Behind the 1951 waterfront lockout

by Philip Ferguson

The 1951 waterfront lockout is probably the most famous industrial dispute in New Zealand history, although it wasn’t the largest-scale such dispute.[1]  Nevertheless, for five months, from February to July 1951, thousands of waterside workers and their blue-collar working class allies in the meat works, on the ships and in transport, the mines and elsewhere resisted government and employer attempts to crush them.  The government activated the most repressive existing legislation used outside the wars against Maori in the 1800s, as well as bringing in further repressive laws.  The country was turned into a virtual police state, with bans on public meetings, demonstrations, leaflets – and pretty much anything else – in support of the wharfies.  Even providing food to their children was made illegal, as the government literally attempted to starve the watersiders and their allies into submission and smash the New Zealand Waterside Workers Union (NZWWU).

The government and bosses enjoyed the full support of the bulk of the media.  In addition, the locked-out workers and their supporters had to deal with the opposition of the right-wing leadership of the Federation of Labour and the back-stabbing of the Labour Party.  Indeed, as we shall see, the 1951 assault on the wharfies and their allies was not simply launched by the National Party government of Sid Holland, but followed years of assault on these workers by the first Labour government, a simple fact of history frequently avoided by commentators associated with, or sympathetic to, the Labour Party.[2]

Vanguard role of wharfies

The watersiders occupied a key strategic position in the economy, partly because of the sheer number of workers, about 8,000 in 1951,[3] but more significantly because shipping was the main means for overseas trade and was therefore vital to the daily operations of New Zealand capitalism.  The nature of the work and workforce also gave them and seamen some degree of advanced consciousness.  As former Alliance MP Sandra Lee has noted, “. . . watersiders and seamen have always been an integral part of the distributive system of capital.  Because of this they have always had a good idea of who they’re up against.  Many were self-educated, having travelled the world observing the sights and voraciously reading lots of books.”  Her father, she said, described Wellington wharfies of the 1940s and early 1950s, “as being the knowledgeable flotsam and jetsam of the world: ex-British seamen, Americans, Indians, Australians, Europeans, all sorts of Pacific Islanders, Maori and Pakeha. Their collective knowledge as they laboured in the heart of the monster enabled them to track the nefarious goings on of corporate power.  For me, watersiders and seamen have always represented the light in the dark.”[4]

They used this strategic position in the economy to fight not only for themselves but for the whole working class.

Firstly, as was noted nearly 50 years ago by leading progressive public servant Bill Sutch, “The watersiders’ economic gains are a standard for other workers.  If the pace-setter can be isolated and hampered, the general level of wages can be held back.”[5]  Secondly, and more importantly, the reason that the first Labour government and the succeeding first National government hated the wharfies involved wider political issues.  The NZWWU, spearheaded by the Auckland branch, represented the most politically-advanced section of the broader working class.  As P.N. Pettit’s masters thesis, published as a book in 1948, noted, “No other body of men, apart from the miners, has been so imbued with such a militant and class-conscious spirit of unionism as the watersiders.”[6]  The union operated democratic structures, which involved the rank-and-file making the decisions, and they campaigned around key political questions of the day, including issues of war and imperialism.

Getting organised 

The watersiders were one of the first groups of workers to forge a national union and engaged in decades of struggle with their bosses to try to improve conditions.  The work was hard, heavy, dirty and dangerous, with bosses preferring cheap and easily replaceable labour to spending money on machines to help make the workers’ jobs a bit easier.  As Anna Green has put it, “In pursuit of maximum profits, the shipping companies engaged in a policy of minimum investment on the waterfront.”[7]  Work could involve individual workers having to manually move loads of 300 pounds and more.[8]  The conditions on the wharves led to spinal injuries, multiple fractures, finger amputations, respiratory diseases, thickening and hardening of the arteries, rheumatoid arthritis, severe duodenal ulcers and hernias.  In 1938 there were 1,300 injuries on the Auckland wharves alone.[9]  “Despite the high accident rate,” Green records, “the employers made little effort to provide either protective gear, training in safe handling techniques, or adequate first aid facilities.”[10]

Attempts to organise on the wharves, going back to the late 1880s, had often been unsuccessful or simply petered out, largely due to the bosses being able to hire and fire at will.[11]  In the 1930s, however, greater progress started to be made.  At this time, the auction block system was still being used by wharf bosses.  Workers were expected to turn up for almost three hours each morning, to stand around unpaid and with no guaranteed work.  As Meade’s study of the waterfront unions noted, “On the auction block stood the employers’ representative who selected from the hundreds of men offering for employment those whom he liked.  This system lay open to victimisation, graft and corruption.”[12]  Port Chalmers wharfie Ray Percy recalled, “if they liked the colour of your eyes or you dug the boss’s garden or anything like that, well, you were assured of a job.”  Mrs Greer, the wife of another wharfie, put it even more bluntly: “You! You! You! Like a lot of cattle. . . (or) slaves.”  She also noted that it led to “a lot of crawling”.[13]  Moreover, Green records that “In general, throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the port employers constantly engaged in attempts to ratchet down working conditions and wages.”[14]

Direct action by wharfies, however, won the 30-hour system; under this workers who had finished a job or completed 30 hours work would stand down to let others work.  The wharfies organised and policed the system themselves.  Thus militancy and solidarity of wharfies enabled them to gain a real measure of control of hiring.  One of the consequences of this was that militant workers who had lost their jobs elsewhere and struggled to get new jobs could find work on the waterfront.

