Jock Barnes interview – pt 1

interviewed by Daphna Whitmore

March 1991

Part One

Twenty years ago I interviewed the leading figure of the 1951 waterfront dispute. Jock was 84 years old, and still “going strong”. Sixty years ago the biggest class struggle in New Zealand’s history broke out, it was a battle that was fought to the end. In this interview (which was originally published in The Spark) Jock expresses himself in forcible terms on the background to the 1951 dispute, the situation that followed, and the Employment Contracts legislation of 1991, with its echoes of the Emergency Regulations of 1951. Some of the interview had to be condensed for reasons of space, but the essentials are there.

The background

Did 1951 erupt overnight?

‘No’, said Jock. ‘It goes back to the rising imperialist power Japan, when it first invaded Manchuria in 1931 and then China in 1937. The first Labour government had just been elected in 1935 …

‘Their first plank was the “socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange. Of course, they let that slide away as everyone knows’. Jock, who supported them in those days, noted that they also advocated the right of referendum and the right of recall. ‘If you’d had that, how many of that collection of impostors that ruined the country for the last six years would have still been there?’

The issue of scrap iron

Jock himself started work on the waterfront in 1935, but the question of Japan’s expansion became very sharp in 1937.

‘I know that in all wars atrocities are committed, but the Japanese were setting new records. And there was big trade with scrap iron to Japan, big business … Japan had maps out which showed all the Pacific as Japanese. The “merchants of death” – the scrap iron boys and the rest of them – they didn’t give a bugger about that, it was big business. They were getting a lot from Australia (Port Kembla, chiefly, and Woollongong) and Auckland. It was the biggest port.

‘There were many protests about it but they [the Labour government] hadn’t been in and long and these were just wiped.’

Then came the Rape of Nanking, said Jock. ‘The figures at that time were that the Japanese butchered 400,000 men, women and children. Now, they buried a host alive, they used a lot for bayonet practice – much more efficient than sticking a bayonet into a bag of sawdust, they shot a lot, raped the best looking women and girls then used them for bayonet practice. These facts are undeniable. At a 50th anniversary gathering, the Chinese put the figure at 500,000’. And Nanking, he added, was an ‘open city’.

Watersiders stand firm

‘We said: “Enough! Finish! No more scrap iron! That’s the last straw”. It was condemned by the whole civilised world. So up comes Paddy Webb, Minister of Labour. He had done 12 months for conscientious objection in the First World War; likewise Peter Fraser and Semple … They showed how fair dinkum they were later on. So word came up: he wasn’t just going to talk to the Executive, he’d talk to the lot. So we called a stopwork meeting in Auckland. That was the strength of our union right through – the rank and file, They made the decisions. It was the greatest organisation this country has ever seen.

‘There was only one qualification for anyone to get in: what’s your background? We had some fantastic guys. Guys who had been in jail over the Waihi Strike [Minsers’ strike, 1912], IWW guys from the States, and what have you.

‘Word comes up that they weren’t going to allow Auckland watersiders – Auckland was the main port then – to dictate foreign policy for New Zealand. Well, Webb got the message. At one stage – I can still see it – Webb was standing up there with a cigarette and he lights another one at the wrong end. My old mate Paddy Roonan – he’d been through Waihi – he summed it up. He said: “Listen, Webb, you can go back and tell the rest of those bludgers in Wellington [the Government] that my old frying pan is not going to come back to rip the guts out of any New Zealander”. Prophetic words, weren’t they?

‘As far as Webb was concerned – it goes for Fraser, Semple and the rest of them – these were only Chinese women and kids that were being butchered. They didn’t matter a bugger. We saw it differently.

Combined action wins

‘Well, they were going to do this, they were going to do that, but the worldwide feeling and the support we got from the people were too strong; they had to back down. So no more scrap iron left New Zealand, finish! In Australia they did the same. ‘Pig-iron Bob Menzies invoked the Crimes Act against the Australian watersiders, but they did the same and followed it up. Harry Bridges and the Pacific Coast longshoremen, they did the same. We had very close liaison with them. So to a large extent, scrap iron to Japan was stopped. That’s how it started, here. That was our first conflict.

‘They never forgot, of course, and every chance they had of having a go at us – they were in. So they brought in what they call the Waterfront Control Commission which in effect was a wharfies’ control commission, modeled on the “Labour Front” of Hitler’s Dr Ley. We were in conflict with them right away, of course.’


