Fighting War: Anarchists, Wobblies and the New Zealand State 1905-1925 

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In July 1913, a 23-year old Christchurch cabinet-maker, Passive Resisters Union member and anarchist named Syd Kingsford penned a stinging letter in the Evening Post. “Not content with robbing my class of the major portion of its product,” wrote Kingsford,

the robber class has the colossal impudence to demand that the sons of the robbed workers shall don a uniform, shoulder a rifle, and be prepared to defend the possessions of the robbers… What does it matter to me if the robbers sometimes fall out and quarrel over the division of the spoil wrung from the workers? The point is that I am robbed with impartiality by the capitalist class, no matter what country I am in, or what nation I happen to belong to. To me, no country is so superior to another that I want to get shot in its defence. I prefer to work for the time when national barriers will be thrown down, and the workers united for the purpose of evading a system of society which causes war.
As this lengthy quote makes clear, Kingsford believed war was a product of capital accumulation, power in the hands of a few, and the nation state. This position was shared by other anarchists, as well as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, also known as the Wobblies)—a revolutionary union organisation with a small but influential presence in New Zealand. Indeed, Kingsford was the literature secretary of the Christchurch branch, and helped to distribute IWW newspapers such as the Australian Direct Action, which in October 1914 argued: “Workers, you have nothing to gain by volunteering to fight the battles of your masters.”
There is no doubt that such a position was a minority one in New Zealand, both before and during the First World War, and its influence on events is difficult to quantify. However this paper suggests that such a stance was a major concern of those in power. Fearful of wartime industrial unrest and in order to avoid a repeat of the 1912 and 1913 strikes, the National Coalition government used the pretext of war conditions to suppress any hint of labour militancy. As a visible expression of such militancy, the actions of anarchists and Wobblies were scrutinised by the state, leading to sedition charges, jail time, or deportation from the country.
This paper looks at some of this working class radicalism, and the reaction to it by the state. Much of this activity was centred on the distribution of radical literature–‘mental dynamite’ in the form of penny pamphlets, newspapers, and other ephemera. Ports and postboxes became the battleground for an intense cultural struggle—a struggle that questioned the war, the nature of work, and authority itself. This battle for minds had material results. Intense state surveillance and a raft of legislation not only determined who could read what, but who would be considered a legitimate resident of the so-called ‘workers paradise’ that was New Zealand.

The Industrial Workers of the World

Arguably, the most militant of the pre-war labour organisations in New Zealand was the IWW. Formed in Chicago in 1905 by a conglomerate of socialists, Marxists and anarchists, its founders were disenchanted by the craft nature of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and its exclusive membership criteria. Instead, the IWW sought to organise all workers, especially the so-called ‘unskilled’ neglected by the AFL. As well as being open to workers of any gender or colour, the IWW promoted the ‘One Big Union,’ a fighting union that—through the solidarity of workers organised along class lines instead of trade, and the tactical use of the strike weapon—would abolish the wage system.
Its widely quoted preamble stated:
The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.
Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, and abolish the wage system [1908 Version]
Although the IWW initially promoted both industrial and political action, it split in 1908 over the rejection parliamentary politics. For the Chicago IWW, the political arena was controlled by capital and therefore the place to make change in society was the workplace. As one New Zealand wobbly argued, “Parliament is a mirror reflecting conditions outside. When your face is dirty, do you wash the mirror?”
The IWW advocated building a new world in the shell of the old, which meant how the union and its struggles was conducted were just as important as the outcome. As a result, direct democracy and the curbing of power in the hands of a few was core to the organisation. “The IWW considered a reliance on leadership as fostering dependence amongst the working class,” notes Stuart Moriarty-Patten. New Zealand Wobblies decried the local labour movement as “cursed and hampered by leaders.” Instead, “active, intelligent workers [should] determine to do their own thinking… to fight on all occasions for complete control by the rank and file and against sheep-like following of leaders.”
As a result the IWW was much more than a simple union movement. As well as fighting for better conditions and shorter hours, the IWW fostered education, internationalism, and a radical working class counterculture through the influential use of song and graphics. Although not without its faults, the appeal of the IWW made it social and cultural movement on an international scale.

The IWW and anarchism in New Zealand

New Zealand’s first IWW local was formed in Wellington in December 1907, and other locals were formed in Christchurch and Auckland—both of which received official charters from the IWW headquarters in Chicago. Informal groups sprung up in industrial towns such as Huntly, Waihi, and Denniston, and the cultural norms and tactics championed by the Wobblies—such as the general strike, sabotage, and the go-slow—soon spiced the local discourse.  The rally-cry of ‘a fair day’s wage’ was dropped for ‘abolish the wage system;’ ‘fellow-worker’ replaced ‘comrade’; and for a period, the New Zealand Federation Of Labor (FOL) adopted the IWW’s revolutionary preamble.
Pamphlets and newspapers of the IWW had a wide circulation in New Zealand. According to the Secretary of the Waihi branch of the Socialist Party, imported IWW anti-militarist pamphlets were “finding a ready sale” in 1911. Chunks of IWWism and Industrial Unionism, two locally produced pamphlets, sold in quantities of 3,000 and 1,000 copies each, while the Industrial Unionist, newspaper of the New Zealand IWW, reached a circulation of 4,000. These figures do not indicate their true readership however, as workers shared their copies or would read the columns out loud in groups.
The distribution of cheap printed propaganda was vital to the spread of IWW ideas and tactics. Their wide circulation in New Zealand was thanks in part to anarchists like the Latvian-born Jewish tailor, Philip Josephs, who spread the gospel of revolutionary class struggle from 1904 onwards.
Anarchists like Josephs believed that hierarchical social relations were unjust, as they ensured that wealth, property and power remained in the hands of the few, while the rest of society had no access to such benefits. The focus of much anarchist agitation therefore was capitalism and the state. These would be replaced by self-determined, voluntary associations that worked together in both the workplace and the community, bound together by the balance of individual freedom and collective responsibility. Far from advocating disorder, anarchists believed in a new social order organised from the bottom up.
After his arrival from Glasgow, Josephs distributed these ideas via a steady stream of international anarchist literature from his tailor shop in Wellington, and played an influential role in the working class counterculture of the day. A key player in the formative years of the New Zealand Socialist Party (NZSP), Josephs spoke publicly on anarchism religion, the Russian Revolution of 1905, and later, during the Great Strike of 1913. In Wellington he worked with anti-militarists, unionists, and especially the IWW, while keeping up a steady mail-order network of anarchist newspapers across the country.
During that year Josephs also founded one of the first anarchist groups in New Zealand. This was the Wellington Freedom Group, which was formed in July at Josephs’ tailor shop. The Freedom Group was active in promoting anarchism via the soapbox, discussion nights, and radical literature. Meanwhile, in 1913 another anarchist group was also active in Auckland—working closely with the IWW and distributing ‘No Gods, No Masters’ posters around the city.
These groups were the culmination of work by Josephs and other anarchists around New Zealand. Anarchists like Wyatt Jones, Len Wilson, Fay MacMasters, Carl Mumme, J Sweeney and Syd Kingsford were active in the wider labour movement, imparting revolutionary ideas, tactics, and influence. Although often missing from the indices of New Zealand labour histories, Erik Olssen notes that anarchism was “more influential than most have realised.” Their efforts ensured a revolutionary syndicalist perspective was heard within New Zealand labour circles before and during the First World War. This also included activity within and alongside the wider anti-militarist movement.

Anti-militarism and pre-war resistance to military training

Although there was some resistance to the Boer or South African War, New Zealand anti-militarism grew out of opposition to the Defence Act of 1909. This Act “represented New Zealand’s attempt to re-organise its defence forces along the lines agreed to at the Imperial Naval and Military Conference held in London in July and August of that year.” It made registration and military training compulsory for males between fourteen and thirty years of age, and enabled magistrates to deal out a considerable amount of punishment to those who did not.
As well as more temperate church groups who aimed “to appeal to the middle class by focusing on issues around the militarization of youth and society in general,” syndicalists of most shades rejected compulsory military training (CMT). But in contrast to their unlikely comrades, they rejected militarism for decidedly anti-capitalist reasons. The FOL viewed CMT as “a weapon of capitalist imperialism” which could be used against the interests of workers and the working class itself, both “domestically and internationally.”
Syd Kingsford, Philip Josephs, Carl Mumme—alongside a number of Wobblies and syndicalists—were at the forefront of the anti-militarist struggle before the First World War. Not yet organised into specifically anarchist collectives, they were active in larger organizations like the FOL, the NZSP, the Passive Resisters Union (PRU), and various anti-militarist groups.
Writing from his tailor-shop-cum-radical bookshop in 1911, Josephs decried CMT and conscription as a capitalist weapon and a form of state oppression. As well as filling his shop with anti-militarist material, he used the pages of the FOL’s newspaper, the Maoriland Worker, to put forward a decidedly anarchist position on militarism in its New Zealand form. In “The General Strike As a Weapon Against Conscription,” Josephs analysed the arguments for and against CMT, and urged the militant miners’ unions to call a general strike. As well as challenging conscription, a general strike would also target “that section who monopolise the nation’s wealth, and thereby deny the masses of their original rights to the wealth they created.” “Many will say such actions would be too harsh,” Josephs added. “What have the Government done by passing such an Act? The Government have ignored you. They forced conscription on you suddenly, and if they have the right to commit such a harsh act, it is also right for the workers to do exactly as their opponents have done to them.” True to his internationalism, Josephs made it clear that “the deprivation of the workers’ wealth and rights exist in every country alike. Our enemies are not abroad. They exist in our midst.”
The call for a general strike was not a fanciful one. Despite labour laws that outlawed strikes in return for union recognition, workers across New Zealand had been challenging the state and employers with wildcat strikes since 1906. Likewise, anti-militarism was strong in mining towns where branches of the NZSP and the IWW existed. Josephs was well placed to gauge the mood of the day.  His bookshop, national and transnational postal contacts, and his role of secretary of the Wellington Anti-militarist League placed him amongst a vibrant network of syndicalists, anarchists, and pacifists, ensuring Josephs was on the pulse of anti-militarist resistance.
The apex of this resistance was the South Island city of Christchurch, where groups such as the Anti-Militarist League, the National Peace Council (NPC), and the militant PRU conducted anti-militarist agitation in the form of stickers, pamphlets, mass open-air meetings, and civil disobedience. Pledged to “resist coercion, conscription, and compulsory military training under all circumstances, and in defiance of all pains and penalties,” the PRU confronted military drills nightly in an attempt to persuade their fellow workers to refuse training. Barracks would be found plastered with stickers declaring ‘The military strike is now on!’ while verbal tactics were employed to great ends. Their lively paper, Repeal, also aided the fight, featuring scathing satire and anti-militarist articles (including writing by Christchurch anarchist and regular soapboxer, Wyatt Jones). True to their pledge, PRU members refused all cooperation with the state. When prosecuted, they ignoring fines: when jailed, they refused orders and staged successful hunger strikes.
However, the militant resistance of the PRU and Josephs’ advocacy of the general strike sometimes clashed with the conciliatory stance of their Christian cohorts. Writing again in the Maoriland Worker, Josephs lamented that, “the meetings held to protest against the Act are a little too respectable. Nothing will be gained by such methods. You want to show your direct power against the governing classes, in order to make them realise the danger in passing such laws in the future.”
Yet despite disagreements over methods, anarchists remained active in the broader campaign. It was beginning to have some effect: in some regions military drilling was in a shambles thanks to constant PRU disruption and well-organised anti-militarist agitation. In Christchurch during 1911 only 25% of those eligible for CMT turned up. A year later, after the first 12 months of CMT, 3,187 youths were prosecuted for refusing to parade—by 1913 this number increased to 7,030. Anti-militarism also permeated further into the wider labour movement: in 1913 the FOL (now the United Federation of Labour) took steps to adopt the Hardie-Vaillant resolution that called for a general strike in the event of war.
As resistance grew the New Zealand government stepped up its prosecutions, targeting prominent syndicalists and anti-militarists. In February 1914 alone over 400 prosecutions were initiated in Christchurch. Had the refusal to drill, pay fines, or perform military duties in detention continued, it is possible that CMT in New Zealand may have broken down and forced the government to abolish the Defence Act altogether. However, the outbreak of the First World War changed the situation dramatically.

The outbreak of war

On the outbreak of war the anarchist and IWW position was fragmented and weak; partly due to the defeat of the 1913 Great Strike, but also because of the intense jingoistic mood of the day. Many of the IWW’s leading members had fled New Zealand to escape prosecution, but there were still IWW locals in Auckland, Wellington, Denniston and Christchurch. Wobblies continued to soapbox on street corners across the country and were active in the workplace, especially on the waterfront.
Yet times were tough for those openly against capitalism. Radicals found themselves up against a wartime government itching to prove its loyalty to the British Empire. The National Coalition of William Massey and Joseph Ward took measures to clamp down on any non-conformist activity it deemed seditious, using the pretence of war conditions to muzzle dissent—whether it was opposition to conscription (in the form of the 1916 Military Service Act), or challenging economic conditions. Numerous War Regulations empowered the executive branch of the Coalition government to regulate without reference to Parliament, and before long a number of these were directed at the IWW.
Richard Hill notes that these regulations, initially used for military purposes, “gradually increased in severity and in political rather than military significance.” For example, war regulations were soon unleashed on socialist speakers and strikes in industries deemed essential to the war effort. Rather tellingly, those convicted of publishing information deemed valuable to the enemy were fined a maximum of £10, while anyone who publicly criticised the actions of the New Zealand government was fined £100 or received twelve months imprisonment with hard labour.
Not surprisingly, anarchists and especially Wobblies were targeted due to their advocacy of direct action in the workplace, the fostering of an oppositional working class counterculture, and their radical critique of capitalism. New Zealand’s Crown Prosecutor “repeatedly stressed the distinction between sincere objectors… and ‘parasites’, ‘anarchists’, and other IWW types.” As a result, a number of Wobblies were arrested and given maximum jail time during the war.
Wobblies had been scapegoats for all kinds of scrupulous activity before 1914, but in wartime the press found new ways to discredit the IWW. Hysterical headlines were quick to dub Wobblies as “Hirelings of the Huns” or “German-born children of the devil,” and any union radicalism was tarred with the IWW brush.
In one bizarre article, ‘The Critic’ responded to an auctioneer’s listing of ‘famous IWW hens’ in the Manawatu Evening Standard with: “‘IWW hens?’ If these belong to the order of ‘I Wont Work’ they will probably get it where the Square Deal would like to give it to their human prototypes—in the neck!” When the shipping vessel Port Kembla struck a German mine off the coast of Farewell Spit in 1917, one writer in the Ashburton Guardian put it down to pro-German sabotage, stating: “this Dominion is not by any means free of the noxious IWW element… this type of human being should be put out of existence on the first evidence of abnormality.”
Wobblies also became the favourite target of New Zealand’s most prominent cartoonist of the day, William Blomfield. Many of his newspaper covers and drawings during the 1915-25 period depicted the IWW in a dark light—as crazed extremists or German provocateurs, or lazy workers. Cartoonists tended to convey the issues (and fears) of the day in order to stay relevant, so Blomfield shedding so much ink on the IWW may indicate that their influence was much larger than previously recognised.

IWW propaganda and the go-slow

Ironically, this scare mongering by the press publicised IWW methods such as the go-slow far more than Wobblies could ever have done on their own. Indeed, employers and the government were especially alarmed by the go-slow—working at a slow pace to reduce production and hurting the boss (all while on the job and receiving a wage). Put to good use by watersiders, miners, drivers, and tramway men during the war, the go-slow was abhorred as a significant threat to the established economic order.
“It is the most serious problem that we face at the present time,” wrote Defence Minister James Allen to Massey in January 1917. “[Alexander] Herdman has been taking evidence on behalf of the Police about going-slow… as far as Defence is concerned, if any man is proved to be going slow’ [before a military Service Board]we shall cancel his exemption… we cannot possibly allow this fatal practice to get hold in New Zealand or else the nation is doomed.” Not only did these tactics threaten war profits and the government’s lucrative commandeer with Britain (which made up 90% of the country’s exports); the go-slow had the potential to question the work ethic central to the wage system itself. As a result, War Regulations of 16 February 1917 included going slow in the category of seditious strikes.
Authorities were also dismayed at the volume of IWW ephemera still finding its way around the country. Bearing such lines as “Fast workers die young” or “Go Slow! Do Not Waste your Life,” IWW stickers peeked out from walls and lampposts across New Zealand. In a cheeky swipe at conscription, one sticker was stuck in the middle of a National Registration poster. As late as 1927, Wellington customs found 125 of these stickers in the baggage of a SS Maheno seaman named Evans.
Another ‘silent agitator’ that caused uproar was a satirical poster by ex-New Zealand Wobbly Tom Barker. ‘To Arms!’ called on “Capitalists, Parsons, Politicians, Landlords, Newspaper Editors and other Stay-At-Home Patriots” to replace the workers in the trenches. Four copies were “smuggled across the Tasman… and pasted up outside the Supreme Court in Wellington,” causing the judge to suspend the court until the offending posters were removed.
Anti-war pamphlets were also making their rounds. War and the Workers was a pocket-sized booklet printed by the Auckland IWW that implored workers not to become “hired murderers.” Sold from their Swanson Street office, the booklet insisted, “Those who own the country [should] do the fighting! Let the workers remain home and enjoy what they produce.” After being distributed at the Buckle Street Drill Hall in Wellington, the booklet was forwarded to Solicitor-General John Salmond. Salmond urged for war regulations to be extended so that immediate powers would be available to punish those responsible for such “mischievous publications.”
In Parliament MP John Hornsby also raised concerns about IWW ephemera, decrying the “circulation in this country of pamphlets of a particularly obnoxious and deplorable nature.” Hornsby asked whether immediate steps would be taken to prevent the circulation of such “harmful publications.” The resulting Order in Council of 20 September 1915 specifically prohibited “the importation into New Zealand of the newspapers called Direct Action and Solidarity, and all other printed matter published by or on behalf of the society known as ‘The Industrial Workers of the World.’”
Direct Action was a lively newspaper published by the Australian IWW that found its way to New Zealand via seamen crossing the Tasman, or by mail. Two months after the Order of Council was in place, the Post and Telegraph Department reported the withholding of “14 single copies [of] Direct Action; 2 bundles [of] Direct Action;” as well as “6 bundles [of] Solidarity.” A number of these copies were then used by Police to chase up New Zealand subscribers listed in its columns. In December 1915 detectives in Auckland, Napier and Wellington hunted for a subscriber listed as Erickson. At first they thought he was a Wellington socialist named Frederickson, but soon concluded he was in fact Carl Erickson, a casual labourer and friend of Wellington anarchist Philip Josephs (who was also a Direct Action subscriber). The Police report noted that both men had donated to the Barker Defence Fund, set up after Tom Barker was convicted for publishing an anti-war cartoon in Direct Action.
The military also used a 1915 edition of Direct Action to investigate the Workers’ University Direct Action Group, a ‘workers university’ that had been set up by Auckland Wobblies. According to Direct Action, lessons dealt with “economics, biology, physiology, Social Democrat fallacies, State Ownership ie State Capitalism fakes, Law and Authority Bluff, the anarchist doctrines of ‘Total Abstention’” and “scientific sabotage, the most potent weapon of the intelligent militant minority.” They also had IWW literature on hand for the ‘worker students’. After their Queen Street landlord forced the workers’ university to disband, its members were lucky to escape imprisonment (if they did at all).
One radical who was not let off the hook was prominent 1913 striker Charles Johnson. Johnson was arrested in 1917 and found to have “an enormous amount of IWW literature” in his possession, including three copies of Direct Action. Johnson asked to be let off with a fine; the magistrate replied, “Oh, I can’t let you off with a fine in these conditions.” He was sentenced to twelve months imprisonment with hard labour.

