Type
Essay
Category
Fair Australia Prize

FAP winner – Best Youth Entry, 18 and under: The high road

Let’s get this over with.

Walking towards the meeting place, I make sure the coal-black sweatshirt covering my uniform is firmly sealed, or as much as it can be. It really is chilly. The sun is setting behind the cluster of buildings that form Courtney Place, and the city is making its slow and steady transition into the night, neon lights blinking into life and the volumes of several speakers increasing.

Small gusts of wind cut through my clothing and send shivers down my spine, each one equating to the hundreds of doubts I hold about attending the picket. It was only yesterday when my manager had given me a good talking to regarding my activities. I had registered my shock and confusion. His voice radiated anger and disappointment. He mentioned how he had brought me to the new store for a reason, questioned how I could possibly do this to him, and neatly inserted the fact that I was apparently the only one striking.

While the last comment compounded my dread, the next was the one that truly stuck out to me. It was important that next time (next time?) I call and let him know what my plans are. This way he can replace me on the shift roster, I get to strike, and everyone will be satisfied. I suppose. I suppose I should have explained what a strike was, but god knows I don’t have the confidence.

 

*

As they walked towards the meeting place, the sun beamed down on the shipwrights, who had been on strike ever since the 18th of October, 1913. Every now and then the crowd paused for a tram screeching by, the driver occasionally waving his cap and shouting encouragement. A gentle breeze wafted the salty air around the crowd that knew it too well.

Tempers had flared after the negotiators had returned to work to find that their jobs had been assigned to other workers in their stead. Now they were on strike until they were reinstated with their old jobs, and naturally, Wellington shipowners immediately formed a ‘Defense Committee’. A week later, after many failed negotiations, watersiders had struck in sympathy. Many street protests such as this one were springing up across the country, coal mines synchronised their own strikes, and many goldmines helped fund the endeavor.

Approaching Queens Wharf, the protesters loudly broke their way through the gates. The mood was ecstatic. As each gate fell to the ground a cheer went up from the assembled watersiders, and they proceeded to Kings Wharf, whereupon the strike-breakers working there were ‘persuaded’ to stop working. Gazing bug-eyed at the mass of people, they put up no major resistance.

On the 29th of October, the recently recruited strikebreakers named ‘Massey’s Cossacks’ arrived, and were driven out of the Post and Telegraph Store the very next morning. The angry working-class crowd was subdued when sailors from the HMS Psyche paraded around with fixed bayonets and a machine gun.

 

*

I jolt as the traffic light rapid-fires its alert, and I look both ways before crossing the road. Turning a corner, the store bursts into view. At this point, I also start to hear the commotion. A lone megaphone is being operated, and my heart sinks into my lower half. The closer I get, the more I can make out. There are about nine people there, none of them my co-workers. They all wear the ‘Unite!’ logo on their shirts, jackets, and hoodies, and many hold placards, each slogan being too far away to make out. Most of them face away anyhow, focused towards the road. The occasional bus driver toots their horn and waves. Building up my courage, I finally reach the rag-tag group.

I awkwardly ask if there is anything I can do. I know none of these people. A kindly woman asks if I work here and I sheepishly say yes. She smiles, hands me some leaflets, and tells me to get to work. Sure enough, as I look inside the store it appears fully staffed. Bugger. A fair amount of foot-traffic is in passing, and I have plenty of leaflets to hand out.

 

*

It was the evening on the 30th of October, and the sun had just started to set over Post Office Square. It was then that Massey’s Cossacks, regular mounted police units, and ‘Foot Specials’ charged the crowd of strikers and supporters. In the ensuing melee, short batons, rocks, and allegedly, revolvers, were used to brutal effect. After a prolonged battle, the specials were pushed out and took residence around the Alexandra Barracks at Buckle Street. Both sides of the street were covered by machine-gun emplacements and the armed members of the New Zealand Artillery. Sanitary problems started to occur when the council workers refused to move the large quantities of horse manure.

