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Federation of Labour

In 1901 the Farmers Union was founded, partly to keep an eye on the industrial unions. They had the backing of William Massey's Reform Party and they demanded the abolition of the arbitration system. Some workers themselves were unhappy with the arbitration system.

In 1908 in the mining town of Blackball, Nelson-born miner Pat Hickey helped precipitate the most serious strike the country had seen in more than 15 years. Blackball miners were determined to get a half hour lunch break, instead of the usual quarter hour. The strike lasted three months and the workers eventually got the extra time.

The Blackball strike was big news around the Empire as New Zealand was supposed to be free of strikes because of arbitration. In the aftermath of Blackball, Hickey and Australian Robert Semple worked to strengthen the unions.

Semple was born on the New South Wales goldfields in 1873.  He was a flamboyant speaker and a handy boxer. He worked in mining and unionism in several states in Australia before being blacklisted and coming to New Zealand under an assumed name.

Here Semple helped set up the Federation of Labour in 1909 and Hickey became the voice of the more militant union.

The 'Red Feds', as its members were called, were many unskilled workers and invariably socialist. They had contempt for all political parties and promoted a growing belief in the idea of revolutionary unionism.

The 'Red Feds' were involved in industrial unrest in Waihi in 1912 and in the waterfront strikes of 1913. Some of the Federation's founding members, including Semple, later entered Parliament and eventually became members of the first Labour government of 1935.