Australian and New Zealand Labor Movements

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By Dr. T. F. Macdonald.

THE labor movement in Australasia is extremely complex, and very much confusion of ideas concerning it obtains not only in other countries, but also in Australasia itself.

One reason for this is that a new factor or element, at any rate one not met with in Europe, enters into labor questions in the antipodes, viz., the element of cheap, colored, absolutely servile alien labor, imported almost at will by the employing classes, monopolies and trusts, whenever in the opinion of those dominating classes the workers of Australasia are making too much ground. From the fact that plenty of cheap, "reliable" labor is to be obtained within a few days' sail of Australia, a sombre cloud hangs continually over the labor movement, threatening to pour forth a flood of blacklegging elements which might at any moment swamp not only unionist labor, but the entire working class. Such a calamity really happened in Queensland, where for some thirty years the work in tropical agriculture fell entirely into the hands of alien cheap workers, who were in reality slaves, having neither social privileges extended to them, nor could they in their helpless ignorance form even the simplest institution of self-defence.

In the mines, again, Chinese labor had to be opposed; in the pearl fisheries, the Japanese. In fact, with the presence of Japanese, Chinese, Javanese, Hindoos, Cingalese, and other Eastern peoples, the workers of Australia have had an extremely up-hill battle to fight.

However, the colored labor question must be reserved for future articles; at present it is enough to know that in fighting this, to it, hydra-headed enemy, Australasian labor consolidated its ranks, and grew extremely powerful.

Here, perhaps, it were useful to mention that the general public of Australasia learned for the first time that labor fought not only its own battle, but that of the whole country; and a deep moral sympathy gradually grew towards the workers; which fact to some extent explains the widespread popularity of the Australasian movement, a popularity which gave to Australia for the first time in history a Labor Parliament, headed by a Labor Prime Minister.

Prior to the great historical maritime strike of 1890 in Australasia there had grown up a magnificent movement of trade and labor federations. Australian and New Zealand federations were further united in strong bonds of solidarity. At the call of Australia, New Zealand joined the great strike of 1890, with results well known to those who interest themselves in other than their own national movement. The great strike failed in its main purpose, but the labor movement of Australasia was not, therefore, beaten; it was only checked. However, the blow was such as to divide Australia and New Zealand into separate movements, and from that time to the present they have continued to develop irrespective of each other; thus the Australasian labor movement presents two distinct phases which must be followed separately.

At once it may be said that Australia developed rapidly in the direction of theoretical State Socialism, being influenced by the theories imported by such men as H. H. Champion, at one time rather famous in the English movement.

Theories of Socialism flooded Australia in every State. Nationalization of the land became the chief plank in all labor political movements, which "unfortunately became the vogue, as labor leaders rushed to conclusions far too readily. They wrongly judged that because of the failure of the labor movement during the great strike, politics must provide salvation for the workers weary of exploitation.

Had they analyzed the situation closely at that time, they must have found by reason, what they are now beginning to feel by experience, that the great strike failed from insufficient economic forces, from the now obvious truth that capital is an international enemy of the workers, and can only be fought by international weapons. These can never be political, but must be, and shall be. forged from an international understanding between the labor unions and federations of all nations.

However, Australia took up the political labor movement with marked enthusiasm.

All, apparently, went well; and the hopes of the workers rose as political majorities piled up in every Australian State in favor of labor platforms.

At last came the crowning political success of Australia: in the Commonwealth Parliament they found themselves in power. Surely the workers would now reap the reward of all their hard work at the polls. Measures in keeping with platform pledges would surely soon make their appearance. The land would be nationalized, also the means of production, distribution, and exchange! No! On the contrary, the platform was top-heavy; some planks must go. And the very first to be thrown into the "objective" was, yes, nationalization of land!

The Labor Party in power found, as other political parties before them, that Australian land did not belong to Australians, but to English bondholders! How could it, then, be nationalized, when to expropriate would mean war with England, backed up by Germany, France, Holland, and all the money-lending countries of the world?

Explain it as we may, the historical fact remains that when the Commonwealth Labor Party came before their respective constituencies for the second time, the land nationalization plank had vanished from the labor platform.

The lesson and moral is this: that when political parties find their limits, which they quickly do, ideals are ignored; and the labor ship must be trimmed to the strongest political wind that blows.

However successful the political side of the Australian movement may be in the Australian national sense, when confronted with international forces, an inevitable corollary to national success, it breaks down completely.