In 1936, beginning in Lyttelton, shipowners introduced a new practice, the bureau system.  This required strict rotation and therefore was fairer in terms of the provision of work; however, it was controlled by the shipowners and workers found they couldn’t take days off or refuse to do work allocated to them.  However, inroads into control of this new system were made, most successfully in Auckland where the wharfies won more say over it.[15]  Other important gains won were the right to decide whether to work in the rain, the ability to limit overtime and regulate the pace of work and the weight of slings, the right to refuse work they deemed to be unsafe, improved canteen facilities, additional payment for handling obnoxious cargo, and extended annual holidays.

Watersiders’ work and lives remained difficult, however.  As Andrea Hotere’s study of the 1951 lockout  in Port Chalmers notes of wharfies’ lives before the dispute, “Most nights, if a ship was in port, the men would come home for an hour for dinner at six and then return to work, frequently not returning until after ten or midnight.”  This also made it difficult for their wives to have social lives, as young children needed to be looked after while their husbands were working.  The local union branch therefore organised social evenings for the women.[16]

A particularly important and inspiring role in the political development and organising strength of the wharfies was played by Jock Barnes.  Barnes became president first of the Auckland branch of the union, during which time he continued to work on the wharves.  When he became national president in 1944, his president’s pay was less than that of many of the union’s members.  He was part of a wider trend of militants within the union and his ascension to leading positions was representative of the growth and development of this militant trend.  Under Barnes’ leadership, the union preferred direct bargaining and strike action, as opposed to the dominant tendency of arbitration and conciliation, which had operated since the 1894 Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act.

The union resisted piece work and productivity bonus schemes, aware that these actually involved workers taking part in increasing their own rate of exploitation while simultaneously undermining their solidarity locally and nationally.  For similar reasons they rejected schemes such as “co-operative stevedoring”, where some wharfies would, in effect, be managing others.

Workers solidarity, at home and abroad

The wharfies’ union was highly politicised.  It didn’t think workers’ concerns started and ended with the weekly packet and sign-on, sign-off at work.  It organised meetings on important issues both here and abroad.

In the 1930s the wharfies received the ire of the Labour government by refusing to handle scrap-iron for Japan, in protest against the Japanese invasion of China.[17]  They also refused to load wood to Franco’s fascist Spain and to work Dutch shipping to Indonesia during the Indonesians’ anti-colonial struggle for independence. They opposed the apartheid system in South Africa and had a “No Maoris, No Tour” position back when NZ rugby was, at the behest of the South African whites-only rugby board, not allowing Maoris into All Black teams playing there.  They provided support for the establishment of unions in the Cook Islands and Nuie. They opposed British repression of the independence movement in Malaya, and adopted the position that they would not help move NZ forces or armaments to Malaya.  They opposed imperialist intervention in Korea.  They took solidarity action with watersiders (and other workers) abroad.

Within New Zealand, they continuously supported struggles by fellow workers for better pay and conditions and took up wider issues affecting workers’ lives.  They fully supported the Carpenters Union when it was being deregistered by the Labour government in 1949 and boycotted companies which blacklisted carpenters who had been locked out.  They fought against the arbitration system and for free collective bargaining.  They campaigned for the building of more housing for workers, for nationalisation of house-building and for a ban on the building of luxury homes.  They played a leading role in the fight against the Labour government’s reintroduction of peacetime conscription in 1949, a move that was part of the role Labour played as a reactionary force during the Cold War.[18]  In 1950, the NZWWU organised a stoppage on the opening day of parliament to protest “the betrayal of the Holland government to make the £1 go further” and to “draw attention to the need for an immediate substantial increase in wages, pensions, family benefits and social security payments.”[19]

The union’s paper, Transport Worker, edited by Dick Scott, acted as a political educator and organiser.  It ran educational feature articles on the issues that the union was taking up and helped the wharfies be the most informed and politically conscious workers in the country.  The paper often also embarrassed leaders of the Labour government by running statements they had made years earlier when they were militant unionists and staunchly opposed to the very same arbitration system that, in government, they equally staunchly supported.


