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Robert Slater (1850-1931)

Creating a workers' paradise on the 'Flat'

Robert SlaterBob Slater was from Lancashire, England. He grew up a devout Methodist and an ardent champion of unions and co-operatives. He came to Dunedin in 1879 and immediately began organising trade unions here. Within a decade Dunedin had become the most unionised town in New Zealand, in large part through an organisational campaign led by Slater. He was prominently involved in the great Maritime Strike of 1890. After its failure he organised Labour Day, to show that organised labour could organise a major public event. This was later made a national holiday and we still celebrate it today. In the 1890s Dunedin's unionists rallied from their defeat and began to win political power in the city. Slater never made it to Parliament himself but he was one of the chief architects of Dunedin becoming a Liberal-Labour stronghold. In 1895 he was elected as a workers' assessor in the new Arbitration Court. Over the next twelve years he helped develop this agency into a body to legislate wages and work conditions. New Zealand became a skilled workers' paradise - the land without strikes. Visitors came from overseas to study the miracle and many of them sought out Bob Slater.

(Photograph, Otago Settlers Museum Collection)

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