One such conflict, according to Jock became known as the ‘Murray Kelly’ case. Day shift hours were increased on top of ordinary hours of 8am to 6pm and overtime hours of 6pm to 10pm. The new demands were that day shifts would run from 8am to 11pm, with the workers required to start again at 8am.

‘We all had the right to refuse overtime (that comes up again in ’51)’, says Jock. ‘At that time I was pretty active: delegate to the Auckland Trades Council, delegate to our Conference; but I wasn’t President of the Auckland union then. We had a meeting and carried a resolution in which we exercised our right to “knock off at 5 o’clock and bugger you”, which we did.

‘A few decided to walk off at ten o’clock. They did that and of course were sacked right away. The officials at the time – they’d have been all right in the CTU today, just the same, the Labour Party could do no wrong, and all had good jobs – well, we had a stopwork meeting and moved a vote of no confidence in them. It was carried.’

In brief, Jock relates, the government made an issue out of this. The case was heard by the industrial magistrate, Mr Gilmour. Jock was asked by the members to take the Union’s case, and won it. He was then asked to stand for President and was elected.

Jock recalls: ‘The war was on in 1939. More draconian regulations were being brought down all the time under the Waterfront Emergency Regulations. Plenty of penalties hooped out on our boys, never one on the overseas shipowners, the brotherhood of pirates as I prefer to call them … Of course, Auckland being the biggest port I was pretty busy.


Enter the Yanks

‘Well, we come to ’50 – ’51 – direct comparison with 1991: America into Korea, danger of McCarthyism. We’ve got the same today, only, they’re more blatant now than they were then, they don’t try to conceal it. You’ve got the usual thanksgivings to the good God for blessing their arms and approving their bloody wholesale murder and the rest of it. Korea, as you know, was done under the United Nations.

‘An army of occupation’

‘Right from the start the US troops that came here in 1942 had the idea that they were an army of occupation. Quite a few of our guys had been in the war and come back wounded. It was “on” the first day they arrived. A convoy of 17 came here, out came the bloody guns and they were telling us what to do and the rest of it. It just wasn’t on. We called a stopwork meeting. It was the second day they were here. For all practical purposes Princess Wharf and Victoria Park, that was all United States territory; they thought they could do what they like and they were an army of occupation. So, only one thing to do. They’ve just got to realise they were not an army of occupation and we’re not governed by Washington. So I moved that we declare their ships black. That was carried and that was that. The next thing was, down to Fraser and Company.’

Interpolating, Jock commented here on the hypocrisy of the government declaring in a 1941 pamphlet that there would be no conscription of manpower if Labour was elected, getting the backing for this in the Labour Party and Federation of Labour Conferences, and bringing in conscription three or four weeks later. He also noted that while over 600 in the union had served overseas, there were also some conscientious objectors. However, all were equally treated as union members.

The Mountpark dispute

Jock: ‘There was dispute after dispute – and they never won one. The biggest one – I have all the clippings – was the Mountpark. This was before Accident Compensation, and if anyone was killed or badly injured, the only way you got redress was by bringing a common law action. That had its good points – you could really send them along’. He cited one case of a watersider on a US Navy ship who was killed through gross negligence on their part. The captain offered the watersider’s family $500 compensation.

Jock: ‘I said: “That’s not even going to pay the stamp duty on what you’re going to pay.” Stopwork meetings, all American ships black, it’s on again. Fraser and Semple, the rest of them; “We could have you shot, you know, wartime.” I said: “Yeah, you won’t though. They’d be tossing up on every waterfront in New Zealand for the honour of knocking you bastards off. We’re not answerable to American law.” That was the end of Washington rule as far as we were concerned. They settled out of court for quite a few thousand pounds.’

The double-headed penny

‘So there was a ship called The Mountpark. The hatches were bloody shocking, different from today when there are mechanical covers. We’d made complaints about it in the two previous visits. They didn’t comply with Marine Regulations – they weren’t safe at any part of it. They were going to fix them up but the third time they were just the same. We said: “No blood way, you’ve got to get them fixed up.”

‘You see, they tossed a double-headed penny. If you’d worked them, knowing they were unsafe as they didn’t comply with regulations, “contributory negligence” – jolly bad luck. And if you refused to work them, then they reckoned you were on strike and they’d sack you. So how could you win? There was only one way you could win: declare the bloody job black. So that’s what happened.’