Integrally connected to the militancy of the watersiders was union democracy.  The union was focussed on the rank and file and leaders were chosen by them, increasingly from people who first emerged as trusted rank-and-file fighters such as Jock Barnes.  Officials were chosen by secret ballot.  Members were required to attend monthly stopwork meetings and these meetings could last four to five hours as members very thoroughly discussed politics and action.  “The democratic aspect was of supreme importance,” Barnes noted in a 1981 interview, “. . . there wasn’t one decision of note that was not made by the rank and file.”[20]

Green records that of the sample of waterside workers she spoke to for her study, “many. . . spontaneously recalled the democratic procedure within the stopwork meetings”.[21]  The rank-and-file also had a fair measure of control over who joined the union.  A young driver who joined the Auckland branch in 1946 recorded, “You were either admitted or rejected.  You had to walk across a hall in front of the members and if anyone thought you were no good, or knew something about you, you could be tossed out. . .  They had to be strong, they were spearheading the movement for better conditions.”[22]  Johnny Mitchell, a prominent Marxist wharfie, noted how the branch “gave members every encouragement to participate in the running of the union.”[23]  In 1948 the Auckland branch had to move its monthly stopwork meetings to the Town Hall because the Port Buildings were no longer big enough.

The union membership also organised chunks of their leisure life through the union – sports teams (rugby league, swimming, boxing, soccer, cricket, cycling and wrestling), and drama, debating and chess groups.[24]  Wharfies’ teams from one port city would travel to other port cities to compete with each other as well as participating in local sports competitions.  The Auckland union had beauty parades at its annual picnic, but for both women and men.[25]

Labour versus workers – WW2

Although it was already clear before World War 2 that Labour in power represented the general interests of capital, not workers, and that the party itself was also rotten, this became even more evident in the course of the war into which the Labourites enthusiastically took New Zealand.  In February 1940, the executives of both the Labour Party and the Federation of Labour issued a joint statement which included opposition to conscription; just three months later the same people issued a fresh joint statement, supporting the government including its introduction of conscription.  Given  that many of the Labour leaders had, in their earlier years and long before a sniff of governmental power was in their noses, opposed World War I and some had been imprisoned at the time, Barnes described the leaders of the government as “renegades of the worst type”[26] and Labour as “New Zealand’s No. 1 war party”.[27]

Conscription was only the beginning however, “the first of a series of anti-worker dictates that, in many cases, lasted until well after 1945.”[28]  The Labour government took on unlimited powers and began suppressing left-wing activists, Christian pacifists and any workers and unions who attempted to maintain their pay and conditions.[29]  Labour’s war-time attacks on workers included abolishing existing awards and making work stoppages illegal.[30]  It set up the Waterfront Control Commission to run the wharves and decide pay rates.  The Commission was made up of three people – a shipowners’ representative, a union representative and a supposedly independent chair.  However, all three people were chosen by the government.  For the union ‘representative’, the Labour government chose none other than the general-secretary of the Labour Party itself, Jim Roberts, who was also the national secretary of the WWU and a conduit for Labour’s capitalist managerialism into the union.  This was the beginning of a national struggle between the right-wing, pro-Labour elements and the worker-militants in the union nationally.

Auckland WWU president Tom Solomon and secretary Bill Cuthbert were both rewarded for fronting for the employers, in several struggles over hours, by being given jobs with the Commission.  Barnes then stood for the Auckland presidency and dropped the accountancy studies he was doing by correspondence.  These elections in the Auckland union “saw the militants (in that branch) sweep out all the old Cuthbert and Roberts supporters and we were now in a solid position.”[31]

Meanwhile, prices and profits were rising dramatically – profits, for instance, increased by 80% during the war.  As Barnes put it, “With rationing at absurd lengths, wages pegged while profits soared, and men and women directed to industry whose sole motive was wartime profiteering, the seeds of discontent were being freely scattered.”[32]  Under the Strike and Lockout Emergency Regulations (SLER), “first introduced as a war measure, all strikes and lockouts were placed under a legal ban.”[33]  The SLER substantially increased the possibilities for deregistration; moreover, in 1939 the Minister of Labour took on the power to deregister unions.  The Public Safety Conservation Act, introduced by the hated Forbes-Coates regime of the Depression era, was also kept on the books by the Labour government.[34]

The United States entered the war in December 1941 and in 1942 large numbers of US forces arrived in New Zealand.  The Labour government largely let them do as they please.  Ironically, this didn’t particularly affect workers negatively.  The American commanders, who had certain powers on the Auckland waterfront, turned out, Barnes has recorded, to be less hostile to the wharfies than the Labour government and its flunkey Waterfront Control Commission.  There were problems with the racism of sections of white American servicemen, but the wharfies were able to deal with this.  On the other hand, the top American military brass readily agreed to a pay increase for wharfies working under them – Labour prime minister Peter Fraser, however, stepped in and cut the pay increase by half![35]

Labour’s chief henchmen on the Auckland wharves were Cuthbert (now chief controller of the port) and Solomon (assistant controller).  They made continuous trouble for the wharfies.  For instance, they backed shipowners’ attempts to impose Sunday work, although that was the only guaranteed day off for wharfies.  Cuthbert even threatened to withdraw exemption from military service for those wharfies who had lodged exemption appeals.  The union, however, successfully resisted all the attacks.

