Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The 1920 Jockeys’ Strike

On Saturday 10 April 1920, jockeys at Avondale refused to ride in support of a colleague, and therefore began the 1920 Jockeys’ Strike.

It wasn’t the first such action in New Zealand. In April 1902, there was a now-forgotten incident in Southland in 1902 where the club refused to admit jockeys without payment, refunding their money only when a mount was secured. A jockey-organised boycott then proved ineffective.

In 1919, in the atmosphere post-war rising industrial unrest, a Mr. C. C. Sheath formed the New Zealand Jockeys’ Association. It registered in October that year with the support of 200 jockey, asking the racing owners (the New Zealand Racing Conference), among their demands; for a weekly wage of £2 5/- with no deductions made by the clubs, a maximum working day of 10 hours, preference of employment given to members of the Association, and the setting up of an Appeal Board to settle disputes between jockeys and clubs.

Sir George Clifford, the Racing Conference’s President, refused to give either the Association or its demands the time of day. Undaunted, Sheath printed the Associations demands in March 1920 and sent them to all racehorse owners and clubs in the country. These, too, were ignored.

On Wednesday 7 April 1920, as can happen at Avondale during an autumn meeting, it rained heavily during the afternoon. L. H. Heath, jockey and also member and representative of the Jockeys’ Association, asked the Stewards to postpone the remaining races in account of the course becoming dangerously wet. The stewards declined to do so. Hewitt apparently made “certain statements” in connection with the matter which the club’s stewards felt were impertinent, and so called him into a hearing on the following Saturday, the next day of the meeting, 10 April. There, Hewitt refused to sign evidence put by the stewards, and was warned that failure to do so would result in the cancellation of his license and a report made on his conduct to the Racing Conference. The hearing had been adjourned when the other members of the Association on course that day heard rumours Hewitt’s license had been cancelled, took his side, and refused to go out on the track. The club’s president, Michael Foley, denied Hewitt had been sacked, but would not give in to a demand for the jockeys’ case to be presented by their representative on the course; instead he brought in apprentices to ride the mounts the Association jockeys refused, to the hooting and hollering of the striking jockeys. At the time, the club officially denied knowledge of the Association, and also denied all applications for a representative of the Association to be present in a official capacity on the racecourse. The club resorted instead to calling the police, much to Association Secretary Sheath’s reported annoyance: “There is one phase of the dispute that I strongly resent, namely, the presence of the police on Saturday afternoon. This had an intimidating effect upon members of the association and, in my opinion, the police should not be called on to make themselves prominent in disputes of this nature unless, and until, it be under threatening circumstances.”

A deputation from the Association journeyed to Wellington to ask the Prime Minister, William Massey (also Minister of Labour) to set up an inquiry into the relations between the racing clubs and the jockeys. This resulted in Massey offering official recognition by the Government for the Association, and agreeing to set up a conciliation conference between the Association and Racing Conference members. Meanwhile, the Avondale Stewards summoned Hewitt to attend another disciplinary hearing in 13 April. The Association responded on his behalf that the inquiry was now in the hands of the executive of the Association, and that negotiations had to be addressed through them.

The whole affair began to get much more involved when a meeting of the Auckland Waterside Workers union that day not only congratulated the Jockeys’ Association on their formation, but also stated,
“… we deplore the attitude adopted by the racing clubs in refusing to acknowledge the said Jockey’s Association; especially do we condemn the Avondale Jockey Club for their despotic and inhuman treatment meted out to jockeys and apprentices on Wednesday, April 7, in refusing their request to postpone the racing owing to weather conditions and the dangerous state of the course. The hostile reception tendered the Jockeys’ Association representative calls for severe censure. Evidently the totalisator turnover is of more importance than the welfare of the riders. Trade unions are recognised throughout New Zealand, and we demand recognition for our fellow workers … and call upon organised labour throughout the Dominion to tender moral and practical support in the event of victimisation or refusal to recognise the Association.”
Three days later, the Trades Council in Wellington added their support. The Jockeys Association’s alliance with the waterside workers wasn’t viewed favourably in some parts of the country, however: the Manawatu jockeys voted later that month to resign from the Association because of it, although the Association later said that this was due to threats from owners.