Censorship of correspondence

As well as the suppression of IWW publications, war regulations also made it illegal to “incite, encourage, advice or advocate violence, lawlessness and disorder, or express any seditious intention.” What exactly constituted a “seditious intention” was interpreted broadly by the state, and included the contents of private correspondence.
Both Customs and the Post and Telegraph Department had a number of censors working within their ranks, the latter including the Deputy Chief Censor, William Tanner. But it was the military that managed censorship during the War. Tanner and other censors located across the country answered directly to Colonel Charles Gibbon, who was both Chief Censor and Chief of the General Staff of the New Zealand Military Forces. Postal censors were mostly officers of the Post Office and worked in the same building “as a matter of convenience”, but censors acted “under the instructions of the Military censor.
“During the course of the late war,” wrote Tanner, it was necessary
to examine secretly the correspondence of certain persons who were supposed to be disaffected, and who were working to defeat the efforts of the New Zealand Government in meeting its obligations regarding the war by advocating [the] ‘go slow’ or inciting to resist the Military Service Act.
Instructed to “suppress whatever was of a seditious or treasonable nature,” Tanner believed his work “gave the Police the necessary opening… to break up the organisations whilst still in the act of formation.”
One of those under Tanner’s watchful gaze was Philip Josephs. After letters to US anarchist Emma Goldman were spotted in October 1915, Josephs was arrested and “detained all day in the cooler until 4 o’clock in the afternoon,” when he was released without being charged. While Josephs was in police custody, two detectives searched his shop in Cuba Street and took possession of all books and papers on anarchism. They then repeated their search at his Khandallah home.
As well as holding a considerable stash of anarchist literature, it appears Josephs’ shop had been the Wellington Local of the IWW. Police found “a number of unused official IWW membership books, rubber stamps, and other gear used in connection with that constitution,” as well as IWW correspondence, pamphlets and papers.
One such correspondent was Syd Kingsford. Two Police reports show that after the raid he was put under surveillance, while the chief military censor, Colonel Gibbon, made sure his correspondence was also censored. Another was J Sweeny, a Blenheim-based labourer who was writing to Josephs to order anarchist newspapers. In a letter that never reached its destination, Sweeny asked Josephs to “remember me to the Direct Action Rebels in Wellington,” indicating there were still Wobblies active in the capital at that time. With typical Wobbly flair, Sweeney signed his letter: “Yours for Direct Action. No Political Dope.”
Other censored letters written by an Auckland Wobbly, William Bell, give a sense of the level of surveillance put in place by the state. “The Johns and military pimps are on the look out for the correspondence of men known in our movement,” wrote Bell, who was trying to secure a dummy address “for the purposes of ordering leaflets without an imprint for secret distribution at this end of New Zealand.” Also mentioned in Bell’s letter was “a private meeting of picked trusted militants” due to take place at his bach, confirming that Auckland Wobblies were still active in mid-1917, albeit discreetly. Obviously Bell was not discreet enough. He was arrested and sentenced to eleven months imprisonment.
(During his hearing, Bell provoked laughter in the courtroom. When the magistrate, referring to a comment in Bell’s letter, asked him what a ‘snide-sneak’ was, Bell replied: “A man who plays both ways. We have plenty in the Labor movement, unfortunately”).

Seditious soapboxing

The introduction of conscription in August 1916 and subsequent opposition to it by parts of the labour movement saw the War Regulations move from targeting the written word to the spoken word. This was not surprising, given that Defence Minister James Allen had earlier noted: “We are right for conscription and it is only the fear of what might happen in Labour circles that prevents it being adopted here.”
‘Rabid Orator’ and past Committee member of the Wellington IWW, Joseph Herbert Jones, was imprisoned for sedition in January 1917 after soapboxing to 500 people in Dixon Street, Wellington. “I want the working class to say to the masters,” said Jones, “we don’t want war. We won’t go to the war.” During his court appearance Jones read a long and ‘inflammatory’ poem that received applause from onlookers in the court. The judge was not impressed, nor did he share Jones’ view that all he had done was defend the interests of his fellow-workers. He was sentenced to twelve months imprisonment with hard labour.
Another radical to be jailed for 12 months was William Parker, a watersider who told a Wellington crowd in 1917 that the only way to stop conscription was with a general strike. In 1919 Parker was in court again, having distributed locally produced flyers promoting the go-slow, the lockout of the oppressors, and building a new society in the shell of the old. After amusing the large crowd of watersiders in the back of the court by “verbally annihilating His Worship”, Parker was sentenced to 12 months for ‘IWWism’ (sedition).

The Case of Carl Mumme

Probably the most extreme recorded repression against an anarchist during the First World War was the case of Wellington cabinet-maker and unionist, Carl Mumme. Born in Germany, Mumme was secretary of the Furniture Workers’ Union in 1897 and a founding member of the NZSP. He was a staunch anti-militarist involved in various Wellington campaigns, and also represented the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners on the Wellington branch of the FOL. In 1913 he joined the anarchist Freedom Group and gave a number of key lectures.
Despite being naturalized in 1896 and having spent close to twenty years in the New Zealand, Carl was arrested in May 1916 and shipped out to the detention camp at Matiu Somes Island. Carl’s wife Margaret and their five children (the youngest being two years old) were not told of his arrest—it took two days for them to find out what had happened.
Carl’s anti-militarist and anarchist beliefs ensured a stormy relationship with the camp commandant, Dugald Matheson. After refusing to address Matheson as ‘Sir’ and for alluding to mistreatment in letters to his wife, Carl was repeatedly punished for insubordination. This included forced exercise, bread and water rations for 21 days, confinement to concrete cells with no shoes or socks, and abuse from guards. Expressing his “utter contempt for a man who is an open enemy of all Governments” Matheson wrote in one report that, although no evidence of conduct hostile to the camp could be proved, Mumme was “an infidel a social democratic agitator and an active anti-militarist… posing as a martyr.”
Despite sureties from prominent unionists and desperate letters from his near-destitute wife, Mumme remained in detention for the rest of the war, and after—his freedom blocked by police and military command. “Mumme is a Socialist apparently of the revolutionary type [and] is exactly the type of man who should be deported,” wrote one chief detective. While never deported, Mumme was not released from internment until 13 October 1919—close to a full year after Armistice.
As well as internment, the deportation of radicals from New Zealand became another way of silencing dissent, and was used on numerous occasions. In 1917 MP Vernon Reed asked in Parliament whether Massey had considered the provisions of the Unlawful Associations Amendment Bill introduced in Australia, “aiming at the destruction of the IWW and kindred institutions, and providing for the deportation of undesirables; and whether he will introduce into Parliament a measure having similar objects?” In reply, Massey stated that such a law was under consideration. The result was the 1919 Undesirable Immigrants Exclusion Act, which merely formalised what was already covered under the war regulations. A number of Wobblies were deported from New Zealand under these regulations.
Wobblies not already in jail were kept under close surveillance during the later years of the war. In October 1918 the Defence Department had their eyes on Nita aka Lila Freeman, a female Wobbly active in Wellington. Correspondence of “an anti-conscriptionist and seditious nature” between Nita and a fellow Wobbly named ‘Don’ was discovered by the military censor, which sparked further surveillance. ‘Don’ had been giving classes on political economy and socialism in Blackball, and it was hoped ascertaining their identities would lead to arrests: “in all probability the woman will be arrested on some charge at an early date,” noted the file.
Although it appears Nita Freeman was never arrested, by the war’s end at least 287 people had been charged with sedition or disloyalty—208 were convicted and 71 sent to prison. That radical syndicalists such as Wobblies and anarchists made up the numbers is hardly surprising, considering the similar treatment handed out to their comrades internationally. Indeed, like other countries across the globe, the New Zealand state attempted to use wartime conditions to cement its hold over militant labour. Although further comparative research is needed, some writers have argued New Zealand was a leader in using military means for political ends. John Anderson noted: “the English government was more tolerant of criticism than the Massey administration, and did not readily initiate prosecutions for sedition.” And in the words of Scottish anarchist Guy Aldred, “of all British Dominions, for scientifically suppressing revolutionary thought the New Zealand Government is the worst.”

The fight continues

Despite the cease of hostilities in Europe, surveillance of anarchists and the IWW did not end with the First World War. Industrial unrest and social revolution immediately after the war’s end was a deeply entrenched concern for the New Zealand Government. The Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, coupled with unrest around the globe in 1918-1919, was seen as potential source of increased revolutionary activity in New Zealand. Bolshevism would now compete with the IWW for the state’s attention, and for the title of New Zealand’s favourite scapegoat.
As well as international upheavals such as mutinous soldiers, police strikes and the downfall of various regimes, the cost of living and dissatisfied returned servicemen were also seen as catalysts to major unrest. The government passed a range of anti-firearms laws, and watched closely the rhetoric of political parties like the New Zealand Labour Party and the Communist Party of New Zealand.
The state also kept tabs on the second wave of syndicalist organisations, such as the Alliance of Labour and the One Big Union Council. Formed in 1919 to promote class solidarity between watersiders, seamen, miners’ and railway workers, the Alliance of Labour was decried by the Reform government as nothing less than the IWW in disguise. Indeed, their promotion of direct action and rejection of parliamentary politics saw them align with the IWW, causing the Employers Federation to lament the “lawless tendency on the part of Extreme labour.” In the end however, the Alliance failed to live up to its revolutionary rhetoric.
In Auckland around 1920, Wobblies like Bill Murdoch, George Phillips and Leo Woods helped to form the One Big Union Council. Leo Woods had sat on the Thames strike committee during the 1913 Great Strike, and in 1917 was thrown into what he called “one of Massey’s concentration camps, Kiangaroa Prison Camp,” for 18 months. After his release, Woods became the literary secretary of the One Big Union Council and was delegated to smuggle banned literature from Sydney. He would go on to help found the Communist Party in 1921. The secretary of the Council was former wartime-secretary of the Auckland IWW, George Phillips, who, like Woods, had been jailed for refusing to be conscripted.
For those in power monitoring these developments, the possibility of a general strike seemed imminent. Recorded industrial disputes had risen from 8 in 1915 to 75 in 1921. As a result, Prime Minister Massey urged his party faithful to “secure good men to stem the tide of Anarchy and Bolshevism.” This radical tide, complained Massey, “is worse than folly… the matter must be taken in hand and stopped.”
Massey’s red baiting had significant support from a number of high profile allies. The Protestant Political Association, led by the vehement Reverend Howard Elliot, vowed to oppose “Bolshevism and ‘IWWism’ in every shape and form.” Also active was the New Zealand Welfare League, formed in July 1919 for the express purpose of curbing the activities of revolutionary labour, IWW doctrines, and Bolshevism. The League’s active press campaign featured large format newspaper articles on the IWW and their “criminal” attitudes towards work, property rights, and state authority.
The red scare whipped up by conservative interests allowed the state to extend its wartime grip into peacetime. Tanner was kept on as censor in July 1919 by Defence Minister Allen, who wrote to Massey that, “a good deal of valuable information comes to the government through the medium of the censor, and it was thought wise not to lose this information.” The war regulations that created Tanner’s job were also extended under the War Regulations Continuance Act of 1920 (which was not repealed until 1947).
Other forms of surveillance continued apace. In his history of the New Zealand Police Force, Graham Dunstall notes that in January 1919, Police Commissioner John O’Donovan sent a confidential memo to officers across New Zealand:
In the view that considerable industrial and other unrest is reported from other countries and may extend to this Dominion it is necessary that special precautions be taken to keep in touch with the movements and actions of persons of revolutionary tendencies who are already here, or who may arrive
Meetings of radicals continued to be attended by police and fortnightly reports were sent to Police Headquarters. Detectives in each district systemised this work by compiling an index of individuals who had “extreme revolutionary socialistic or IWW ideas,” and amassed boxes of detailed files.
The Wobblies remained a perceived threat well into the 1920s. In September 1920 Commissioner O’Donavan sent a nationwide memo giving the names IWW prisoners about to be released in Sydney, warning detectives to be on the look out in case they arrived in New Zealand. Also under surveillance was another Australian Wobbly, John B Williams, who was in New Zealand to form branches of the One Big Union (OBU). Numerous police reports tracked his progress around the country, noting that a branch had been formed in Auckland in May 1920 (its secretary was Andrew O’Neill, secretary of the General Labourers Union). In Christchurch Williams addressed a meeting attended by police, who were concerned at his comments that “he was in New Zealand to form ‘One Big Union’ and behind the movement were the IWW men recently liberated in New South Wales.”
A year later police focus turned to the formation of the Communist Party in Wellington—yet Wobblies still warranted extra attention. When Andy Barras addressed a meeting at the Socialist Hall on 27 March 1921, police noted that a member of the IWW had questioned parts of his speech. “If a communist member was elected” noted the Wobbly, “what guarantee was there that he would not jump the fence and go to the side that was prepared to pay him most?”
At this stage Wobblies were still seen as more of a threat than communists. A 1926 report on a Mauritius Wobbly and waterside worker Eugene De Langre noted, “he has come under my notice for more than a year, and although I am given to understand that he is not a member of the Communist Party, he is probably worse by the fact that he is a member of the IWW.” De Langre had been promoting the go-slow to his fellow watersiders, and teaching “some young seamen outside the Wellington Shipping Office to sing revolutionary songs, the ‘Red Flag’ etc.” When police raided his sleeping quarters and found over 50 copies of IWW newspapers and pamphlets, he was regarded as “one of the worst IWW members trading in this country. It is hoped the Customs Department will deal urgently with him.”
The surveillance of De Langre and the mention of Customs highlights the increased patrolling of New Zealand ports, and the targeting of literature and mail. One Wobbly to be caught in this post-war net was Henry Murphy, an Australian labourer based in Auckland. In April 1919 Murphy wrote to a fellow worker in Australia that military deserters were being picked up every day; detectives “run the rule” over passengers arriving by ship; and that two Wobblies, “Nugget and Scrotty,” had been “turned back”. The letter was intercepted by a censor and handed to police. “Murphy appears to be a dangerous character of the IWW type,” noted the censor. “He is an admirer of the Bolsheviks and is gradually drifting towards anarchy, revolution and outrage… his hatred of work is one of the traits of the IWW character.” Murphy was hauled before the court for failing to register as a reservist under the Military Service Act, where he declared, “anti-militarists have done more for democracy than all the soldiers who went to Europe.” He was sentenced to 14 days hard labour and was due to be deported under the war regulations, but instead he agreed to leave New Zealand voluntarily.

Deporting ‘undesirables’

Murphy’s ‘voluntary’ deportation foreshadowed a law change designed to further extend the state’s reach over radicalism. In November of that year, the Undesirable Immigrant Exclusion Act was passed into law. This Act gave the Attorney-General power to single-handedly deport anyone whom he deemed “disaffected or disloyal, or of such a character that his presence would be injurious to the peace, order, and good Government” of New Zealand. He could also prevent anyone landing in the country, which meant Customs and Police further cemented their wartime responsibilities of monitoring the harbours. However the Defence Department was kept in the loop by having copies of every alien identity certificate sent to them. The military would then match these certificates up to their own black list of “revolutionary agents and undesirables.”
According to Massey, the Undesirable Immigrant Exclusion Act would be used against those who “favour Bolshevism and IWWism.” It was soon put to good effect. Two Wobblies named Nolan and McIntyre were prevented from landing in New Zealand and promptly sent on their way to Sydney—their fares paid by the government. But one Wobbly who wouldn’t go quietly was the Australian seaman and returned serviceman, Noel Lyons.
In May 1925 seamen on board the SS Manuka refused to leave Wellington until their food was improved. However as the Union Steamship Company made clear to reporters, the real issue was “the deliberate attempt to institute job control” via the go-slow. Using the pretext of IWW literature and posters found on board the ship, Lyons was read the Undesirable Immigrant Exclusion Act and given 28 days to leave New Zealand. Instead, Lyons and the crew walked off their Sydney-bound vessel singing ‘Solidarity Forever,’ and convened a meeting at the Communist Hall.
300 people packed into the Manners Street Hall to hear Lyons speak about the ‘ham and egg’ strike. “I have been described as a paid agitator,” argued Lyons, “but it is a well known fact that all who take an active part in attempting to better the condition of the worker… develop whiskers overnight, and appear as a Bolshevik.” Despite resolutions of protest from numerous unions, Lyons was imprisoned for two weeks before being shipped to Australia. On his arrival Lyons made the most of what the NZ Truth called ‘the new spasm of [the] IWW,” organising mass meetings and reviving the Sydney IWW. In January 1926 he was joined by the ex-Wellington watersider, Eugene De Langre.
The deportation of Lyons highlights how the authorities would pick and choose when someone was to be considered a New Zealander, a British subject, or foreign immigrant. The Reform government’s loyalty to Empire and their making of the world ‘safe for democracy’ did not seem to contradict the deportation of British subjects. “New Zealand is more conservative than England,” noted Lyons on his arrival in Sydney. “They regarded me as a foreigner… It is too funny for words. When I was on my to France as an Australian solider, they did not say I was an undesirable… But now, when I put up a bit of a fight for humanity, they turn me out of the country.”


Noel Lyons was not the only radical to be deported in the post-war years, nor was he the first. But his case is indicative of the systematic surveillance put in place after the First World War, and the attitude of the New Zealand government towards anarchists and the IWW. Although their treatment pales in comparison to the violence and mass deportations inflicted on the American IWW, the National Coalition and Reform governments clearly felt threatened by such working class radicalism. Class struggle and revolution from below; the flouting of law; the go-slow and challenging the work ethic; such tactics not only hindered the war effort, they also called into question the social relationships needed for capitalism and the state to function. As a result, the Defence, Police, and Customs Departments, as well as scores of legislation, was used to during the war to ensure anarchism and the IWW never regained its pre-war strength.
It is clear anarchism and the IWW formed but a tiny part of the working-class radicalism of the day. Likewise, the ‘anarchist’ and ‘IWW’ label was thrown about rather hysterically by the press, making the identification of Wobblies during the war even harder. However the actions of anarchists and Wobblies during 1905-1925, and the reaction to them by the state, indicates a discernible legacy of revolutionary syndicalist radicalism in New Zealand—one that reached well beyond the Great Strike of 1913. It also forms an important sub-narrative to New Zealand’s home front experience, and wider conscientious objections to the First World. While it is hard to measure their precise influence on the local labour movement, I hope the examples above help to question what Kerry Taylor has called the “premature obituary” of the IWW and revolutionary syndicalism in New Zealand.

The text for this paper was based on two public talks given in Wellington—‘Reds and Wobblies’ (People’s History Talks), and ‘Seditious Intentions’ (Rethinking War Conference). The main sources used were:
Records at Archives New Zealand: Army Department, Customs Department, Post and Telegraph Department, Department of Internal Affairs, Police Gazettes, Old Police Records, Sir James Allen Papers, Prime Ministers’ Department
Records at the Alexander Turnbull Library: Bert Roth Collection, Papers Past
New Zealand Parliamentary Debates
New Zealand Gazette
New Zealand Official Yearbooks
Baker, Paul, King and Country Call: New Zealanders, Conscription and the Great War, Auckland University Press, 1988
Bodman, Ryan, “‘Don’t be a Conscript, be a Man!’ A History of the Passive Resisters’ Union, 1912–1914,” Thesis, University of Auckland, 2010
Burgmann, Verity, Revolutionary Industrial Unionism – the Industrial Workers of the World in Australia, Melbourne, 1995
Davidson, Jared, Remains to Be Seen: Tracing Joe Hill’s Ashes in New Zealand, Rebel Press, 2011
Davidson, Jared, Sewing Freedom: Philip Josephs, Transnationalism & Early New Zealand Anarchism, AK Press, 2013
Derby, Mark, ‘Towards a Transnational Study of New Zealand Links with the Wobblies’
Dunstall, Graeme, Policeman’s Paradise? Policing a Stable Society, 1917-1945, Dunmore Press, 1999
Eldred-Grigg, Stevan, The Great Wrong War: New Zealand Society in WW1, Random House New Zealand, 2010
Gustafson, Barry, Labour’s Path to Political Independence: Origins and Establishment of the New Zealand Labour Party, 1900-19, Auckland University Press, 1980
Hill, Richard, The Iron Hand in the Velvet Glove: The modernisation of policing in New Zealand 1886-1917, Dunmore Press, 1996
Moriarty-Patten, Stuart, “A World to Win, a Hell to Lose: The Industrial Workers of the World in Early Twentieth Century New Zealand,” Thesis, Massey University, 2012
Olssen, Erik, The Red Feds – revolutionary industrial unionism and the NZ Federation of Labour 1908-1913, Auckland 1988
Roth, Herbert, Trade Unions in New Zealand: Past and Present, A. H. and A. W. Reed, 1973
Weitzel, R, “Pacifists and Anti-militarists, 1909–1914,” New Zealand Journal of History, 1973

Leo Woods: Waihi, the Great Strike and the NZ IWW

With the centennial of the 1912 Waihi Strike upon us, this extract seems timely. It is from a letter written by Leo Woods to Bert Roth, historian and avid creator of (now highly valued) records pertaining to New Zealand’s labour movement. Roth may have been collecting material for his book Trade Unions in New Zealand (Reed, 1973), or for one of many articles and lectures he produced. Either way, his letter to Woods and subsequent reply offers an insight into a number of key struggles during the first decades of the twentieth century—from the Waihi Strike of 1912, to the First World War, the One Big Union Council and the Communist Party of New Zealand.