As a result of his record as president of the Auckland WWU, Barnes won the national presidency of the union in February 1944, although narrowly as the pro-Labour right did everything they could to oppose him.  However, union members wanted leadership which would fight for their interests rather than simply subordinate them to Labour and its management of capitalism.

During the war, the Auckland wharfies successfully defended hard-won safety improvements and stopped attempts to use non-union labour.[36]   They also supported other workers.  For instance, freezing workers in the Westfield works in Auckland went on strike and 213 of them were imprisoned in Mt Eden.  They were only released when the Auckland Trades Council, at the behest of the wharfies and other radical unionists, threatened to call a city-wide strike.[37]

Federation of Labour leaders Angus McLagan and Fintan Patrick Walsh were important figures in the war administration, along with businessmen like James Fletcher and none other than Gordon Coates, who had been deputy-prime minister in the hated Forbes-Coates depression-era government.  After the war, Walsh, McLagan and their ilk in Labour and the FOL wished to continue their collaboration with the state and maintain the kinds of measures practised during the war.  Indeed, McLagan became Minister of Labour.

Labour versus workers – post-WW2

To the chagrin of the Labourite leaders in government and atop the FOL, the immediate postwar years saw a significant upsurge in workers’ struggles in New Zealand.  This was hardly surprising given the way the first Labour government had assisted the centralisation and consolidation of capital during the war and largely organised an intensification of the exploitation of the working class through ensuring substantial increases in productivity that were not matched by pay rises.[38]  At the same time, war-time inflation and profiteering by bosses was undermining workers’ living standards.  For instance, food prices rose by an annual average of over 8.6% from January 1939 to December 1947[39] and then by an annual average of 37.25 points from January 1948 to December 1950.[40]  In September 1946 the governor-general was given a pay rise of £2,500 and judges an additional £250 stipend, yet on the wharves workers were still struggling to get 14 shillings a day.[41]  Repressive legislation also remained in place after the war.  Lukey, for instance, notes “the twelve-year currency of the Strike and Lockout Emergency Regulations”.[42]

Putting forward the union case for a guaranteed daily wage, Toby Hill declared in October 1946, “Bluntly we are tired of nice words and nice sentiments.”[43] The bosses resisted this and the Labour government yet again intervened against the workers.  They pushed Auckland watersiders to rescind resolutions to take action to achieve a 40-hour week.  Action, the workers were told, would embarrass Labour with an election looming – this is a ruse that would be used again and again over succeeding decades.  Labour narrowly won the 1946 election and then, of course, simply continued to pursue the assault on workers and unions.

At the end of 1946, the WWU took on the government, forcing it to bring in a guaranteed daily wage on the wharves.  The thanks they got from the FOL leadership for setting a standard that could help lift all workers’ wages was to be attacked by Walsh and FOL national secretary Ken Baxter[44], and the no less than three Labour cabinet ministers who showed up – McLagan, Nash and Fraser himself – at the FOL conference in January 1947.

In May that year the WWU national executive met with McLagan to talk about further wage rises and also, in line with Labour’s formal policy for the socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange, the introduction of some measure of worker control on the wharves.  Those who wielded power in the Labour Party had long since abandoned such ideas as socialisation, however.

Labour’s hostility to workers’ control of any industry was epitomised by Fraser’s 1947 comment in response to WWU attempts to gain greater control over the wharves: “There will be no such thing as industry control (by the workers).”[45]  In fact, Labour’s reformed waterfront commission would be a six-person body, including only two unionists who would also be banned from dissenting publicly from commission decisions.  The union representatives were to be responsible to the commission, not the union.[46]  (Opposition to workers’ control, or even to nationalisation, was not confined to the wharves; the postwar Labour government also rejected ideas from a commission into the alcohol industry for nationalisation of the breweries.  Of course, the richest person in New Zealand in the 1930s was the brewing magnate Ernest Davis, a Labour supporter for whom Michael Joseph Savage had organised a knighthood in 1937.  Savage had been an employee of Davis’ before, during and shortly after WW1.)

As Barnes would note of the first Labour government, there was “a complete failure to implement any socialist policies” and the pretence of being any sort of workers’ government had been well and truly dropped.[47]  Any sections of the labour movement which believed in what the Labour leaders had once purported to believe in were now a troublesome embarrassment.

