A history of the Wobblies in New Zealand

March 29, 2007

Industrial Unionism

by Peter Steiner and Frank Hanlon

Rebel Press, 2007

28 pages, $2


Industrial Unionism is split into two parts. The first part, "The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in Aotearoa", by Peter Steiner provides a concise history of the actions of the IWW or Wobblies, as they came to be known. The IWW was a radical workers' union originally formed in the US in 1905. They believed that workers should all join "one big union" rather than having a different union for every different type of job. Through the use of direct action in the workplace and general strikes, Wobblies believed workers would end up taking over the running of the economy from capitalists and the ever repressive state.

Between 1908 and 1913 the IWW was extremely active in Aotearoa. While in Aotearoa it was always a small organisation, Steiner argues that it "punched above its weight". The Wobblies played an active role in the stirrings around the Waihi gold miners' strike in 1912 and the general strike of 1913, which were both put down by massive police violence. Steiner describes in detail the Wobblies' activities during these times and how some prominent Wobblies were considered such a threat to New Zealand's elite that they had to be locked up for sedition.

Steiner challenges the orthodox historic view that the IWW, as part of NZ's left, ended up having its eventual victory when the Labour Party won the 1935 election. He argues that "this view misrepresents the IWW and the revolutionary ambitions of workers who were committed to syndicalism and whose anti-parliamentary views brought them closer to anarchism than Marxist state control or social democratic reforms".

The only downside with this article is that there is little explanation as to what the events of the time (such as the strikes of 1912 and 1913) were all about and what exactly happened. This might make the pamphlet a bit hard to read for people new to this period of NZ history.

The second part of the pamphlet is a brilliant article written in 1913 by Frank Hanlon, who was an Auckland Wobbly, about the "aims, form and tactics of a workers' union based on IWW lines". Parts of it read as if it could have been written yesterday. While many commentators consider corporate globalisation to be a recent phenomenon, Hanlon wrote: "The development of existing industries, opening up of new ones, expanding of markets, introduction of new machinery and development of ocean and land transit and communications have placed capitalism on a thoroughly international basis. Capital is international, the employing class is international, the interest of the working class is international."

Hanlon described in detail the nature of capitalism and its exploitation of workers in Australia and New Zealand. How an IWW style union should be organised is neatly explained, as are some tactics for workplace sabotage and "hitting your boss in the pocket book".

This pamphlet provides a documentation of a part of Aotearoa's often forgotten radical labour history and helps challenge the myth that this has always been an egalitarian nation, free of divisions between rich and poor.

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