OUR HISTORY: 1937 – When workers took control

19 Jun

By Dean Parker

In the back files of the NZ Herald, Jan 14, 1937, there’s a photo of a crowd standing and seated round a young Maori bloke.

The young bloke is strumming a guitar, grinning and singing away.

Some of the crowd gathered round are draped in blankets. Some wear hats.

The photo was taken inside the Westfield freezing works, just off the Great South Road at Southdown.

The occasion was New Zealand’s first stay-in strike, our first workers’ occupation.

A Labour government had introduced a 40-hour working week, but freezing workers found they were still doing a 44-hour week without any compensation in pay.

When their grievance was rejected by the freezing companies, the men began a go-slow on the job.

The response from the companies was to threaten to dismiss the work-force.

The response to this, from the men, was unprecedented in New Zealand industrial history.

After attending a morning stop-work meeting, the men returned to work at one in the afternoon.

In the evening, a large number of them went home.

But others stayed on in the canteens.

By nine o’clock that night practically every man had returned to the works, bringing food and blankets.

And then they took over the works.

At Westfield, Southdown, Horotiu and the cool stores on King’s Wharf, they simply locked themselves in, setting themselves up as occupiers.

It made absolute sense. If you strike and walk out, your job can be taken by scab labour. Take over the works lock, stock and barrel and the problem simply doesn’t arise.

The men put up hammocks in the fellmongery, played cards by candlelight in the canteen and were visited by wives and girlfriends—who conversed with them through locked gates.

“Some of the men listened to the gramophone,” reported the Herald from the King’s Wharf cool stores, “others played cards or smoked, and many tried to sleep on tables or the floor, using coats or blankets to soften their hard beds.

“All were cheerful and seemed unworried by the prospect of spending the night in the works.”

The freezing companies demanded the police evict the industrial squatters.

But the Labour government, brand-new to office and rooted solidly in the union movement, declined to march in the police.

With the occupation heading into its third day, Tim Armstrong, the Minister of Labour, was sent up to Auckland to negotiate a deal.

Armstrong was a former miner and union militant.

He’d left school at 11 and taken a job cutting flax.

He’d worked at Waihi where he’d been sacked for organising the mine workers.

In Auckland, he promised the striking freezing workers they would get justice.

The freezing companies, however, were adamant. They would not budge on the matter of the extra hours being worked. They refused to concede either shorter hours or better pay.

So Armstrong simply imposed a settlement. He directed the companies to pay the men overtime for every extra hour worked.

The companies could do nothing but obey. The press was furious.

At the General Election the following year, the Labour Party was returned with an increased majority.

Why does Labour now kow-tow so to business leaders?

Put them in office and the first thing they do is run off to reassure business leaders nothing untoward was going to happen.

It’s time to put up the hammocks in the fellmongery and tell business leaders to get stuffed. They’ve had their snouts in the trough long enough.

(Dean Parker is a New Zealand playwright and labour historian)


6 Responses to “OUR HISTORY: 1937 – When workers took control”

  1. joceje June 19, 2013 at 4:31 pm #

    Neat story JOCE Jesson Sent from my iPad please excuse any typos and wrong words caused through predictive texts etc.

  2. Rosemarie Maier June 20, 2013 at 5:40 am #

    Dean Parker Thank you for the Historic event. And yet Government still allows Companies to RIP the workers off TODAY ~ Bring on the CHANGES x

  3. Grant Brookes July 26, 2013 at 9:59 am #

    Thanks to Dean Parker for bringing this moment from New Zealand’s labour history to life. The achievements of our forebears in the union movement should be recalled, celebrated and learnt from.
    But there is a little more to this story, worth mentioning.
    True, the Labour government may have refused to send in the police to break up the occupation. And the Minister of Labour may have imposed a settlement on the company.
    But it would not be true to say that Labour supported the workers.
    In 1936, the Labour government under Michael Joseph Savage had brought in the 40 hour week.
    But bosses in the freezing industry got a judge to say they could have a 44 hour week, with no overtime rates.
    So in January 1937 freezing workers started a go-slow, and when that didn’t work they took over plants at Southdown and Horotiu and the cool stores on the Auckland wharf.
    The Labour Party in 1937 was “rooted in the union movement”, like Dean’s article said. And minister of labour Tim Armstrong did end the dispute by directing the company to pay overtime.
    But the story doesn’t end there.
    Three months later, as it happened, was the founding conference of the Federation of Labour – forerunner of today’s Council of Trade Unions.
    In his opening speech, acting prime minister Peter Fraser left no doubt that the actions of the freezing workers must never be allowed to happen again.
    “I urge the Industrial Movement to give its full support to the work the Government is undertaking on behalf of the workers of this country”, he said.
    “Patience and forbearance must be displayed by the representatives of the Unions.
    “Go slow and sit down strikes are not helpful to the Government.”
    The sit-down strike had won overtime rates where the Labour government initially failed.
    But even in the 1930s, what Labour could not tolerate was workers taking power into their own hands.
    Today, no-one believes the Labour Party is rooted in the union movement like it was in the 1930s.
    But even back then, Labour’s appeals to the union movement contained calls to abandon our struggles and put faith in the government instead. Then, as now, Labour used its links to the union movement to disarm workers.
    So another important lesson of this dispute is that unionists should always take Labour’s words with a grain of salt, because Labour is not on our side.


  1. OUR HISTORY: 1937 – When workers took control | Research Material - July 23, 2013

    […] The occasion was New Zealand’s first stay-in strike, our first workers’ occupation.” via Facebook https://unitenews.wordpress.com/2013/06/19/our-history-1937-when-workers-took-control/ […]

  2. Dean parker on New Zealand’s first stay-in strike | Labour History Project - July 23, 2013

    […] Dean Parker has written a fascinating article about New Zealand’s first stay-in strike, in 1937. It’s well worth a read and can be found here: https://unitenews.wordpress.com/2013/06/19/our-history-1937-when-workers-took-control/ […]

  3. Dean Parker on New Zealand’s first stay-in strike - December 11, 2013

    […] Dean Parker has written a fascinating article about New Zealand’s first stay-in strike, in 1937. It’s well worth a read and can be found here: https://unitenews.wordpress.com/2013/06/19/our-history-1937-when-workers-took-control/ […]

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