have been able to rescue the situation. But Labour was riven with factional strife, and the NewLabour Party, which had split away from Labour in 1989, was unwilling to try. Only the tiny Communist Party was committed to making the General Strike happen, and they were muscled off the political stage by the ideologically confused, Moscow-aligned Socialist Unity Party. One observer quipped at the time: “The SUP would rather keep control of the losing side than lose control of the winning side.”

The true tragedy embedded in the events of 1991 is that a General Strike launched in that year could have succeeded. In marked contrast to the socially and politically isolated struggles of 1913 and 1951, the struggle against the Employment Contracts Bill was supported by practically the whole of the working class and much of the middle class. As the success of the campaign to change the electoral system was later to demonstrate, there was a massive constituency for radical political change in early 1990s New Zealand.

Six years of neo-liberal economic blitzkreig had readied the New Zealand working class to fight for their rights in 1991, but 40 years of political inactivity had sapped them of both the knowledge and the confidence to struggle independently. Instead, they waited for their “leaders” in the CTU and the Labour Party to issue a call to arms that never came.

The central lesson common to the conflicts of 1913, 1951 and 1991 is very clear. Working people can never afford to lose control of either the industrial wing or the political wing of the labour movement. A better world will be theirs only when they allow themselves, and encourage their children, to become the radical, visionary and, above all, democratic masters of both. It takes two wings to fly.

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