Prophets from across the Pacific: The influence of Canadian agitators on New Zealand labour militancy in the early twentieth century

H M Fitzgerald (ATL photo 1/2-007676-F)

From a paper presented to the conference ‘Canada and New Zealand: Connections, comparisons and challenges’, Wellington, New Zealand, 9 February 2010, by Peter Clayworth.

Labour situation in New Zealand and Western Canada 1900-1907

The early twentieth century saw the growth of unprecendented labour militancy in much of the English speaking world, including Canada and New Zealand. In both dominions sections of the working class challenged employers and the state through the organisation of revolutionary industrial unions. In New Zealand, there was the NZ Federation of Labour, the ‘Red Feds’; in Canada, the One Big Union. In both dominions the industrial challenge was smashed with the defeat of major strikes by a coalition of Government, employer and opposing class interests; using a combination of legislation and coercion- the 1912 Waihi and 1913 Great strikes in New Zealand; the series of strikes surrounding the Winnipeg General strike of 1919 in Canada.[1] This paper examines links between these events through the influence of western Canadian activists on labour militancy in New Zealand.  

Labour relations in Western Canada and New Zealand at the beginning of the twentieth century appeared, superficially at least, to be two quite different situations. Western Canada’s large extractive industries, such as mining and timber milling, were dominated by large companies, relying to some extent on itinerant labour forces. Industrial conflict was widespread, especially as employers often refused to recognise unions. State and federal governments made little effort to enforce labour legislation. The similarity of conditions and the mobility of workers and ideas across the 49th parallel meant that both moderate and militant American unions established locals in Western Canada. The Western Federation of Miners, the American Labour Union, and, from 1905 onwards, the Industrial Workers of the Worlds, the IWW or Wobblies, were in Western Canada fighting for workers rights and advocating versions of socialism and revolutionary industrial unionism. Revolutionary industrial unionism was the idea that workers should organise in large combined unions on an industry rather than a craft basis, in order to be able to combat the large combinations of employers. The eventual goal was the control of industry and society by the workers, although the revolution spoken of was not necessarily envisaged as a violent one.[2]

Western Canada was also the birth place of the Socialist Party of Canada, a small but very influential working class party. The SPC taught that capitalism could not be reformed but must be overthrown. Their version of Marxism held that a revolution was inevitable once the working class became aware of its class position. The role of the party was to stand in elections, not because elections would change matters, but because this was the most effective platform to educate the workers on the class struggle. In its early days the SPC held that union activities were irrelevant as reform was impossible- despite this official line, many party members were in fact union activists and some of the more militant unions backed the SPC.[3]

New Zealand was regarded by many Canadian labour activists as a “working man’s paradise”, whose progressive social legislation should be copied in Canada. The Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act of 1894 was admired as it gave legal recognition to unions, with compulsory arbitration of disputes by an Arbitration Court, making decisions that were legally binding on both employers and workers. Lock-outs and strikes were illegal and supposedly unnecessary. The New Zealand unions, weakened by their total defeat in the 1890 Maritime strike, had welcomed this legislation as a great benefit to working people. New Zealand became known as the ‘land without strikes, a utopian example to the world. But by 1906, following the death of the populist Premier King Dick Seddon, disillusionment was spreading among New Zealand workers. Many workers had come to see the Arbitration Court as favouring employers, while proving unable or unwilling to deal with inflation or improve working conditions.  In 1908 a successful miners strike at Blackball on the West Coast was to prove a key event in sparking off the challenge to the arbitration system and the subsequent organisation of militant New Zealand unions into the NZ FOL. North American ideas of industrial unionism were to provide theoretical back up to this growing militancy- two figures who came to prominence at Blackball were the public voices of such ideas. One was Pat Hickey, a New Zealander, had recently returned from the USA where he had been involved with the Western Federation of Miners. The other figure was a Canadian revolutionary H. M. Fitzgerald.[4]

H M Fitzgerald

In 1907 the tiny Socialist Party of New Zealand, keen to shatter the apathy of the working man’s paradise, imported a firebrand orator, ‘Fiery Fitz’ Harry Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald’s background remains something of a mystery, we are not even sure which country he was born in. He was a presser by trade, but became a professional agitator and was said to have fought in a revolution in South America. In Canada he was based in British Columbia, where he was an activist for the SPC. In an age where platform oratory was an art form critically examined by its audiences, the SPC was renowned for the quality of its speakers. Fitzgerald was acknowledged to be the master of them all, described as “a platform general with no equal in all Canada.”[5] He regularly spoke to standing room only audiences at Vancouver’s Empress Theatre, seating capacity 1800. He assailed capitalism and religion through socialist parables of his own devising, such as ‘the Story of a Coat’ and the tale of his own ‘Descent into Hades.’[6]

In order to understand the impact of activists such as Fitzgerald, it needs to be remembered that unions and the small working class political parties were strands of a larger, vibrant working class culture that stretched across the English speaking world. Evangelical religion, women’s suffrage, and prohibition all competed with socialism for public attention. Public speaking, on any subject, was as much a form of entertainment as propaganda; lodges and friendly societies were an established form of welfare and fellowship; socialist newspapers had respectable circulations and included large sections on literature and sport; unions had their own brass bands, picnics and sports  days; while socialist Sunday Schools competed with the churches to educate the young.