It was the third of November, and over the next three days, a siege established itself. Once again, revolvers were used on both sides, as the Cossacks continually charged the crowd having recently been trained in cavalry maneuvers by the New Zealand Army. Those specials resting in the Royal Tiger Hotel had their windows smashed in, and McParland’s bakery, supplier of bread to the specials, suffered a similar fate. The protests intensified, as more residents joined due to the brutal methods of the Specials. However many provided food and shelter to the strike-breakers who were helping keep their businesses going steady. The class split had never been more obvious.

 

*

I accidentally lock eyes with one of my co-workers, and quickly look away. However, I am not fast enough and catch her giggling. I must look ridiculous, as I desperately struggle against the wind that tosses my placard about, not many cars heeding my calls for a ‘toot in support’. Despite this, I mull over the leaflets I had by now run out of.

It strikes me that I had not considered the reasons for my striking in the first place, and now I had found out about several non-considerate proposals made by my employers. I had seen the email, and now I was here, obviously for the greater good. Why the sheer number of communist related books in my household could have propped up hundreds of British coal miner strikes. And in any case, I was not in that relatable mood were you feel like doing 20 minutes of legal reading. But by now I was quite peeved, and not only because of the potential removal of the 15-minute break.

Now we have gained a small number of supporters from the very least fortunate. Many own dogs and my spirit soars as an Aussie bulldog nuzzles against my lower leg. I am surprised by an old co-worker from another store, who had literally just joined the union. We exchange stories and catch up, occasionally interrupting ourselves to keep up with the chants. Still, the group is not quite exhibiting the level of enthusiasm the guy with the microphone clearly wants us to display. And yet they were all smiling and a general good-hearted nature surrounds the picketing, even if the garbled chants are a bit embarrassing. Another bus driver toots his horn.

 

*

On the 5th of November, 800 specials set off to escort racehorses to the wharves. As they met the protesters, shouting matches began, and hostilities were clearly imminent. The placards paraded by the protesters included ‘If blood be the price of your cursed wealth, good god we have bought it fair’, and the classic ‘Workers of the world unite’. Once the specials had reached Ghuznee Street, the strike supporters bombarded them with rocks, bricks, and road metal. However, after several charges, the specials broke through, thus bringing free labourers, nicknamed ‘scabs’ to work on the wharf.

Once work had begun on the wharves, the strike’s time was numbered. Free labour unions were set up around the country, and those striking were defeated. On the 11th of November, Harry Holland, editor of the Maoriland Worker, Peter Fraser, Social Democratic Party activist, George Bailey, chairman of the strike committee, and Bob Semple, UFL organiser (and inventor of the marvelous feat of engineering that was the ‘Bob Semple’ tank) were all arrested for using inflammatory language. They remained in prison until the end of the strikes.

 

*

By now the night was almost over, and I would label it a moderate success. At this point, many of those finishing their shift had put their nights on hold to join the picketing. A few other old co-workers had joined, and time had picked up its pace from the previous slow crawl. I notice a few Union members aiming phone cameras and providing commentary.

By the time our numbers reach 17 our time is up, and it’s over. Feeling very adult, I help gather some spilled leaflets and re-stabilize a dangerously large ‘Unite!’ flag. Waving goodbye to everyone, I pace my way to the bus stop, and I justify my use of the last three hours. Over the next coming weeks, I would get a pay rise, but at the cost of a 15-minute break, as well as the temporary icy tone of my manager. But that doesn’t matter now, I performed to a high moral standard and took the high road.

Another gust of icy wind hits me, and I wish I had brought another sweatshirt.

 
 

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Joseph Tiso is an 18-year-old student working in Wellington who is very interested in history and different forms of media entertainment, particularly animation. He hopes to combine the two after becoming qualified to do so. His favourite colour is red (preferably combined with black).

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