An Experiment in Syndicalism

by Hugh H. Lusk

During the last twenty years New Zealand has tried many social and economic experiments; these experiments have been made by her own Legislature, and her own people; and as a rule they have been remarkably successful: during the last few months she has had the experience of a new one conducted by strangers, and made at her expense. Fortunately there is reason to believe that this one will be found to have resulted in benefit to New Zealand and its people, while it may prove of service to older and larger countries. It is probable that the most widely known of New Zealand’s experiments is that which aimed at doing justice to employers and employees alike by the substitution for the Industrial strike of a Court of Arbitration, fairly constituted, on which both Workers and Employers were equally represented. This law has been branded by the supporters of the usual Strike policy with the name of “Compulsory Arbitration,” the object being to discredit it in the eyes of the workers, as an infringement of their liberty. The title is unfair and misleading. Unlike most laws, it never has been of universal application either to Workers or Employers, but only to those among them that chose to form themselves into industrial Unions, and to register those Unions as subject to the provisions of the Statute. The purpose of the Statute was an appeal to the common sense of the people, by offering them an alternative method of settling disputes and securing that fair-play for both parties which experience had shown could seldom be secured by the strike. The law, which was first introduced in 1894, had gradually appealed both to workers and employers, as worth trying, and before the close of the last century it had rendered the country prosperous, and had attracted the attention of thoughtful people in many other parts of the world to the “Country Without Strikes.” Efforts were made in several countries to introduce the principle of the New Zealand Statute, but with very little success, as it was generally opposed both by workers and employers:—the workers feeling confident they could obtain greater concessions by the forceful methods of the strike, and the employers suspecting that any Court of Arbitration would be likely to give the workers more than, without arbitration, they could compel the employers to surrender.

In the mean time the statutory substitute for the strike continued to succeed in New Zealand. Nearly every class of town workers, and some in the country, had formed Unions, and registered them under the arbitration law. With a single trifling exception, that was speedily put an end to by the punishment of the Union with the alternative of heavy fine or imprisonment, the country was literally as well as nominally a country without a strike. And it was something more than that: its prosperity increased year by year, and its production of goods—agricultural, pastoral, and manufactured—increased at a pace unequalled elsewhere. Yet the prosperity was most apparent in its effect on the conditions of the workers: under the successive awards of the arbitration court, wages had steadily increased until they had reached a point as high as in similar trades in America, while the cost of living was very little more than half the rate in any town in the United States. To all intelligent observers these facts were evident, and could not be concealed from the workers in other countries, especially in Australia, as the nearest geographically to New Zealand and commercially the most closely connected.

The effect, however, on the workers of Australia was not what might have been expected. Attempts had been made by some of the State Legislatures to introduce arbitration laws more or less like the New Zealand statute, but with very partial success. From the first these laws were opposed by the leaders of the Labor Unions, who naturally saw a menace to their influence in the fact that they became subject to punishment if they attempted to use their accustomed powers over their fellow unionists. The example of New Zealand was lauded in the Australian Legislatures and newspapers, and even in the courts, till at last a feeling of strong antagonism was developed among the more advanced class of socialistic Labor men, and it was decided by their leaders to undertake a campaign in the neighboring Dominion against the system of settling industrial questions by courts, and in favor of substituting the system of strikes, with their attendant power and profit to the Labor leaders. The first steps taken were sending men from Australia or England on lecturing tours through New Zealand, to create dissatisfaction with the Arbitration Courts by representing them as leaning to the side of the employers, and ignoring the claims of the workers. When this had gone on for about a year, workers of various classes were induced to cross from Australia, and join the Unions in New Zealand, for the purpose of influencing their fellow unionists to disloyalty towards the system under which they were registered. These men were generally competent workers and clever agitators, and many of them soon obtained prominence and official position in the Unions. As was natural, a good many of these new-comers were miners—either for coal or gold—and many of them joined the miners’ union at the great gold mine known as the Waihi, from which upwards of thirty million dollars worth of gold had been dug, and which was still yielding between three and four million dollars a year. There were nearly a thousand miners employed there, and all of them were members of a Union that was duly registered under the Arbitration statute.