The loss of time engendered by false moves like this is only a trifle of the evil wrought by the Australian political labor movement. Trusting to the shadowy hopes raised by political success, as far as gaining seats in Parliament can be called success, a most fatal movement now appeared among the unions, more especially among those of Queensland. So sure did the workers become of the soundness of political action that they began to neglect their trade unions; and in some cases—Charters Towers, for instance—they abandoned them. In 1905 in Charters Towers, a mining city, out of 3,500 miners only some 300 were organized in societies.

But the penalty followed swift and sure. In that year, for the first time in its political history, a labor man was defeated in the political contest, to the astonishment of all Australia. It had seemed a moral impossibility to wrest a seat from labor in this stronghold of Democracy; but here, not once, but twice in succession, the forces of reaction triumphed. Why? The explanation is not far to seek, and again a moral stares one in the face. With no unions to resist the subtle application of economic pressure on the part of mine owners, workers found themselves sacked or coerced with impunity, and hopelessly beaten in the political struggle as a consequence of direct intimidation.

The moral is: a political movement must ever prove to be an impossibility without support from flourishing economic organizations. It is something to know that State Socialists in Australia are very much alive to this interesting and all-important truth. A little more experience and knowledge will convince them that political action is a positive drag upon labor evolution in any country.

Australia, we have seen, developed more particularly on the theoretical side as a result of the defeat in 1890 New Zealand went in quite the opposite direction.

The solidarity of the workers during the great strike in its New Zealand aspect, as described by those who participated in it, must have been something sublime. "Unshakable as rock, and deep as the sea, and quivering with emotion," were the words of one who weathered the terrible struggle.

Was the strike a failure in New Zealand? If to shake the country to its foundations, and without returning a single labor man to Parliament to so impress the Government with possibilities and probabilities that it set to work immediately to initiate relief works, a Labor Bureau, humanitarian legislation almost by the square yard, so much so as to earn for themselves the world-wide reputation of being Socialists—if all this means failure, then the strike failed. But no! The proud position New Zealand holds as a pioneer in humanism to-day is due to the glorious solidarity of the workers during the famous strike of some seventeen years ago.

This last fact is not sufficiently appreciated either by the New Zealand workers or by those students of sociology who visit New Zealand to study the so-called Socialistic laws of that country.

New Zealand, then, won all its advanced labor laws without the assistance of a distinct Labor Party in Parliament, but by modification of Liberal platforms induced by the influence of public opinion, which was skillfully judged by the late R. G. Seddon, for thirteen years Premier.

By far the most interesting items in the whole field of Australasian legislation are the Wages Board system of Victoria, and the Arbitration and Conciliation laws of New Zealand.

Wages Boards are thought by Victorian employers to provide the best solution to labor problems. This is in itself a suspicious circumstance. If the employers praise an institution created to settle disputes with their employees, one may be sure there is something advantageous to themselves in the arrangement. So it happens with Wages Boards. Without going into detail, suffice it at present to say that the chronic action of Wages Boards is to destroy trade unions.

The workers, instead of looking to their unions for help in times of trouble, look directly to the Board, and consequently they find no real use for their unions and begin to abandon them. This phase of union decadence would soon kill the whole movement in Victoria, were it not for the tremendous vigor thrown into it by union enthusiasts who appreciate the dangers and take active measures to guard against them.

Arbitration laws act much in the same way. Thirteen years' experience has convinced the New Zealand workers that arbitration by compulsion has riveted, as it were, the wages and salaries system firmly into their lives. They have found that wages can be maintained by legislation, but that prices and rents are uncontrolled thereby, and thus the actual position of the working family is scarcely benefited by increased wages. Now they cry aloud for the total abolition of the wages and salaries system, which they know cannot be done by Arbitration Courts unless those Courts include a system of profit-sharing in their jurisdiction, which they will never do without severe pressure from the economic field.

To strike in New Zealand is in reality to revolt, and this means a very serious outlook for the next year or two in that country. Dissatisfied as the workers are with the present condition of affairs, knowing that they can get no satisfaction from the Labor Courts, and not being allowed by law to strike, they feel in a trapped condition. Twice or thrice they have kicked over the traces and actually revolted, thoroughly sick of dangling after Court decisions which might be given six months after entirely new conditions had arisen and new demands were necessary. Sure enough, the workers in New Zealand have become immune to Arbitration and Conciliation Boards, and the next step brings them face to face with the general plan of campaign of Anarchist Communism, viz., federation of unions, with international understanding of federations as the basic lines of associations embracing all wage and salaried people, who are common slaves of the one international enemy—capitalism.—London Freedom.

  • T. F. Macdonald, “Australian and New Zealand Labor Movements,” Mother Earth 2, no. 9 (November 1907): 405-410.