Solidarity Library

Sunday, August 27, 2006


Red Feds and the Birth of the NZ Labour Party

‘Something of an anti-climax’


I have a good friend, Jim Edwards, who will be 88 this year. He’s the son of Jim Edwards senior, legendary leader and orator of the Unemployed Workers Movement of the 1930s – the hungry thirties.

Jim can vividly remember, as a 17-year-old, standing with a huge crowd outside the Auckland Star newspaper office in Shortland Street one night in November 1935. On giant billboards outside the Star building, results were going up of that day’s voting in the general election.

I said to Jim that I’d read a claim that as each National member lost his (they were all men) seat in the landslide towards New Zealand’s first Labour government, a cheer would go up and the cry, “Off with his head!”

Jim remembered it differently. He said he remembered nothing but a stunned silence.

“It was as if no one could believe what they were seeing. The revolution was happening. Before our eyes. The workers were taking over. It was happening. Finally.”

And at first it would have seemed that way, of a sort. The unemployed were given an immediate Christmas bonus. Wage cuts were restored. A minimum wage was introduced. Union membership was made compulsory. State housing and national health schemes were commenced.

A 40-hour working week without loss of wages was recommended for all industries. When Auckland freezing companies declined to adopt it, workers went on strike and the new minister of labour (a former miner and itinerant flax cutter) came up and told the freezing companies there was to be no argument, the new working week was to be accepted.

By 1939 that same minister of labour was complaining about the “headaches” which industrial hold-ups and go-slows were causing him. He got legislation rushed through parliament giving him the power to deregister a union and replace it with a government-approved one.

By 1945 a Labour cabinet minister was saying he couldn’t understand why people were demanding more social reforms since “everything has been done”.

And seventy years after that 1935 election Jim Edwards was saying to me, with anger and frustration, that it was an outrage that under a Labour government there could be groups like the Child Poverty Action Committee desperately pleading for attention.

The Labour Party came into existence 90 years ago, in July 1916. Its biographer Bruce Brown (in The Rise of New Zealand Labour) describes its birth as being “without the notice one would expect from such an occasion”. It was “formed quietly”, “a small gathering”, “a private almost ‘backroom’ meeting”.

In fact, Labour was born from defeat and retreat.

Revolution in the air

A hundred years ago, all around the world, revolution was in the air.

In New Zealand, a country hailed as the world’s social laboratory, the birthplace of the twentieth century, “a country without strikes”, a labour-supported Liberal government had introduced radical protection for the union movement – provided all industrial disputes were resolved by legal process in an Arbitration Court.

But a century ago the unthinkable began happening: strikes were breaking out.

Leading radicals of the British labour movement had been visiting New Zealand and saying that, while it might be a social laboratory, it certainly wasn’t a socialist one. But this time it was more from North America that the revolutionary push was coming.

The Industrial Workers of the World, the IWW, had reared up out of America’s wild west and taken the Pacific as its patch – Vancouver, San Francisco, Sydney, Auckland. As one of the IWW’s New Zealand supporters commented, its members passed “from land to land and from continent to continent with as little care as some men cross the street”.

In its crusading zeal to organise casualised labour and the lowest paid, in its flamboyancy and militancy, the IWW was similar to today’s Unite Workers Union.

Its methods and aims were “syndicalist” – from the French syndicat, meaning union. The dictionary gives us a very precise definition of syndicalism: “A movement among industrial workers having as its object the transfer of the means of production and distribution from their present owners to unions of workers for the benefit of the workers, the method generally favoured for the accomplishment of this being the general strike.”

The IWW argued for one big union, one big strike, and the world’s ripe wealth would fall into the hands of those who created it.

When in New Zealand the Miners Federation decided to be the core of a national militant movement of miners, seamen, watersiders and freezing workers and re-named itself the Federation of Labour, it adopted in its constitution the revolutionary declaration of the IWW: “Between [the working class and the employing class] a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organise as a class, take possession of the earth and the machinery of production, and abolish the wage system.”

Resolving industrial struggles in the Arbitration Court was letting the ruling class have the final say. Take direct action. And to hell with agreements.

By 1912, New Zealand had become the most unionised country in the world. One in five union members belonged to the “Red Feds”, as the Federation of Labour had become known.

The others, the majority, were grouped in the Trades & Labour Council, a myriad of smaller unions, protective of workers in specific crafts (printers, carpenters, coach builders, etc), expounding the dignity of labour and a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay, all disputes to be justly arbitrated.

Competing political wings

Each of these two groupings, Trades & Labour Council and Federation of Labour, had a political wing.