Erik Olssen has described Fitzgerald as ‘the key figure in transforming New Zealand socialism.’ An independant thinker, Fitzgerald rejected the SPC line on unionism. He preached that workers should vote for socialists at the ballot box, while organising their unions industrially along the lines of the newly formed IWW. He helped broaden the appeal of the rather staid NZ Socialist Party from ‘typographers and civil servants’ out to the unskilled working class. With John Dowdal in Wellington he helped set up an IWW club and was also active in setting up a socialist choir. Fitzgerald’s Wellington winter lectures were so popular that they were continued through to December. These activities were pursued despite the fact that Fitzgerald was suffering from an incurable disease; apparently some form of tuberculosis.[7]

 In 1908 Fitzgerald toured the country speaking on socialism. While he was on the South Island’s West Coast, the heartland of the mining unions, the Blackball strike broke out. The miners struck in response to the sacking of seven comrades, resulting from a dispute in which the union had tried to extend the 15 minutes allowed for ‘crib’, their mid-day meal, to half an hour. Fitzgerald heard of the strike when he was a day’s journey away at Millerton north of Westport. Over the next two days, despite ill health, he travelled by foot, coach and train to Blackball, to Greymouth, and to the mining centre of Dunollie, delivered a series of impassioned speechs and finally collapsed on the platform at Blackball’s Steven’s Hall. Fitzgerald became the revolutionary conscience of the strikers, always encouraging them to reject arbitration and fight to the end for their rights. His stance was appreciated by the miners, who made him a member of the union. The conservative press, on the other hand, condemned him as a parasite who used agitation as a way to live off genuine workers.[8]

After continued speaking tours and organising, Fitzgerald returned to Canada around 1910. He was in New Zealand again in late 1911 and 1912, speaking for socialism and indistrial unionism. While in New Zealand he married a Miss Crowther, daughter of an official of the Dunedin Bootmakers Union. In 1914 Fitzgerald was back inVancouver, a principal spokesman for the SPC in support of Sikh activists from the Komagata Maru, who were challenging British Columbia’s racist immigration laws; not a popular stand among the majority of the white working class. By 1916 Fitzgerald was at the Tranquille sanitorium, dying of tuberculosis, but still writing impassioned letters to the left wing BC Federationist, hailing socialism while condemning the direction of the Socialist Party of Canada.[9]

J B King

By 1911 the Industrial Workers of the World, the Wobblies, had become a force to be reckoned with in the North American industrial scene. The ideas of the Chicago IWW, discounting electoral politics in favour of industrial organisation, had come to dominate over the  ideas of the Detroit IWW, which had emphasised the ballot box as a weapon to be used alongside the industrial union. In Western Canada the Wobblies organised unskilled workers - loggers, longshoremen, construction workers, teamsters and harvesters, as well as gaining a strong ideological foothold among miners in the Kootenays. In 1909 and again in 1912 the Wobblies were at the centre of major free-speech battles in Vancouver, organising mass arrests in the fight to overturn bylaws against political speech-making in the streets. The peak of IWW activity in BC was their organisational role in the Fraser River strikes of construction workers on the Canadian Northern line.[10]

John Benjamin King was a staunch activist for the IWW in British Columbia. He was born around 1870, probably in Canada, although some sources claim he was American. King had been a teamster, stoker, engine driver and miner. Fellow Wobbly Alec Holdsworth said that King told him he became a labour activist after realising the error of his ways following being beaten up as a strikebreaker. In 1909, King and a fellow miner were at the centre of a dispute at a copper mine at Greenwood following their dismissal for involvement with the militant Western Federation of Miners. King was a full time activist for IWW by 1911, based with the Vancouver local. He helping organise the teamsters strike in Victoria, BC, a construction strike in Prince Rupert and the building trades general strike in Vancouver. He was described as a fine orator, but was also known as an advocate of sabotage as a strike weapon.[11]

After the defeat of the building trades strike in August 1911, King and two other Wobblies called Sullivan and Childs left Vancouver for New Zealand. On the ship they met two Yorkshiremen, Alec Holdsworth and Charlie Blackburn, who joined them as IWW activists in New Zealand. George Hardy, another Yorkshireman who had joined the IWW in Vancouver in 1909, also made his way across to New Zealand at this time. While the organsing activities of the Red Fed’s were at their height at this time, the IWW were only a small presence. An IWW group existed in Christchurch, but the Wellington IWW club appears to have been defunct by this time. John Dowdall still flew the red flag for the Wobblies within the Wellington Watersiders Union. The radical pamphlets produced by Charles H Kerr Co of Chicago were also widely distributed among New Zealand workers, spreading Wobbly ideas on One Big Union to combat the capitalist class. As Wobbly activist Tom Barker later explained it, there was a free flow of ideas and people backwards and forwards between San Francisco and Vancouver in the east, and New Zealand and the eastern ports of Australia. For working class activists interested in left wing ideas, North America was as much a source of information as Britain and Europe.[12]

King and his comrades were soon busy preaching on the street corners of Auckland and spreading their message further afield. With Tom Barker, a New Zealand activist originally from Westmoreland in England, King and the others formed a vibrant local of the IWW in Auckland. Barker later noted that the lack of other entertainment for the large youthful population in Auckland, made it a very active place politically at that time.  King became an organiser for the Labourers’ Union and toured the North Island preaching the industrial unionist message. The Wobblies became the left wing of the labour movement, advocating industrial rather than political action and condemning any move by the Red Feds perceived as a move towards moderation. King settled in the mining town of Waihi where he gave economics classes to miners. Waihi became the centre of one of the most bitter strikes in New Zealand history, when the miners’ union struck in reaction to the creation of a breakaway engine drivers’ union.  The miners’ union, including those engine drivers who refused to join the new organisation, considered the engine drivers’ union to be a scab body set up with the support of the bosses. King soon became a member of the strike committee, where he encouraged a militant stand by the strikers.[13]

