The economic depression of the 1880s was a difficult period for working men. In the main towns the craft unions established trades and labour councils. They agreed on common demands and sometimes endorsed candidates for the House of Representatives, believing that the labour movement needed its own spokespeople in Parliament.
Two organisations sparked a strong upsurge in union membership. First, a group of railway workers formed a local version of the English union, the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS). Within months they had over 3,000 members and their employer, the government, quickly agreed to their demands. Second, the Federated Seamen’s Union set up its own shipping company to compete with the Northern Steam Ship Company, and won. Throughout New Zealand men – and a handful of women – began joining unions or forming new unions.
The Maritime Council
In 1889 representatives of the maritime unions, as well as coal miners, joined together to form the Maritime Council. The council was the first New Zealand-wide labour organisation. Its member unions were based in key industries, and it had enormous negotiating strength. It won victory after victory, sparking a massive movement as thousands of workers flocked to join unions. For the first time, women working in clothing factories formed their own union, in Dunedin. By September 1890 there were between 20,000 and 60,000 union members.
1890 maritime strike
Seamen and watersiders at Port Chalmers, Dunedin, walked off the job in September 1890 because of an industrial dispute in Sydney that involved their employer. Within days their fellow union members in other ports joined the dispute, and the country’s wharves came to a standstill. Then the coal miners walked out. The largest companies in the dispute, the Union Steam Ship Company and the Westport Coal Company, worked together to smash the unions. The government tried to mediate but failed. Within weeks one wharf after another was reopened as the employers broke the strike. Then the miners’ unions were beaten. The Seamen’s Union secretary later recalled that the unions had been ‘licked, and … also kicked and kicked very hard indeed’.1