There had been several questions in dispute between the miners and the owners, and these had been referred to the Arbitration Court some time before the arrival of the new Australian miners. The result, while it favored the Union in some respects, favored the Company in others, and this fact was used by the new-comers to convince the older hands that the Court had been unfair, and that they could secure much better terms for themselves if they would cease work, and so inflict immense loss by permitting the lower levels of the mine to become flooded. After a few months the Union decided to take advantage of the provision of the law which enabled any registered Union to withdraw its registration at six months’ notice. When the time had expired, the Union repeated the demand which had been refused by the Court, and on the refusal of the Company to agree, a strike was at once declared, and the whole of the miners ceased work. This had the effect, within a very short time, of rendering all the deeper levels of the mine unworkable. Close to the mine was a prosperous little town occupied chiefly by the miners and their families, most of the houses being the property of the mining company, and the men continued to occupy the houses while the strike was in progress. Other miners were found who were ready to take their places, but the men in possession refused to move out, and threatened with violence any miners that should attempt to work the mine. The men who had been prepared to work, finding this to be the position, withdrew. As there was no actual violence shown, there seemed to be a difficulty in the way of any interference by the Government: so several months passed, during which the mine lay idle while the miners on strike continued to occupy the houses and pay the very moderate rents demanded from employees of the company. This they were able to do partly from their savings, partly from the sympathetic contributions from Australia, and partly by some of the miners having scattered over the country and got work on the farms, and throwing their earnings into the common fund.

After repeated appeals by the mine-owners to the Government, an arrangement was made that the Company should employ miners willing to become members of a new Union registered under the Arbitration statute, and that the Government should send a police force sufficient to protect these in working the mine, and also to enforce the judgment of the local court in dispossessing the occupants of the houses belonging to the Company. An attempt was made by the strikers to defy this police force and prevent the new Union from working the mine; but when most of the new unionists had been sworn in as special constables, and a number of the militant strikers had been arrested, the others saw that they could not continue the struggle, and within a week or two abandoned the district, giving place to the members of the arbitration Union in both the mine and town.

Thus the first strike organized by the “Federation of Labor” in New Zealand resulted in a failure, but the miners thus defeated and driven from the little town that had been their home, in many cases for a good many years, were naturally embittered by their failure, and became an element of mischief in other districts, and especially in the coal mines, to which they turned when they found it hard to obtain employment in any of the gold mines.