Judge F.W. Ongley, chair of the Waterfront Industry Commission (and some years before a lawyer for the WUU!),then decided to try to dump a gain which wharfies had won as far back as 1917 and had managed to get enshrined by the Waterfront Industry Commission in 1940 – namely, that a worker had to be able to complete a job.  This had helped stymie victimisation and foremen playing favourites.  Barnes described Ongley’s ruling as “one of the most audacious and scandalous decisions ever brought down in this industry.”[48]

When the wharfies imposed a 5-day, 40-hour week, Fraser threatened to revoke gains the watersiders had won and got codified in WCC and WIC rulings.  The FOL leaders worked hand-in-glove with the government; they stated that their policy was negotiation and the use of “amicable and constitutional methods”, not class struggle.[49]  In the resulting stoush, the wharfies’ leaders were not allowed on air, while the government and FOL leaders were given plenty of radio time to put their point of view.  This, too, was a forerunner of what would happen under National in 1951.  Under a great deal of pressure, the wharfies beat a tactical retreat and called off the overtime ban in January 1947.

They attempted, however, to lead the working class forward in other ways.  Most importantly, they proposed a set of policies for equal pay for women doing the same work as men and increases in pay rates (including minimum wage), pensions and benefits.  They tried to get the FOL to adopt these policies at the 1947 FOL conference and to press for the union movement as a whole to fight to get them implemented.  At the conference they ran up against stiff opposition: both the FOL leaders and members of the Labour government in attendance (Nash, Fraser and McLagan) attacked the wharfies’ proposals.  Nevertheless a strong left opposition emerged to the misleadership of the labour movement.  This left opposition comprised  carpenters’, rail and tram workers’, dairy workers’, labourers’ and wharfies’ delegates.

Moreover, when their wage negotiations resumed later in January the wharfies’ determination to pursue their demands tied up the WIC and Ongley adjourned the Commission indefinitely.  In effect, this meant resigning.  McLagan ended up having to agree to most of the wharfies’ claims – among these were a £5 a week guaranteed wage, increased attendance money, Arbitration Court general increases to be passed on automatically to the wharfies and faster improvements to their amenities.[50]  Militant action coupled with the new postwar economic boom creating full employment were the two key factors in the Waterside Workers Union victory.  Victories over the employers and the Labour government were followed by victories over their flunkeys atop the FOL.  The FOL executive’s support for stabilisation policy, which basically meant controls on wages, was rejected by the FOL National Council and one of the leading militants in the labour movement, Bill Richards, won the FOL vice-presidency, defeating Walsh.  The Labour government had little option but to relax the stabilisation regulations and bide their time, preparing for more propitious circumstances in which to attack the wharfies and other progressive sections of the union movement.

Growth of industrial action

While many on the left today maintain illusions about the first Labour government, the honeymoon period between organised workers, especially the more advanced detachments, and that government was relatively brief and probably as much a reflection that workers were simply grateful the Depression had ended.  In the period 1931-1935 there were only 98 strikes, with the lowest years being 1933 (15 strikes) and 1935 (12). In 1937 the number of workers involved in strike action had reached five figures for the first time since 1924 and remained so all through the war; 1941 and 1942 saw the largest numbers of workers on strike since the early 1920s, over 15,0000 and almost 14,500 respectively, with the figures doubling in 1944 and increasing even further in 1945 to just under 40,000.  Those two years also saw the largest number of strikes ever recorded, which rather undermines the notion of everyone conforming to a patriotic home front during the war. [51]

The number of workers involved in disputes doubled from 1943-47 to 1947-51, with nine times as many days lost.  Militant industrial unions led the way, with 80% of the days lost being accounted for by wharfies, miners and freezing workers.[52]  In 1950, 271,475 days work were lost, the most since such statistics started to be collected in 1921.[53]  On the wharves, Auckland played a vanguard role.  Roth records, for instance, that 892,671 man-hours of the total of 1,375,341 which were lost in port stoppages from March 31, 1946 to March 31, 1950 were in Auckland (almost 65%).[54]

In return, Fraser, McLagan and Walsh lined up the WWU, its central leaders and the Auckland branch in particular, in their sights.  First, however, the Labourites tested how far they could go by attacking the less strategically-placed Auckland Carpenters Union, in which radical workers played an important part.  The union had won higher wages in a go-slow in 1948 but, when they used the same tactics the following year, the employers locked them out.

Labour deregisters the Auckland Carpenters Union

There were two key issues in the carpenters’ dispute.[55]  One was that the carpenters in the outer suburbs of Auckland had won pay for traveling time – an important gain as they often had to spend substantial time getting to work wherever their employers wanted them – but the bosses managed to get this removed in December 1948 via the Arbitration Court.  The second was that inflation had eaten away, by almost half, at margins for skilled workers and, although the Arbitration Court was legally obliged to restore past relationships, it chose not to.