Woods was well placed to provide Roth with the information he sought. Radicalised in the class struggles of 1911 and 1912, he was ‘hunted by the Police in Waihi’, active in the Auckland branch of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and during the Great Strike of 1913 sat on the Thames strike committee. As a Wobbly and socialist, Woods refused to fight during the First World War and was ‘thrown into one of [Prime Minister] Massey’s concentration camps, Kiangaroa Prison Camp, near Rotorua’ for 18 months. Upon his release in 1919 he was among those who formed the One Big Union Council, becoming literary secretary and delegated to smuggle banned literature from Sydney until 1921, when he and other Wobblies formed the Communist Party of New Zealand. Woods remained a member for over forty years, writing ‘Why I am A Communist’ in 1968.

Written in November 1960, the following extract is the first four sections of what Woods titled ‘The Labour Movement’, and is archived in the Roth Collection, MS-Papers-6164, Alexander Turnbull Library (Wellington).


Waihi Socialist Party

If my memory serves me right in the year 1910, but definitely 1911 and 1912 Waihi boasted the existence of a Socialist Party, and together with the militant Waihi Miners’ Union invited socialist and labour leaders near and far, who addressed massed meetings in the Miners’ Union Hall at the weekends. The first person I had the honour to listen to was the great socialist leader Tom Mann, who declared he was a revolutionary socialist. Then followed Ben Tillett and Alderman [Edward] Hartley. The strike year 1912 attracted more speakers chief among whom were a person named [Harry] Fitzgerald, a brilliant orator, and one Jack [John Benjamin] King, a visitor from USA who [illegible] the principles of the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World). He formed an economic class on Marxism and delivered several lectures. He made a great impression on the miners. After he left NZ for Australia, Prime Minister Massey was going to deport him. Other notable leaders who came to Waihi were Tom Barker (IWW), H Scott Bennett, great social reformer and member of Auckland Socialist Party, H E Holland, Robert Semple, Paddy Webb, Peter Fraser, R F Way and others.

Waihi Strike

In may 1912 the Waihi Miners went on strike against the action of a section of the union, some but not all of the engine-drivers in the union breaking away from the union and forming a ‘scab’ union. These boss inspired stooges were used by the mining companies to smash the militant class-conscious union which had won concession after concession from the companies in round-table conferences. Earlier the miners by ballot had discarded the Arbitration Court as an instrument of the employing class. The mine owners feared the growing strength of the legitimate union. The strikers fought on for 8 1/2 months, displayed a magnificent spirit of solidarity. The heroism and pluck of the women folk in standing shoulder to shoulder with the men was a shining example of courage and dauntless determination. In the end the strikers were broken by the influx of Premier Bill Massey’s police thugs who, maddened by liquor (provided by the Tory Government) batoned the strikers [illegible] and murdered one Frederick George Evans. Dragged him through the streets and threw him into a prison cell. He died in hospital a victim of governmental and employers murderous designs and cruelty, a martyr to the movement of the working class. Many of the miners were attacked by ‘scabs’ under police protection, and their property wrecked. Many including myself were forced to leave Waihi because of the threat of victimisation because we would not be re-employed. Those who did get back were forced through a searching screening process. The union President W E Parry and a number of others were imprisoned because they refused to sign bonds for good behaviour. But no strike is ever lost because of the spirit of solidarity manifested and the great boost it gives to trades unionism and the power and strength it puts into the workers hands. During that strike the money that was donated by the working class in NZ and Australia ran into thousands of pounds. That was before capitalistic governments devised the weapon of freezing union funds.

The General Strike

In 1913 a mass movement of workers staged a general strike. Watersiders, miners, labourers, seamen, [illegible] employees and various other trade unions fought for better conditions. The workers gave the employers the greatest fight of their lives. In the words of Robert (Bob) Semple Organiser of the Red Federation, that he would stop the wheels of industry from the North Cape to the Bluff, that is just about what took place. Labour leaders were again imprisoned. The ‘Maoriland Worker’ official organ of the Federation of Labour and the ‘Industrial Unionist’ official organ of the IWW group fought to the death for the working class, whilst the capitalist press, the Auckland ‘Herald’ and ‘Star’, the ‘Dominion’ and others fought tooth and nail for their capitalist masters. Once again the money rolled in from Australian unions and from people who were not on strike in NZ. Strike committees were set up in strike areas and in non-strike areas alike. In the latter areas representatives of the strikers spoke and appealed for funds. In one such area the Thames where a strike committee was set up with myself as secretary, such speakers as M J Savage (afterwards Premier of NZ), Ted Canham (Watersiders), Harry Melrose (IWW), Rob Way and others including local speakers stated the strikers’ case. Once again the bosses’ stooges formed scab unions. A body (13 men?) could form a ‘scab’ union and coerce the remainder into joining it. Thus the strike was again broken. The labour leaders turned to political action, vote us into power they said and we will legislate for you. You will never be jailed if you go on strike with a Labour government in power. But under Prime Minister Peter Fraser (who at one stage led the Waihi Strike as representative of the Red Federation of Labour) did actually cause to be jailed ‘[illegible] workers’ who later on went on strike. How the mighty had fallen!


About 1912 a group known as the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) was formed in Auckland and other places in NZ in the most militant areas. Huntly, West Coast of the South Island, Wellington and elsewhere. The principles of the organization was the advocacy of Industrial Unionism and the One Big Union. Its headquarters were in the USA where it had a big following and had very successful fights with the employing class there. Its preamble went like this: ‘The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life. Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the world’s workers organise as a class, take possession of the earth and the machinery of production and abolish the wages system. [illegible] ‘An Injury to one is an injury to all’. Instead of the conservative motto ‘a fair days wage for a fair days work’, let us inscribe upon our banner the revolutionary watchword: abolition of the wages system.’ The IWW did not believe in parliamentary action. The chief propagandists in the Auckland group were Tom Barker, Charlie Reeves, Frank Hanlon (Editor of ‘Industrial Unionist’), Allan Holmes, Jim Sullivan, Bill Murdoch, Percy Short and Jack O’Brien. Lesser lights but still [illegible] active participation in the struggle were Frank Johnston, George Phillips, Lila Freeman, myself, just to mention a few. The aftermath of the 1913 strike and World War 1 scattered the members far and wide and the group faded away.

— introduced and transcribed by Jared Davidson.

Canterbury Recruiting Union IWW: letters to Maoriland Worker

The following are transcribed letters from the Canterbury Recruiting Union IWW to the Maoriland Worker during 1911. The IWW in Christchurch formed after splitting from the New Zealand Socialist Party in 1910:

The city’s branch of the Socialist Party had no money in their social and general accounts, while the Literature Committee, which operated on a separate fund, had full coffers. Needing money for an upcoming election campaign, a motion was passed to join the three accounts together:

Unfortunately for this scheme the membership of the Literature Committee were anarchist to a man, and had no use for elections… Immediately the meeting concluded the Literature Committee went to work. By the small hours of the following morning they had completed their labours, which consisted of the ordering of over £100 worth of pamphlets and booklets… when they had finished, their finances were in the same state as the rest of the branch.42

Not surprisingly, at the following meeting the resignation of the Literature Committee was called for. The anarchists in question cheerfully left the Party and promptly formed themselves into a branch of the IWW. Some months later a rather large amount of wicker hampers packed with printed material started arriving from overseas—the second result of the Literature Committee’s nocturnal activities.

Remains to Be Seen, Jared Davidson

They seem to have died out, only to be revived again by a visit from Tom Barker in September 1913, with Ernie Kear (the late-secretary of the Passive Resisters Union) becoming secretary of the CHCH IWW (Local 2) and opening their HQ at 180 Cashel Street. They had large meetings at the Addington Workshops, The Clock Tower, and Cathedral Square, as well as holding joint meetings with the PRU.

In both groups anarchist Syd Kingsford played a prominent part, becoming the literature secretary and distributing anarchist papers supplied to him by Philip Josephs (Wellington). In 1913 he was fined with Barker for obstruction—speaking at an IWW meeting from a soapbox at the Clock Tower.

11 June 1911

I think the time has come to have IWW clubs in the four large centres and any industrial district where there are Industrial Unionists, in order to organise and educate the workers of New Zealand for the NZ branch of the IWW; also to make house to house free distribution of papers and books on Industrial Unionism and to supply matters on Industrial Unionism for the workers. I think the members fee should be 1s per month. It would be a good idea to import the best books on Industrial Unionism from America. I think it would be useless to hustle Political Action for the workers without a strong drilled army of Industrial Workers to back demands.

23 June 1911

Dear Comrade,—In this week’s issue Fellow-worker Sweeny advocates the formation of IWW Clubs in the four centres. I have to inform him that in Christchurch we formed a club nine months ago, and have sinced changed it to a recruiting union of the IWW. We have adopted the preamble and as far as possible the constitution of the IWW of America (V. St. John, secretary), are carrying on a propaganda for Industrial Unionism. We have just decided to supply THE WORKER (MW) with matter on Revolutionary Unionism, and the first installment will be sent along shortly. Workers requiring the latest pamphlets on Industrial Unionism may obtain them from me. I think Fellow-worker Sweeny’s idea is a good one and would be pleased to supply a copy of our preamble and constitution to anyone interested.
—Yours in revolt, SYD. KINGSFORD.
107 Riccarton road, Christchurch.

23 June 1911

Canterbury Recruiting Union—At the monthly business meeting, fellow-worker P.Hickey of THE WORKER was present by invitation. He addresses the meeting re enlisting unions’ support for THE WORKER. At the conclusion of an instructive and interesting discussion, the unions agreed to take 3 dozen WORKER per week. F.W.Shepherd’s resignation of the office of general secretary was accepted with regret, and S.J.Roscoe elected to fill the vacancy. A committee was set up to supply the WORKER with literature on Industrial Unionism.

At a special meeting the business was re-forming ourselves into a recruiting union of the NZFL. The idea being to circulate trade unions in and around Christchurch asking them to receive speakers who would place the case for Industrial Unionism before them. After considerable discussion, the following motion was carried: “That this union take a ballot of the members re joining the NZFL; also that each member be supplied with 3 copies of THE WORKER, so that they are clearly understand the Federation’s position’”.
S.J.ROSCOE, secretary.

21 July 1911

S.J.Roscoe, Secretary-treasurer Canterbury Recruiting Union IWW reports that a ballottaken by the branch re joining the NZFL was carried overwhelmingly in favor of the proposal.

1 September 1911

(letter by Kingsford in reply to an article by H.J.Hawkins, General Secretary IWW Clubs of Australia, NSW Executive on 4 August, who claims the CHCH group and those of the Chicago IWW are “frauds”, “bogus”, “fakirs”, “slum proletariats”, “Anarchists”…)


Dear Comrade,—I notice an extract in this week’s WORKER from a letter sent to you by H.J.Hawkins, relating to a “crowd of anarchists” in Christchurch. I do not know if you know the history of the IWW and the incidents that happened at the 4th Convention in 1908, but if you want any vindication of our claim to unofficially representing the IWW in New Zealand I can supply you with all the particulars. I am in possession of information to show you that the IWW (Vincent St.John, General Secretary and treasurer) is the real IWW, and the SLP and its supporters left the organisation in 1908 and started an imitation one with the same name. Just let me know if you are interested, and I will send you full particulars.
—Yours in revolt, SYD KINGSFORD, Literature Secretary, Christchurch IWW Unions. PS—this letter is quite unofficial
(no space to enter into the matter—Ed.)

Remains to be Seen: Tracing Joe Hill’s ashes in New Zealand

Remains to be Seen: Tracing Joe Hill's ashes in New Zealand

Remains to be Seen traces the ashes of Joe Hill from their distribution in Chicago to wartime New Zealand. Drawing on previously unseen archival material, it examines the persecution of anarchists, socialists and Wobblies in New Zealand during the First World War. It also explores how intense censorship measures—put in place by the National Coalition Government of William Massey and zealously enforced by New Zealand’s Solicitor-General, Sir John Salmond—effectively silenced and suppressed the IWW in New Zealand.

The richly illustrated book, and downloadable PDF, is now available from Rebel Press, or at the foot of this article.

On the eve of his execution, Joe Hill—radical songwriter, union organiser and member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)—penned one final telegram from his Utah prison cell: “Could you arrange to have my body hauled to the state line to be buried? I don’t want to be found dead in Utah.”1 His fellow ‘Wobblies’, remaining faithful to his Last Will, did one better. After two massive funerals (the second in Chicago involving over 30,000 people), Hill’s body was cremated, his ashes placed into tiny packets and sent to IWW ‘Locals’, sympathetic organizations and individuals around the world. Among the nations said to receive Hill’s ashes, New Zealand is listed: “Hill’s ashes were placed in envelopes and distributed to IWW locals in every state but Utah. Envelopes were also sent to South America, Europe, Asia, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia.”2

Yet nothing is known about what happened to the ashes of Joe Hill in New Zealand. Even the late Bert Roth, meticulous researcher and pioneer of New Zealand radical labour history, found scant answers to his own search in the 1960s.3 Were Hill’s ashes really sent to New Zealand? Or was New Zealand simply listed to give such a symbolic act more scope? If they did make it, what happened to them?

The ashes of Joe Hill themselves are shrouded in myth. Prevailing accounts of what happened to Hill’s body upon cremation are riddled with factual errors and embellishment. For example, the date of the distribution of Hill’s ashes— believed for so long to be May Day 1916—is wrong. Actual examples of ceremonies involving Hill’s ashes are also few and far between, and due to massive state censorship and suppression of the IWW any documentation of other ceremonies has been lost or destroyed. Such factors make it difficult to pinpoint the exact fate of Joe Hill’s ashes in New Zealand.

Despite the fact that no concrete evidence has been found, there is every reason to believe that the ashes of Joe Hill were indeed sent to New Zealand. IWW cultural endeavours were common in the country, there were members of the IWW and organised IWW Locals in many of its towns and cities, and despite state repression, there were still echoes of the IWW reverberating inside the New Zealand labour movement at the time Hill’s ashes were distributed.

However by 1917 the IWW in New Zealand had been whittled down to a scattering of individuals, violently smashed by a united front of employers and government during the Great Strike of 1913, and targeted throughout the First World War by regulations designed to stamp out militant labour and the Wobblies once and for all. Alongside anarchists and other radical socialists, New Zealand Wobblies felt the full force of the state.

While the repression faced by the IWW in New Zealand pales when compared with the brutality inflicted on the American IWW, New Zealand Wobblies nonetheless suffered severe persecution by the National Coalition Government. Many were arrested and imprisoned for twelve months with hard labour, while their publications were singled out and scrutinised. Although there is evidence to suggest that the industrial tactics of the Wobblies such as the ‘go-slow’ actually increased after the Great Strike,4 to preach revolutionary syndicalism at that time—on a street corner or in writing—was a sure way of ending up in jail.

New Zealand during (and after) the War was far from an ideal environment for Wobblies and their anti-militarist, anti-capitalist material. As well as the extreme jingoism caused by the nation’s involvement in the First World War, IWW ephemera faced far-reaching censorship measures put in place by the New Zealand government and, in particular, by Sir John Salmond—Solicitor-General and self-imposed guardian of the New Zealand state. Both internal and international correspondence was stopped, censored, or destroyed by a team of censors working under the control of the New Zealand Military, which in turn, was guided by Sir John Salmond.

Through the monitoring and censorship of IWW material and the targeting of Wobblies themselves, ‘Salmond’s State’ effectively “extinguished the flames that the (IWW) movement fanned.”5 Salmond’s accusing eye and his keen interest in suppressing material of the ‘mischievous’ kind played a pivotal role in silencing the New Zealand IWW during the First World War and, in turn, is likely to have determined the fate of Joe Hill’s ashes.

Joe Hill: murdered minstrel of toil

There are a number of books, articles and other cultural productions about the life of Joe Hill, though his farcical trial and subsequent execution on 19 November 1915 has some-times overshadowed his achievements as an organiser and writer of radical songs.6 With this comes the notion put forward by Hill’s detractors that his legend was ‘blown up’ after his death: “a far less authentic martyr than Little, Everest, Ford, Suhr [other Wobbly martyrs] or a half-dozen others, Joe Hill was easier to blow up to martyrdom because he had the poet’s knack of self-dramatization.”7

However such a view obscures the tremendous influence of Joe Hill’s songs and the importance of cultural forms in the struggle for social change—of creating, as Hill’s biographer Franklin Rosemont put it, a “working class counter-culture.” Those in power were certainly threatened by the existence of such forms and, as we shall see, used a number of means to stamp them out.

In an iconic linocut poster of Joe Hill, Wobbly artist Carlos Cortez rightly celebrates the many facets of Joe Hill: “union organiser, labor agitator, cartoonist, poet, musician, composer, itinerant worker, arbetarsangaren”—whose songs, as Cortez points out, “are still being sung.” Musicologist and author Wayne Hampton cites Joe Hill as “the most important protest songwriter in the history of the American labor movement,” placing Hill alongside John Lennon, Woodie Guthrie and Bob Dylan as the four most powerful “Guerrilla Minstrels” of the twentieth century.8 Indeed, the influence of Joe Hill and his songs have reached far and wide:

the rich ore of Joe Hill’s life and legend has been mined by many writers and poets. Joe Hill is found in books of fiction by Archie Binns; Elias Tombenkin; John Dos Passos; Margaret Graham; Alexander Saxton; and a number of others. He is found in plays by Upton Sinclair; Louis Lembert; and Arturo Giovannitti. He is found in poems by Kenneth Patchen; Kenneth Rexroth; Carl Sandburg; Alfred Hayes; and Carlos Cortez… Joe Hill appears in every kind of book from cultural studies to regional history books to books on revolutions and natural history…9

Not bad for a Swedish migrant worker, who, after emigrating to America in 1902 and working a string of jobs (including work on the San Pedro, California docks), found a home agitating and organising on behalf of the Industrial Workers of the World.

Many a Wobbly (and historians) believe that it was Hill’s organising that prompted his arrest and execution for the murder of shopkeeper John G Morrison, and his son, on the night of 10 January 1914. The murder—which appeared to Police as a crime of revenge—was attributed to Hill despite circumstantial evidence and international outcry. On 19 November 1915, Joe Hill faced the firing squad to the dismay of Wobblies, liberals, and even figures hostile to labour (such as US President Woodrow Wilson).

