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. 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.
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.
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.
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.” 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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 Olssen, p 17. Commonweal, October 1907 p. 3, November 1907 p. 3, January 1908 p. 3.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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).
 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.
 Holdsworth to Roth, 18 July 1961 & 5 August 1961, Roth, Biographical notes on J B King, Olssen, pp 130-134, Shor, pp 153-154.
 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.
 Roth, biographical notes J B King, Burgmann pp 36-38, 202-245, Fry Chps 4-6.
N. Jeffrey to H.O. Roth MS-papers-6164-121, Alexander Turnbull Library, Roth, Biographical notes on J. B. King, Burgmann pp 229-245.
 Nolan (ed) Revolution, Olssen pp 180-223.
 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.
 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.