The results are well-known. Men were sacked. New lists of names for the Mountpark job were put up each day. No-one would take the jobs of the sacked workers. That meant, within a week the port was locked out. That continued off and on for the next nine months.

Jock: ‘First they made an agreement with us that the hatches would be fixed up to comply with Marine regulations. Other matters such as compensation for the time we were locked out were left to be settled later. Son that basis we worked the ship – but they refused to honour the agreement. So, it’s on again. We did what we customarily did. Of course, so did the press. The Herald the worst, the Star not far behind. We had more than one packed Town Hall meeting at which I spoke and issued thousands of leflets (tens of thousands in ’51).

Mountpark victory

A major Supreme Court case ensured, at which Jock took the case for the Union. Chief Justice Sir Humphrey O’Leary presided. Leading lawyers appears for the employers.

Jock: ‘I won the case, and O’Leary gave us compensation. I’ve got his decision here; the relevant part was: “Even though experts declare a method of work to be safe, if men genuinely believe their lives or safety to be in jeopardy, they are entitled to refuse to work.” That really knocked them. It’s been successful in a few cases, but not to the extent it should have been.’

In Jock’s view, their defeats made the Fraser government more and more right-wing. His view of Fraser: ‘Oh, what a mealy-mouthed hypocrite he was. He was in his glory when he was hobnobbing with the dukes and duchesses over there. He lapped it up.’ Of Minister of Labour McLagen: ‘I’ve never found anyone that saw a smile ever crease his face. His eyes would make a snake’s look warm. Vicious, a good mate for Walsh, Baxter and co. He and Walsh also ex-members of the Communist Party. But they’d all recanted of t heir previous sins and like all repentant sinners of course, they were bad.’


Jock also referred to the jailing of 340 freezing workers under McLagen’s direction. Women with no previous work experience had been drafted under Manpower regulations into Westfield freezing workers. They protested against the quality of meat being shipped to NZ troops overseas. The men backed them up. Threatened with jail, they refused to back down and were sacked.

Jock: ‘They were charged under the wartime “Strike and Lockout Emergency Regulations”. Incidentally, there were quite a few charges under the “strike” part of the regulations; I had three. But there was never one under “lockout”. Auckland Chief Magistrate Luxford found them guilty and sentenced them to a month in Mt Eden.

‘The cells were dungeons – a frightful place!

‘I called a stopwork meeting and moved that unless they were all released at the weekend that I would move at the Auckland Trades Council that we call a general strike in  Auckland on Monday. That was carried. Likewise at Wellington Trades Council, despite Walsh’s opposition. So they [freezing workers] were released Monday. They also jailed about 180 Waikato miners but had to let them go – couldn’t get office workers to go down in the mines and dig coal. Later on they pulled out a lot of troops to scab on the Waikato dairy workers, but they got through, too. We weren’t alone, though we were in the forefront. So it went on.

The first “Emergency” laws

‘After the war, though there was stabilization of wages, prices still went up. It got so bad that even the FOL with Walsh – and even then there were some bloody good elements in the FOL, not like you’ve got in the CTU today; if they’re there they’ve all lost the power of speech – even he had to take a case to the Arbitration Court: a General Wage Order.

‘It’s like today: the standard of living getting lower and lower all the time, the gap between rich and poor getting bigger. It was just at the time when they were taking this case that Holland decided to use the first “State of Emergency”. Not many know about this. The big one started in February 1951 but this one was in November 1950.

‘November 1949 saw the defeat of Fraser and his gang and S G Holland came in. The final straw was when Fraser came back from wining and dining over there. Oh, a consummate actor, that boy; he was bloody near crying, how bad they were over there the RUSSIAN MENACE: “We’ve got to have peacetime conscription, must have it.” He actively campaigned for it. He had Cossacks in the Waitakeres and Russian submarines in Cook Strait. Hand-in-glove with the Yanks, of course, and it was American policy. Unlimited public money they spent on that [the Conscription Referendum of 1949]. I wrote a pamphlet on that (which I’ve still got) with Jack Lee which was pretty widely circulated. So that referendum was carried, but a hell of a lot voted against it. That was the bloody finish of the so-called Labour Party, and the Holland government got in.

US imperialism’s drive for world domination

‘That was 1950, the start of the Korean War, the era of the late, unlamented Senator Joe McCarthy, and the real start of what is going on today: the first real attempt of United States imperialism to dominate the world.