The Australian Federation of Labor and its branch in New Zealand fully appreciated the fact that their first attempt to establish a system of Unionism opposed to the one recognized by the law, having proved a failure, it was necessary either to give up the attempt altogether or to make it more deliberately and on a much wider scale. The method they adopted was one that did credit to their foresight and determination. The Australian Federation is, and has always been, highly socialistic in its policy, and latterly its leaders have adopted and preached syndicalism, as promising to give the workers the control of society. New Zealand, alone among self-governing countries, having struck at the very root of their policy by trying to substitute a statute and a Court for the will of the associated workers, was a very tempting country for syndicalism. An island country which, owing to climate and soil, was specially suited for the production of all kinds of agricultural wealth beyond the needs of its own people, must depend on free access to the ports of other countries. This, it seemed plain, could be prevented by well managed syndicalism. It would be only necessary to organize the seamen who worked the vessels that kept the smaller harbors of such a country in touch with the larger ports at which the ocean going ships loaded and unloaded; and to organize also the stevedores at the larger ports. The bitterness of feeling that had followed the destruction of the Waihi Union, and the loss to its members not only of a good many months of good wages but of the homes they and their families had occupied for years, was a valuable asset in such a campaign. At first, of course, some of the working classes blamed the agents of “The Federation of Labor” who were responsible for the disastrous strike, but it was not difficult to turn attention from the past failure of a single strike, to the certain success that must attend a great syndical strike that would involve all the industries of the country. Most, indeed nearly all, of the disappointed Waihi strikers were ready to join with enthusiasm in carrying out the plans of The Federation, and removed to the places where they could be most effective in preparing the way for what they looked upon as a great revenge. Thus they either joined the old Unions at the principal ports, especially Auckland and Wellington, or formed new Unions, no longer registered under the Arbitration statute, but openly affiliated to The Federation of Labor, which had been established in New Zealand, but was really a branch of the Australian Federation. The four principal ports of New Zealand, indeed the only ports much frequented by the large export and import vessels, are Auckland, Wellington, Lyttleton, and Dunedin, the two first named being in the north island, and the other two in the south. Auckland is considerably the largest city in The Dominion, containing at least 25,000 more inhabitants than Wellington, which is not only the capital of the Dominion, but also the great distributing centre for the South island and the southern part of the North island, at the southern extremity of which it is situated. The remarkable situation of Auckland, on a very narrow isthmus about a hundred and eighty miles from the northern point of the country, is no doubt largely responsible for the growth of the city, which is the chief centre of the young manufactures of the Dominion, and the largest port of export for almost all the country produces, except wool and mutton, which are mainly raised in the South island. Thus it happens that Auckland and Wellington are at present the chief shipping ports of the Dominion, and it was to them that the Federation of Labor turned its chief attention when its leaders had definitely decided to undertake the campaign of syndicalism against the system of arbitration which had prevailed for sixteen years.

There had already been formed Unions of Waterside Workers and Seamen at each of these ports; but they were in all cases registered under the arbitration law, and of course subject to its penalties against both officials and members in cases of any breach of the statute. The Federation’s agents proceeded to collect the members of these unions who were in any way dissatisfied with the existing awards of the Arbitration Courts, and to form them into new Unions outside the statute. They had little difficulty in persuading the men that the new Unions would be free to act in many directions that were barred to the members of the old Unions. A good many of the men were thus persuaded to resign their membership in the existing Unions, and as they were very often the most active members, they gradually persuaded others to leave with them. There was nothing either in the law or custom of the ports to prevent unionists and non-unionists working together on the wharves or the coasting vessels; so within a comparatively short time the members of the new Federation Unions were more numerous than those that clung to the older ones. When this became the case, the officials of the new Unions approached the shipping companies with proposals for an agreement between them and the Federation Unions in some respects more favorable to the employers than the arbitration award under which the older Unions were working, and in this way gained a position which enabled them to undermine the old Unions, till they either died out for want of members or withdrew their registration, and at the end of their six months’ notice merged their Unions in those of The Federation. The Federation’s plans had been so carefully prepared that there was little or no suspicion on the part of the employers or of the public generally as to the true meaning of the movement. It was evident, of course, that it indicated a revolt against the arbitration law, but as the new unions appeared ready to give the employers rather better terms than the old ones, many reasons were found by employers for defending what began to be called the “Free Unions.” In this way things had gone on at the shipping ports for about two years from the failure of the gold miners’ strike at Waihi, before anything happened to open the eyes of the public to the real meaning of what The Federation of Labor had been doing. In that time the new Unions at each of the principal ports of the country had quietly obtained the entire control of the hands at waterside and local shipping, as well as of the Carters Unions. The time had arrived when the syndicalists believed themselves able to compel the public to submit to any demands they might see fit to make.

