Review: “The Red Feds: Revolutionary Industrial Unionism and the New Zealand Federation of Labour, 1908-1914” – Erik Olssen

“The Red Feds: Revolutionary Industrial Unionism and the New Zealand Federation of Labour, 1908-1914” by Erik Olssen chronicles the momentous changes in the New Zealand working-class in the period prior to WWI.

The main focus of this book are the changes and struggles within the working-class as opposed to between workers and employers typical of similar books. Prior to 1908, New Zealand was known as a workingman’s paradise, characterized by a worker-friendly Liberal-Labour (Lib-Lab) government and industrial system and minimal labour disputes, attracting hundreds of thousands of immigrants. But in 1908 things changed. Miners in Blackball (near Greymouth) started to demand a 30 minute instead of a 15 minute lunch break. When the coal company sacked the miners, the Blackball Miner’s Union went out on strike, in violation of New Zealand’s compulsory arbitration system and prohibition of strikes. The strike was a victory for the miners, a watershed moment in the history of New Zealand’s labour movement.

The victory of the Blackball miners convinced more workers to de-register their unions from the pro-employer, bureaucratic arbitration system and adopt the strike as a method of struggle. These more militant unions, at first mostly miners, formed the New Zealand Federation of Labour (known as the ‘red Federation’) in 1909, a federation of syndicalist trade unions opposed to the arbitration system.

The creation of the Red Federation created deep divisions within the New Zealand labour movement. Firstly, the Red Feds encouraged industrial unionism and the establishment of One Big Union, thereby earning the wrath of craft unionists. Secondly, the Red Feds encouraged strike action as a revolutionary method of overthrowing capitalism, in contrast to the ‘Lib-Lab’ labour reformism that had predominated in New Zealand. These divisions continued to divide the labour movement up until, and contributed to, the defeat of the Red Feds in the near general strike of 1913-14, when 14,000 to 16,000 workers went on strike and virtually crippled the country’s economy.

My overall review of the book is somewhat negative. Although an interesting subject, like so many other books I have read published by Oxford University Press, the poor writing and editing diminishes the quality of the material. I only stuck it out as long as I did because of the subject; it reads like a lecturer rambling on in a hall incoherently without regard to whether anyone understands him. This is why I generally don’t care for books published by Oxford.

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