Admittedly, Hill’s trial and execution, so publicly played out in America and around the world, makes for rich folklore. But such an event alone does not explain the longevity of Hill’s influence. As Gibbs Smith points out in his seminal biography of Joe Hill, the simple reason was the legacy of his songs: “without them Hill would probably have been just another forgotten migrant worker.”10

Joe Hill’s songs spoke to, and engaged with, his fellow-workers, “turning into lyrical expression their everyday experience of disillusionment, hardship, bitterness, and injustice.”11 From rhymes about strikes to parodies of religious hymns, the songs of Joe Hill were both educational and organisational tools—conveying radical ideas more success-fully than a pamphlet or book ever could. And they were popular too: “Joe Hill’s songs swept across the country; they were sung in jails, jungles, picket lines, demonstrations. IWW sailors carried them to other countries. Wobblies knew their words as well as they knew the first sentence to the IWW preamble.”12

The songs of Joe Hill were certainly well received in Australasia. In New Zealand, The Little Red Song Book, one of the IWW’s most popular pamphlets consisting of revolutionary parodies and prose, helped spread Joe Hill’s songs amongst the labour movement of the day. Even the New Zealand weekly, Truth, quoted Joe Hill’s lyrics on occasion:

All of which reminds “Critic” of the words of Joe Hill’s song:

You will eat bye-and-bye,
In the glorious land above the sky:
Work and pray, live on hay,
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.13

On Australian street corners Wobblies battled the Salvation Army in song, using Hill’s work and the Little Red Song Book to tremendous effect. “We used to have some really good singing at our meetings,” recalls Tom Barker, influential member of both the New Zealand and Australian IWW, and editor of its paper Direct Action:

as a matter of fact, we usually picked up the Salvation Army crowd when they had finished and marched away… we were waiting behind the girls with the poke bonnets and, once they’d given the big drum a bang and set off, we’d take over, put up our platform and carry on with the philosophy of the working class as we saw it.14

At union meetings up and down Australia one could hear “many a sweet voice singing cheerfully the songs of the IWW.”15 A particular favourite of Australian workers was ‘The Preacher and the Slave’ (also known as ‘Pie in the Sky’) quoted above.

Such popularity suggests that Joe Hill was no stranger to Australian and New Zealand shores, at least in song. Culturally, the IWW was well established ‘down under’ at the time of Hill’s final act—the dividing and distribution of his cremated remains. The story that his ashes came to New Zealand after his execution is not as far-fetched as it seems on first reading. Whether they made it past the New Zealand authorities however, is a story in itself.

The myth of May Day 1916

While his songs about capitalism, the plight of the working class and the possibility of a better world live on, so have myths around the distribution of Joe Hill’s ashes—nurtured by contributions from friend and foe alike. These contributions, factual or otherwise, have helped shape the prevailing account of Joe Hill’s ashes.

Joseph Hillstrom was cremated at Graceland Cemetery on 26 November 1915, his funeral the previous day having filled all 5,000 seats of Chicago’s West Side Auditorium.16 According to almost every narrative on Joe Hill, his ashes were then scattered around the world on 1 May 1916, (May Day). Barrie Stavis, author of the biographical play The Man Who Never Died, wrote:

Joe Hill’s ashes were placed in many small envelopes. These were sent to IWW members and sympathizers in all forty-eight states of the United States except one, the State of Utah… and to every country in South America, to Europe, to Asia, to Australia, to New Zealand and to South Africa. With fitting ceremonies and the singing of his songs, on May 1, 1916, the ashes of Joe Hill were scattered over the earth in these many countries.17

This, or similar variations on the May Day 1916 theme, has become Wobbly folklore. However it was not until the first anniversary of Hill’s death six months later (19 November 1916) that his ashes were actually distributed. Tiny packets containing the ashes of Joe Hill were given to delegates in Chicago for the IWW’s Tenth Convention, due to take place the following day. The rest of the packets were then posted on 3 January 1917.

The New York Times of 20 November 1916, reported: “one hundred and fifty of the envelopes were given to the IWW delegates at the Joe Hill meeting… the remaining 450 will be sent to IWW locals throughout the land.”18 In slightly more poetic terms the Industrial Worker, paper of the American IWW, noted:

in the presence of a great gathering of the workers and with impressive ceremony, Wm D. Haywood, General-Secretary Treasurer of the Industrial Workers of the World presented packets of the ashes of our murdered Fellow Worker to the delegates to the tenth convention of the organization and to fraternal delegates from the organised workers of other countries.19

Each packet bore a photograph of Joe Hill and the headline: “Joe Hill. Murdered by the Capitalist Class. November 19, 1915”; on the reverse was Hill’s Last Will and the words, “We Never Forget.” Packets that were sent by mail included a letter detailing Hill’s last wishes and a card instructing each “Fellow Worker” to “kindly address a letter to Wm D. Haywood, Room 307, 164 W. Washington St., Chicago, Ill., telling the circumstances and where the ashes were distributed.”20

Unfortunately none of these return letters have survived. Nationwide raids on IWW headquarters by the United States Government on 5 September 1917, and the subsequent destruction of IWW files has meant the loss of valuable information regarding the final distribution of Hill’s ashes. “From the Chicago HQ alone the authorities confiscated over five tons of material,”21 material that could have clarified what kind of ceremonies took place, when they took place, and where.

Of the few that have been documented it appears none took place on May Day 1916, as previously believed. One reference to a May Day ceremony appears in the 1932 novel Nineteen Nineteen by John Dos Passos, though it mentions no year. In 1948 Wallace Stegner wrote in the New Republic that “little envelopes of Joe Hill’s ashes were scattered next May Day [1916] over every state in the union and every country in the world.”22 Two years later in his fictional account of Joe Hill’s life, Stegner opens with a chapter titled “May Day 1916”, which describes a ceremony at Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Seattle. The notion that such ceremonies took place simultaneously around the world in 1916 is also reaffirmed: “…on that May Day, in every country in the world and every state in the Union except one, tiny envelopes of Joe Hill’s dust were being scattered.”23

There is evidence of such a ceremony in Seattle and it did take place on May Day, but in 1917, not 1916. Several thousand Wobblies and their supporters marched to Mount Pleasant Cemetery and scattered the ashes of Joe Hill over the grave of fellow IWW martyrs John Looney, Felix Baran and Hugo Gerlot, victims of the Everett Massacre.24

Of course it is not impossible that some kind of informal ceremony could have taken place before the ashes were officially given out, but it seems odd that the IWW would promote an early ceremony and therefore detract from the highly symbolic gathering organised for the anniversary of his execution.

Significantly, Stegner’s embellished account appears to be the source of the incorrect date used by subsequent historians. His novel was the first of a string of books released around the 1950s that revisited the life and death of Joe Hill and helped nourish his legend, although Stegner’s book and his earlier article was far from sympathetic to Hill—believing him to be “as violent an IWW as ever lived” and guilty of the murder for which he was executed.25

Instead of fertilising the world on May Day 1916, it seems that the ashes of Joe Hill were still firmly sealed in the IWW safe, waiting to be released on the first anniversary of his death.

To supporters in every inhabited continent on the globe

If the mistaken date on which Hill’s ashes were scattered has been accepted for so long, it is plausible that the list of countries where they were sent could also be wrong. Unlike the mistaken date however, the list of places said to have received Hill’s ashes originates with a more authoritative source.

Ralph Chaplin’s 1948 autobiography Wobbly was the first to list the countries where Hill’s ashes were sent, including New Zealand.26 Before Chaplin’s book, references to where they were actually sent were vague, preferring ‘in every state of the union’ or simply ‘around the world.’ Chaplin—a fellow IWW artist-poet and member of the five-person committee in charge of Hill’s cremation—kept Hill’s memory alive with frequent articles on Joe Hill in widely distributed labour papers such as New Masses and International Socialist Review.27 His eyewitness account of the funeral and cremation is the primary source for biographers of Joe Hill.

It must be considered that at the time of writing his book Chaplin simply listed current or past locals from around the world in order to give the act a sense of grandeur, regardless of whether the ashes were actually sent there or not. Chaplin had been the editor of the American IWW’s Eastern newspaper Solidarity, had written numerous poems about Hill, and was an accomplished Wobbly propagandist. However his listing of specific countries is likely to be credible, due to his intimate involvement with Hill’s funerals and cremation, and his central role within the organization itself. Of all the Wobblies active at that time, Chaplin’s cultural sensibility would have made him at the least interested in, if not the instigator of, such an encompassing event.

Ironically, by 1948 Chaplin had become a Christian, and while not going as far as repudiating the IWW he certainly was not writing his autobiography in order to preach the gospel of the ‘One Big Union.’ This, and the fact that a number of countries did receive Hill’s ashes as Chaplin described, lends credibility to Chaplin’s list.

One country that is known to have received Hill’s ashes by mail in 1917 was New Zealand’s nearest neighbour, Australia. Much to his surprise, Tom Barker received an unexpected package one Saturday morning:

to my astonishment, I got a parcel from the IWW organization at Salt Lake City containing a portion of the ashes of Joe Hill. We decided that we would have a ceremonial depositing of the ashes on the following Sunday in the garden near the Domain [the largest public space in central Sydney], so we could say that we had Joe planted firmly in Australia. The plan would have worked except for one thing—about two hours afterwards the police raided us.28

Barker and his fellow Wobblies were removed while the police went to work, ransacking the offices and confiscating material. When Barker returned, Hill’s ashes had gone. Asking the Chief at the Central Police Station about them, he was told: “you’re too late, I threw them in the back of the fire.”29

If Wobblies in Australia received Hill’s ashes by mail as Chaplin had indicated, there is reason to believe New Zealand Wobblies could have been sent them as well. According to the proceedings of the Tenth Convention of the IWW, no New Zealander was present at that convention, which suggests any ashes bound for New Zealand would have been posted there rather than distributed by hand in Chicago.30 At that time Australia and New Zealand shared the same postal shipping lines, with Sydney mail arriving from the Northern Hemisphere by way of Auckland.31 It would have been no more difficult to send Hill’s ashes to an address in New Zealand than to send them to Australia. In fact, New Zealand had been receiving a steady stream of IWW material by mail ever since the IWW’s 1905 inaugural convention in Chicago.

Sowing the seeds of rebellion

The modernisation of international postal lines, the inter-national character of IWW ideas, and the transient nature of those who adhered to them meant New Zealand Wobblies were far from isolated. The popularity of the IWW’s songs and the influx of IWW literature in New Zealand suggest that Chaplin’s claim of New Zealand receiving Hill’s ashes is highly credible.

The IWW’s origins and growth in New Zealand was typical of working class fermentation around the globe in the years leading up to the First World War. In response to the failure of unionism divided by trade and in order to combat the ever-increasing scope of capital, the ideas and tactics of revolutionary syndicalism gained adherents in many corners of the world. Radical socialists and anarchists found fertile ground for their ideas amongst the working class, and New Zealand was no different.

In 1908 the first IWW Local was formed in the capital, Wellington, with the intention of transcending trade unionism that “plays into the hands of capital to the enslavement and misleading of labour.”32 Before the outbreak of the First World War other Locals were formed in the cities of Auckland and Christchurch, while informal groups sprung up in industrial towns such as Huntly, Waihi and Denniston. In 1912 the Auckland Local “received its charter from the IWW headquarters in Chicago, becoming Local 175.”33

However, New Zealand’s connection to the American IWW goes back even further than 1908. According to Roth a number of Kiwi miners were present at the 1905 inaugural convention of the IWW in Chicago, including “Jones, later secretary of the Paparoa Miners’ Union.”34 William Trautmann, co-founder of the IWW and key speaker at the Chicago convention, was born in New Zealand and often spoke of his New Zealand roots.35 The New Zealand Socialist Party, through their paper Commonweal, had “voiced the creed of the Industrial Workers of the World” since 1906,36 while roaming revolutionaries such as Canadian H M Fitzgerald—much like IWW literature—bridged the gap between northern and southern hemispheres. ‘Fellow-worker’, the term Wobblies used to address each other in America, quickly replaced ‘comrade’ in New Zealand.37

Pamphlets and newspapers of the IWW had a wide circulation in New Zealand. The Wellington branch of the Socialist Party “found that it failed to anticipate the demand for American pamphlets.”38 According to the Secretary of the Waihi branch, imported IWW anti-militarist pamphlets were “finding a ready sale” in Waihi.39 Chunks of IWWism and Industrial Unionism, two New Zealand IWW pamphlets, sold in quantities of 3,000 and 1,000 copies each, while the Industrial Unionist, newspaper of the New Zealand IWW, reached a circulation of 4,000 (when the population of the entire country was little more than a million).40

As Mark Derby has pointed out, the distribution of cheap printed propaganda was vital to the spread of IWW ideas and tactics. “New Zealand Wobblies relied on the impact of IWW literature such as the Little Red Songbook,” moving from town to town “sowing the seed of rebellion.”41 The existence and spread of such material in New Zealand would suggest that Hill’s ashes, like past Wobbly propaganda, could have easily been sent to the Dominion.

The popularity of IWW, anarchist and revolutionary syndicalist literature in New Zealand is further illustrated by the formation of the Christchurch IWW Local in 1910. The city’s branch of the Socialist Party had no money in their social and general accounts, while the Literature Committee, which operated on a separate fund, had full coffers. Needing money for an upcoming election campaign, a motion was passed to join the three accounts together:

Unfortunately for this scheme the membership of the Literature Committee were anarchist to a man, and had no use for elections… Immediately the meeting concluded the Literature Committee went to work. By the small hours of the following morning they had completed their labours, which consisted of the ordering of over £100 worth of pamphlets and booklets… when they had finished, their finances were in the same state as the rest of the branch.42

Not surprisingly, at the following meeting the resignation of the Literature Committee was called for. The anarchists in question cheerfully left the Party and promptly formed themselves into a branch of the IWW. Some months later a rather large amount of wicker hampers packed with printed material started arriving from overseas—the second result of the Literature Committee’s nocturnal activities.

For those in power, the influence of the New Zealand IWW’s literature and its revolutionary adherents was no laughing matter. Faced by a militant working class and the eruption of outright class war during the strikes of 1912 and 1913, what one local Wobbly called the “deliberately organised thuggery by [Prime Minister] Massey and Co.”43 used violent means to quell the unrest, and the IWW itself. Striking workers faced naked bayonets and machine guns in the streets of Wellington, while special constables (volunteer, untrained additional police, mainly recruited from farm workers) revelled in cracking heads. The most militant agitators, including Wobblies, were arrested, or fled the country to dodge arrest.

Repression of the New Zealand IWW did not stop after the collapse of the strike in late 1913. The IWW and its members were monitored, scrutinised and silenced after the Great Strike and for the duration of the war that followed. Their literature and printed material became a primary concern for the state. By the time Hill’s ashes were divided into 600 packets and distributed worldwide there were no longer any IWW Locals in existence in New Zealand, only individuals scattered across the country.

Echoes of the IWW

After the defeat of the Great Strike, prominent Wobblies such as Tom Barker, Frank Hanlon and Harry Melrose moved on to more fertile shores, the harsh repression experienced during 1913 having “shattered the strong movement which Barker and others had built up.”44 The majority who did stay in New Zealand adapted to life without their own organization, and the increasingly stifling conditions of a nation heading towards an even larger confrontation—the First World War.

However the IWW in New Zealand was not dead, and there were certainly possible recipients of Hill’s ashes in the country in 1917. IWW and revolutionary socialist orators could still be found on street corners around the country leading up to and during the First World War, although no longer packing the punch they once had. Wobblies continued to organise during the war years—albeit quietly—either within other organizations, or on their own.

The Australian IWW paper Direct Action listed IWW contacts in the New Zealand cities of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch up to 15 February 1915. The 1 October 1914 edition carried a news piece titled “From the Locals”, in which H J Wrixton, Secretary Treasurer of the Wellington Local, described the prevailing militarism and unemployment in the capital.45 Bill Murdoch, manager and publisher of the by-then defunct Industrial Unionist, was prominent in the Waterside Workers Union: “a big man with a big voice… there was seldom a meeting when it was not heard.”46 In 1915-16 Christchurch Wobbly-anarchist Syd Kingsford was still in the city working as a carpenter, though he kept his political activities quiet after the outbreak of war. Fellow Christchurch Wobbly Reg Williams did not, and was jailed accordingly. Other Wobblies set up “escape routes for conscientious objectors” during the war, “smuggling them in coal bunkers of ships to Australia.”47

In 1915 IWW stickers measuring two inches by two and a half inches were reported to frequent the Wellington wharves. Bearing the title “How to make your job easier”, these silent agitators advocated the direct action tactic championed by the IWW: the ‘go-slow.’ “Get wise to IWW tactics. Don’t be a pacemaker, someone has to be the slowest, let it be you… Fast workers die young. Live a long life. Join the Industrial Workers of the World, the Fighting Union.”48 In a cheeky swipe at conscription, one sticker was stuck in the middle of a National Registration poster.

Another silent agitator to appear in Wellington was Tom Barker’s infamous anti-war poster, To Arms!—a satirical poster calling on “Capitalists, Parsons, Politicians, Landlords, Newspaper Editors and other Stay-At-Home Patriots” to fill the trenches. Four copies of the poster were “smuggled across the Tasman… and pasted up outside the Supreme Court in Wellington,” causing the judge to suspend the court until the offending posters were removed.49

IWW and radical literature continued to find willing readers via well-known Wellington tailor and anarchist, Philip Josephs. One such reader was another Wobbly-anarchist, J Sweeney. On 3 November 1915, he wrote to Josephs from the small South Island town of Blenheim for one year’s subscription to Mother Earth and Freedom, anarchist journals from the United States and Britain respectively. As well as ordering literature, Sweeny asked Josephs to “remember me to the Direct Action Rebels in Wellington,” indicating there were still Wobblies active in the capital at that time. With typical Wobbly flair, Sweeney signed his letter: “Yours for Direct Action. No Political Dope.”50

Josephs’ distribution of foreign literature such as Mother Earth, his involvement with the IWW, and the fact that he was active for most of the war could have made him a recipient of Hill’s ashes. A Latvian-born Jew, Josephs had been actively involved in radical circles since his arrival from Scotland in 1904, eventually forming New Zealand’s first anarchist collective, Freedom Group, in 1913. A frequent speaker on topics such as ‘Anarchism and Outrage’, and ‘Socialism vs. Orthodox Religions’, Josephs also helped other ‘firebrands’ spread the word. “With the help of our anarchist friend and comrade P Josephs” wrote Barker in 1913, “I had 11 propaganda meetings in 14 days.”51

As well as organising speaking tours, it appears that in 1915 Josephs’ shop was, or had been, the Wellington head-quarters of the IWW. Any postage to the Local was received care of Josephs,52 as the New Zealand Police soon discovered. On 8 October both Josephs’ home in the Wellington suburb of Khandallah and his Cuba Street shop in central Wellington were raided by the Police. As well as “eleven newspapers in foreign print,” the Police found numerous IWW material, including “a number of unused official membership books, rubber stamps, and other gear used in connection with that constitution,” as well as IWW pamphlets.53 In one memorandum the Police stated: “it would appear from books found in Josephs’ possession that he obtains such literature from America.”54

However Josephs was not the only supporter receiving IWW literature in the mail at that time. Others around the country, and the Maoriland Worker, paper of the New Zealand Federation of Labour, regularly received copies of IWW newspapers Solidarity and Direct Action. But by 1917 the Federation had a deep-seated lack of sympathy for the IWW and unlike the labour movement in other parts of the world, failed to take up the cause of Joe Hill’s defence.55 The trial and execution of Joe Hill did manage to grace its pages, but only just—featuring in a mere eight articles (less than 500 lines). Most of them were straight news stories without editorial comment.56

This faint echo of IWW activity during the war is enough to suggest that there were Wobblies in New Zealand eligible to receive Hill’s ashes. Their activities, and wider working class objections to New Zealand’s involvement in the war, were also enough to set the repressive gears of the state in motion. For the National Coalition Government, headed by anti-labour conservative William Massey, socialist activity represented the threat of larger resistance to its involvement in the First World War, or even worse, a possible repeat of the growth experienced by militant labour leading up to the revolutionary moments of 1913. The government took measures to clamp down on any non-conformist activity it deemed seditious. “Any rhetoric which might encourage the development of strikes, conscience, or cowardice” was repressed,57 and the pretence of war conditions was used by the state to further cement its hold.

Seditious intentions

On 23 October 1914, the War Regulations Bill passed all of its readings in Parliament without a single word of debate. The resulting War Regulations Act empowered the executive branch of the National Coalition government to regulate all aspects of national life without reference to Parliament.58 During the course of the war, the regulations (initially of a purely military nature) were extended to cover dissent of the political kind. Individuals and organizations deemed capable of seditious activity were singled out and scrutinised—the activities of militant labour in particular.