King attended the Red Fed’s 1912 May conference, where he unsuccessfully called for a general strike in support of the Waihi miners, denounced the nationalisation of industries in favour of the Wobbly idea of direct worker control and urged the Federation to push for industrial rather than political action. The Waihi strike continued to escalate as employers and the state flooded the town with scab workers and police, while strike leaders were imprisoned for refusing to pay good behaviour bonds. (The strike’s opponents were particularly incensed when strikers sang a parody on the national anthem with the lines “God Save Our J B King”). Violence increased, ending in November 1912 with the storming of the miners’ hall, the killing of unionist Frederick Evans and the eviction of union members and their families from the town. J B King had already left the New Zealand in August 1912, departing under circumstances that remain mysterious, and making his way to Sydney.[14]

In Australia, King continued his activities as a Wobbly agitator, later being joined by his old comrade Tom Barker, who had left New Zealand as a consequence of persecution following the great strike of 1913. King, as General Organiser, revamped the local Wobblies into Chicago style activists, preaching industrial organisation and denouncing electoral activity. He travelled the country promoting the aims of the IWW and distributing its paper Direct Action. With the outbreak of war the IWW became the spear head of anti-militarist movement and bitter opponents of conscription. In 1916 King was a leader of the successful campaign to free Tom Barker, who as editor of Direct Action, had been imprisoned for publishing an anti-militarist cartoon. King himself was arrested in August 1916 for forging bank notes, in what may have been a plan among a small group of Wobblies to debase Australia’s wartime currency. He was further charged in September 1916 as part of the ‘IWW twelve’ who were accused of a treason for an alleged arson campaign in Sydney.  The Wobblies maintained the charges were a frame up but the twelve were found guilty of seditious conspiracy- King was sentenced to five years imprisonment.[15]

After a prolonged broad-based campaign for the men’s release, King was one of last of the twelve to be set free, emerging from jail in September 1921. He continued to work as a labour activist, torn between his old industrial unionist ideas and the appeal of the newly emerged Communist Party. Eventually joining the Communists, he spent the early 1930s in the Soviet Union. He returned to Australia and New Zealand in 1936, on a tour extolling the virtues of the workers’ state. While touring the South Island, King disappeared, never to emerge on the political scene again. Rumour had it that he retired to Queensland to live on the pension.[16]

Aftermath

The IWW activism sparked off by J B King and his fellow agitators helped build up the labour unrest in New Zealand during and after the Waihi strike. The ideas they presented gave ammunition to those more radical workers, who worried that the Red Feds were playing into the hands of the moderate unions and the employers. The IWW also stimulated the fears of farmers and employers organisations and the government, who became determined to break the power of the Federation of Labour, seeing all militant labour unions as dangerous revolutionaries. The confrontation came with the Great Strike of November 1913, the largest industrial dispute in New Zealand’s history. The Red Feds were defeated by a combination of employer and state power and violence, along with their own inability to win the support of the moderate unions and the rural working class. Following their defeat many of New Zealand’s revolutionary industrial unionists went on to work within the reformist Labour Party, founded in 1916, while a minority helped found the small but influential Communist Party in the early 1920s.[17]

Labour militants in Western Canada also had their trial of strength with employers and the state. The Socialist Party of Canada shifted from disparaging union activites to support for the industrial unionist policy of One Big Union. In 1919 disatisfaction with post war working and living conditions, combined with the lack of union recognition, led to the outbreak of strikes across Canada, with the central feature being the Winnipeg General Strike of May-June 1919. As in New Zealand the strike was broken by a combination of legislation and state violence, with fear of the One Big Union and the possibility of a Bolshevik revolution acting to build the conservative backlash against the unions.[18]

Some of the SPC and One Big Union activists were to be involved in the early Communist Party and to have a role in events in New Zealand.  John Amos “Jack” MacDonald of the SPC was brought over to New Zealand in 1921 to help organise and publicise the fledgling New Zealand Communist Party. Instead his visit brought with it much of the factionalism that had dogged the SPC in Canada. In Blackball he met miner William Balderstone and his wife Annie, who had both been SPC activists in British Columbia. Annie was the daughter of prominent Canadian unionist and political campaigner Frank Henry Sherman. Bill Balderstone, originally from Hull, England, had met Annie and come under the influence of Frank Sherman while working in the mines of Fernie, BC. The Balderstones were to become the most militant and uncompromising Communists on the West Coast, with Blackball for a while acting as the headquarters of the Communist Party. Later, in their new role as ‘tribute mine’ operators, the Balderstones themselves were to be the targets of a strike that split the Blackball community in 1931.[19]

Conclusion

Canadian activists had a role as prophets bringing in some of the more radical ideas of North American revolutionary industrial unionism to New Zealand, at a time when the concensus of the Liberal era was giving way to discontent and labour militancy. The transcience of these activists was not unusual, as this was a time of great mobility for the working class, especially the white English speaking working class who could move with relative ease through the British Empire and the USA. Among these workers were small but significant numbers of activists, whose activites were strands of the broader working class culture of the time. The economic conditions of the early twentieth century produced class conflict in many industries. This ensured the travelling activist had an audience for their views, but never with the guarantee of a sympathetic hearing. Advocacy of revolutionary industrial unionism was a global phenomenum in the early twentieth century. The stories of H M Fitzgerald, J B King and other Canadian activists in New Zealand illustrate not just a Canadian-New Zealand connection; but also this international feature of the history of the working class.