The occasion finally arose, as might have been expected, at Wellington, where the Federation of Labor had established its head-quarters. There was no definite dispute between the employers and workers, but for a few weeks there had been an uneasy feeling in relation to the Waterside Workers who, it was said, were growing more lazy and slovenly in handling cargo on the wharves and piers. A meeting had been called by The Federation to discuss some grievances of the coal miners at Westport, from which most of the coal landed in Wellington is brought. The meeting was called for the noon dinner hour, and a number of the waterside workers engaged in discharging cargo from a steamer about to sail, at once went to the meeting, and did not return to work in the afternoon. The shipping company at once engaged other men to finish their work, and when the men came back some hours later, they found their places filled up. The new men belonged to the same Union, but the men dispossessed demanded that the new ones should be dismissed at once. When the company refused the demand, the men appealed to the Council of the Federation, who at once called on the Waterside Workers and Seamens Unions at Wellington to cease work. Within a few days the position looked so serious that the Premier invited both parties to a conference, at which he presided in person, in the hope of bringing about an agreement to refer the matters in dispute to an arbitrator to be mutually agreed upon. The officials of The Federation, however, said there was nothing to submit to an arbitrator: they had made a demand, and unless it was complied with by the shipping company and the Union of merchants at Wellington who were in league with the Company in victimizing the men who took part in the meeting in aid of the Coal-miners, the strike must go on. The Merchants and Shipping Company’s Unions pointed out that what had been done was in direct opposition to the terms of the formal agreement signed less than a year before, and they refused to have anything more to do with the Federation on any terms. The conference thus ended in an open declaration of war. The time had evidently come for the Federation of Labor to make good the assertions so often made by its lecturers and agitators, of its power to force the rest of the community to submission. It would be difficult to imagine a more favorable position for carrying such a policy into effect: New Zealand, it must be borne in mind, is a country without an army. For some years past, it is true, a system of military training for all her young men between eighteen and twenty-five has been enforced by law, but except for training purposes, there is no military force in the Dominion, either of regulars or militia; and it is now forty-five years since the last company of British soldiers left its shores. Law has been maintained, and order enforced, by a police force under the control of the Government of the Dominion, and while the force is undoubtedly a good and trustworthy one, its numbers have never been large in proportion to the population. This year the entire force throughout the country is very little more than 850, which includes officers as well as men. It can hardly be wondered at that the officials of The Federation of Labor were convinced that, if they could arrange a general strike of the workers, the police force would be powerless to deal with it. On the failure of the attempt of the Premier to bring about a settlement between the parties by arbitration, the Federation proclaimed a general strike of all Unions affiliated to themselves throughout the country, and of all other Unions that were in sympathy with them in their policy of giving united Labor the control of society. The order to cease work was at once obeyed, as a matter of course, by all the Federation Unions, which practically meant all the workers engaged on vessels registered in the Dominion and trading on the coast, all workers on wharves and piers, carters in the cities, and coal miners throughout the country. The appeal for sympathetic assistance from Unions unconnected with the Federation was largely successful in the chief centres, though it was, of course, a direct defiance of the arbitration law under which they were registered. It has since been discovered that in nearly every case it was brought about by the unprincipled scheming of the secretaries, assisted by a few of the officials, who called meetings, of which notice was given only to a selected minority, and at which the question of joining a sympathetic strike was settled by a large majority of those present, but in fact in many cases a small minority of the whole membership. The sympathetic strike of Arbitration Unions was mainly confined to the cities, and Auckland, as the largest city, was the most affected by it. In Auckland the members of practically every Union ceased work, somewhere about ten thousand persons going on strike simultaneously.

