From the first years of European settlement in the 1840s, workers who had arrived as assisted immigrants sought decent working conditions. And while many of those who flooded Otago during the 1860s gold rushes moved on, others found work in the thriving businesses established in and around Dunedin in the late 1860s, 1870s and 1880s.
Hillside railway workshops, established in Caversham in 1874, was the city’s biggest employer in 1901, with 425 men. The working class congregated in Caversham and neighbouring areas – on the ‘Flat’, as South Dunedin was called.
Otago’s 19th-century working class was dominated by skilled workers who distrusted rather than embraced the state. In 1890, journalist Samuel Lister thought that government activity should be limited to (reduced) borrowing, exclusion of 'undesirable’ immigrants, a democratic education system and protection for local industries.
In the late 1880s worker activists and middle-class reformers combined to investigate poor working conditions in Dunedin and around the colony. Lister’s Otago Workman, published from premises in South Dunedin in 1887, attacked all authority, including the clergy and royalty.
Chinese workers grew vegetables in parts of South Dunedin. Workers of European origin were suspicious of Chinese immigration, which they saw as a wage-cutting strategy by employers. Every labour manifesto in the 1880s demanded the exclusion of Chinese.
Other worker concerns intensified with the downturn in economic activity in the later 1880s. Trades and labour councils focused on the interests of labour rather than the common ground between workers and employers. New Zealand’s first women’s trade union – the Tailoresses – was formed in Dunedin in 1889. A few weeks later, the Maritime Council, an association of seamen, watersiders, miners and others, was set up.
In August 1890 the Maritime Council went on strike in sympathy with Australian maritime unionists. On 28 October there was a big demonstration through Dunedin’s streets. The strike was defeated in November. The unions put up candidates in Dunedin electorates in the December 1890 general election, but they were not successful.
Early 20th century
Dunedin grew slowly, providing stability for its workforce. Engineering – the railway workshops and a number of other firms – accounted for almost 30% of the city’s workforce, and the clothing industry (with 80% female staff) nearly as many again. Shoe- and boot-making, printing, joinery and furniture-making accounted for almost another 30%, most in very small businesses. Most other workers were labourers.
The early-20th-century labour movement was stronger on the West Coast, in Christchurch and in North Island centres than in Dunedin.
The ‘red’ Federation of Labour, which organised workers nationally between 1908 and 1913, had little impact in Otago outside Port Chalmers. J. T. Paul, who had a background in Methodism and temperance activism, was the dominant figure in Dunedin labour politics. He was elected president of the two-year-old Labour Party in 1918.