NOTES

[1] For the Red Fed period in New Zealand see E. Olssen, The Red Feds: Revolutionary Industrial Unionism and the New Zealand Federation of Labour 1908- 1913, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1988; L. Richardson, Coal, Class and Community: The United Mine Workers of New Zealand 1880-1960, Auckland University Press, Auckland, 1995; M. Nolan (ed.), Revolution: The 1913 Great Strike in New Zealand, Canterbury University Press, Christchurch, 2006.  On Canadian labour militancy in the early twentieth century see A.R. McCormack, Reformers, Rebels and Revolutionaries: The Western Canadian Radical Movement, 1899-1919, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1977; D J. Bercuson, Fools and Wise Men: The Rise and Fall of the One Big Union, McGraw Hill Ryerson, Toronto, 1978; G.S. Kealey, ‘1919: The Canadian Labour Revolt,’ Labour/Le Travail, 13(Spring 1984),  pp 11-44.

[2] McCormack, Chps 2 & 6; Bercuson, Chp 2, J. Mouat, ‘The Genesis of Western Exceptionalism: British Columbia’s Hard-Rock Miners 1895-1903, Canadian Historical Review, LXXI, 3, 1990, pp 317-345, E.S. Pickett, ‘Hoboes Across the Frontier: A Comparison of Itinerant Cross-border Laborers Between Montana and Western Canada,’ in Montana: The Magazine of Western History, Spring 1999 from http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3951/is_199904/ai_n8840736/print downloaded 7 August 2007.

[3] McCormack, Chp 4, Bercuson, pp 47-52; A. Seager, ‘Socialists and Workers: The Western Canadian Coal Miners, 1900-1921, Labour/Le Travail, 16 (Fall 1985), pp 23-59.

[4] J. Holt, Compulsory Arbitration in New Zealand: The First Forty Years, Auckland University Press, Auckland, 1986, especially Chps 1-4. Olssen, pp 1-49, Richardson, pp 52-125. On Canadian interest in the New Zealand Arbitration system see Mouat pp 339-340.

[5] Roy Dovore, ‘Politicians out of the Past’, radio broadcast 27 August 1959, reprinted in The Western Socialist, Vol 26, No. 211, 1959, pp. 9-11. From http://www.worldsocialism.org/canada/politicians.out.of.the.past.1959.v26n211.htm downloaded 1 Feb 2009.

[6] H.O. Roth, biographical notes on H. M. Fitzgerald, MS-micro- 0714-27, Alexander Turnbull Library; R. Devore, ‘Politicians’; D. G. Steeves, The Compassionate Rebel: Ernest Winch and the Growth of Socialism in Western Canada, J J Douglas, Vancouver, 1977,  p. 14; P Campbell, ‘“Making Socialists”: Bill Pritchard, ‘The Socialist Party of Canada and the Third International’, Labour/Le Travail 30 (Fall 1992), pp 45-63 (see in particular p. 55), Grey River Argus, 3 March 1908, p. 3; NZ Truth, 4 January 1908, p. 8, 11 December 1915 p. 3.

[7] Olssen, p 17.  Commonweal, October 1907 p. 3, November 1907 p. 3, January 1908 p. 3.

[8] Commonweal,February 1908, p. 4; March 1908, p. 4. Grey River Argus, 29 Feb 1908, p 3, 3 March 1908, p. 3, 4 March 1908, p 2, 27 March 1908, p. 3.

[9] Roth , Fitzgerald biographical notes, Grey River Argus, 6 Sept 1911, p. 8, Poverty Bay Herald, 31 Oct 1911, p. 5, P. Campbell, ‘East Meets Left: South Asian Militants and the Socialist Party of Canada in British Columbia, 1904-1914,’ International Journal of Canadian Studies, 20 Fall 1999, pp. 35-65. BC Federationist, 29 Sept 1916.

[10] McCormack, Chp 6, Bercuson, pp 40-42; M. Leier, ‘Solidarity on Occasion: The Vancouver Free Speech Fights of 1909 and 1912,’ Labour/Le Travail, 23 (Spring 1989), pp 39-66.

[11] H O Roth, Biographical notes on John Benjamin King, MS-papers-6164-121, Alexander Turnbull Library, A. Holdsworth to H. O. Roth, 18 July 1961 & 5 August 1961, MS-papers-6164-120, Alexander Turnbull Library, The Labour Gazette, Vol X, Govt Printer, Ottawa, 1910, pp 52-66, V. Burgmann, Revolutionary Industrial Unionism: The Industrial Workers of the World in Australia, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995, pp 38-39, F. Shor, ‘Left Labor Agitators in the Pacific Rim of the Early Twentieth Century,’ International Labor and Working Class History, 67, Apr 2005, pp 143-163 (see in particular p. 151).

[12] Holdsworth to Roth, 18 July 1961 & 5 August 1961, H. O. Roth, Biographical notes on George Hardy, MS-papers-6164-120, Alexander Turnbull Library, Olssen pp. 86, 117, 127-130. P. H. Hickey, Red Fed Memoirs, Worker Print, 1925, p. 9. E C Fry, Tom Barker and the IWW, Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, Canberra, 1965, http://www.iww.org.au/history/tombarker/  downloaded 25 Nov 2003, Chp 3 pp 3-5.

[13] Holdsworth to Roth, 18 July 1961 & 5 August 1961, Roth, Biographical notes on J B King, Olssen, pp 130-134, Shor, pp 153-154.

[14] Roth, biographical notes J B King, Shor, pp 153-154, Olssen, pp 135-160, H. Holland, ‘Ballot Box’, and R. S. Ross, The Tragic Story of the Waihi Strike, Worker Printery, 1913.

[15] Roth, biographical notes J B King, Burgmann pp 36-38, 202-245, Fry Chps 4-6.