Seditious activity was a category of elastic dimensions, defined by the state in such a way as to encompass a broad range of activity—including anything deemed critical of the New Zealand government, the war effort, and conscription:

Clause 1 provides as follows: ‘No person shall publish or cause or permit to be published or do any act with intent to publish or to cause or permit to be published any seditious utterance.’ ‘Seditious utterance’ is defined in Clause 3 of the Regulations as any utterance which is published with a seditious intention or the publication of which has seditious tendency.59

The final say on what exactly constituted seditious intentions often fell to Sir John Salmond, Solicitor-General of New Zealand from 1910-20. It was Salmond who widened the original definition of sedition laid out in the Crimes Act 1908, and the man behind the War Regulations Act. During his term as Solicitor-General, Salmond often “relied on common law authority to justify, in cases of necessity, state action which would otherwise be illegal.”60 It was his opinions to the Minister of Defence, the Police Department, and other arms of the state that sanctioned the censorship and repression of those in defiance of the War Regulations.

The Solicitor-General pursued sedition furiously, often in a way that blurred the lines of legality. “For Salmond, ‘legality’ ended when the State’s peril began.”61 If his advice to use special constables and naval forces against workers during the Great Strike, and the flurry of prosecutions during the war was anything to go by, ‘Salmond’s State’ had “a low threshold of pain.”62 As well as recommending that pacifists, unionists, and members of the Anti-Conscription League be prosecuted for ‘mischievous agitation’, Salmond ordered that the bells of Christchurch’s Lutheran Cathedral be melt-ed down on the grounds that they were made in Germany.

Rather than mere legal sanctions, such persecution under the War Regulations was clearly politically motivated. The Defence Department had earlier recommended the “wholesale arrest of agitators, leaders and resisters,”63 while Police or detectives could be relied upon to attend every public labour or anti-conscription meeting.64 Richard Hill, foremost historian of the New Zealand Police Force, notes that censorship “gradually increased in severity and in political rather than military significance.”65 Rather tellingly, those convicted of publishing information deemed valuable to the enemy were fined amounts ranging from 5/- to £10, while anyone who publicly criticised the actions of the New Zealand government was fined £100 or received twelve months imprisonment with hard labour. Of those convicted during the war for sedition, “almost all were socialist or pacifist.”66

When fiery unionist and Federation of Labour organiser Robert Semple was arrested for sedition in December 1916, Salmond recommended he be given “as long a term of imprisonment as is practicable.”67 Semple had told coal miners to resist conscription, which he believed was the “beginning of the servile state aimed not at the Kaiser but the working classes.”68 He was jailed for twelve months—his speech prompting the government to further the reach of the War Regulations Act and increase its prosecutions. (Ironically, Semple became a Cabinet Minister in the 1935 Labour Government and would later conscript New Zealand workers to kill their fellow-workers during World War Two).

As well as Semple, other labour leaders (including future Prime Minister Peter Fraser) suffered the long arm of Salmond’s law. Strikes in essential war industries were outlawed and defined as seditious. Socialist objections to conscription, Christians who argued that militarism was contrary to their religious beliefs, and sometimes, harmless banter between friends, were all defined as seditious. By the war’s end 287 people had been charged with sedition or disloyalty: 208 were convicted and 71 sent to prison.69

The New Zealand state was a world leader in using wartime regulations to political ends. As John Anderson, historian on the use and abuse of censorship during the First World War, points out: “the English government was more tolerant of criticism than the Massey administration, and did not readily initiate prosecutions for sedition.”70 In Australia, the Deputy Chief Censor:

requested that if anarchist literature was to be prohibited, action should not be taken by his office, because he did not think he was warranted in using his power against books which… were not objectionable from the standpoint of a military censorship.71

The New Zealand authorities, however, were quite happy to use the powers at their disposal to silence political opposition. When, in 1918, the British government advised that it was lifting export restrictions on British paper the Labour Leader, the New Zealand government “immediately urged that the prohibition be maintained.”72 Salmond and his cohorts insisted that they were using their discretion “in the public interest,” even though much of the suppressed material was of no military significance and “had circulated freely throughout New Zealand before the war.”73

Even after the end of the First World War the New Zealand government increasingly invoked the War Regulations in order to restrict the movement of socialists and their literature. The regulations “were entrenched, one year after armistice, by an Undesirable Immigrants Act, giving the state the power to ban entry to anybody deemed ‘disaffected and disloyal.’”74 Although the War Regulations were amended in 1920, it took a further 27 years for the Act to be repealed.

German-born children of the devil

Members of the IWW were even more of a target than pacifists or labour leaders, due to their advocacy of direct action at the point of production, their fostering of an oppositional working class counter-culture, and their radical critique of capitalism. As Joe Hill wrote: “war certainly shows up the capitalist system in its right light. Millions of men are employed at making ships and others are hired to sink them.”75 Not surprisingly, New Zealand’s Crown Prosecutor “repeatedly stressed the distinction between sincere objectors… and ‘parasites’, ‘anarchists’, and other IWW types.”76

One livid writer in the Otago Daily Times wanted “doctrines bearing the sinister IWW brand” to be stamped out:

The stuff is poisonous—to a degree revolutionary and even blasphemous… in a time such as this, when the struggle in which the nation is engaged emphasises the vital importance of harmony and efficiency… the blatant proclamation of pestilential revolutionary doctrines such as the IWW preaches is little removed from treason.77

As a result, a number of Wobblies were arrested and given maximum jail time under the War Regulations. ‘Rabid Orator’ and past Committee member of the Wellington IWW, Joseph Herbert Jones, was imprisoned for a speech made to 500 people in Dixon Street, Wellington. “I want the working class to say to the masters,” said Jones, “we don’t want war. We won’t go to the war.”78 During his court appearance Jones read a long and ‘inflammatory’ poem that received applause from onlookers in the court (the text of which, regrettably, appears to have disappeared without a trace). The judge was not impressed, nor did he share Jones’ view that all he had done was defend the interests of his fellow-workers. He was sentenced to twelve months imprisonment with hard labour.

Another militant to receive a twelve month sentence was Sidney Fournier. Fournier had caused “hostility and ill-will between different classes of His Majesty’s subjects” by opposing the Conscription Act and calling on workers to fight the only war that mattered—class war:

The view of us workers is that we should be fighting the only war in which we can at least become victorious— that is, the class war, or the war between the classes of people who own and control the wealth in all the countries that are now at war, and the people who labour and are exploited by the wealthy classes in all countries. The truth is this war is being forced on us by conscription, because as we know they take any opportunity that will produce them more wealth and give them more opportunity of oppression, until a peace could be brought about to their advantage, as they conceive it.79

When Fournier was arrested he was found to have in his possession a membership card of the IWW, a book on sabotage, a manifesto against conscription and other “anarchist literature.”80 This, and his speech, was enough to seal Fournier’s fate. On his release he was blacklisted and prevented from working on the Wellington wharves.

For a few in power the persecution and jailing of Wobblies was not enough. One Member of Parliament wanted to take a leaf out of Australia’s book and make it legal to deport individuals associated with the IWW. MP Vernon Reed asked in Parliament whether Prime Minister Massey had considered the provisions of the Unlawful Associations Amendment Bill introduced in Australia, “aiming at the destruction of the IWW and kindred institutions, and providing for the deportation or undesirables; and whether he will introduce into Parliament a measure having similar objects?”81 In reply, Massey stated that such a law was under consideration, although it was apparently never introduced.

When they were not being arrested or threatened with deportation, it seems the Wobblies were causing all sorts of problems on the home front—if one believes the newspapers of the day. In line with their fellow-workers around the world, Wobblies in New Zealand quickly became scapegoats for any kind of unscrupulous activity during the war. The press was quick to dub the IWW as ‘Hirelings of the Huns’ and tar workers involved in labour disputes with the IWW brush. As one Wellington poet put it:

If you need a scapegoat, don’t let it trouble you.
Put it all down to the I-Double W.82

In 1917 alone over 300 newspaper articles mentioned the IWW—next-to-none were favourable.83 A Wellington Waterside Workers’ Union member noted in the Evening Post: “it used to be the ‘Red Fed’ bogey; now it is the IWW.”84 In one bizarre article, ‘The Critic’ responded to an auctioneer’s listing of ‘famous IWW hens’ in the Manawatu Evening Standard with: “‘IWW hens?’ If these belong to the order of ‘I Wont Work’ they will probably get it where the Square Deal would like to give it to their human prototypes—in the neck!”85 When the shipping vessel Port Kembla was destroyed off the coast of Farewell Spit, one writer in the Ashburton Guardian put it down to pro-German sabotage, stating: “this Dominion is not by any means free of the noxious IWW element” and “this type of human being should be put out of existence on the first evidence of abnormality.”86

Such war hysteria, coupled with state repression, made it near impossible for New Zealand Wobblies to raise their heads above ground during the later years of the war, let alone celebrate the death of one of their martyrs. To do that, Hill’s ashes also had to evade the watchful gaze of Salmond’s State and the strict censorship of correspondence, a feat in itself.

Guardians at the gate

The ashes of Joe Hill would have arrived in New Zealand at a time when the state was on high alert and guarding against such incendiary material. Even though the packet destined for Australia was received without incident, the odds were stacked against Hill’s ashes making it into New Zealand. State surveillance of mail was in place ahead of Australia, and as early as 1915 the New Zealand authorities had specifically singled out literature by the IWW as a primary concern. International and domestic mail was thoroughly checked by a number of censors, and the post office boxes of suspected individuals were monitored for seditious content.

Even before the outbreak of war, steps were taken to give the state more power to halt the importation of ‘indecent’ literature into the country. The Customs Act 1913 allowed Customs officers with warrants to search any house, premises, or place suspected of harbouring uncustomed or indecent goods, including books and printed material. From then on Customs worked closely with the Post and Telegraph Department, and during the war, with the Police and Defence Departments.

As a way of keeping tabs on the influx of imported literature, Customs adopted a system of publication lists that compiled titles of banned books.87 IWW literature was soon added to the list. In 1915 MP John Hornsby raised questions in Parliament about the “circulation in this country of pamphlets of a particularly obnoxious and deplorable nature, emanating from an organization known as the Independent World’s Workers [sic]—commonly referred to as the IWW.”88 Hornsby asked whether immediate steps would be taken “to prevent the circulation through the post of the harmful publications in connection with the propaganda of this anarchial [sic] society—a society which openly preached sabotage, which meant in plain English, assassination and destruction of property?”89 The resulting Order in Council of 20 September amended the 1913 Customs Act, “prohibit[ing] the importation into New Zealand of the newspapers called Direct Action and Solidarity, and all other printed matter published or printed or purporting to be published or printed by or on behalf of the society known as ‘The Industrial Workers of the World.’”90

The response to this action was mixed. The New Zealand Federation of Labour hardly batted an eyelid at such brazen censorship of a fellow labour organization. The Maoriland Worker “failed to raise its voice in protest against the restriction and the only mention of it occurs parenthetically in the issue of 27 October 1915,” that is, over a month later.91 In Australia, Direct Action reported the law in typical IWW fashion. An article headed “Kaiserism in New Zealand” declared “the fact that the employing class of New Zealand found it necessary to exclude… IWW papers and literature… is the best tribute to the influence of direct action propaganda.”92 In another article, Direct Action predicted the increase of its popularity:

Since Massey & Co’s special law was enacted against ‘Direct Action’ there is a greater demand in New Zealand for the paper than ever, and if the law remains in force for a year or two we hope to have a wider circle of readers in New Zealand than even in Australia.93

Direct Action was certainly sought after in New Zealand—by the state. Two months after the Order of Council was in place, the Post and Telegraph Department reported the witholding of “14 single copies [of] Direct Action; 2 bundles [of] Direct Action;” as well as “6 bundles [of] Solidarity.”94 When Charles J. Johnson was arrested in 1917 and found to have “an enormous amount of IWW literature” in his possession, including three copies of Direct Action, the Chief Detective said “with the greatest confidence” that “this man is a danger to the community.” Johnson asked to be let off with a fine; the magistrate replied, “Oh, I can’t let you off with a fine in these conditions.” He was sentenced to twelve months imprisonment with hard labour.95

As well as doing his utmost to silence seditious utterances, Solicitor-General Salmond took a keen interest in halting sedition of the printed kind—especially that of the IWW. When Joseph Ward, the Postmaster General, asked Salmond whether the International Socialist Review fell under the Order in Council of 20 September, Salmond replied:

there is not sufficient evidence that the International Socialist Review is in any way connected with the Industrial Workers of the World. Nonetheless this publication is of a highly objectionable character advocating anarchy, violence and sedition. All copies of it therefore should without hesitation be detained…96

Salmond quickly added that the right to detain other objectionable material “is in no way limited by that Order in Council.” In other words, servants of the state had free rein to censor any literature they deemed seditious, whether it was written into law or not. He ordered that the International Socialist Review “should merely be detained” but “all IWW publications should be destroyed.”97

The likelihood that Hill’s ashes received such treatment is very high. It did not help that the packet containing Hill’s ashes was explicitly revolutionary in appearance—even the clumsiest of censors could not have missed “Murdered by the Capitalist Class”—unless, of course, it was hidden inside another envelope. Even so, the state knew the names of New Zealand Wobblies and their sympathisers, and did not hesitate to open and withhold their mail.

A public mischief and a public evil

While the Customs Act and the Order in Council only targeted IWW literature (such as newspapers and pamphlets), the correspondence of IWW members and other ‘subversives’ was also watched and withheld. The packet containing Hill’s ashes would very likely have been posted as correspondence to an individual Wobbly, making it a prime candidate for censorship. Whether on its own or inside another envelope, such correspondence to a monitored individual would have been gold to the watchful eyes of a censor.

“Immediately on the outbreak of hostilities a strict telegraph censorship was instituted,” wrote Postmaster Ward, and “a censorship of foreign postal correspondence was also established.”98 Domestic correspondence—both inwards and outwards—was closely monitored, so much so that some gave up on receiving mail entirely. On discovering that almost all of his mail (including Christmas cards) was being withheld, Charles Mackie, Secretary of the National Peace Council, advised his friends not to bother writing.99 According to official reports of the Post and Telegraph Department, 1,580 letters were withheld from delivery between 1914 and 1918.100

Both Customs and the Post and Telegraph Department had a number of censors working within their ranks, the latter including the Deputy Chief Censor, W A Tanner. But it was the military that managed censorship during the War. Tanner and other censors located across the country answered directly to Colonel Charles Gibbon, who was both Chief Censor and Chief of the General Staff of the New Zealand Military Forces. Postal censors were mostly officers of the Post Office and worked in the same building “as a matter of convenience”, but censors acted “under the instructions of the Military censor. The Post Office is bound to obey the Military censor.”101 The Defence Department’s earlier interest in the wholesale repression of agitators clearly carried over to agitation of the handwritten kind.

Salmond also took a keen interest in postal censorship, ensuring the monitoring of correspondence was carried out in full—whether it fell within his legal scope or not. Salmond often kept censored material sent to him, and regularly conferred with Gibbon on censorship matters: “I have been called upon to advise as to the censorship in New Zealand of correspondence and mail matter: and I have constantly acted as the legal adviser to the censorship.”102 However on one occasion his legal advice was deemed far from sound, causing an official enquiry into the censorship activities of the Post Office and the actions of Salmond himself.

The Auckland Post Office Enquiry, or the Bishop Enquiry as it became known, examined the censorship of correspondence pertaining to the Protestant Political Association (PPA), a sectarian religious organization headed by the vocal Reverend Howard Elliot. It was revealed that on the order of Salmond the post office box of this association was monitored, and all of its correspondence opened. In a memo to Colonel Gibbon, Salmond had gently instructed that the PPA’s “mischievous” material be censored: “perhaps steps could be taken by the Auckland censorship to see that all circulars… are examined, and if necessary, suppressed.”103 As a result a huge amount of PPA correspondence was opened and censored, so much so that the PPA, an organization with a wide influence and many followers, cried foul.

When cross-examining Salmond during the enquiry, Hubert Ostler, Counsel for the PPA and a past student of Salmond’s, hinted that the actions of his former teacher went further than mere legality:

(Mr H Ostler) Are we to understand that you are really the censor of New Zealand, Mr Salmond?
— (Salmond) No.
It sounds like it, does it not?
— No, I said I was the legal adviser.
But advise, of course, and when you advise the Military authorities they follow your advice, do they not?
— Usually.104

Ostler had no doubt that Salmond had overstepped his legal bounds. Yet, in the end, the enquiry officially sanctioned his censorship activities and that of the Post Office. Salmond did not escape lightly however, with some likening him to the Kaiser and saying he was “practically running the country.”105

In a stirring closing submission, Ostler remarked:

the action of the Solicitor-General in this case shows pretty conclusively that his practice of constitutional law is considerably weaker than his knowledge of it must be. In plain terms, I say the Solicitor-General’s action was unconstitutional and quite illegal. The people of this country, I say, will require the Solicitor-General or any other paid servant to act as a public servant, and in accordance with the law, not as a master and above the law, like a dictator.106

Yet act as a dictator Salmond did—sanctioned by the state as a necessity. “The existence of a state of war has made the establishment of censorship necessary,” wrote Massey in agreement.107 This state of war was not only directed at the Central Powers, but at the enemy within—elements perceived by the state as subversive and a threat to the running of their war machine. The IWW and its tactics of direct action represented a spanner in the works; printed material was one of its tools. Like the PPA, the correspondence of Wobblies fell victim to Salmond’s necessity.

Marked men in New Zealand

The New Zealand authorities had their eye on the correspondence of individual Wobblies. In 1915 Salmond asked Post-master Ward for “the names and addresses of the persons to whom these objectionable newspapers and magazines are sent.”108 As a result, New Zealand Wobblies—like Charles Mackie of the National Peace Council—became marked men for the duration of the war. One 1919 memorandum to the Minister of Defence noted that, on the advice of Salmond, “postal censorship is still being maintained on… inward correspondence from certain countries to specially marked men in NZ.”109 This special attention from the state ensured the mail of a number of Wobblies and their sympathisers was specifically stopped and opened, leading to raids on the homes of IWW members by Police, and—more often than not—imprisonment.

“The Johns and military pimps are on the look out for the correspondence of men known in our movement,” wrote William Bell in a letter that never reached its destination.110 Alongside detailed information on a number of Sydney Wobblies on trial for counterfeiting £5 notes, Bell’s letter described his attempt at trying to secure a dummy address “for the purposes of ordering leaflets without an imprint for secret distribution at this end of New Zealand.”111 Also mentioned in Bell’s letter was “a private meeting of picked trusted militants” due to take place at his bach [rural cottage] that week, confirming that Wobblies were still active in 1917 (albeit discreetly).112 Obviously Bell was not discreet enough. He was arrested and sentenced to eleven months imprisonment—his letter and earlier distribution of a pamphlet around Auckland having alerted the authorities to his activities. (During his hearing, Bell, like Fournier, provoked laughter in the courtroom. When the magistrate, referring to a comment in Bell’s letter, asked him what a ‘snide-sneak’ was, Bell replied: “A man who plays both ways. We have plenty in the Labor movement, unfortunately”).113

The letters of Wellington anarchist Philip Josephs, and anyone writing to him, were withheld after Salmond was alerted to orders for literature addressed to Emma Goldman, the US-based anarchist, feminist, and editor of Mother Earth. Salmond advised,

that the best course… is to arrange with the Post Office to have all correspondence addressed to Josephs whether within New Zealand or elsewhere stopped and examined. It may be that such examination will show that Josephs’ is an active agent of the IWW or of other anarchist and criminal organizations.114

One such correspondent was Syd Kingsford. “Please have enquiries made and report furnished regarding a man named ‘Syd Kingsford’, of 136 Tuam Street, Christchurch, who appears to be an agent in Christchurch for the distribution of anarchist and IWW literature.”115 Two Police intelligence reports show that he was under constant surveillance, while Colonel Gibbon made sure his correspondence was also censored: “the necessary action has been taken to have correspondence for… Syd Kingsford censored.”116

J Sweeney was another Wobbly-anarchist under the state’s spotlight. His November 1915 letter to Josephs (quoted earlier) never made it past the censor, who instead forwarded it to Colonel Gibbon so Police could find more Wobblies to monitor: “Herewith please receive a letter addressed to the anarchist P. Josephs. I forward it, as you may possibly wish the Police to know who are his correspondents in New Zealand.”117

The withheld correspondence of Sweeny, Kingsford, Josephs and Bell are but a few recorded examples of a larger targeting of Wobblies in New Zealand, “men whose correspondence it [had] been considered necessary to censor.”118 Although no record of the detention or destruction of Joe Hill’s ashes in New Zealand has been found, the monitoring of New Zealand Wobblies and their private correspondence points to a less than ceremonial fate.