Though some members of the Trades & Labour Council continued to believe the interests of workers were best served within the Liberal Party, the council had its own embryonic Labour Party, aimed at gaining independent parliamentary representation for council unions.

The Federation of Labour was supported by a revolutionary Socialist Party seeking the nationalisation of banking, business and land. Among the Red Feds, imbued with syndicalism, the Socialist Party was secondary in importance to the industrial struggle and there were arguments whether it should even stand for parliamentary office.

These were the elements of the early New Zealand labour movement, militant and moderate, industrial and political.

Over a violent two-year period, 1912-13, all these elements would be tested in an industrial war.

In May 1912 the Waihi Mining Company, overseas owned, filthy rich, provocatively managed, hatched out a yellow company union to isolate and defeat the militant, Red Fed Waihi Miners Union.

The Miners Union went on strike and hunkered down.

The Federation of Labour, which had doubled its membership the previous year, was cautious about chancing its growing strength. It drew back from outright battle and decided to support the strikers by raising funds – “fighting the capitalists with money”, as one disgruntled FOL member put it.

The strike in Waihi lasted six months, the last two of escalating violence. Scabs were brought in to work the mines. Miners’ wives wielding hat pins tore into the scabs. Police reinforcements took over the town. Strikers were seized and brought up by steamer to Mt Eden jail.

The climax came with the storming of the union hall by police and scabs, the shooting of a policeman and the murder of one of the strikers.

It was a serious defeat. The federation’s response was to begin courting the more conservative elements of the labour movement, the Trades & Labour Council, and the council’s political wing, the United Labour Party.

In this, at least, the federation was successful. The moderate unions, shocked at what had happened in Waihi and faced with a new, combative, anti-union government, put aside their hostility to the federation.

The two industrial groupings merged into a United Federation of Labour whose constitution retained revolutionary IWW sentiments.

Allied to the new federation was a merger of the two political wings. The new Social Democratic Party kept the Socialist Party’s objective of “the socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange” and accepted the need for industrial action as well as political.

But all was not unity. The hesitancy shown by the Red Feds in 1912 had now resulted in the growth, particularly in Auckland, of an independent IWW movement.

Already in February 1913 the Auckland IWW had the funds and the organisation to begin publishing a monthly four-page newspaper Industrial Unionist. The opening issue made clear where it stood:

“The Capitalists fear a working class revolt and are amenable, on occasion, to reforms. But their reforms act only as palliatives, as surface smoothers, and sooner or later trouble bursts out anew… Parliamentarianism hoodwinks the workers and tightens the chains of wage slavery about them… It is Industrial Action that counts – Direct Action… Workers of the craft organisations, untie! You have nothing to lose but your executives!”

Showdown in 1913

Throughout 1913, industrial struggle continued. The Arbitration Court had kept real wages stagnant for a dozen years. Hours of work were long. Rents, food and footwear prices were soaring, hitting families and those on low incomes. Daughters and wives of working class families were increasingly moving into the industrial workforce.

At the same time the employers and government had taken heart from their victory at Waihi. It was all heading for a showdown.

Toward the end of 1913 a general stoppage shut down ports and mines. IWW members joined forces with the United Federation against the common enemy.

In Wellington, city riots and violence became almost a daily occurrence. An attempt was made to shoot the police commissioner. Naval vessels were on alert. Army detachments paraded with bayonets and a machine gun. A gatling gun was mounted on the Wellington wharves and another on the turret of the post office, looking down on the traditional assembly point for open-air meetings.

In Auckland, the British warship Pyramus moored in the port with its searchlight trained on Queen Street. Its crew drilled on the wharf with fixed bayonets.

Ultimate success would have required a high degree of unity from the organised workers and a division among their opponents. Outside Auckland, that unity among the workers didn’t exist while, by contrast, among the bodies of the state and the big employers and the farmers, it did – truculently so.

It was a second comprehensive defeat and the labour movement was shattered.

In 1914 the United Federation of Labour, “rent by internal dissension and recriminations” (Trade Unions in New Zealand, by Bert Roth) and in a mood of “prudent sectionalism” (Red Feds, by Erik Olssen), dropped from its constitution the rhetoric of revolutionary solidarity.

By 1915, in a sign of things to come, federation meetings were being chaired by a member of the old political wing of the moderate Trades & Labour Council.

Moderate tenor, strikes out

Finally, in 1916, members of the United Federation of Labour and the Social Democratic Party met and formed the NZ Labour Party.

Following industrial defeat and the new threat of workers being conscripted into war, politics would now be to the fore and the Labour Party was that expression.

“After the tumult of 1913,” writes Bruce Brown, “it was something of an anti-climax.”