While the bulk of employers met the union’s demand to keep traveling time pay, about 30 of the 900 bosses – a hardcore of big employers – refused.  After several months of trying to resolve the dispute, the Auckland union imposed go-slows against the recalcitrant bosses.  These bosses responded with a lockout.  Since the postwar labour shortage meant it was easy for locked out carpenters to find other work while fighting for their demands, the most belligerent set of bosses coerced other employers in the building industry not to take them on.  The Chamber of Commerce, Employers Association and Manufacturers Association lined up behind the Master Builders.  An official of the Master Builders declared they were supported by the Labour government, including prime minister Peter Fraser.

This, of course, turned out to be true.  When other unions decided to boycott any Auckland employers who ‘blacklisted’ carpenters, the workers looked like they would win.  In stepped Labour.  McLagan publicly attacked the workers’ boycott and Labour’s right-wing allies atop the FOL demanded the carpenters hand over the dispute to them, an offer of a kiss of death essentially.  The timeline of the dispute and various utterances by the enemies of the workers involved indicated, as Carpenters Union secretary Roy Stanley noted, a close co-ordination between the bosses, the Walsh cabal atop the FOL and Labour politicians.  In fact, Labour mobilised 11 state agencies against the workers, including denying them social security.  They recognised the bosses’ scab union, got it registered, and deregistered the Carpenters Union in the greater Auckland area.  New industrial legislation rushed in by Labour before the 1949 election forced the deregistered carpenters to join the scab union which had previously been a complete failure.

At the time, Fraser considered having a go at deregistering the wharfies, who had been one of the chief supporters of the carpenters.  The hostility of the Labour government to the wharfies was also indicated by Fraser calling them “wreckers” and Semple, another ex-militant, calling them “ratbags”.[56]  The deregistration of the Auckland Carpenters Union also emboldened the shipowners who adopted a more aggressive attitude as they saw “the Government was prepared to hit hard at the unions”.[57]

Labour returns to attacking the wharfies

The attack on the carpenters, along with the litany of support for employers against unions and a raft of anti-union legislation, indicated how worker-unfriendly and deeply committed to upholding the bosses’ interests the Labour government was.  But a number of battles by the wharfies showed that the Labourites didn’t even give a fig for the health and safety of these workers.  For instance, in early 1948 there were a series of disputes over safety issues on ships docking in Auckland.  The Cape York carried phosphate that the wharfies were simply expected to unload without proper protective gear and the Mountpark had hatches in poor condition.  At the best of McLagan, Judge Dalglish, the head of the Waterfront Industry Authority, made the Mountpark a preference ship, meaning the wharfies were legally compelled to work it.

The WWU organised a mass public meeting and Barnes proposed he and McLagan debate the issue on radio; McLagan of course refused, Labour and their employer friends depending on a monopoly of the media to promote their anti-worker, and especially anti-wharfie, propaganda and activities.  The government and employers, however, received a slap in the face when the chief justice of New Zealand, Sir Humphrey O’Leary, appointed to chair a special tribunal on the Mountpark dispute, ruled in February 1948 that the ship’s hatches had not been safe to open and that the company had not been justified in dismissing the wharfies.  He also said that the workers should be paid for the work they had lost during the dismissal period.[58]

In late 1948 a new part-time Waterfront Industry Authority was set up, chaired by Dalglish and a full-time Waterfront Industry Commission, chaired by Arthur Bockett.  The union won a new minimum wage – it rose from £5 to £5.10s – from the new WIA.  At the same time, however, the years after the war were ones in which :the shipping companies were posting greatly increased profits. . .”[59]

Between the O’Leary ruling and the new minimum wage, the union was doing well.  The Auckland branch’s annual picnic in January 1949, for instance, attracted thousands and was judged as the best ever.[60]

The union claim for the 1949 round of negotiations was one shilling an hour rise; Dalglish offered 2.5 pence.  The union responded with short protest strikes.  They also showed their support for the Auckland carpenters by boycotting a ship called the Northumberland.  It was carrying soda ash for the Penrose Glassworks, one of the firms helping the master builders’ attack on the carpenters.  The wharfies who were refusing to unload the ship were then dismissed and placed on penalty.  At the same time, and despite the Federation of Labour’s national council voting to support the carpenters, the Federation’s executive, dominated by Walsh, worked hand-in-glove with McLagan and the government against the locked-out workers.  McLagan registered a scab union and deregistered the Auckland Carpenters Union.

The Auckland watersiders had to lift the boycott, but on March 17 passed a resolution denouncing the FOL leaders as “agents of the employing class”.  The Auckland resolution was endorsed by the Waterside Workers Union’s national executive and sent to the FOL.  Walsh, McLagan and the Labour government and their cohorts, were now fully determined to smash the wharfies.

