Violent clashes between unionised waterside workers and non-union labour had erupted two days after Wellington watersiders held a stopwork meeting in support of a small group of striking shipwrights. Employers claimed the stopwork meeting breached the watersiders’ agreement and replaced the men who attended with other (union) workers. The union responded by refusing to work until the dismissed men were reinstated. The employers declared that the wharfies were on strike; the wharfies claimed they had been locked out.
On the 23rd unionists held a mass meeting and began picketing the wharves. Some non-union workers and Harbour Board employees worked the ships, while the Union Steam Ship Company paid off the crews of its colliers in port.
The 24th saw the first violent clashes between wharfies and non-union labour. Cargo-handling was halted as employers and union officials met to discuss a return to work. Negotiations broke down the following day, and further violence flared as unionists boarded and occupied several ships in port.
This was the beginning of the Great Strike of 1913 – a bitter two-month struggle that would eventually involve 16,000 unionists around the country. The dispute saw violent clashes between strikers and mounted special police whom the unionists dubbed ‘Massey's Cossacks’ after the conservative Prime Minister, W.F. Massey.
Many of the ‘Specials’ were farmers who had enlisted to break the strike and help employers and the Massey government crush the militant labour movement. This objective was effectively achieved when the strike collapsed in late December 1913. Militant labour was dealt a severe blow, but many of the leading unionists would later rise to prominence in the Labour Party.
Image: 1913 waterfront strike (Te Ara)