Remains to be seen

The actions of Salmond and the censorship of correspondence illustrates a heightened level of surveillance and suppression by the New Zealand state during the First World War. Fearful of wartime industrial unrest and in order to avoid a repeat of 1913, the National Coalition government (and Solicitor-General Salmond in particular) used the pretext of war conditions to suppress any hint of labour militancy. As the visible expression of such militancy, the deeds and words of the IWW were targeted and suppressed, almost certainly including the little packet containing the ashes of Joe Hill.

Considering that Philip Josephs was one of the main distributors of IWW literature in New Zealand, that his correspondence was closely monitored on orders from Salmond, and that Salmond had previously ordered all IWW material to be destroyed rather than detained, the fate of Joe Hill’s ashes in New Zealand seems pretty clear. Regardless of whether they were sent to Josephs or another Wobbly in the country, it is almost certain that the packet containing the ashes of Joe Hill would have been stopped by one of the many censors, opened, and destroyed. Such action was within the guidelines set forth by Salmond and in keeping with the massive amount of material censored during the war.

When, at the conclusion of the First World War, Charles Mackie requested that his withheld material be forwarded to him, the Military’s Chief of Staff replied that the large quantity of confiscated material had been destroyed.119 “Most detained correspondence was destroyed,” confirms John Anderson, “except when it contained articles of value which could then be transmitted safely.”120 The lack of any record of the detention or transmission of the packet containing Joe Hill’s ashes lends weight to such an outcome.

As a result, it is highly likely that Hill’s ashes never made it beyond the national border. The monitoring of correspondence that existed in 1917 alone is enough to suggest that the ashes of Joe Hill never made it past state officials. That Sir John Salmond, War Regulations, Orders in Council, and various members of Parliament specifically targeted the IWW on a number of occasions surely sealed the deal. It would have been a small miracle for Hill’s ashes to see the light of day in the Dominion.

If Hill’s ashes miraculously managed to evade Salmond and his censors and some kind of ceremony had taken place, there are no oral or written records that recall such an event. There is no mention of any ceremony in the Maoriland Worker, even though the paper covered Hill’s execution and funeral. There is no mention of any ceremony in mainstream New Zealand newspapers, although the conservative Evening Post had covered the distribution of Hill’s ashes in Chicago and had previously jumped at the chance to publish anything IWW-related.121 No records, anecdotes or rumours of what happened to the ashes of Joe Hill in New Zealand have been uncovered. Of course there are always other possibilities, people to be interviewed, and archives to trawl, but it seems such historic silence indicates a job well done on the part of the censors.

It is possible that the packet of ashes received by Tom Barker in Australia could have contained another portion for his fellow-workers in New Zealand. Considering the transient nature of Wobblies at that time and his previous prominence in the New Zealand IWW, the American IWW may have wanted Barker to forward a portion of the ashes to his own contacts in New Zealand. If so, the ashes destined for New Zealand went up in smoke with its Australian counterpart.

Another alternative to Hill’s ashes being destroyed by the censors is illustrated by an example in the US. Toledo Wobbly George Carey did not release his portion of Hill’s ashes until 26 June 1950, and did so in a quiet ceremony on his own accord.122 Could the packet of Hill’s ashes in New Zealand have slipped through the state’s net undetected, quietly released by a New Zealand Wobbly fearful of repression if acting publicly?

Though this theory may please some (including the author), it seems unlikely. What is more likely is that the ashes of Joe Hill in New Zealand, like the New Zealand IWW itself, became a victim of state repression—targeted, suppressed, and denied the chance to “come to life and bloom again.” Sadly, the ashes of Joe Hill in New Zealand may have gone no further than the bottom of a state servant’s rubbish bin.

Jared Davidson
is the author of This is Not a Manifesto: Towards an anarcho-design practice, Rivet, and other writings on design and anarchism. A poster-maker turned labour historian, Remains to be Seen is his first attempt at historical research. Jared is a member of the Labour History Project, designer of the Labour History Project Newsletter. He is also a member of the anarchist collective Beyond Resistance.

  • 1. Joyce L. Kornbluh (ed), Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1964, p. 130.
  • 2. Gibbs M. Smith, Joe Hill, Utah: Gibbs Smith Publisher, 1969, p.188.
  • 3. Alec Holdsworth to Bert Roth, Bert Roth Collection, MS-Papers-6164-120, Alexander Turnbull Library (ATL), Wellington.
  • 4. Fran Shor, ‘Bringing the Storm: Syndicalist Counterpublics and the Industrial Workers of the World in New Zealand, 1908-14’, in Pat Moloney and Kerry Taylor (eds), On the Left: Essays on socialism in New Zealand, Dunedin, 2002, p. 71.
  • 5. Ibid., p. 69.
  • 6. For an excellent exception see Franklin Rosemont, Joe Hill: The IWW & the Making of a Revolutionary Workingclass Counterculture, Chicago: Charles H Kerr, 2003.
  • 7. Wallace Stegner, ‘Joe Hill: The Wobblies’ Troubadour’, New Republic, 1948, p. 24.
  • 8. Mary Killebrew, ‘”I NEVER DIED…”: The Words, Music and Influence of Joe Hill’, online at
  • 9. Kornbluh (ed), Rebel Voices, pp. 155-56.
  • 10. Smith, Joe Hill, p. 15.
  • 11. Ibid.
  • 12. Kornbluh (ed), Rebel Voices, p. 127.
  • 13. New Zealand Truth, 12 April 1919.
  • 14. Eric Fry, Tom Barker and the IWW, Brisbane: Industrial Workers of the World, 1999, p. 27.
  • 15. Verity Burgmann, Revolutionary Industrial Unionism: The Industrial Workers of the World in Australia, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1995, p. 119.
  • 16. Smith, Joe Hill, pp. 179-190.
  • 17. Barrie Stavis, The Man Who Never Died: A Play About Joe Hill; with Notes on Joe Hill and his times, Haven Press, 1951, p. 115.
  • 18. New York Times, 20 November 1916.
  • 19. Industrial Worker, 2 December 1916.
  • 20. Kornbluh (ed), Rebel Voices, p. 157.
  • 21. Melvyn Dubofsky, ‘Big Bill’ Haywood, Manchester University Press, 1987, p. 86.
  • 22. Stegner, ‘Joe Hill: The Wobblies’ Troubadour’, p. 23.
  • 23. Wallace Stegner, Joe Hill: A Biographical Novel, Penguin Books, 1990, p. 18.
  • 24. Paul Dorpat, ‘Wobblies Unite’, Seattle Times, 22 June 1997.
  • 25. Stegner, ‘Joe Hill: The Wobblies’ Troubadour’, p. 20.
  • 26. Ralph Chaplin, Wobbly: the rough and tumble story of an American Radical, University of Chicago Press, 1948.
  • 27. Kornbluh (ed), Rebel Voices.
  • 28. Fry, Tom Barker and the IWW, p. 27.
  • 29. Ibid.
  • 30. Industrial Workers of the World, Proceedings, 10th Convention, 1916, Chicago: IWW Publishing Bureau, 1917.
  • 31. Howard Robinson, A History of The Post Office in New Zealand, Wellington: RE Owen, Government Printer, 1964, p. 178.
  • 32. Grey River Argus, 20 January 1908.
  • 33. Erik Olssen, The Red Feds: Revolutionary Industrial Unionism and the New Zealand Federation of Labour 1908-13, Auckland, 1988, p. 132.
  • 34. Industrial Workers of the World, ‘Industrial Workers of the World (subject)’, Bert Roth Collection, MS-Papers-6164-120, ATL, Wellington.
  • 35. Mark Derby, ‘The Case of William E. Trautmann and the role of the ‘Wobblies’’ in Melanie Nolan (ed), Revolution: The 1913 Great Strike in New Zealand, Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 2005, pp. 279-299.
  • 36. Olseen, The Red Feds, p. 3.
  • 37. Olseen, The Red Feds, p. 129.
  • 38. Olssen, The Red Feds, p. 17.
  • 39. Maoriland Worker, 25 August 1911.
  • 40. Peter Steiner, ‘The History of the Industrial Workers of the World in Aotearoa’ in Industrial Unionism, Wellington: Rebel Press, 2006, p. 6. Online at
  • 41. Mark Derby, ‘A Country Considered to be Free: New Zealand and the IWW’, online at
  • 42. ‘Anarcho-Syndicalism in the NZ Labour Movement’, NZ Labour Review, May 1950, p. 26.
  • 43. Alec Holdsworth to Bert Roth, Bert Roth Collection, MS-Papers-6164-120, ATL, Wellington.
  • 44. Derby, ‘A Country Considered to be Free’.
  • 45. Direct Action, 1 October 1914.
  • 46. Frank Prebble, ‘Jock Barnes and the Syndicalist Tradition in New Zealand’, Thrall, Issue 14, July/August 2000, online at
  • 47. Derby, ‘A Country Considered to be Free’.
  • 48. Colonist, 11 November 1915.
  • 49. ‘NZ Wobblies’, Lecture Notes, Bert Roth Collection, MS-Papers-6164-120, ATL, Wellington.
  • 50. J Sweeney to P Josephs, 3 November 1915, ‘Censorship of correspondence, P Joseph to Miss E Goldman, July-November’, AAYS-8647-AD10-10/-19/16, Archives New Zealand, Wellington.
  • 51. Industrial Unionist, 1 October 1913.
  • 52. Direct Action, 15 February 1915.
  • 53. Report of Detective-Sergeant James McIlveney, 12 October 1915, ‘Censorship of correspondence, P Joseph to Miss E Goldman, July-November’, AAYS-8647-AD10-10/-19/16, Archives New Zealand, Wellington.
  • 54. Memorandum for Superintendent Dwyer, 21 October 1915, ‘Censorship of correspondence, P Joseph to Miss E Goldman, July-November’, AAYS-8647-AD10-10/-19/16, Archives New Zealand, Wellington.
  • 55. Norman D Stevens, ‘IWW Influence in New Zealand: The Maoriland Worker and the IWW in the US: 1913-1916’, 1954, Bert Roth Collection, MS-Papers-6164-120, ATL, Wellington.
  • 56. Ibid., p. 12.
  • 57. Paul Baker, King and Country Call: New Zealanders, Conscription and the Great War, Auckland University Press, 1988, p. 168.
  • 58. Alex Frame, Salmond: Southern Jurist, Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1995, pp. 166-167.
  • 59. Evening Post, 16 January 1917.
  • 60. Alex Frame, ‘Salmond, John William – Biography’, Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand, online at
  • 61. Frame, Salmond: Southern Jurist, p. 167.
  • 62. Ibid., p. 169.
  • 63. Baker, King and Country Call, p. 156.
  • 64. Ibid., p. 166.
  • 65. Richard Hill, The Iron Hand in the Velvet Glove: The modernisation of policing in New Zealand 1886-1917, Palmerston North, 1996, p. 359.
  • 66. Stevan Eldred-Grigg, The Great Wrong War: New Zealand Society in WW1, Random House New Zealand, 2010, p. 327.
  • 67. Frame, Salmond: Southern Jurist, p. 174.
  • 68. David Grant, Field Punishment No. 1: Archibald Baxter, Mark Briggs & New Zealand’s anti-militarist tradition, Wellington: Steele Roberts Publishers, 2008, p. 33.
  • 69. Ibid., p. 36.
  • 70. John Anderson, ‘Military Censorship in World War 1: Its Use and Abuse in New Zealand’, Thesis, Victoria University College, 1952, p. 246.
  • 71. Ibid.
  • 72. Ibid.
  • 73. Ibid., p. 247.
  • 74. Eldred-Grigg, The Great Wrong War, p. 457.
  • 75. Kornbluh (ed), Rebel Voices, p. 131.
  • 76. Baker, King and Country Call, p. 168.
  • 77. Otago Daily Times, 13 September 1915.
  • 78. Evening Post, 19 January 1917.
  • 79. Maoriland Worker, 24 January 1917.
  • 80. Evening Post, 16 January 1917.
  • 81. New Zealand Parliamentary Debates (NZPD), 1917 p. 859.
  • 82. ‘NZ Wobblies’, Lecture Notes, Bert Roth Collection, MS-Papers-6164-120, ATL, Wellington.
  • 83. Online search of Papers Past for 1917:
  • 84. Evening Post, 5 February 1917.
  • 85. New Zealand Truth, 7 July 1917.
  • 86. Ashburton Guardian, 21 September 1917.
  • 87. Paul Christoffel, Censored: A short history of censorship in New Zealand, Wellington: Department of Internal Affairs, 1989, p. 10.
  • 88. NZPD, 1915, p. 469.
  • 89. Ibid.
  • 90. The New Zealand Gazette, 20 September 1915.
  • 91. Stevens, ‘IWW Influence in New Zealand’, p. 8.
  • 92. Direct Action, 9 October 1915.
  • 93. Direct Action, 23 October 1915.
  • 94. IWW Publications: Interceptions of., 15 November 1915, ‘Miscellaneous Administration Matters—Prohibited Literature—”Janes Fighting Ships”, Newspapers and other Printed Matters’, ACIF-16475-C1-98/-30/25/17, Archives New Zealand, Wellington.
  • 95. Evening Post, 20 October 1917.
  • 96. J W Salmond to Comptroller of Customs, 29 November 1915, Crown Law Office, Wellington.
  • 97. Ibid.
  • 98. Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives (AJHR), 1915, F1 p.4.
  • 99. Baker, King and Country Call, p. 78.
  • 100. AJHR, 1915-1919.
  • 101. AJHR, 1917, F8 p. 8.
  • 102. AJHR. 1917, F8 p. 3.
  • 103. Ibid.
  • 104. AJHR, 1917, F8 p. 45.
  • 105. Frame, Salmond: Southern Jurist, p. 177.
  • 106. AJHR, 1917, F8 p. 122.
  • 107. AJHR, 1917, F8 p. 7.
  • 108. J W Salmond to Comptroller of Customs, 29 November 1915, Crown Law Office, Wellington.
  • 109. Memorandum to the Minister of Defence, 6 November 1919, ‘Communications—Censorship Of Correspondence to and from New Zealand—Instructions Re’, AAYS-8638-AD1-705-8/41/1, Archives New Zealand, Wellington.
  • 110. New Zealand Truth, 14 July 1917.
  • 111. Ibid.
  • 112. Ibid.
  • 113. Ibid.
  • 114. J W Salmond to Commissioner of Police, 20 October 1915, Opinions – Police Department 1913-1926, Crown Law Office, Wellington.
  • 115. Memorandum for Superintendent Dwyer, 21 October 1915, ‘Censorship of correspondence, P Joseph to Miss E Goldman, July-November’, AAYS-8647-AD10-10/-19/16, Archives New Zealand, Wellington.
  • 116. Memorandum for Colonel Gibbon, 28 October 1915, ‘Censorship of correspondence, P Joseph to Miss E Goldman, July-November’, AAYS-8647-AD10-10/-19/16, Archives New Zealand, Wellington.
  • 117. W A Tanner to Colonel Gibbon, 4 November 1915, ‘Censorship of correspondence, P Joseph to Miss E Goldman, July-November’, AAYS-8647-AD10-10/-19/16, Archives New Zealand, Wellington.
  • 118. ‘Censorship of Correspondence, National Peace Conference, June 1915 – July 1920’, AAYS-8647-AD10-11/-19/33, Archives New Zealand, Wellington.
  • 119. ‘Censorship of Correspondence, National Peace Conference, June 1915 – July 1920’, AAYS-8647-AD10-11/-19/33, Archives New Zealand, Wellington.
  • 120. Anderson, ‘Military Censorship in World War 1’, p. 72.
  • 121. Evening Post, 6 January 1917.
  • 122. Kornbluh (ed), Rebel Voices, pp. 156-7.

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New Zealand ‘Wobblies’

Article on the New Zealand IWW by H Roth. From Here and Now, March 1952

Download: New_Zealand_Wobblies.pdf 

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]


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]


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.


[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 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 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,  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.

The IWW in International Perspective: comparing the North American and Australasian Wobblies

American labour historiography has tended to assume, as Patrick Renshaw does, that the Locals of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) that appeared in countries like Canada, Britain and Australia ‘slavishly followed all the American trends, debates, and schisms’.[1] While it is true that the Australian, New Zealand and Canadian IWW Locals inherited their ideology and organisational principles more or less intact from their American parent after the founding conference in Chicago in 1905, intriguing contrasts nonetheless emerged in the application of these shared ideas and principles on the two sides of the Pacific Ocean. The Australian IWW, established in 1907, was especially distinctive. The most significant differences between the North American and Australasian expressions of revolutionary industrial unionism were: the degree of opposition to political action; the social position of their supporters; relations with existing trade union structures; the responses to the Great War; and the manner of their persecution.

Opposition to political action

To the American IWW, political action was less a practice to be rejected as a matter of principle but an irrelevancy, because those to whom the IWW most clearly appealed had no political means, because they were estranged from the electoral process by the racial, linguistic and residency requirements for voter registration. Accordingly, the American IWW, while rejecting control by political parties, never expressly condemned political action and many American Wobblies were active members of parties such as the Socialist Party.[2] In 1908 the American IWW had split over the issue of political action. Those who believed the IWW should remain unaligned with any particular political party were in the majority; they remained headquartered in Chicago and became what is commonly known as the IWW. The minority under Daniel De Leon argued the IWW should engage in parliamentary politics by linking up with the Socialist Labor Party, and these ‘De Leonites’ set up a rival IWW based in Detroit; and this division was replicated in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Britain. Yet even the Chicago IWW was ‘non-political’ rather than ‘anti-political’. J.R. Conlin insists too much has been made of the deletion of the political clause in 1908; equally significant was the rejection without discussion by the 1911 Chicago IWW Convention of an amendment to the Preamble that referred to ‘the futility of political action’.[3] The situation in Canada was similar, according to A. Ross McCormack:

Like their fellow workers south of the forty-ninth parallel whose attitudes have been described by Dubofsky and Conlin, the Wobblies in western Canada were essentially non-political rather than anti-political; their syndicalism was empirical. The IWW disdained political action because the great majority of its constituency was, what Wobblies called, constitutionally ‘dead.’ Either because they had not been naturalized or because they could not meet residence requirements, most itinerant workers were without the franchise.[4]

Mark Leier likewise explains that one reason the Canadian IWW eschewed the ballot box was that its members, usually migrant workers who could not meet property and residency requirements, and immigrant workers who were not citizens, could not vote. For instance, during the 1909 British Columbia election, the Industrial Worker commented on the Socialist Party of Canada’s call for electoral support by pointing out that, of the 5,000 Wobblies in the area, only 75 were eligible to register and vote.[5]

     Göran Therborn’s examination of the onset of democratic processes in the current OECD countries shows that Australia and New Zealand, important racial restrictions apart, were the first of the modern OECD countries to achieve the four defining variables of a bourgeois democratic political order: a representative government elected by an electorate consisting of the entire adult population, whose votes carry equal weight and who are allowed to vote for any opinion without intimidation by the state apparatus. Australia attained this situation in 1903, New Zealand in 1907, Canada in 1920 and the USA about 1970.[6] The preconditions for working-class representation in Australasian parliaments were established prior to the period of ascendancy of the IWW; in Canada and the USA such circumstances did not pertain at the time and, indeed, have barely materialised subsequently in Canada and not at all in the United States.

