Labour Day’s origins in New Zealand

Posted: October 26, 2015 by Admin in New Zealand history, New Zealand politics, Workers history

The piece below first appeared on this blog on October 21, 2011

by Philip Ferguson

In more militant and politically-advanced countries workers celebrate MayDay each May 1, usually with festivals and mass marches which, in various ways, reflect workers’ resistance and power.  In New Zealand we have a mournful dead workers day, in which a small coterie of union officials commiserate about the number of workers who die each year in workplace accidents (workers as victims rather than agents of social change) and a nice, respectable Labour Day on the fourth Monday of each October.

Our insipid Labour Day traditions go back to the later 1800s.  In early 1882 an Auckland demonstration called in support of the 8-hour day invited “men of all classes” – as opposed to men and women of the working class – to attend.  The NZ Herald ad for the march requested that employers assist their workers in being able to attend.  Mainstream capitalist politicians were welcome at such marches.  For instance, in 1884 the annual march in Auckland was addressed by Sir George Grey and other liberals.  In 1885, representatives of manufacturers attended to get support for import tariffs.

Olssen has noted that “In Dunedin wealthy citizens actually organised the tailoresses into the country’s first women’s union.  Many large employers – men like Bendix Hallenstein and James Mills – endorsed responsible unions, for they promised not just to uplift labour but to remove Old World ills from the garden.”[1]  Similarly, Keating has recorded that the “most effective voice in demanding reform” during the 1880s was not any labour leader but a Presbyterian minister.  The campaign by Rev. Rutherford Waddell, backed by the Otago Daily Times, led to the establishment of the Sweating Commission and the formation of a union of tailoresses.  Waddell was the union’s first president, “a fact which illustrates the absence of labour leaders sufficiently educated to function effectively at that time.”  Moreover, this situation of the middle class taking the lead in the labour movement was quite common:

The task of promoting unions therefore, rested not so much on the working men as on liberal-minded citizens such as Robert Stout, Cohen (editor of the Otago Daily Times), and Hallenstein (who was prominent in the Dunedin Chamber of Commerce).  Public spirited men like these led the campaign for organisations to represent labour and for industrial conciliation and arbitration to settle industrial strife.[2]

Rutherford-Waddell and others advocated the principles of conciliation and arbitration, with there being wide support across the community.  This was seen as an antidote to both ‘bad’ employers and militant class conflict, which were seen as injurious to the country as a whole.[3]

In general, unions at this time were dominated by people such as Jack Lomas, a Methodist lay preacher and leader of the Denniston coal miners, and Charles Thorn, a Primitive Methodist who was president of the Dunedin Trades and Labour Council which convened the 3000-strong first national conference of trade unionists in 1885. Their criticisms of capitalism were moralistic rather than socialistic.  Trade unions were a means for opposing Mammon and organising the moral, including economic, upliftment of the working man.  As Olssen notes of Thorn, “He believed passionately in self-improvement.”[4]

In 1889 the Maritime Council was established and the following year organised the 8-hour demonstration for October 28, marking its own first anniversary.  From this time, 8-hour annual protests were organised in late October.  They continued to be marked by class collaborationism.  Even after the bitter maritime dispute of 1890, Lyttelton wharfies carried a banner in their march featuring the caption “Labour and Capital as they should be”, accompanied by a picture of a merchant and a worker shaking hands.[5]  The following year Auckland bootmakers, despite another recent bitter strike which they had lost, carried a banner featuring a clasped handshake of worker and boss.[6]

The defeat of the unions in the 1890 maritime dispute led them into closer entanglement with the capitalist Liberal Party.  As Olssen has put it, “As the union movement declined its political strength increased” through integration into the Liberals.  This was important to the Liberals because the male working class had just gained the vote and working class women (along with all other women) gained it in 1893.  It was important to incorporate the working class and its institutions, such as they were, within a reworked bourgeois hegemony.

Liberal candidates also depended on working class votes.  As Liberal leader Reeves recorded in 1898,  Although “some score of members” owed their election “chiefly to the Labour vote” only six were “working mechanics”.  These were scarcely firebrand trade union militants.  “They were,” records Reeves, “without exception men of character, intelligence, and common sense.  They behaved as though their only ambition was to be sensible Members of Parliament.  As such, they were soon classed, and lookers-on were only occasionally reminded that they held a special brief.”[7]

Annual labour movement national conferences brought together delegates of all the Trades and Labour Councils.  The fares of delegates were paid by the Liberal government until 1905.[8]

(The 1913 defeats led to a similar process, with the beaten unionists establishing the Labour Party and increasingly concentrating on becoming a mainstream bourgeois political party.)