[16]N. Jeffrey to H.O. Roth MS-papers-6164-121, Alexander Turnbull Library, Roth, Biographical notes on J. B. King, Burgmann pp 229-245.

[17] Nolan (ed) Revolution, Olssen pp 180-223.

[18] G. S. Kealey, ‘1919: The Canadian Labour Revolt,’ Labour/La Travail, 13 (Spring 1984), pp 11-44. G. Friesen, ‘“Yours in Revolt”: The Socialist Party of Canada and the Western Canadian Labour Movement’, Labour/La Travail, 1 (1976), pp 139-157.

[19] K. Taylor, ‘“Jack” McDonald: A Canadian Revolutionary in New Zealand.’ Labour/Le Travail, 32 (Fall 1993) pp 261-268. Richardson, pp 196-197, 230-233.

Towards a Transnational Study of New Zealand Links with the Wobblies

"Towards a Transnational Study of New Zealand Links with the Wobblies", an essay by Mark Derby which looks at New Zealand’s relationship with the IWW.

In the 1890s a New Zealand watersiders’ leader announced to his members, “We have no flag, we have no country.”[1] He was declaring the internationalism of labor at a time when patriotism and imperialism then characterized the population. It was some years before his views became widespread, even within the militant end of the New Zealand union movement, and none promulgated them more strongly and sincerely than the Industrial Workers of the World, the Wobblies, whose name is itself a declaration of internationalism. The early Wobblies were internationalists in practice as well as in spirit – they belonged to transitory occupations, they crossed and re-crossed the Tasman, the Pacific and much further afield, were often in danger of deportation or on the run, and in general they regarded their nationality as an accident of birth and a supreme irrelevance.

For those reasons a study of the Wobblies in New Zealand, which has been barely attempted on practical grounds, is also inappropriate to its subject. It is imposing a nationalist frame on an internationalist movement. Instead, I am addressing the wider issue of New Zealand’s many links with the IWW, links which run both into and out of this country and include some of the organization’s most influential figures worldwide. My research suggests that the influence and extent of Wobbly ideas in New Zealand have been seriously understated, and New Zealand’s links with Wobbly movements elsewhere entirely overlooked. The Wobblies themselves left only scanty traces of their actions as they passed in and out of this country, and the partisan rewriting of history by the political parties which regarded themselves as natural successors to the IWW both co-opted and eliminated traces of their Wobbly roots. This essay is, therefore, an initial attempt at tracing the Wobbly strain in New Zealand’s political development.

The title, “A Country Considered to be Free,” comes from a speech made by William Trautmann at the IWW’s inaugural convention in Chicago in 1905. In accepting the post of general secretary, Trautmann informed the other delegates that he had been born in New Zealand, the son of a transient German miner who followed the gold rush to Coromandel in 1868 and was killed six years later in an industrial accident in the mine.[2] His widow and five children, including five-year-old William, returned to Germany, and as a young man William Trautmann made his way to the US and joined the fast-growing industrial unionism movement. In 1904 he wrote to labor bodies worldwide to seek support for a planned new organization to oppose the reformist American Federation of Labor (AFL) and was encouraged to found the IWW with a small group of fellow rebels the following year.[3]

In his speech to the first IWW convention, Trautmann referred in heavily qualified terms to New Zealand’s political freedom, since that country was then regarded internationally as the exemplar of moderate, state-sponsored socialism based on compulsory arbitration of industrial disputes. This system had quelled union radicalism for almost two decades, but by 1905 it was coming under growing attack from the more radical end of the labor movement, especially larger semi-skilled unions such as the miners, wharfies and seamen, and from the small, combative NZ Socialist Party, which aligned itself with De Leonite revolutionary industrial unionism. IWW ideas first reached New Zealand through the radical literature imported and sold by the Socialist Party. The industrial unionism message was also spread firsthand by transient individuals like the New Zealand-born miner Pat Hickey, who had earlier worked in Montana with the Western Federation of Miners, an IWW-affiliated union. When he returned home, in 1906, Hickey began to organize miners on the West Coast, together with other radicals from Australia. Less than a year after the IWW was formed in the US, the first strikes in 15 years took place in New Zealand mines, and by 1908 the miners’ unions broke away from the compulsory arbitration system to negotiate directly with employers using the strike weapon.[4]

Meanwhile, a militant Wellington watersider named John Dowdall, a keen reader and inveterate public orator, was spreading IWW ideas from his soapbox down on the wharves. In January 1908 he formed an IWW Club, which confirmed Wellington’s waterfront, then the busiest in the country, as a hotbed of activism. Two years later, another IWW Club was formed in Christchurch by militants from the anti-conscription movement. They applied to join the Federation of Labor, the new national body of industrial unions, as a New Zealand branch of the IWW and were admitted in June 1911.[5] Radical orators from abroad were an important impetus for this movement, although Emma Goldman’s keenly anticipated tour in 1909 was cancelled at the last minute after her US citizenship was revoked.[6] In the same year the 36-year-old anarcha-feminist Lola Ridge contributed a poem, “The Martyrs of Hell,” to Goldman’s journal Mother Earth, and later became a sensation among New York’s modernist avant-garde. Ridge was formerly married to a New Zealand mine manager and had spent much of her preceding years in small South Island mining towns.[7]

In just a few fiery years the left wing of New Zealand’s labor movement had been reshaped from a timid collection of mainly craft unions working within the state-run arbitration system to a powerful federation of openly radical industrial unions winning their own terms of employment and confidently propagating a worker-run future for the country. The Wobblies were at the hard edge of this movement, especially in Auckland, the country’s biggest city, its first port of call for overseas ships, and a town thronged with young, single men raring for excitement and confrontation. Here the Socialist Party’s radical rhetoric drew huge crowds, but young militants found themselves more attracted to the anti-political Wobblies. Even the Party’s Auckland secretary, a young tram conductor named Tom Barker, defected to the IWW.[8]

