Friday, November 01, 2013

Comrades and Cossacks Redux

Mounted strike-breakers, mainly volunteers from country areas, line up across Auckland’s Queen Street during the 1913 waterfront strike. Behind them hundreds of strikers, shouting and throwing stones, try to prevent ships being loaded on the wharves. (Click for image credit)
Strikers and 'police specials' (Cossacks) lined up facing each other in Queen Street, Auckland, 1913
This is not the first time that the history of the 1913 Strike in NZ/Aotearoa has caused controversy. Today, the fuss is about an artwork that features the silhouette of a baton wielding 'Cossack' used to suppress the striking workers on the Auckland wharves in 1913. Ten years ago, the police and some unions collaborated in an academic project that sought to present the 1913 strike as no more than an example of police 'methods'. That is, to be seen as an historical event that is isolated from the class struggle today. In both cases what we have is an attempt to legitimise the role and 'methods' of paramilitary state forces used to smash strikes, outlaw unions, and impose the will of the ruling class upon the fate of the working class. We say NO!

Mike Lee the City Councillor who blew the gaff on the baton wielding thug posturing today on Queens Wharf in Auckland had a grandfather on the blunt end of those batons in 1913. He is right. Putting up a memorial to the 'Cossacks' (farmers recruited as police specials) who broke the strike of the Auckland wharfies and helped set up a scab union in 1913 is a provocation to today’s workers and the Labour Party which evolved out of the Federation of Labour formed in 1909.

That FOL (called the ‘Red Fed’ because of its socialist principles) broke from the Arbitration Court because it refused to increase wages in 1908. The Miners Federation became the FOL and other unions like the wharfies, flaxworkers and shearers joined. Acting as free unions registered under the 1878 Trade Union Act. There was no prohibition on strikes and these workers gained better wages and conditions than under the Arbitration Court.

Also formed in 1909 was the Reform Party led by Bill Massey a small farmer. Small farmers newly settled on land broken up by the Liberal Government in the 1890s and assisted by state loans became a new force for private property opposed to the more progressive wing of the Liberals who favoured state leaseholds over freehold. The prize of capital gain was the main route for the landless out of the working class.

From 1910 the freeholders and business class behind Massey organised to force the FOL back into the Arbitration Court. Reform became the Government in 1912 and the first major fight was at the Waihi gold mines in 1912. The Waihi Miners Union joined the FOL in 1911 and won better wages and conditions. The mine owners used the Arbitration law to form a scab union imposing a wage cut on the FOL miners who where locked out until they agreed.

For six months the miners held out supported by the FOL and overseas unions. Police, scabs and armed thugs attacked the locked out workers. George Evans was killed. 68 of the miners including all of their leaders were jailed for attempting to keep the scab union out of the mine.

This dispute was a dress rehearsal for the 1913 strike which again began as a lockout this time of the Wellington Watersiders by the British shipowners who refused to employ men not in an arbitration union. Now the bosses were emboldened to smash the whole Red Fed and the newly formed Social Democratic party and force all workers into the Arbitration Court. Strikes in support of the locked out Watersiders spread around the country and were faced by police, armed scabs, the Cossacks, and even the army and navy (the latter with permission of the British crown).

According to WB Sutch in ‘Poverty and Progress in NZ” p. 165:

“Young farmers, ‘Massey’s Cossacks’, rode into the main ports as ‘specials’ to intimidate the strikers and the public, to form arbitration unions and take the place of watersiders and seamen…When police and specials took over the Auckland waterfront so that scab labour could work the ships, many other unions (including craft unions) struck in protest. There was almost a general strike in Auckland. Strike leaders were put in jail (there were 169 convictions); at the ports the Employers’ Federation formed new arbitration unions, often based on the young farmers were there partly for this purpose; the ports were worked by these people and other scabs; and the Supreme Court decided that arbitration unions could not contribute strike funds to another union. The arbitration unions formed by the employers were registered, and the watersiders told that if they wanted to work again on the wharves they must join these unions. By 20 December 1913 the strike was over, and Massey was able to give Waikato farmers medals for strike breaking.”

In case anybody thinks that that episode can never be repeated it most certainly was in the 1951 lockout, and will inevitably again when organised labour stands up for its rights against the class that owns the means of production and controls the state to enforce its class rule.

Whose side are you on?

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