In 1949 another dangerous substance fuelled a dispute in Auckland.  The Barnhill carried the very dangerous substance tetra-ethyl fluid.  Auckland wharfies demanded safety measures and extra rates for handling it.  The bosses refused and the wharfies took action, deciding to work just a 44-hour week.  McLagan then suspended orders, directions and decisions of the WIC and WIA for Auckland, stopped Auckland wharfies getting the national increase in the hourly rate and, when the 44-hour week was taken up in other ports, suspending WIC benefits to those other ports.[61]

Labour locks out the Auckland wharfies

On August 10, 1949 all 1600 waterside union members in Auckland working on ships were dismissed – the first-ever lockout in the history of the Auckland port (and, yes, the product of a Labour government).  The wharfies set up a lockout committee, organised guards on the port gates to prevent the use of scabs and held a massive meeting in the Auckland Town Hall, attended by thousands.[62]  The wharfies raised ten demands, including that the government stop interfering with the functioning of the WIA.  The Labour government responded that it was standing with the employers; the wharfies weren’t in a position to take on both the government, with its machinery of state, and the employers and the union beat a tactical retreat, resuming normal work on August 18.  McLagan then launched a vicious red-baiting attack on Barnes, Hill and Alex Drennan and removed Barnes and Hill from the Waterfront Industry Authority.  “It was,” notes Norris, “about the last act of the Labour government”.[63]

Encouraged by the government’s anti-WWU blasts, the shipowners launched their own new round of attacks.  With the Cold War environment intensifying, Walsh and Labour were on the warpath.

A breather

Labour, recorded Dick Scott, went out “in a dying blaze of conscription-mongering, satchel-snatching and leg-iron legislating, with particular renegade venom reserved for the Waterside Workers Union.”[64]  An intensification of the attacks would have taken place if Labour had’ve won in 1949.  As Belich notes of the 1951 showdown, “A similar conflict could well have taken place under Fraser”.[65]  Indeed, as Scott recorded, National “took office inheriting all of its predecessor’s industrial laws and precedents with satisfaction and a whetted appetite to exploit them.”[66]

However, as Roth notes, National did not immediately attack the wharfies.  In fact, Sullivan, the new Minister of Labour, was initially less hostile than either Walsh or McLagan![67]  He entered into negotiations with the WWU for the re-establishment of the Waterfront Industry Authority, which hadn’t operated since September 1949, rather than simply steamrollering ahead; he even revoked Labour’s regulations which had given the Minister of Labour the power to suspend Commission decisions (for instance, on any occasion they went in the workers’ interest).  The union welcomed the possible breathing space, after years of industrial guerrilla warfare with the Labourites.  The union did not, of course, moderate its demands for improved pay and conditions or its political stance on important issues of the day.  Skirmishing soon broke out.  One of the issues was the handling of lampblack or carbon black, a noxious substance used in making tyres.

In February 1950 Lyttelton waterside workers won protective gear, paid washing time and a special rate for handling the substance.[68]  In July Wellington waterside workers won a higher rate after the noxious substance arrived in paper bags the previous month on board the Myrtlebank.  The lampblack was also found to have filtered through protective clothing they had been given.[69]  Sullivan, unlike his Labour predecessors, actually backed the WIA’s decision to award the higher rate.  Indeed, as Roth notes, after attacking militant unionism in the lead-up to the 1949 election, and criticising Labour for giving into it too much, after a year in power National had done little to push the bosses’ interests on the waterfront. Business and farming interests, along with editorial writers, and Labour Party leaders like McLagan, criticised Sullivan for not taking on the wharfies and “clean(ing) up the waterfront.[70]                     `

Nevertheless, when another cargo of lampblack in paper bags arrived aboard the Asuncion da Larringa in Wellington in September, the rate was cut.  Wellington wharfies took industrial action in response and were joined by fellow watersiders right across the country.  This was the first significant clash between the wharfies and the new government.  On September 20, five days after the national wharfies strike began, the government used the Depression-era Public Safety Conservation Act, which Labour had helpfully kept on the books, to declare a state of emergency.  Regulations which McLagan had begun drafting to force the ports to be opened were completed and imposed.  Police and the armed forces were readied to intervene.

The shipowners, however, weren’t yet fully prepared for a crunch showdown with the wharfies and entered into negotiations, the union actually winning more than its original demands for special payments for handling lampblack, including a clothing allowance.  Most importantly perhaps, however, the WWU won the right to negotiate directly with the shipowners.  The union’s paper noted, “The Union has struck off the leg-irons of state machinery and legalisms and forced the right to negotiate directly with those who have called the tune all along – the shipowners.”[71]  The shipowners, however, shied away from free negotiating, much preferring to fall back on the state and its machinery of arbitration.[72]

