On 14 May 1912 one of New Zealand’s most bitter industrial disputes began in Waihi. By November, the New Zealand Police had flooded the town, a miner was batoned to death and families driven out of town by mobs of ‘free’ (scab) labour.

Background…
The New Zealand labour movement at that time was undergoing a deep radicalisation. Like their fellow-workers worldwide, New Zealand workers were discovering syndicalism, direct action and fostering a radical working class-counter culture of penny pamphlets, socialist ‘Sunday schools’ and streetside soapboxing. As a result, workers across New Zealand were increasingly questioning what was perceived to be a bankrupt system—arbitration.

In 1894, legislation was introduced that outlawed strike action and forced unions and employers into negotiated industrial awards governed by the Arbitration Court (known as the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act, or ICA). Although the ICA had encouraged the growth of trade unions in New Zealand, “a complex interplay of changing work patterns, a rapidly expanding workforce and the bankruptcy of traditional union strategies” led to widespread dissatisfaction from around 1906 onwards.

The first to challenge arbitration was an illegal strike by 66 Auckland tramway workers in 1906 who, against the judgement of their union official, walked out in protest after a number of motor men had been dismissed. After ceasing work for half a day and smashing the company’s plate glass windows, management caved. This was followed in 1907 by a strike of slaughtermen—200 of who were fined for their illegal action but who simply refused to pay. These successes turned heads, but the “rebellion burst into the open” with a strike won by the Blackball Miners’ Union in 1908, whose defiance against fines and the authority of the presiding Judge openly flouted the Arbitration Court and the ICA itself.

The strike also resulted in a Miners Federation, which soon grew into the ‘Red’ Federation of Labour, whose preamble stated ‘the working class and the employing class having nothing in common’. The Red Feds encouraged class struggle free of ‘labour’s leg iron’: the ICA Act. Affiliated unions, including the miners of the Waihi Trade Union of Workers, began to de-register from the ICA.

So in May 1912 when 30 engine drivers in Waihi re-registered under the ICA (reportedly encouraged by the bosses), the union struck in protest. According to Stanley Roche, on Tuesday 14 May, Waihi came to a standstill.

From NZHitsory.net:

The local police inspector initially adopted a low-key response to the dispute, but he was overruled by the tough Police Commissioner John Cullen, who ordered extra forces to be sent to the town. In July William Massey’s conservative Reform Party came to power. Enthusiastically backed by Cullen, Massey was determined to crush the ‘enemies of order’.

Eventually about 80 police – 10% of the New Zealand Police Force – were deployed in the town. Leading strikers, including Evans, were arrested, and more than 60 were gaoled… The Red Fed leaders began to lose control of the strike as workers influenced by the radical American-based Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or ‘Wobblies’) demanded more militant action.

In October the company reopened the mines with non-union labour.

Things in Waihi became more hostile with the arrival of these Police. While the scabs grew more confident they were equally met by the women of Waihi, who were extremely active on the pickets—’following-up’ scab labour and hurling insults, rocks and humour.

However the strike failed. Intense police repression and violence saw the balance of power shift to the bosses. During what became known as the ‘Black Week’ in November, the Miners’ Hall was stormed, striker Fred Evans was killed by a police baton to the head (becoming the first worker do die in an industrial dispute in New Zealand), and unionists and their families were driven out of town as police stood by.

100 years on…
This year marks the Centennial of the Waihi Strike and to draw attention to our working past, the Labour History Project (and others) have organised a weekend-long event in Waihi:

THE DRAFT PROGRAMME:
Friday 9 November, from 4.30 pm
Registration at Friendship Hall, School Rd, Waihi
Light refreshments, tea and coffee. Dinner and drinks available RSA Seddon St

Saturday 10 November 8.30am to 12.30 pm
Seminar papers at Waihi Memorial Hall, jointly with the
Australasian Mining History Association
Lunch, plus refreshments at Friendship Hall

Saturday 1.30 pm to 5pm
Seminar papers, plus issues and interests presentations at
Friendship Hall
Alternatively – field trips, workshops and exploring,

Saturday 5.30pm
Exhibition opening of paintings by Bob Kerr

Saturday 7.30pm
Dinner at RSA, followed by social, including the Waihi Oratorio written and directed by Paul Maunder.

Sunday 11 November 9am
Commemoration of death of Fred Evans
Roll call of Waihi miners, with their descendants.

This looks set to be an important and historic event. More information will be available as it comes to light.

Sources…
There are a number of books and online articles dealing with the Waihi Strike (listed below). I would recommend Chapter 19 from Richard Hill’s, The Iron Hand in the Velvet Glove, which is a nice summary of events. Download it here (collated to print PDF zine).

Other sources include:

  • Campbell, R.J. ‘The role of the police in the Waihi strike:some new evidence’. Political Science 26, No2 (Dec. 1974): 34-40
  • Papers Past (online papers from the period, including the Maoriland Worker)
  • Holland, H. E. et al. The tragic story of the Waihi strike.
    Wellington, 1913 (very light on the IWW)
  • Olssen, E. The Red Feds. Auckland, 1988
  • Rainer, P. ‘Company town: an industrial history of the Waihi Gold Mining Company Limited, 1887-1912’. MA thesis, University of Auckland, 1976
  • Roche, S. Y. The red and the gold. Auckland, 1982 (highly readable, but does not mention the IWW at all).
  • Moriarty-Patten, S. ‘A World to Win, a Hell to Lose: The Industrial Workers of the World in Early Twentieth Century New Zealand’, Thesis, Massey University, 2012 (excellent—and only—study focusing on the NZ IWW)
  • Video: Black Tuesday and the 1912 Waihi Strike. Watch it here.
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