This loose-knit band of Auckland Wobblies received a giant boost the day an overseas ship docked in late 1911. Down the gangplank walked three hardened revolutionaries from Canada, including Jack King, who had fled his own country after a strike in Vancouver. They were accompanied by two Englishmen, including twenty-six-year-old Alec Holdsworth, who had both been strongly influenced by the three Canadians during their long voyage. This small and utterly dedicated group made an explosive impact on the fertile Auckland scene. “In a very short time,” says Holdsworth, “Jack was on the street expounding Industrialism (One Big Union) and Marxism in the vernacular.”[9] He was backed up by at least twenty-five local Wobblies, including such striking figures as the openly gay fishmonger, Charlie Reeve, tattooed to the tips of his fingers.10 Every Sunday they drew thousands to their platform down by the wharves. “We had little or no objections around the soapbox,” according to Holdsworth. “Attention was good, collections were good – and we had no other source of income.”11 In early 1912, King left Auckland to spread the Wobbly message around North Island mining towns, eventually settling in Waihi, a company town entirely dependent economically on Australasia’s largest gold mine. There he led a Marxist economics class, enrolled about 30 miners in an IWW local, and played a leading part in a huge strike which soon shut down the mine. Shortly afterwards, King represented the miners at the Federation of Labor’s annual conference and convinced the Federation to adopt the first part of the IWW’s Preamble, “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common,” in its own constitution. His motion for a general strike in support of the Waihi miners was lost, but he won the backing of other delegates including future Prime Minister Peter Fraser who said, “With such propagandists I have no quarrel, whose work must undoubtedly advance the revolutionary working class movement.”[12]

By August 1912, with the Waihi mine still closed by strike action, King’s activities had become so notorious that he left for Australia just ahead of the police and immediately resurrected the Sydney local of the IWW. The mine strike was finally broken after nine bitter months. Many of the strikers and their families were driven out of town by vigilante mobs, and the Auckland Wobblies scoured the countryside to provide food and shelter for them. The IWW marched as a group in the massive funeral demonstration held for a murdered Waihi striker, Fred Evans. Holdsworth says, “We were industrialists, rebels on the job where we happened to be being exploited, and saboteurs if need be, and, instead of parliament, we stood for the One Big Union of the Workers of the World. We never led a strike but were always there.”[13]

He and his fellow Wobblies often travelled to other towns for work, always carrying with them imported IWW literature to help in “sowing the seed” of rebellion. While draining swamps in the farming district of the Waikato, Holdsworth wrote the Kiplingesque “Ballad of the Agitator”, which ends:

There’s never a place where the slave must sweat,
Not a town of soot or sun,
But we dared our worst and we gave our best,
And the work was freely done –
Though no tear be shed o’er our martyr’d dead,
We are ever marching on
.[14]

Although New Zealand’s Wobblies were regularly accused by the popular press of sabotage, Holdsworth knew “of no occasion when it was carried out. We propounded it as a means of preventing scabbery, or dealing with it should it occur – it was a warning to both scab and employer. In America it was a different story, and we who had experience of real class war in America liked to tell of the various tricks, to those about us, never from the soapbox; and so the idea was spread.”[15] In place of the saboteur’s matches and dynamite, New Zealand Wobblies relied on the impact of IWW literature such as the Little Red Songbook and pamphlets like Marx’s Value, Price and Profit (translated from German by the bilingual William Trautmann).[16] “All boats from America were met by one or more of us wearing our IWW badge,” says Holdsworth, “in case there should be a Wobbly on board with the appropriate swag. But it was a precarious source of supply, so we set to and got out our own newspaper, the Industrial Unionist.”[17] This, the first IWW periodical in the Southern Hemisphere, was launched as a monthly in February 1913. It supplied industrial news from around the country, reported on JB King’s organizing efforts in Broken Hill, Australia, and printed letters from Hawaii by the somewhat isolated U.S. Wobbly, Albert Roe.[18]

One remarkable feature of the New Zealand Industrial Unionist may make it unique among Wobbly newspapers worldwide and has certainly never been matched in any other labor publication in New Zealand. From its July issue the paper ran regular articles in Maori, the language of New Zealand’s indigenous people. At that time many Maori spoke little or no English, although most were literate in their own language. The New Zealand IWW appears to have had no paid-up Maori members, so these articles were a means of reaching out to the most exploited section of the population. They were written by Percy Short, a member of the paper’s five-man editorial collective who worked as a house painter and licensed interpreter of Maori.[19] His articles skillfully combined traditional Maori expressions with translations of IWW propaganda. One acknowledged the devastating loss of land and resources by Maori and said that all New Zealand workers were now placed in a similar condition by the boss class. Just as Maori had violently resisted the loss of their land in the past, now all workers should form a single tribe to recover and retain their possessions.[20] Collectively, these articles amount to an embryonic Marxist economic analysis in the Maori language, using authentically Maori metaphors and cultural values.

