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).
THE LABOUR MOVEMENT
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.
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 for Red Ruffians.