     In New Zealand, in 1890, organised workers won unprecedented political gains when six unionists were elected to the House of Representatives and another 30 members enjoyed union support. These men ensured the newly elected government responded to the demands of labour and the new government became known as Liberal-Labour or ‘Lib-Lab’, passing laws that cemented workers’ loyalty and improved their lot. Over the ensuing decades, most working-class families remained loyal to the Lib-Lab coalition.[7] The New Zealand labour movement was therefore less politically advanced than its Australian counterpart, with a false start in 1904 with the formation of an Independent Political Labour League, which became the United Labour Party in 1910 but subsequently foundered and split.[8] Only after workers experienced significant industrial defeats between 1908 and 1913 and the conservative Massey Government was particularly harsh on striking workers did the New Zealand Federation of Labour become converted to the need for political representation independently of the Liberals, leading to the establishment in 1916 of the New Zealand Labour Party that has endured to this day.[9] The situation in New Zealand thus bore more resemblance to that in Britain, with a similar experience of parliamentary cooperation with Liberals. It is thus hardly surprising that in both Britain and New Zealand, the Detroit IWW Clubs were stronger in relation to the Chicago IWW Locals than in Australia, because they were able to argue that political action could indeed be highly productive if pursued independently of Liberals.[10]

     In Australia, on the other hand, independent political action had already been tried and found wanting. Len Richardson notes that in New Zealand it was miners who had worked previously in Australia who were most sceptical about the prospects of keeping honest any workingmen elected to parliament, pointing to the ALP’s endorsement of compulsory military training to press their point.[11] Australia, even more than New Zealand, was a white democracy, with labour parties viable because of this democratic status, many years before the USA and Canada with significantly better-developed economies. Also significant was the relative ease with which the migratory worker could secure electoral registration in Australia; electoral registration was even compulsory under the Commonwealth Electoral Act and fines were administered to those who did not register, a decided contrast to the situation in North America. It was alleged that the IWW encouraged workers to avoid registration and many Wobblies did choose to avoid electoral registration and were accordingly fined under this Act.[12] However, disenfranchisement was their illegal choice; it was not imposed upon their kind, as in the USA and Canada. With workers in Australia forcibly enfranchised, Labor Parties were spectacularly successful in comparison with similar parties elsewhere in the world, forming government briefly in Queensland in 1899 and federally in 1904. During the heyday of the Australian IWW, Labor was in government federally in 1908-09, 1910-1913 and 1914-1917. It was also in government for much of this period in most of the six States.

     The IWW was able to point to the behaviour of Labor governments to warn against political action. ‘I was absolutely convinced,’ explained leading Wobbly Tom Barker, ‘particularly after seeing [Labor] politicians in both New Zealand and Australia that a strong and even ruthless working-class body was necessary to see that people were properly protected and properly paid.’[13] The IWW claimed the doings of the New South Wales McGowen Labor government should ‘serve as a warning to the working-class, not alone of this country but of the whole world.’[14] Direct Action had a running commentary on the futility of political action, sell-outs and betrayals by Labor politicians, their huge salaries and perks, and so on. The defining message of the IWW was that Labor politicians could not be trusted. The best-known song of the Australian IWW was ‘Bump Me Into Parliament’, which ridiculed the pretence of Labor MPs to advance working-class interests while enjoying so much the pomp and circumstance of parliamentary life.[15] Also to ‘Yankee Doodle’ was a less well-known Australian IWW song, ‘Hey! Polly,’ which began:

The politician prowls around,

For workers’ votes entreating;

He claims to know the slickest way

To give the boss a beating.


Polly, we can’t use you, dear,

To lead us into clover;

This fight is ours, and as for you,

Clear out or get run over.[16]

Australian Wobblies were in a peculiarly strong position to make judgments about the experiment of working-class parliamentary representation, to indulge effectively in polemical abuse, based on concrete evidence about the performance of Labor representatives: ‘Workers of Australia, you have raised up unto yourselves gods, in the shape of Labor politicians, and behold events have proved that their feet are but of clay.’[17] The Australian IWW was not just abstractly but empirically anti-political.

     The strength of the IWW in the USA and Canada stemmed from discontent with the weak, conservative, craft-based and ineffective nature of existing forms of trade unionism and not from disillusion with parliamentary politics, which had not been seriously tried. In Australia, by contrast, it was the precocious nature of the political labour movement that explains the appeal of the Chicago IWW to militant workers in this period. The Australian IWW was able to recruit from amongst the most disaffected Labor voters, because it expressed and reinforced the strong feelings of resentment felt by many militant workers towards their elected representatives, resentment that increased as politicians became more and more influential within the labour movement. So the Australian IWW, operating in a country with a comparatively democratic franchise and compulsory electoral registration, was more expressly and truly anti-political, a stance informed by the experience then unique to Australia of the inability of Labor governments to unmake capitalist social conditions.

The social position of their supporters

In all four countries, miners, transport and construction workers were an important component in the IWW membership base. Another common element was the migratory rural worker: in railway construction, lumber, wood and various sorts of agriculture; in Australasia also those in the pastoral industries of sheep and cattle grazing. McCormack observes such similarities across North America: ‘the IWW in western Canada organized the same constituency as that of western American Wobblies, unskilled, itinerant workers—loggers, harvesters, longshoremen, construction workers.’[18]

     Despite these commonalities between North American and Australasian Wobblies, the economic, political and social position of the itinerant worker was significantly different in the two realms. In stressing the hobo characteristics of the Wobblies, North American accounts have in mind a social aberration, whether romanticised or pathologised;[19] or rationalized, as in Richard Rajala’s argument that Wobbly mobility should be understood as a reasonable response to the vagaries of the labour market.[20] David Schulze refers to the relatively large group of unskilled, migrant, and largely immigrant workers in early twentieth-century North America, employed in seasonal, labour-intensive industries, who were largely ignored by craft unions and too transient to be easy converts to Socialist parliamentarianism. ‘The social and economic marginalisation of this segment of the working class was particularly well-suited to IWW radicalism …’[21] He attests, too, to the divisions within the Canadian working class, between the more respectable, urban, craft-oriented sections and those to whom the IWW appealed: the ‘rough labour element’.[22] He argues further that, although IWW radicalism was a mobilizing force, ‘it could not overcome this constituency’s objective weaknesses’; their political force was only equal to their threat to public order, given their social and economic marginality.[23]

     Mark Leier’s study of the Vancouver Free Speech Fights of 1909 and 1912 draws a similar picture of a segmented labour movement, with the IWW speaking for those whom the city authorities and ‘the respectable labour leaders’ of the Vancouver Trades and Labour Council both saw as ‘undesirables’.[24] McCormack also notes the distance between Canadian Wobblies and the mainstream labour movement:

By the very nature of its tactics and doctrine, the IWW was isolated from workers organized by the American Federation of Labour (AFL) and the Trades and Labour Congress (TLC). This condition was substantially reinforced by the nature of the Wobblies’ constituency; unskilled, unorganised and un-British, the itinerants never constituted a part of the labour movement.

For example, the Winnipeg Trades Council was unaware of the existence of the north-end IWW Local of 400 Ukrainians and Poles.[25]

     Within the Australian labour movement, by contrast, the itinerant ‘bush’ worker was more revered than reviled. Far from being neglected by Australian unionism as their equivalents were by the American Federation of Labor, itinerant workers were amongst its strongest participants and were especially active in the new unions formed late in the nineteenth century. Unlike the American and Canadian hobo, largely ignored by institutionalised labour, the ‘nomad’ was respected within the Australian labour movement: witness Lawson’s poem about the itinerant worker whose body was identified by his union card.

     Encapsulated in the labour pantheon, the nomad was honoured also in the wider society, as Russel Ward famously argued in The Australian Legend in 1958: the mores of the nomadic rural proletariat worked upwards and outwards until they became the principal ingredient of a national mystique: loyalty to one’s mates; antagonism towards authority; and contempt for middle-class virtues such as sobriety, industry, formal education and religious observance. The relatively higher standing of itinerant workers in Australia reflected the difference between Australian and American economic structures: Australia was primarily an extractive and large-scale grazing economy absolutely dependent on the labour of migratory workers; the USA was a more industrialized economy in which transient workers played a vital but far smaller role.

     Because of the significant position of the itinerant worker in Australian society at this time, the antipodean Wobblies have even been cited by P. J. Rushton as representatives of the national character, ‘part of a larger legend’, because they not only recruited many of their members from amongst the nomadic rural proletariat but manifested many of the attitudes and values of the national character based on this mythologised worker.[26] The Australian IWW was a quintessentially Australian organisation; unlike its American progenitor and its Canadian counterpart, it was in tune with stereotypical national characteristics. Australian Wobblies thus blended easily against the background of labour movement and national types. They were able to play on accepted themes dear to the national character. The inventive genius of Wobbly argot easily absorbed local cultural mores. In particular, the capacity of the antipodean Wobblies to mount their critique of Laborism was facilitated by the greater standing within their societies of the footloose worker.

Relations with existing trade union structures

Given this degree of alienation of North American Wobblies from the mainstream labour movements, the IWW Locals in the USA and Canada considered that ‘boring from within’ the established trade unions was largely futile. North American Wobblies therefore created new unions in competition with the existing unions, a tactic known as ‘dual unionism’. The Australasian IWW Locals, by contrast, had little choice but to ‘bore from within.’ Dual unionism remained a long-term aspiration, but not an immediate tactic; so they bored from within with propaganda about the need in due course for building from without.

     This significant departure from North American IWW practice was an adaptation to Australasian circumstances. Figures indicate that in 1916 union density was 47.5 per cent in Australia and only 12.2 per cent in the USA.[27] By 1913 New Zealand was the third most unionised country in the world.[28] The Australasian IWWs were operating in an environment where the labour movement was extremely well-organised by international standards. New unions of semi-skilled and unskilled workers had developed in both Australia and New Zealand, and it was these new unions that became the backbone of the labour movement in these countries, working cooperatively with the older craft unions but in many ways outflanking them as the locus of power within these much less stratified labour movements.

     The Australasian IWWs were not, like the North American, aiming to organize workers neglected by trade unionism; they were hoping, rather, to change the basis on which all workers were organized. Thus most Wobblies were members, also, of established trade unions. Within these unions in both Australia and New Zealand, Wobbly activists criticised craftism and sectionalism, and in particular the emergence of a trade union bureaucracy, especially when it was numerous and better remunerated than the workers it serviced. They nonetheless worked productively within these unions, their most critical instincts tempered by their recognition that the tactic of boring from within could only succeed if relations with other unionists were reasonable. It is interesting that, in private IWW correspondence seized by police, Wobblies advised each other not to alienate craft unionists.[29] Tom Barker expressly warned the miners establishing the Tottenham Local in 1915 not to ‘antagonise the crafties’, for ‘they are the material we have to work upon, and therefore every care should be taken to keep their good will’.[30] A security file on the IWW noted that ‘there has been a growing movement on the part of the I.W.W. men to join Unions so that the principles of their organization might be more widely promulgated’.[31]

     It was indeed by such means that Wobbly ideas spread within the Australian labour movement. Military intelligence regretted that IWW theories had ‘struck deep into the militant unions’.[32] New South Wales Labor Premier Holman regretted ‘the secret but steadily growing influence of the Industrial Workers of the World over union organisations’.[33] Jimmy Seamer, a mining industry unionist of the time, recalled: ‘You met Wobblies wherever you went … All militants followed the Wobblies … They had a foot in everywhere.’[34] Wobbly support subsisted in unstructured, informal and ground-level networks of militancy within mainstream trade unions, which enhanced the influence, effectiveness and resilience of the IWW.

     In New Zealand the IWW operated as a left grouping within the New Zealand Federation of Labour, known as the Red Fed. This was not a narrow craft-conscious federation but a militant one based on less skilled workers, especially miners, shearers, construction workers, general labourers, waterside workers, who were becoming increasingly critical of arbitration and faith in parliamentary action; and which achieved considerable success in winning improved conditions and rates of pay. The argument within the Federation was whether or not the entire Federation should be remodelled on the lines of the IWW: should all unions in each industry surrender their local autonomy and become one centralised national industrial union, ultimately allowing for the formation of One Big Union throughout the entire country—the ultimate purpose of the IWW.[35]

     The main issue within the Red Fed was arbitration. Because the New Zealand Labour Party was less precocious, the IWW there was less able than in Australia to focus on the duplicity of Labour politicians, but it could home in on the perceived shortcomings of arbitration from a militant working-class perspective. The Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act of 1894 was the foundation of the Lib-Lab alliance and a new system of industrial relations: the establishment of a court of three (a neutral judge and one elected by unions of workers and other by unions of employers) armed with power to bring down legally binding awards. A similar regime was established in Australia, but not until 1904 and the system was more entrenched in New Zealand. Militant workers were tired of the delays and felt they could get even better results through collective bargaining. Within the Red Fed the IWW pushed for industrial action outside of the arbitration system, to ‘toss every agreement to Hell’.[36] According to Erik Olssen, this argument was particularly pushed in New Zealand after 1911 when certain North American Wobblies arrived.[37] Foremost among these was John Benjamin King, who worked his way to Auckland as a stoker, perhaps, muses Olssen, to see for himself the country with the famous labour laws, for the success of such legislation was a contentious issue in the American debate about political action.[38] Just as Australian Wobblies condemned political action on the basis of experience, the New Zealand IWW decided on the evidence before it that the country’s Arbitration Act was the ‘last refuge of capitalism’.[39]

     The effects of the Australasian IWW Locals’ decisions to make a political virtue out of industrial necessity were significant. In relegating dual unionism to the realm of long-term aspiration and boring from within in the meantime, Wobblies down under secured considerable protection. They did not experience the same degree of violent employer resistance encountered by their fellow workers across the Pacific in forming an embryonic dual union structure. The notorious brutalities inflicted on American Wobblies were not experienced by Wobblies in Australasia, where industrial relations were conducted with a comparative gentleness, disdaining use of gun and lynchings, resorting merely to dismissals, blacklisting, police interference with strikes and the occasional arrest. Australasian employers could not easily isolate and physically intimidate Wobblies, because they worked under the cover of a strong trade union movement that, in Australia, had the added respectability of sponsoring one of the two parties of government. Where American Wobblies were confronted physically by employers and their thugs, Australasian Wobblies were simply hemmed in by the trade union movement itself.[40]

The significance of anti-war campaigning

The IWW in New Zealand reached its zenith between 1911 and 1913 then largely self-destructed with the disappearance of significant Wobbly leaders to Australia, such as King in 1912 and Barker in 1914.[41] In Canada, too, by the beginning of the War the IWW was on the decline, its membership falling and its locals disintegrating. This collapse had resulted from employer opposition, earlier instances of government repression and economic depression, especially the ending of the railway building boom, which produced the dispersion of the construction workers.[42] In both these countries, the IWW was already too weak to be affected greatly by the issue of militarism; and IWW responses to the Great War made little impact on society. This was not the case in the USA and Australia. In the USA, the IWW was internally riven over the question of the war. Most American Wobblies believed there was a serious danger that anti-war activity would distract from organisation at the point of production and invite government repression. This position encouraged American IWW reticence on the war and withdrawal of anti-war pamphlets it had initially produced.[43] Overall, as Melvyn Dubofsky states, the American IWW ‘did nothing directly to interfere with the American war effort.’[44]

     By contrast, in Australia, no organisation opposed the outbreak of the Great War as promptly and vociferously as the IWW. The front page of Direct Action for 10 August 1914 declared:


On 22 August Tom Barker urged: ‘LET THOSE WHO OWN AUSTRALIA DO THE FIGHTING. Put the wealthiest in the front ranks; the middle class next; follow these with politicians, lawyers, sky pilots and judges. Answer the declaration of war with the call for a GENERAL STRIKE.’

     The Australian IWW was aware of the arguments that had motivated American IWW quietude on the issue of the war and was alert to the possible dangers of anti-war mobilisation. Yet, unlike its American progenitor, it threw itself wholeheartedly into campaigning against the war and Australian involvement. In so doing, it increased rather than diminished its opportunities to organize at the point of production, because its anti-war activity won it many supporters amongst workers inclined to be critical of the senseless slaughter. The threat of conscription in particular gave the IWW its greatest opportunity to have its voice heard. It expanded rapidly in this period.[45] ’Great crowds used to come to our anti-conscription meetings,’ Tom Barker recalls, ‘up to a sixth of the population of Sydney gathering around and trying to hear the speakers.’[46]

     Just as the IWW became established in the patriotic mind as the source of disloyal infection, so also was it confirmed in the radical working-class mind as the centre of anti-militarist resistance. As the labour movement divided over the issue of the war and Australia’s involvement in it, ultimately tearing itself apart over the question of conscription in 1916-1917, the role of the IWW in encouraging this regrouping into left/anti-conscription and right/pro-conscription forces, was crucial. By November 1916 Labor Prime Minister Hughes was complaining that the IWW was ‘largely responsible for the present attitude of organised labor, industrially and politically, towards the war.’[47] Three-quarters of the Labor politicians in federal parliament indicated they would refuse to pass a Conscription Act. For this Prime Minister Hughes blamed the IWWs, ‘foul parasites’ who had ‘attached themselves to the vitals of labour.’[48] He appealed to ‘organised labour’ to cast out from its midst those who dominated the anti-conscription wing of the movement: ‘Extremists—I.W.W. men, Revolutionary socialists, Syndicalists, ‘red-raggers’ … who seek to use labour for their own purposes.’[49] Hughes’ desire to beat back all IWW influence from within the labour movement sealed the fate of those he blamed for fomenting opposition to him and his kind from within that movement.

The manner of persecution

As the American experience suggests, the Australian IWW would have been suppressed regardless of its position on the war, so its stricter adherence to the IWW’s internationalist principles was not the principal cause of its undoing. The Australian IWW was persecuted not because it opposed the war, nor because it constituted a serious threat to the established order, but because it provided a focal point of far-left opposition within the labour movement, and an expanding one, to the right-wing of that movement. According to a contemporary observer, the right of the labour movement resented the IWW for its ‘determination to make workers believe their representatives in Parliament are all unmitigated scoundrels’.[50]

     Given the near disintegration of the IWW Locals in Canada and New Zealand by 1914, there was little need for wartime governments in these countries to engage in concerted repression of the IWW. This was not the case in the United States and Australia, but there were fundamental differences in the manner of their destruction.

     In the USA it was employer-sponsored lynch mobs that inflicted the most serious damage upon American Wobblies, backed up by extreme measures against ‘criminal syndicalism’ enacted in twenty states and two territories between 1917 and 1920.[51] In Australia, the repression of the IWW was engineered by the right-wing of the labour movement—in government— to prevent the formation of revolutionary industrial unions that would seize control of the labour movement, if not of the means of production. Labor governments at federal and state level utilized the paraphernalia of patriotism, casting the IWW as an enemy agent, to contest the radical economic and social ideas espoused by the IWW that were becoming increasingly influential within the labour movement. So, while the Australian IWW did not endure the privatised retribution inflicted upon their American fellow workers—the beatings, the lynchings, the intimidation and torturings by individual loyalists—the state-sponsored suppression of the Australian IWW, which occurred in advance of American criminal syndicalism legislation, was sufficiently draconian to achieve the eradication of the IWW as a viable organisation.

     This was assisted by the framing of twelve Wobblies and their trial late in 1916 for treason-felony: plotting arson on Sydney business premises. With public hysteria aroused by this case, the Hughes National Labor government enacted the Unlawful Associations Act, passed on 19 December 1916, under which any member of the IWW could be imprisoned.[52] In the next few months, 103 Wobblies were imprisoned, usually for terms of six months with hard labour, and many more were sacked from their jobs. Twelve foreign-born Wobblies were deported; at the same time, United States authorities were shipping some American Wobblies to Australia.[53] The ships passed each other in the Pacific.