By mid-1913 the vigorous Auckland local of the IWW was holding four or five large public meetings a week. In September the English-born Tom Barker, who had taken over from JB King as the group’s guiding spirit, took the message to the rest of the country, riding with the tramps on railway goods wagons.[21] Holdsworth says, “He went without money and was without price. But he had a bundle of potential rebels in his bag – a pile of Industrial Unionists– each one more for the Revolution”.[22] Barker’s first stop was Wellington, where he reported, “I had 11 propaganda meetings in 14 days.” With the help of the stalwart John Dowdall, he was smuggled onto the wharves under the noses of the hostile waterfront police. “I finished on the piles down below, and talked Direct Action to the wharfies….Wellington will be a militant place for an IWW Local in the near future.”[23]

In Christchurch, the “storm centre of anti-militarism,” he found enough active IWW members to form a local immediately, reporting via the Industrial Unionist that “They have a nice room and nicely furnished, and all rebels peregrinating are requested to call in and introduce themselves…We will have half a dozen locals by Christmas, the tendency is all in our direction. The politicians are losing their grip, and the feeling is towards the repudiation entirely of nose counting, and the advocacy of Direct Action, Sabotage and Revolutionary Unionism.”[24] Finally Barker undertook a month-long tour of mining towns along the South Island’s West Coast, “the home of the fighters,” where he sold out the last of his stock of radical literature.[25]

His return journey was interrupted at Wellington by the outbreak of a long-awaited waterfront strike. Barker promptly organized a nonstop program of speakers and music in the public square opposite the wharves and led guerrilla attacks on large parties of mounted strikebreakers recruited from the rural districts. The strike soon spread to other industries and other cities and became the greatest industrial conflagration in New Zealand’s history. The Industrial Unionist now appeared every two or three days, urging workers throughout the country to make this a general strike which would bring down the ferociously anti-union government. Short’s articles told Maori workers, “This is the same government which confiscated your lands and killed your ancestors,” and urged them to join the strike.[26] Perhaps in consequence, very few Maori joined the thousands of strikebreakers, although they had been prominent in helping to break the Waihi strike the previous year.

As the strike grew more violent and widespread, the Industrial Unionist claimed a print-run of 5000 an issue. Barker himself sold 700 copies in a single morning, before being arrested along with other strike leaders and charged with sedition (which carried the death penalty). These arrests and the government’s recruitment of more than ten thousand strikebreakers and “special constables” finally broke the strike and forced the Wobblies to scatter far and wide to avoid retribution. Many left for Australia, including Barker, who jumped bail, and Reeve, who was badly beaten as he boarded his ship. There they both reunited with JB King and reinvigorated the Sydney IWW. Others headed for remote New Zealand communities where they were not known, often becoming active in the shearers’ and other rural unions.

The outbreak a few months later of World War I legitimized continuing persecution of the Wobblies. Some served long jail sentences for opposing conscription; others set up an escape route for conscientious objectors, smuggling them in the coal bunkers of ships to Australia, where conscription was not imposed.[27] However, a nationwide outburst of patriotism, and harsh emergency powers which outlawed strikes in essential industries and banned the importation of “seditious publications” (including the entire output of the IWW) shattered the strong movement which Barker and others had built up.[28]

Slowly, from about 1920, the remnants of New Zealand’s Wobblies began to reassert themselves. A One Big Union (OBU) Council, opposed to the parliamentary ambitions of the newly formed New Zealand Labour Party, began meeting above the shop of a sympathetic Auckland tailor. Its literature secretary, Leo Woods, said, “our activities were modeled along the lines of the IWW and consisted of public speaking and the dissemination of literature.”[29] Much of this printed matter was still banned and smuggled in on ships from Sydney; however, the OBU did not long survive the formation in 1921 of the New Zealand Communist Party, which assumed the leadership of the extreme left and opposed syndicalist views almost as strongly as the Labour Party.

Since then, founding Wobblies like Tom Barker and JB King reappeared occasionally in New Zealand, but their organization was never rebuilt, and the Wobbly strain in the labor movement was confined to determined individuals. One of these, Tom Gale, was a seaman from the Isle of Man who joined the IWW after witnessing police attacks on young female strikers in the silk-weaving plants of Paterson, New Jersey. He arrived in New Zealand in 1922 and had a long career as a rigger in the state railways. Railway workers were then represented by four different unions, and Gale’s attempts to form One Big Union on the railways failed when the four sets of paid officials could not agree on which of them would lose their jobs. In 1932, a period of massive unemployment and spreading fascist influence, he joined the New Zealand Communist Party and was elected to the executive of its Auckland branch, but left after refusing to sign correspondence with slogans such as “All Hail to Comrade Stalin.”[30] Another veteran of the 1913 Paterson silk-weavers’ strike was Alex Scott, the editor of a local newspaper who was convicted of “aiding and abetting hostility to the government.” Although not an IWW member, he was regarded as a valued ally by the U.S. Wobbly paper Solidarity. Arriving in New Zealand in 1922, Scott worked as a crusading journalist and helped establish large cooperatives in the working-class Hutt Valley into the 1940s.[31]

One of the more improbable New Zealand links with the worldwide Wobbly movement was Len de Caux, born in 1899 to a minister of religion serving a wealthy rural congregation in Hawkes Bay. He studied at elite private schools in New Zealand and England and entered Oxford University on a scholarship in 1919. This scion of privilege was radicalized during summer holidays in Europe. One of those, to Turin in 1920, coincided with a workers’ takeover of the auto factories. De Caux read of this in the newspaper L’Ordine Nuovo, in articles by the young Antonio Gramsci. Immediately after graduating, he “brushed from me the cobwebs of Oxford and emigrated to the United States…I’d come to join the working class in a country where class struggle was more brazenly brutal than in England or New Zealand.”[32] Soon de Caux was writing on-the-job articles for the IWW paper Industrial Solidarity, on Great Lakes shipping, Chicago packinghouses and Detroit steel mills, and dodging shotgun-wielding guards in order to ride freight trains to the Midwestern grain harvest. He became one of the leading labor journalists in the US and publicity director of the CIO until he was purged as a communist and blacklisted by the House on Unamerican Activities Committee (HUAC). De Caux did not return to New Zealand until 1959, when he saw an old photograph from the turn of the century of the small West Coast mining town where he was born. “It was so startlingly similar to Western American towns around the same period, where the IWW had its start that I realized for the first time that the Wobblies might have had roots in like pioneering conditions in both countries.”[33]