The annual marches in the 1890s turned into processions of a less and less political character, dominated more by tradesmen’s societies, breweries and anti-temperance groups, with little trade union input.[9]  Based around sports and picnic activities, they were safe enough for Liberal MPs such as Grey and Sir Robert Stout.  In 1891 Stout told workers in Wellington that by insisting on 8-hour day they were “fighting for their moral, mental and physical health” and “doing a duty to themselves, to their families, and to their employers.”[10]  These kinds of speeches dovetailed nicely with notions of protecting white, (and Maori) New Zealand workers from Chinese immigrant workers, both Stout and Grey being ardent advocates of the White New Zealand policy.

Labour Day finally became a holiday in 1899, the result not only of working class agitation but “a shrewd move on the part of Seddon to tighten the Liberal Party’s hold on the unionist vote, after the Trades and Labour Conference had resolved in favour of an independent Labour Party.”[11]

Labour Day parades revived but were more like the Santa Parade or the Farmers Parade than any sort of display of workers’ demands, let alone workers’ power.  As the Evening Post noted of the Wellington case, each year the parade fell “more into the hands of the enterprising businessman and out of the jurisdiction of the unionist.”[12]  Just over a decade later, the Industrial Workers of the World paper in New Zealand described the day as “more like an acknowledgement of subjection than an assertion of dignity ” and “the bosses’ Labour Day.”[13]

During WW1, Labour Day processions took on a heavily imperialist hue.  The 1915 parade in Wellington included a lorry carrying a Union Jack and a bulldog and in Auckland men and boys in various kinds of martial uniforms outnumbered unionists.[14]

[1] Erik Olssen, “100 Years of the Union Movement”, Towards 2000, Wellington, GP Books, 1989, p69.

[2] Trade unions and industrial relations, Victoria University, Industrial Relations Centre, Seminar Working Paper No. 2, 1971, p5.

[3] Ibid, p8.

[4] Olssen, p67.

[5] Bert Roth, “Labour Day in New Zealand”, in John E. Martin and Kerry Taylor (eds) Culture and the Labour Movement : essays in New Zealand labour history,  Palmerston North, Dunmore Press, 1991, p308.

[6] Auckland Star, November 9, 1891.

[7] William Pember Reeves, The Long White Cloud: Ao Tea Roa, London, Horace Marshall and Son, 1898, p371.

[8] Olssen, p72.

[9] Roth, pp308-9.

[10] Evening Post, October 28, 1891.

[11] Roth, p310.

[12] Evening Post, October 10, 1900.

[13] Industrial Unionist, November 1, 1913.

[14] Roth, pp311-2.

  1. beyondresistance says:

    Thanks Phil for the great article. You might be interested in this… I came across in ‘Industrial Unionist’, the paper of the New Zealand IWW:

    LABOUR DAY: vol 1. No. 10, November 1913.

    “NZ ‘Labour Day’ is the bosses labour day. Each year we have seen unions set up ‘Labour Day Committees’, months before, to waste much time organising for what is virtually a street display of goods; a cheap advertising method for employers. We have known wage-workers to spend many evenings before hand getting ready, in some cases to stay up all night on the eve, doing up the horses, etc – all for a pat on the back or a few beers from the boss. ‘Labour’ Day in NZ has been more like an acknowledgment of subjection than an assertion of dignity.

    The workers’ day of the near future will be the first of May – INTERNATIONAL LABOUR DAY. Advanced organisations all over the globe recognise that day as one on which the Workers of the World shall lay work aside for twenty-four hours and with international fraternal spirit assert their power. The International Labour Day heralds Labour’s triumph. Let us hold this in mind and set all other dates aside. The FIRST OF MAY is the real Labour Day, because it is international.”

    Jared (in a personal capacity)

  2. beyondresistance says:

    Just realised you reference this text! Excellent… well here it is in full anyway. Jared

  3. Admin says:

    When I was working on my thesis on the White New Zealand policy, I came across quite a bit of stuff on the early labour movement. The dominant strand in (what little) writing there is about the White new Zealand policy tends to blame the working class. What I turned up in research, however, was the extent to which politically (and even organisationally) the working class was hegemonised by the liberal middle class and their prejudices. Since NZ historians tend to have little affinity with either class-struggle anarchism or Marxism, they simply can’t recognise or admit that it was the revolutionaries who opposed racism against the Chinese and the nice ‘moderate’ liberal middle class and nice, moderate unionists who supported it (along with a lot of feminists of the time).

    It’s interesting that the IWW say “The workers’ day of the near future will be the first of May. . .” The fact that this didn’t happen in NZ tells us quite a lot about the official labour movement here. We’ve gone from dismal Labour Days like the one the IWW attacks, back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, to no Labour Days today; and, instead, we now have Dead Workers Day. Dead Workers Day perfectly fits the IWW description of early 20th century Labour Day: “‘Labour’ Day in NZ has been more like an acknowledgment of subjection than an assertion of dignity.” We’ve basically gone from the insipid to the passive and morbid. . .

    Anyway, thanks for the fuller quote. I’ll stick it in the article in my file so if I use the piece again, which is quite likely, it’ll have more of the quote.

    all the best,