The Maoriland Worker is widely considered the most important publication of the New Zealand labour movement. Early in the 20th century the labour movement had two main strands – those wanting revolution and those working for reform and both had publications reflecting their views. Militant trade unionists did not fit easily into either camp. The Shearers’ Union in Christchurch felt the full weight of press condemnation after a 1910 wage dispute and decided to begin their own paper, The Maoriland Worker, as a monthly. The newspaper was produced in Christchurch for a short period, with Ettie Rout and Alexander Wildey prominent. When the shearers’ and miners’ unions combined forces, the paper now represented the ‘Red’ Federation of Labour and, early in 1911, moved its publishing office to Wellington.
The paper, now a weekly, grew rapidly in circulation and influence under the editorship of Australian Bob Ross. It had a circulation of 8,500 by 1912 and 10,000 by the beginning of the next year. It was at the centre of the Federation’s push for socialism. Unionists were enthusiastic ‘paper boys’ and there was a network of voluntary correspondents around the country. The Maoriland Worker’s editorial policy was firmly behind industrial unionism, international co-operation among unionists and pacifism.
The Maoriland Worker was produced to a high professional standard and included some of the most penetrating political cartoons of the period. Ross had left by 1913, and his replacement, Harry Holland, was later leader of the Labour Party. Holland was charged with sedition for his coverage of a waterfront dispute that snowballed into a general strike late in 1913. He was sentenced to a year in prison, and served a little over three months. When war broke out shortly afterwards, the Maoriland Worker took an uncompromising international socialist position and Holland editorialised that world revolution was at hand. He left the paper in 1918 when elected to Parliament at a by-election.
The weekly continued to express its radical views through the war years and until the early 1920s. During the First World War it struggled with libel costs, censorship and police harassment. In October 1921 The Maoriland Worker carried two poems by the noted British war poet Siegfried Sassoon. Three lines of ‘Stand to: Good Friday Morning’ attracted the attention of the authorities and the paper’s publisher was charged with ‘blasphemous libel’. John Glover was tried in the Supreme Court in 1922, still the only such case in NZ legal history. The trial was held at a time when any dissent was suppressed wherever possible and politicians were preoccupied with maintaining ‘social order’, religion an important component of this. Glover was cleared of the charge, but the jury added a rider to its acquittal noting that the publication of such material should be discouraged.
In 1924, the publication’s name was changed to the New Zealand Worker. The paper’s sub-title also changed. It went from ‘A journal of industrial unionism, socialism and politics’ to ‘A New Zealand paper for New Zealand people’. Although trade unions still funded its publication, control now rested with the Labour Party. The radicalism softened rapidly and substantially as the Labour Party sought electoral respectability.