While the bulk of the leadership of the new party came from the old militant unions, “the tenor of the programme was that of the [moderate] Trades Councils”.

The Social Democratic Party’s “socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange” was retained, but acceptance of industrial action as a political weapon was not. Gone, too, was the old Red Fed first commandment that thou shalt oppose the Court of Arbitration and smite it hip and thigh.

Certainly, in the decade after 1916, there was a deal of class war rhetoric from Labour’s leadership as it competed with a new syndicalist Alliance of Labour emerging from the industrial remains of a petered-out United Federation of Labour, and then with a Communist Party calling for a Bolshevik revolution.

And, to give credit, in the period 1916-1918 a number of Labour leaders were jailed for speaking out against conscription in the First World War.

But by the mid-1920s the rhetoric ran counter to the electoral need to win votes off the Liberal Party to the right. In 1925, an election year, the possibility of Communist Party members joining Labour in a joint alliance was sealed off by Labour Party constitutional amendments.

Josephine Milburn, in her article Socialism and Social Reform in New Zealand (Political Science, September 1960), captures the shift that was going on with three quotes from Peter Fraser, Red Fed leader in 1912-13 and Labour prime minister 1940-49.

In 1913 Fraser wrote: “Industrial Unionism plus revolutionary political action, in my opinion, provide the most effective and expeditious means of reaching that goal [socialism].”

By 1918, Fraser had tempered his views. He now stood for “the peaceful and legal transformation of society from private to public ownership and the increasing of democratic control over land and industry”.

And by the early 1930s Fraser saw Labour’s main objective as a simple one: jobs for the unemployed.

For all the talk – and those early Labour Party leaders seemed to have a moderate speech or principle in one pocket and a militant one in the other – the purpose of the new party was to act in the political sphere in the same way a union would act in the industrial: opportunistically and pragmatically, gaining as many concessions as possible while guaranteeing political and industrial peace as a trade-off.

Class relations would remain as they were, but the workers’ representatives would be accepted as part of the power structure and the worst deprivations of capitalism could be addressed and remedies proposed – “utilizing to the maximum degree the wonderful resources of the Dominion”, as the political spin of the 1935 election manifesto carefully interpreted the party’s “socialist” objective.

Labour had started out in 1916 as a party of trade unionists seeking traditional union goals. There was no provision for individual party membership. All membership was through an affiliated union.

Among my bits and pieces I have a copy of the Golden Jubilee Edition of the New Zealand Labour Party Journal of 1966. The party that began 50 years previously is still recognisable.

Membership is open to “all persons and organisations of workers” who endorse the party’s principles. The party’s base is described as “the individual branches and the affiliated Trade Unions”.

There’s a full-page photo of Red Fed and Socialist Party leaders speaking at an Auckland street meeting in 1911. The article on the party’s principles discusses socialism. “The wasteful inhumanity of capitalism” is condemned (as is its rival, rendered in mirror-image as “the soulless tyranny of communism”). Labour is distinguished from its political opponents by beliefs: “Labour rejects the claim of the few to live on the labour of many”, and “Labour believes that those who make key decisions in the economy should be answerable to the people of New Zealand”, and “Labour believes that the public credit should be controlled and used in the interests of the whole community”.

Recognisable as it is, the party was nevertheless a bit of an empty shell. As Labour cabinet member Bill Parry had tried to explain in 1945, everything had been done – organised labour had made its historic compromise with capitalism and a welfare state established.

Middle class takeover of Labour

The shell was waiting for new inhabitants. And in they came in the 1970s as NZ Labour transformed itself into a party serving the interests of the urban and educated middle class, the process quickened by reaction to the paranoid politics of National prime minister Robert Muldoon. It was all doubly ironic, given Muldoon’s Labourite distrust of big business, obsession with communist threats and fear of a return to the soup queues and hunger marches he had known in the 1930s.

By century’s end, the party had changed its complexion and shed most of its union affiliates and much of its working class membership.

At the time of the 2005 election, only three unions remained affiliated – the Engineers, Service Workers and Dairy Workers. The party constitution still made room for industrial branches but there didn’t seem to be any. Party funding came largely from business interests.

Despite Labour still, these days, shakily retaining a working class vote, it’s a vote which trudges off to the polls and not into the branches, a vote which is exercised more in fear of National than out of any loyalty, a vote which is as wary as it is weary.

At the same time, elsewhere to the left, an alternative tradition has been maintained – from the distant, rumbustious Industrial Workers of the World and its syndicalist successor the Alliance of Labour, through the Communist Party and the militant Waterfront Workers Union of the mid-20th century and on to today’s Socialist Worker and Solidarity.

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