Members of the Jockeys Association in Auckland were now reported to be refusing rides at racing meetings, putting an upcoming Royal Meeting in honour of the visiting Prince of Wales at Ellerslie in jeopardy. The Auckland Racing Club had been in contact with the Association and was quite open, it was reported on 23 April, to official recognition of the latter in terms of on-course representation. But the Racing Conference demurred, stating that the rules made no provision for the recognition of an incorporated association. Now, the General Labourers’ Union passed a resolution in support of the Association, “urging all members not to take part or attend the Prince of Wales’ race meeting at Ellerslie on the 26th of April.”

The Government announced two days before the Ellerslie meeting that a conciliation meeting between the jockeys and the Racing Conference would be arranged on 10 June. The Association voted therefore to suspend their industrial action during the Prince of Wales’ visit, and asked that “the public generally refrain from any act which may have a tendency to disturb the harmony of the meeting to be held at Ellerslie.”

The next metaphorical shots fired came on 7 May, when an inquiry held by the Auckland Racing Club District Committee decided that jockey L. H. Hewitt was
“ ... guilty of refusing to sign evidence given at a meeting of the stewards of the Avondale Jockey Club on April 10, of inciting riders engaged at the meeting to break their respective engagements, and of promoting concerted in that direction for the purpose of embarrassing the management of the club in the conduct of the meeting, and for refusing to attend meetings of the stewards when called upon to do so.”
Hewitt was suspended for the rest of the season, along woth E. C. Rae (for actively aiding and abetting Hewitt) and J. B. Shea for breaking his engagement to ride, refusing to attend meetings with the stewards and embarrassing the club. Another jockey, L. Conquest, was to have his case heard at another meeting. Other districts were to be advised of jockeys from their areas who had also committed the above breaches. The Avondale Jockey Club, it was reported, was about to issue a full report naming those jockeys who had taken part in the strike.

In response, the New Zealand Labour Party met in the Auckland Trades Hall to consider a petition from the Jockeys Association for support. A combined meeting of trades union and labour organisation delegates met at the Trades Hall on 10 May, chaired by Labour MP, W. E. Parry. An official statement made after the meeting said that as a result of the Auckland Racing Committee’s “vindictive attitude … they have openly challenged organised Labour from one end of New Zealand to the other.” The meeting voted to fight for the reinstatement of the jockeys, and to call on all “unionists and friends of Labour to keep away from racecourses” until the jockeys were reinstated. All racecourses were declared black.

Three days later, the South Island Association representative declared that the affair was a North Island one. “The present situation in the North Island is purely an outcome of the Avondale affair, and Mr. Davies stresses the fact that at present the South Island jockeys have no grievances against the South Island clubs, which have treated the riders and their official representatives with the greatest courtesy.”

Meanwhile, up in Auckland, the local railwaymen’s unions declared the racecourses black on 16 May. Edwin Mitchelson, chair of the Auckland Racing Clubs District Committee, wrote to the Prime Minister, putting their case. Sir George Clifford of the Racing Conference triumphantly announced on 19 May that he had received a petition from 22 leading jockeys who said they had resigned from the Jockeys’ Association because they objected to being associated with trade unions. When a deputation of trade unionists met the Prime Minister, he was quoted as saying,
“I do not think it would be much loss to the country if we did away with racing altogether. It would not trouble me in the very slightest. Perhaps as Treasurer I should not get as much revenue, but that would not worry me for I could get it some other way.”
It would appear, by now, his patience will both sides of the dispute was wearing thin.

Come 3 June, and a race meeting at Ellerslie. In the morning, 31 tram crews refused to work the race traffic trams, and were suspended, with tramways officers filling in for them. The suburban railway also operated as per normal, although there were some pickets. However, in the afternoon, things ground to a halt, as the trams motormen went out on full strike which continued for the next few days.

At the long-awaited conference in Wellington on 10 June, no agreement could be reached between the owners and the Jockeys Association. Gradually, the dispute died down, and Sir George Clifford claimed a victory of sorts. There was one incident of interest in the aftermath of all this however when, on 12 July 1920 the crew of the ferry steamer “Mokoia” refused to sail with Clifford on board. Still, Clifford in his Who’s Who in New Zealand entry proudly claimed that he had “done much to secure purity of racing” in New Zealand.

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