     The final irony was that the labour movement, whose more right-wing political representatives had suppressed the IWW, was also responsible for releasing the Twelve, testimony to the degree to which the strategy of boring from within had enabled Wobblies to become accepted as a legitimate part of the wider labour movement. The agitation on their behalf was so strong that the movement to release them spread outward from the Wobblies themselves to embrace all manner of labour organisations: trade unions; labour and trades hall councils and regional industrial councils; left-wing parties; and even sections of the Labor Party.[54] Union after union committed itself in support of the release campaign and to industrial action if necessary. The Twelve were released in stages by a New South Wales Labor Premier during 1920 and 1921, bowing to the strength of the mainstream trade union campaign to defend those whom they saw as their most militant but also their own. Labor News boasted moreover that the liberated men owed their freedom to the fact that Labor was in power.[55] It is unlikely that any of the Twelve, in departing Long Bay Gaol, were cursing ‘crafties’ or singing ‘Polly, We Can’t Use You Dear’.

     Though the Australasian and Canadian IWWs were direct transplants from their country of origin and remained recognizable as such, they adapted to local circumstances. The extent to which they flourished and the ways in which they did so in these different settings depended on distinctive attributes developed in intelligent response to the environments in which they operated. Had these IWW outposts been obliged to toe a Chicago line, their local impacts would have been less remarkable. As we remember 100 years of revolutionary industrial unionism in Australia, it is worth noting this contrast with the Communist movement that succeeded it and to celebrate the significance of the IWW’s commitment to freedom of working-class manoeuvre.

— By Verity Burgmann, Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, 2007


[1] Patrick Renshaw, The WobbliesThe Story of Syndicalism in the United States, Doubleday & Company, New York, 1967, pp. 258-9.

[2] J. R. Conlin, Bread and Roses Too: Studies of the Wobblies, Greenwood, Westport Conn., 1969, pp. 29-30.

[3] Conlin, Bread and Roses Too, p. 35.

[4] A. Ross McCormack, ‘The Industrial Workers of the World in Western Canada: 1905-1914’ in W. Peter Ward and Robert A.J. McDonald (eds), British Columbia: Historical Readings, Douglas & McIntyre Ltd, Vancouver, 1981, pp. 474-499,p. 482.

[5] Mark Leier, ‘Solidarity on Occasion: The Vancouver Free Speech Fights of 1909 and 1912’, Labour/Le Travail, 23, Spring 1989, pp. 39-66,pp. 61-62.

[6] Göran Therborn, ‘The Rule of Capital and the Rise of Democracy’, New Left Review, 103, May-June 1977, pp. 4, 11.

[7] Erik Olssen, The Red Feds. Revolutionary Industrial Unionism and the New Zealand Federation of Labour 1908-14, Oxford University Press, Auckland, 1988, pp. xi, xiv.

[8] Len Richardson, ‘Parties and Political Change’ in Geoffrey Rice (ed.), The Oxford History of New Zealand, 2nd edn, Oxford University Press, Auckland, p. 217.

[9] Olssen, The Red Feds, pp. 164, 210, 221.

[10] For details of the British experience, see Raymond Challinor, The Origins of British Bolshevism, Croom Helm, London, 1977.

[11] Len Richardson, Coal, Class & Community. The United Mineworkers of New Zealand, 1880-1960, Auckland University Press, Auckland, 1995, p. 139.

[12] J. W. Miller, ‘The I.W.W. and the political Labor movement,’ unpublished manuscript, July 8, 1916, IWW Collection, Ai8/6, Mitchell Library, Sydney; Vanguard, 19 April 1917, p. 2.

[13] Tom Barker, ‘Self-portrait of a Revolutionary,’ Society for the Study of Labour History Bulletin, 15, Autumn 1967, p. 20.

[14] Direct Action, 15 June 1914, p. 2.

[15] IWW, Rebel Songs, Melbourne, 1966, p. 15. Also in Verity Burgmann, Revolutionary Industrial Unionism: The Industrial Workers of the World in Australia, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 1995, pp. 144-5.

[16] IWW, Songs of the Industrial Workers of the World, 3rd Australian edition, Sydney, c. 1916, p. 64. Also in Burgmann, Revolutionary Industrial Unionism, pp. 145-6.

[17] Direct Action, 1 May 1914, p. 2; 16 Sept. 1916, p. 1.

[18] McCormack, ‘The Industrial Workers of the World in Western Canada’, p. 478.

[19] Vincent St John, The I.W.W., Its History, Structure and Methods, IWW Publishing Bureau, Chicago, 1917, pp. 23-4; P. F. Brissenden, The I.W.W., A Study of American Syndicalism, Russell & Russell, New York, 1957, p. 341;Carleton Parker, ‘The I.W.W.’ in The Casual Laborer and Other Essays, Russell and Russell, New York, 1967, p. 106; Thorstein Veblen, ‘Farm Labor and the I.W.W.’ in Essays in Our Changing World Order, Viking Press, New York, 1954, p. 321;Melvyn Dubofsky, We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World, Quadrangle Books, Chicago, 1969, pp. 148-50, 333; Melvyn Dubofsky, ‘Dissent: history of American radicalism’ in A. F. Young (ed.), Dissent: Explorations in the History of American Radicalism, Northern Illinois University Press, De Kalb, 1968, pp. 192-3; Robert Tyler, Rebels of the Woods: The IWW in the Pacific Northwest, University of Oregon Books, Eugene, 1967, p. 26. See also William Preston, ‘Shall this be all? U.S. historians versus William D. Haywood et al’, Labor History, 12, 3, Summer 1971, pp. 441-2; Robert Zieger, ‘Workers and scholars: recent trends in American labor historiography’, Labor History, 13, 2, Spring 1972, pp. 255-6; ‘The I.W.W.—an exchange of views’, Labor History, 11, 3, Summer 1970, p. 371. Against the grain, Conlin, Bread and Roses, p. 69, contends that the membership of the IWW was more like a cross-section of the working class.

[20] Richard A. Rajala, ‘A Dandy Bunch of Wobblies: Pacific Northwest Loggers and the Industrial Workers of the World, 1900-1930’, Labor History, 37, 2, Spring 1996, pp. 207-11, 218.

[21] David Schulze, ‘The Industrial Workers of the World and the Unemployed in Edmonton and Calgary in the Depression of 1913-1915’, Labour/Le Travail, 25, Spring 1990, pp. 47-75, p. 48.

[22] Schulze, ‘The Industrial Workers of the World’, p. 53.

[23] Schulze, ‘The Industrial Workers of the World’, p. 75.

[24] Leier, ‘Solidarity on Occasion’, esp. pp. 50, 48.

[25] McCormack, ‘The Industrial Workers of the World in Western Canada’, p. 489.

[26] Peter Rushton, ‘The revolutionary ideology of the Industrial Workers of the World in Australia’, Historical Studies, 15, 59, October 1972, p. 446.

[27] Greg Patmore, ‘Australian Labor Historiography: The Influence of the USA,’ Labor History, 37, 4, Fall 1996, pp. 521-2.

[28] Olssen, The Red Feds,p. 217.

[29] Detective Moore’s Report re History and Proceedings of the IWW, SANSW7/5588.

[30] Quoted in Frank Cain, The Wobblies at War, A History of the IWW and the Great War in Australia, Spectrum Publications, Melbourne, 1993, pp. 73-4.

[31] IWW, Statement giving a brief outline of the activities of the above organization in Australia, Australian Archives, ACT Branch, CRS A456 Item W26/148 P. H.B.

[32] Items 5/6/18, 18/2/18, 1st Military Dt, 26/12/17-29/6/18 and Item 12/3/19, 1st Military Dt, 1/3/19-7/6/19, A6286, Australian Archives, Canberra; Item WA1024A, Vol. I, Investigation Branch Reports, Summaries 1-25, AA1979/199, Australian Archives, Canberra.

[33] Argus, 12 Oct. 1916, p. 8.

[34] Interview by Verity Burgmann with Jimmy Seamer, Wollongong, 29 August 1985.

[35] Olssen, The Red Feds,pp. 134-5.

[36] Ibid., p. 130.

[37] Ibid., p. 108.

[38] Ibid., p. 128.

[39] Ibid., p. 163.

[40] For details of Australian IWW involvement in industrial disputes, see Burgmann, Revolutionary Industrial Unionism, pp. 159-80.

[41] Olssen, The Red Feds, p. 211.

[42] McCormack, ‘The Industrial Workers of the World in Western Canada’, p. 494.

[43] Renshaw, The Wobblies, pp. 206-7, 216; Conlin, Bread and Roses, p. 80; Philip Taft, ‘The federal trials of the IWW,’ Labor History 3, 1, Winter 1962, pp. 59, 71-3.

[44] Dubofsky, ‘Dissent’, p. 202. See also Renshaw, The Wobblies, pp. 206-7, 216; Veblen, ‘Farm Labor and the IWW’, p. 329; Conlin, Bread and Roses, p. 80; Taft, ‘The federal trials of the IWW’, pp. 59, 71-3.

[45] Notebook 1, Ted Moyle Collection in possession of Jim Moss, Adelaide; Peter Rushton, ‘The IWW in Sydney, 1913-1917’, MA thesis, University of Sydney, 1969, p. 190, Appendix III.

[46] Eric Fry (ed.), Tom Barker and the IWW, ASSLH, Canberra, 1965, p. 27.

[47] L. C. Jauncey, The Story of Conscription in Australia, Macmillan, Melbourne, 1968, p. 223.

[48] Quoted in Direct Action, 22 Jan. 1916, p. 4.

[49] Direct Action, 30 Jan. 1916, p. 1; Sydney Morning Herald, 25 Oct. 1916, p. 34.

[50] J. W. Miller, ‘The I.W.W. and the political Labor movement,’ unpublished manuscript, July 8, 1916, IWW Collection, Ai8/6, Mitchell Library, Sydney.

[51] E. F. Dowell, A History of Criminal Syndicalism Legislation in the United States, Da Capo Press, New York, 1969, p. 21; Dubofsky, ‘Dissent’, pp. 202-3; R. E. Ficken, ‘The Wobbly horrors: Pacific Northwest lumbermen and the Industrial Workers of theWorld, 1917-1918’, Labor History, 24, 3, Summer 1983, pp. 325-41; R. C. Sims, ‘Idaho’s Criminal Syndicalism Act: one State’s response to radical labor’, Labor History, 15, 4, Fall 1974, pp. 511-12.

[52] Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, LXXX, 18 Dec. 1916, p. 10100; 18 Dec. 1916, p. 10111; 19 Dec. 1916, pp. 10158, 10178-9.

[53] Frank Cain, ‘The Industrial Workers of the World. Aspects of its suppression in Australia, 1916-1919’, Labour History, 42, May 1982, pp. 57-8; Notebook 2, Ted Moyle Collection in possession of Jim Moss, Adelaide; Francis Shor, ‘Masculine power and virile syndicalism: a gendered analysis of the IWW in Australia’, Labour History, 63, Nov. 1992, p. 98.

[54] Notebook 2, Ted Moyle Collection in possession of Jim Moss, Adelaide; Item W26/148/57, CRS A456, Australian Archives, Canberra; Australian Boot Trade Employees Federation, Minutes, T49/1/17, Noel Butlin Archives, Canberra; Hotel, Club and Restaurant Employees Union of NSW, Minutes, T12/1/2, Noel Butlin Archives; E. J. Holloway (Ass. Sec. Trades Hall Council) to Sec. Industrial Council, Brisbane, 16 Mar. 1918, Item 10/4/18, 1st Military Dt, 26/12/17-29/6/18, A6286, Australian Archives, Canberra; Argus, 20 Dec. 1916, p. 9; 22 Dec. 1916, p. 8; 23 Dec. 1916, p. 10; 30 Dec. 1916, p. 11; 6 Jan. 1917, p. 15; 11 Jan. 1917, p. 6; 6 Feb. 1917, p. 8; 22 Feb. 1917, p. 8; 31 July 1917, p. 5; 23 April 1918, p. 3; 19 June 1919, p. 7; Militant Propagandists, Minutes, Dec. 1916-Nov. 1918, Brodney Collection, 10882/4/6, State Library of Victoria; Arch Stewart, Sec, PLC, to Dear Comrade, circular letter, 13 Feb. 1917, F. J. Riley Papers, 759/6, National Library, Canberra.

[55] Labor News, 7 August 1920, p. 1.

Tom Barker and the IWW

This oral history — recorded and edited by Eric Fry — recalls the life and times of Tom Barker, including his radicalisation in New Zealand and involvement in the 1913 Great Strike. Also details his organising in Australia and beyond.

Download: PDF 18.56mb

Industrial Unionism: two pamphlets on the IWW in New Zealand

Industrial Unionism is a pamphlet with two local articles on the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.) in New Zealand, from Rebel Press.

The History of the the IWW in New Zealand, written by Peter Steiner, details the activities of the I.W.W. around the turn of the 20th Century, the prominence of the union during the famous 1912 Waihi miners strike, and their decline as a result of the ensuing repression during the Great Strike of 1913. The article also includes information about recent attempts to set up the I.W.W. in Dunedin.

Aim, Form, and Tactics of a Workers’ Union on IWW Lines, by Frank Hanlon, was written in 1913 and has been retrieved from the archives of the Turnbull Library. Despite its age, it clearly sets out the principles of industrial unionism in an easy to read manner, and makes the distinction between industrial unionism and trade unionism altogether clear.

Taken from Rebel Press, New Zealand.

Download: IUNZ.pdf 1.89 MB

Tom Barker: Industrial Worker of the World

After emigrating to New Zealand and joining the IWW, Tom Barker became an organiser for the syndicalist union, he organised the Auckland general strike of 1913 which led to him being forced to move to Sydney, Australia where he becamse editor of the IWW’s Direct Action. He was deported to Chile in 1918 and then travelled the world organising workers, before returning to the UK in 1927.

Tom Barker
Born Westmoreland, England, 1887, died London, 1970

Tom Barker became the editor of the Australian IWW’s Direct Action in 1915 after Tom Glynn was arrested in 1915. He supported industrial unionism because of the failure of Labourism. “I was absolutely convinced after seeing politicians in both New Zealand and Australia that a strong and even ruthless working-class body was necessary to see that people were properly protected and paid.” Tom Glynn and Tom Barker brought an infusion of Marxist perspective to the Australian Socialist Party and the IWW Clubs when they joined in 1913.

All governments in modern society, Barker argued, existed for the purpose of protecting private property and the interests of the propertied class; whether the politicians were socialists or conservatives, they could only safeguard and perpetuate the system of oppression. Barker attacked the Second International for being spineless. “Let us get to work, we of the Industrial Workers of the World, we, the countryless, the pariahs, the hobos, the migratory workers. Let us throw off the pusillanimity of political sentimentalists. Economic conditions are bringing us together in spite of ourselves and we, the workers of the world, are dependent upon one another.

Born in Westmoreland, England in 1887 of Lakeland farming stock; he worked as a farmer at age 11 and then at a milkhouse at age 14. In 1905 he joined the army at age 18 and became a member of the cavalry. He left the army, at the rank of lance corporal, when he began suffering from heart problems. He worked on the Liverpool railways till emigrating to New Zealand in 1909. He got a job as a conductor for the Auckland tramway. During 1911 to 1913 he was the branch secretary of the New Zealand Socialist Party’s Auckland Local. After being laid off in 1913 he began organizing for the IWW and led the Auckland General Strike of 1913. He was imprisoned in Wellington during the winter of 1913 and charged with 3 counts of sedition. He was released in the winter of 1914 under a bond of 1500 pounds, at which time he emigrated to Sydney, Australia.

In 1915 Baker railed against the Australian Workers Union for refusing to organize coloured workers, even after a series of strikes in which the coloured workers refused to scab against the AWU. “The Class War is a nobler sentiment than the Race War, for it strives for the abolition of chains and not for their perpetuation.” Coloureds and immigrants were an economic factor and it would be better if they organized with white workers instead of against them.

When Edith Cavell was murdered by the Germans, Barker was disgusted by the ensuing outcry. “It ill becomes the capitalist press of Australia to howl about the murder of one Englishwoman, when it consistently stood for the exploitation of little girls, who have been taken from the playground, and pushed into the unhealthy and dangerous atmosphere of the factories; working for wages that are not sufficient to house and feed them.”

He believed feminists to be misguided. The women’s suffrage had not secured equal pay for equal work. He believed women should be fighting with the men of their class and not against them. He also blamed capitalism for prostitution. “When wandering the streets of Sydney one sees the ever-growing army of the night, with its sweet recruits, and its battered veterans, you can see the gripping hand of commercialism and low wages.”

Under the administration of General Secretary Treasurer Barker no office holder was allowed cast a tie-breaking vote. Motions were accepted only if passed by the clear majority and in case of ties the motion lapse to insure fairness and true democracy.

When the Labour government began arresting Wobblies for selling anti- conscription literature in Sydney’s Domain, Baker spent a week in jail rather than pay the 10 schilling fine. Barker threaten to summon 10,000 unemployed men to the Domain if IWW persecution did not cease. During a meeting of the Political Labour League, Wobblies trapped Labour representatives in the room. They barricaded the doors after cutting the lights. The representatives where rescued by police after breaking a number of windows and shortly afterwards the prohibition of selling literature was lifted.
After the conscription issue was defeated in referendum, Barker claimed the IWW through its speaking tours of Sydney and wide circulation of literature had swayed public opinion.

Barker detested state-ownership of industries and fought for worker- controlled industry. “After the capitalist turns his profitless industry over to the state, his interest comes in regularly year by year, and he is save the worry of managing the industry and trying to calm the waters of industrial discontent. It is no consolation to the worker to know that the state exploits him now, in place of his capitalist employer. There is no hope for the working-class in state ownership. let us organize to control society by organizing to control the job. We who would be free ourselves must strike the first blow.” Barker sent out the call for Wobblies to send donations to support the 1916 wildcat strike by shearers. He also went on a speaking tour to raise funds for the miners’ strike at Broken Hill which was for shorter hours and better pay. In 1916 Barker cautioned Australian workers against jingoism and said they have no quarrel with German, Austrian, and Turkish workers. “Let those who own Australia do the fighting. Put the wealthiest in the front ranks, the middle class next, and follow them with the politicians, lawyers, and ministers. Answer the declaration of war with call for a general strike.” The IWW seized the opportunity to increase agitation after the Second International and the political socialists failed to prevent the war. He was imprisoned after creating and distributing posters such as the one, left.

He was released after winning his appeal on a technicality. He was later imprisoned on the same charge after distributing posters with a cartoon of a business man getting fat from the blood of a conscripted worker. After being released he joined in the fight with the coalition of anti-conscription forces which included the IWW, the Anti- Militarist League, Labour Party dissenters, various rival socialist parties, and the Catholic Church.

Barker organized the protest of the imprisonment of the Sydney Fifteen - fifteen prominent members of the IWW imprisoned on charges of sedition after mysterious cases of arson in Sydney and the counterfeiting scheme by a couple of rogue Wobblies. He got numerous groups from across the globe to send letters of protest including the National Union of Police and Prison Officers in Britain.

In 1918 he was deported to Chile and then expelled to Argentina where he worked the wharves of Buenos Aires, becoming active in the Marine Transport Workers Union. In 1920 represented the Argentinean Labour Federation at the Marine Transport Workers Union Conference in Oslo and attended the Syndicalist Conference in Berlin, where he denounced the dictatorship of the proletariat as inherently bad. In 1921 he attended the RILU conference as an Argentinean delegate. He wrote to Tom Glynn in prison that politicians will have no place in Russia - Lenin has denounced them.

He worked with Big Bill Haywood on the Autonomous Industrial Colony Kuzbas, which sought to utilize foreign expertise to bring heavy industry to Siberia. He never joined the Communist Party of Russia because it conflicted with his IWW ideals. When the matter was brought to Lenin and Trotsky both men support him. In 1926 he and his wife Berta Isaakovna went to NYC to recruit American technicians and engineers. In 1927 he returned unimpressed and disenfranchised; later returning to England.

He worked as a clerk with the London Electricity Board. He became a Labour member of the St Pancras Council in 1949 to 1959. When the Tory government was set on raising tenants rents he refused to operate civil defence arrangements, insisted on a closed shop for council employees, and flew the red flag each May Day. He took care of his wife who was blinded in 1950 and became a Camden councillor in 1960. He died in 1970 at the age of 83.


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

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.

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.


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,
8. Erik Olssen, ‘Tom Barker’, NZ Dictionary of Biography, online edition,
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