The result during the first days of the strike seemed likely to confirm the expectations of the Federation orators. Industry was practically dead. At every port vessels lay at anchor, having been withdrawn from the wharves before they were deserted by their crews, and the wharves were in the possession of the Waterside strikers. The streets of the cities were empty, and a large proportion of the stores were closed, partly owing to want of business, and partly from fear of violence in case they kept open. These first few days in both New Zealand and Australia were days of triumph for the Federation leaders but the triumph was a short-lived one. The Government of the Dominion did not interfere, indeed, but the public, through their municipal authorities, did. The people of New Zealand have throughout their history been accustomed to manage their own affairs, and within four days of the declaration of war by the syndical Federation, steps were taken to meet the emergency. At Auckland and Wellington it had been evident from the first that the small police force available could not safely attempt to cope with the main body of strikers, or do more than prevent acts of aggressive violence to the citizens and their property. The local authorities, however, had confidence in the general public, and at Auckland, and afterwards at Wellington, the Mayor of the city appealed to the public to come forward as volunteers to maintain law and order, by acting as Special Constables. In both cities the appeal was responded to readily, nearly two thousand young men coming forward at Auckland in twenty-four hours, and upwards of a thousand at Wellington. These were at once sworn in as special constables, and armed with serviceable batons, while all the fire-arms and ammunition for sale in the city was taken charge of and withdrawn from sale by the municipal authorities. In this way the maintenance of order was fairly provided for, and the temporary closing of all licensed hotels by order of the city magistrates removed the danger of riot as the result of intemperance.

There had been some rioting in Wellington, though with little serious injury, but there was nothing that could be called a riot in Auckland. The Federation Unions waited, under the impression that time was on their side, owing to the impossibility of doing anything or getting anything done without the help of the associated workers. This had been the basis of their scheme, but like all such schemes it failed to take into account the instinct of self-preservation on the part of the people outside the Unions. As long as the strike leaders could point to the fleet of vessels lying idle in the harbor, the mills silent, and the street railroads without a moving car, and almost deserted by carts, it was easy for them to persuade their followers that complete victory was only a matter of days, or at most of weeks; they had not remembered that there were others besides themselves and their fellow townsmen interested in the question of a paralyzed industry. The trade that has been making the people of New Zealand increasingly rich during the last twenty years has been mainly derived from the land. Small holdings and close settlement have been the rule, and the rate of production has been increasingly rapid. The exports—mainly the produce of the land—have grown in proportions quite unknown in any other country, and the farmers knew that the prosperity of the country, and most directly of all the workers on the land, depended on the freedom and facilities for shipment of their ports. It was the workers on the land, accordingly, that came to the rescue, and solved the industrial problem. An offer was made by the President of The Farmers’ Cooperative Union to bring a sufficient number of the members into the cities to work the shipping and to prevent any interruption of the work by the men on strike. The offer was at once accepted by the municipal authorities at Auckland and Wellington, and within two days fully eighteen hundred mounted farmers rode into Auckland, and nearly a thousand into Wellington, all prepared to carry on the work and protect the workers. Their arrival practically settled the question. New Waterside Unions were formed at every port, and registered under the provisions of the Arbitration Statute; such of the country workers as were able to do so, enrolled themselves as members of the new Unions; the wharves and water fronts were taken possession of and guarded by the special constables enlisted in the cities, while the streets were patrolled by parties of the mounted volunteers. Within twenty-four hours of their arrival, some of the vessels in harbor had been brought to the wharves, and the work of unloading them was begun.