It is this recognition of the universality of labor and its travails that has given the IWW its greatest strength and influence. Resisting all appeals to national pride or ethnic division, the Wobblies worked wherever they could be most effective, and I am persuaded by my research that their impact on New Zealand politics was much wider than has been acknowledged to date. For example, the IWW was greatly admired by those further to the center of the labor movement, who sympathized with the repression the Wobblies faced. In the early 20s a moderate laborite wrote a song called The Popular Scapegoat:

If a boiler blows up or a steamer goes down
Or somebody curses the Cross or the Crown
To find out the culprit, no, don’t let it trouble you
Put it all down to the Eye Double Double -You.
[34]

A small number of the original Wobblies resisted joining either New Zealand’s Labour or Communist Parties and never departed from their IWW views. Bill Potter was an activist in the Wellington IWW and a militant in the 1913 strike, who later escaped to Australia where he took part in anti-conscription campaigns and the 1917 Brisbane tram strike. After returning to New Zealand he had a long career as a rank and file unionist, maintaining his IWW philosophy to the end.[35] That’s all I know about Potter, and I know even less about most of the others who have espoused and enacted the Wobbly strain of far-left politics in New Zealand, those spectral, semi-mythical figures whose humor, iconoclasm, commitment to working-class culture and dedication to democratic principle can still provide inspiration for actions in the present and hopes for the future.

ENDNOTES

1. H Roth, Trade Unions in New Zealand, AH and AW Reed, 1973, p. 31
2. Proceedings of the First Convention of the IWW, 1905
3. William Trautmann, Fifty Years War, Book #2 1905-1920: The Rise and Fall of the Industrial Workers of the World, Trautmann collection, Walter Reuther Library, Detroit. I am indebted to Dr Jay Miller for drawing this important source to my attention, and permitting use of his PhD dissertation Soldier of the Class War - the life and writing of William E Trautmann, Wayne State University, Detroit, 2000.
4. For the formation of the NZ Federation of Labor, see Erik Olssen, The Red Feds – revolutionary industrial unionism and the NZ Federation of Labour 1908-1913, Auckland 1988. For an important contemporary account, see, Pat Hickey, Red Fed Memoirs – being a brief survey of the birth and growth of the Federation of Labour from 1908 to 1915 and the days immediately preceding it, reprinted Wellington Media Collective, 1980, f.p. 1925
5. Olssen, The Red Feds, p. 34 et passim
6. Emma Goldman, Living My Life vol. 1, Alfred A. Knopf Inc. 1931, Ch. 34
7 Michelle Leggott, The First Life: A Chronology of Lola Ridge’s Australasian Years, 22 April 2006,www.nzepc.auckland.ac.nz/features/bluff06/leggott.asp
8. Erik Olssen, ‘Tom Barker’, NZ Dictionary of Biography, online edition, www.dnzb.govt.nz/dnzb
9. A. Holdsworth to H. Roth, ‘Biographical notes – Tom Barker’, MS-Papers – 6164-007, Turnbull Library, Wellington
10. Verity Burgmann, Revolutionary Industrial Unionism – the Industrial Workers of the World in Australia, Melbourne 1995, p. 39, 95
11. Holdsworth, ibid.
12. H Roth, ‘New Zealand ‘Wobblies’ – the story of the Industrial Workers of the World’, Here and Now, March 1952, p 6-7
13. Holdsworth, ibid.
14. Ibid.
15. Ibid.
16. William Trautmann, Fifty Years War, p. 158
17. Holdsworth, ibid.
18. ‘Sandwich Islands’, Industrial Unionist, 1 May 1913
19. H. Roth, ‘Biographical notes – Percy Short’, MS-Papers-6164-092, Turnbull Library, Wellington
20. ‘Ki nga kaimahi Maori’, Industrial Unionist, 1 July 1913
21. ‘New Zealand notes’, Industrial Unionist, 1 August 1913
22. Holdsworth, ibid.
23. T. Barker, ‘Around NZ – Organiser’s Notes’, Industrial Unionist, 1 October 1913
24. Ibid.
25. T. Barker, ‘NZ organiser’, Industrial Unionist, 1 November 1913
26. ‘Ki te Iwi Maori Katoa’, Industrial Unionist, 13 November 1913
27. See, eg. Maoriland Worker, 21 September 1921, re departure of former Auckland IWW member Bob Heffron to Australia (where he later became Labor Premier of NSW).
28. H Roth, Trade Unions in New Zealand, AH and AW Reed, 1973, p. 42
29. Leo Woods to H. Roth, ‘Biographical notes – Woods, Leo John,’ MS-Copy-Micro-0714-26, Turnbull Library, Wellington
30. Len Gale, personal communications with author, 2006-7
31. Scott, Alexander, MS-Papers-0209, Turnbull Library, Wellington
32. Len De Caux, Labor Radical – from the Wobblies to the CIO, Beacon Press, Boston, 1970, p. 27
33. L. De Caux to B. Turner, 24 August 1979, MS-Paper-1981, Turnbull Library, Wellington
34. JB Hulbert, ‘The Popular Scapegoat,’ in My Garden and Other Verses, Wellington, 1922
35. Nadine LaHatte (nee Potter), to Mark Derby, email 1 June 2007

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