‘Their first move was against Korea, under the United Nations’ banner. UN was set up late 1945 early 1946 – straight after the war. San Francisco: “Declaration of Human Rights” and all that. Of course New Zealand was a signatory to all this. Sid Holland had been with “Pig-iron Bob Menzies” to an imperial conference (the British empire was still around then) and they came back via Washington. Holland’s words were quoted in The Herald. He said: “Tell me what else I can do and I will do it. We are with America right or wrong.”

More Holland Pledges

‘In 1951 he made a speech to the Tin Hat Club on May 22. He said: “The British Commonwealth is disintegrating. New Zealand must step up her defence preparations, and here I almost forecast things that are going to happen. While I was in the United States I told President Truman that in the event of war the whole of New Zealand’s forces would, if necessary, be sent overseas. In return, America would guarantee the fence of New Zealand.”

‘Now, there was a US article re 1951 called: “New Zealand stops the Reds”. It’s from the Journal of the United States National Association of Manufacturers and it appeared in April 1952: “It was a struggle in which American airmen flying American planes played an important part.” I’ll deal with that a big later. It is just an instance of hwat is happening in 1950-51 and what is happening today; just tools of American imperialism.


‘There was a dispute in Wellington over lampblack, a particularly noxious cargo. At that time the Waterfront Commission was kept for administration and the Waterfront Industry Authority dealt with disputes. One of the Authority was a lawyer, the other an ex-Navy officer, fellow called Marchington. You couldn’t get anyone more rightwing than them. They’re still longing for the day when they could give ’em a hundred lashes and string ’em up from the yardarm. He was a beauty.

‘About the Authority, we had a decent stink – one of the many – and McLagen and Fraser decided that Toby Hill and I had to be sacked. They could only do that through the Governor General, Freyberg. Fraser got out of that because of Marchington’s actions. A decision was to be given after the Authority (which included us and Marchington) viewed it in the afternoon. But Marchington beforehand instructed the Master of the ship to get the crew to clear it up without our knowledge. Needless to say, the crew told us and provided affidavits to our lawyer. We were there until 10pm over this, and Holland declared a State of Emergency – this was November, 1950.

‘I did something then that I regretted afterwards. I let the bastard know that we had these affidavits from the crew. I said: “They’ll be published tomorrow, how do you like that?” They didn’t like it. Well, I shouldn’t have done it. I should have let him go ahead. So we had the State of Emergency, though it wasn’t for long.’

With Jock Barnes and Toby Hill sacked, the Authority was inoperative. The authorities decided that magistrate Gilmour should call a conference of the shipowners and the union, as there was widespread unrest over wages and conditions. The FOL did not have its wage order applications ready, but the union was promised that it would be awarded no less than the amount granted to the FOL.

More broken promises

Jock: ‘The Arbitration Court came out with 15 percent. Even Walsh had to go to town, there was that much anger about; it was nowhere near enough. Workers had got that far behind it just wasn’t funny.’

The shipowners offered the watersiders 8.9 percent, despite their promise to equal the FOL award.

Jock: ‘Eight point nine percent! Well, if you had accepted that, you had no union. So we called a National Council – delegates from every port in New Zealand. Of course, there were a lot more than now; the national membership was about 8,500. A lot of small ports were served by scows then. Well, we circularised all branches, gave them the score: are you going to accept it? And to call rank-and-file meetings. Nobody would take it, of course. Quite a few wanted to strike.

‘We all knew it was on, but wanted to be on as much solid ground as we could, so the decision of the National Council was that we work a forty-hour week, which was our right under the Waterfront Commission’s order – every individual had the right to refuse overtime. Also supposed to be the right of every New Zealand worker. So that was done.

‘On the Monday morning we go down; photos of it in 151 Days. Police guard on the wharves and the big lockout started. Well, I think you’d be fairly familiar with that, with what went on, but the background – that’s a different story.

‘As a parallel with what is happening today, there is only one difference: as was shown in 1951, we weren’t on our own.

‘You’d be fairly familiar with the Emergency Regulations Holland brought in. It was a crime for anyone to give a watersider’s hungry child a loaf of bread, any assistance at all. The regulations were that bad, they were condemned by the whole civilised world. Many of them were used as a basis for apartheid legislation from 1952 onwards, some word for word.

‘The Public Safety Conservation Act, which was used here, gave the right to any policeman to shoot you, and he was answerable to nobody. That’s a little sample of the Regulations. They’re dealt with fully in my book.’

Read part two at:

See also: Behind the 1951 waterfront lockout


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