At first there were many threats of violent opposition on the part of the strikers, and crowds assembled in the principal streets and in the neighborhood of the wharves; but these were dispersed before they became dangerous, by the mounted constables, and a proclamation having been issued by the mayor calling attention to the fact that collections of people that obstructed traffic in the streets were contrary to law, the police and mounted constables cleared the streets, and forcibly arrested any persons who attempted opposition. Within two or three days, at each of the principal cities, new Unions of seamen and of carters had been formed and registered under the arbitration law, and those members of the old Federation Unions who were not enthusiastic, and began to see that the assurances of success were not likely to be realized, began to resign and apply for admission to the new Unions. After about two weeks the Council of The Federation of Labor, recognizing the failure of the sympathetic strike, invited the Unions that were not connected with them to declare the strike at an end, and tried by confining the strike to their own members, to maintain a solid front, which, with the help of the Australian Federation both in money for the strikers and in refusing to handle any goods either from or for New Zealand, they still hoped would carry them to at least a compromise, if not to the victory they had expected. The hopes of the Federation of Labor were not realized. Within a week or two a large proportion of the members of their own Unions, seeing their places filled, and their work being done, not by free labor, which they might hope to deal with, but by new Unions, whose members would be entitled, under the arbitration law, to preference and many other privileges, began to desert and to seek admission to the Arbitration Unions that had taken their place. For a time this was fiercely denied by the Federation officials, but as the days went on, and business of every kind was resumed in the cities, the groups of strikers at street corners and around the Federation head-quarters dwindled away; the hotels were reopened, the shops and stores were busy, the mills were at work, and even the coastal steamers were manned and running, and the federationists were forced to admit that they were hopelessly defeated. For a time they still hoped that the Australian Boycott might save them from absolute disaster, and the Labor Ministry of New South Wales tried to help the Federation by making an appeal to the New Zealand Government to arrange an arbitration to settle the dispute between The Wellington Waterside Workers and the merchants and shipping companies. The absolute refusal of the New Zealand Government to recognize The Federation of Labor, or to interfere with the new Unions under the Arbitration Act that had taken their place, finally settled the question, and completed the defeat of the strikers. The officials of the Federation declared the strike at an end, and the Australian Federation announced that the boycott was also at an end.


At first sight it may seem that, after all, the experiment in syndicalism was on a small scale, and that its lesson can hardly be of great value to a country like America. A little consideration may correct such a misapprehension. New Zealand was deliberately selected by the Syndicalists as a test case, for two reasons. In the first place it was the only country that had for years adopted a policy of justice according to law for both workers and employers, and from the syndicalist’s point of view it was therefore the only country that seriously attacked their own policy by showing that it was unnecessary. In the second place New Zealand was the only country with a population of British origin that could be dealt with practically by itself. With the aid of an Australian boycott it seemed as if her people must be helpless in the hands of the Federation. The result proved to be not only the defeat of the principle of lawless syndicalism, but the destruction of the industrial association that represented it in the country. No compromise was accepted, and except it may be in name, no Union attached to the Federation of Labor remains at work. The question, of course, suggests itself: What was the reason? Minor reasons may be found, no doubt, to account for failure where success was so confidently expected; but there can be little doubt that the real cause is the policy pursued by the Legislature and people of New Zealand for the last twenty years. Syndicalism, like all plans for the over turn, or reform, as their advocates would perhaps prefer to call it, of existing institutions, depends for success on the existence of wrongs by which part of the people is impoverished, while another, and very small part, has more than enough. The workers of our own race, at any rate, have enough common-sense to understand, at least when they are not hysterically excited, that imaginary wrongs are not a sufficient reason for great sacrifices. New Zealand’s legislation has not created an ideal society, it is true; but for twenty years it has proceeded step by step in the direction of righting the wrongs of the past, and giving opportunity to that part of its people that needed it most, on the single condition that they would use it, and respect the rights of others. To such a people, increasing steadily, year by year, in all that makes for well-being, the wild denunciations, and if possible wilder promises, of paid agitators can have little attraction. It may be possible by careful generalship to stir a small section of such a people to the hysterical excitement of an industrial war, but the mass of the people would be certain to resent it, and the movement will be doomed to a speedy collapse.

Other countries have been less enlightened and less fortunate than New Zealand in their legislation, and perhaps still less fortunate in the administration of the laws passed for the betterment of the masses of their people. They have done little to convince the great majority that they are aware of the wrongs that have been done that majority in the supposed interest of the small class of the over rich. They have not provided opportunity for those who hitherto have had none, nor have they even provided a reasonable alternative for industrial warfare. Had they done these things in the past, or were they even to begin honestly to provide for them in the future, they might confidently expect that the reign of industrial warfare, which exasperates their people, and retards the prosperity of their nation, would be as easily and effectually suppressed as the experiment of the Syndicalists has just been in New Zealand.