The 1920 Chelsea sugar workers’ strike

Dairying, horticulture, gum digging, ship maintenance and building, and naval defence were the main activities for those living and working on the northern shores of Auckland’s Waitemata Harbour in the mid to late nineteenth century. Devonport was the main population area, with much smaller communities around the Northcote and Birkenhead wharves. There were also more isolated communities in the eastern coastal bays to the north of Devonport, and around the Glenfield and Albany areas.

This balance changed with the building and opening of the sugar refinery at Chelsea for the Australian Colonial Sugar Company in 1884. The population of the Birkenhead area soon overtook that of neighbouring Northcote, and Chelsea became a separate population centre.

Oral history preserves the memories of the hard manual work at Chelsea, with high production targets and an absentee Sydney-based board of directors. Bulk handling wasn’t introduced to the works until 1961. Nevertheless, for local farmers dependent on seasonal crops and town milk supply for a living, the extra income they formerly derived from digging for kauri gum now came from working at the sugar works.

The Birkenhead Sugar Workers’ Union was registered under the Arbitration Act in 1901, and eventually secured an Award from 23 December 1902. Its first president William Wallace had been fired from the works because of his prominence in the union, but nevertheless had sufficient financial resources as a small farmer and later as a real estate agent to continue as president to 1906. He then succeeded the first secretary Arthur Rosser as secretary from 1906 to 1911. Rosser was the secretary for a number of different Auckland unions. The union was cancelled about June 1911 and a second attempt at organising a cohesive union saw its re-registration in 1920.

James Purtell, like Rosser, was also the secretary of a number of Auckland unions and led the reorganisation of the sugar workers’ union as its secretary from 1920 to 1926. The Australian-based company took delight in claiming Purtell was an ‘outsider’ from across the harbour — as opposed to across the Tasman of course. Some of the workforce also lived across the harbour and came over by ferry each morning. The company also tagged him as a ‘radical’, but Purtell was later noted for his conservative approach in industrial matters. Nevertheless, he had been active in the carters’ union in the 1913 General Strike in Auckland.

In 1920, as earlier, the grievances concerned working conditions, pay rates, paid holidays and a reduction in the working week. The 1902 Arbitration Court case had allowed for a decrease in the weekly hours of work to 48. Now the workers sought a 44-hour week in line with other industries.

An approach to the employers on 2 July 1920 was met with a requirement to get authority from Head Office in Sydney. At a stopwork meeting the workers feared this would delay bringing a case before the Arbitration Court in September. Eventually they resolved to strike from midnight Saturday 14 August, and did so despite a last-minute attempt by the government to continue the round of meetings. The strike involved about 170 workers. They were banned from having on-site meetings, but set up picket lines in what is now Colonial Road, and the wharfies (Auckland Waterside Workers’ Union) refused to assist in the unloading of sugar. This came at a time when New Zealand sugar stocks were low. Chelsea was and is the only sugar refinery in New Zealand.

The strike ended after five weeks. The workers had won a wage increase and a 44-hour week, so long as production levels remained the same as they had been under a 48-hour week. However, because the company regarded them as ceasing their employment, the striking workers lost their membership of the contributory Provident Fund for funeral benefits and family medical expenses. In addition, some more active union members were refused re-employment. Resentment between the management and workers continued until at least the mid 1930s. In 1934 a local resident became union secretary and a new general manager started the year after.

David Verran. From LHP Newsletter 46, June 2009.

Image: Colonial Sugar Company works at Chelsea, Birkenhead, Auckland. Price, William Archer, 1866-1948 :Collection of post card negatives. Ref: 1/2-000291-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22323187