Shortly before this dispute, National had unveiled plans for a Royal Commission into everyaspect of the waterfront industry”[73].  However, the lampblack dispute of September 1950 and the union victory marked the end of the “honeymoon” period with National.  The government decided the commission would not be looking at shipowners’ profits and at freight charges, as the WWU had called for.  The Royal Commission did show, however, what the shipowners wanted.  As Green records, “In their main submission the employers put forward a scheme to restructure work on the waterfront that bore a remarkable resemblance to proposals they first made in 1915.  There was to be an open union; the employers were to control a register of men eligible to work on the waterfront.  The scheme was clearly an attempt to reassert the employer’s authority over the right to hire and fire, and to determine how the work was to be done.  Under it, all customary work practices would be abolished. . .”[74]  Submissions by shipping employers also indicated that they wanted a showdown with the Waterside Workers Union but were sensitive about choosing an issue – for instance, avoiding one like lampblack where the union might get mass public support and opting for one where the employers would have a greater chance to rally support.[75]

Perhaps a more important factor in ending the ‘honeymoon’ period than the wharfies’ victory on the lampblack issue was the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950.  As in Britain, it was a Labour government here which imposed Cold War policies first, including the reintroduction of peacetime conscription in 1949 and the postwar assault on radical trade unionism and the left.  Bob Semple’s Why I Fight Communism pamphlet was a stunning example of how much Labour had become part of the right-wing Cold War consensus.

Both the new, first National government and the Labour opposition, then, were stridently anti-communist and committed to the alliance with the United States (and Britain) in the Korean War.  In 1950 the New Zealand Legation in Moscow was closed by the new Holland government and in 1951 they signed up to the new ANZUS Pact.  Fighting communism abroad became more closely-linked with finding communists at home and demonising and victimising them.  Militant unionism became the “enemy within” and was to be rooted out.

While neither Barnes nor Hill were communists, they were militant fighters for the interests not only of the wharfies but the whole working class; they were also opponents of imperialist military alliances and wars.  The carefully-orchestrated spread of fear and loathing about communism made red-baiting a potent weapon for bosses and governments that wanted to roll back workers’ rights and reassert their control in the new world after WW2.  The impact of anti-communism on the general population, including on many workers, made it much easier to isolate the wharfies and other militant workers, take them on and defeat them.

The Trade Union Congress

The incorporation of a large chunk of the trade union leadership, epitomised by Walsh, into the state system led to continuing struggles between them and the working class fighters in the movement.  Eventually it led to a split in the FOL.

Sections of the wharfies had by now drawn the correct conclusion that being affiliated to the Labour Party was not only a waste of their money and time, but also rather like turkeys voting for Christmas.  At the Waterside Workers Union conference at the end of 1949, the Auckland branch moved a motion that the union disaffiliate from Labour.  Although it was lost, Hill and Barnes were re-elected unopposed as secretary and president of the union.  Opposition to them within the union had essentially collapsed.[76]

As the Cold War intensified, however, the right-wing leaders in the FOL became emboldened.  They knew they had the support of the Labour government and they were perfectly prepared to co-operate with a future National government against the left.  One by one the strongholds of the left were beaten.  As Roth notes, “The Waterside Workers Union, and especially its Auckland branch, stood as the last major stronghold of the left; by late 1949 it had become the obvious next target.”[77]  McLagan and Walsh, he records, “prepared the ground” for the replacement of Hill and Barnes with people “more to the liking of the Labour Party and FOL”.[78]

The advanced sections were also preparing to fight it out with the FOL leadership, recognising that this misleadership acted essentially as a fifth column for the employers and the state within the union movement and wider working class.  As Barnes put it in the union paper, “If you sleep with pigs you, too, will stink. . .  Either the Federation of Labour is cleansed or else no self-respecting trade union can any longer be associated with it.”[79]

“The savage clash” between Walsh and Barnes was, as Sandra Lee has put it, really “a fight between the authoritarian elements of the labour movement within the Federation of Labour – the seeds of which were sown by Peter Fraser’s government in the 1940s – and the democratic rank-and-file heritage of militant unionism represented by the Trade Union Congress.”[80]  The misleaders feared the militants even more than the government did and moved into action against the workers.  As Dick Scott noted of the forces aligned against the wharfies and their allies, “if the shipowners had the government, the government had the Federation of Labour leadership.”[81]  In 1960, prime minister Keith Holyoake, who had been deputy prime minister in 1951, told parliament National “was fortunate in that the Federation of Labour, the responsible workers’ leaders, stood firmly with the Government.  The task would have been impossible without the Federation’s aid.”[82]  Michael Bassett noted in the early 1970s that the FOL national executive “would even urge the Government on” and, at one point, Walsh “appeared to feel that Holland was not moving fast enough” to smash the wharfies.[83]  More recently, Belich has noted how Walsh, along with fellow ex-communist McLagan, “led the incorporation of the union movement into the state system. . .  He was very close to Peter Fraser, weeping openly at his funeral.  Drying his tears, he was then able to establish a good working relationship with the first National government.”[84]

The 1951 dispute begins

By 1951 the shipowners were prepared.  They were, as Bollinger has noted, “especially. . . anxious for the chance of a duel to the death with the watersiders, whose industrial activities had been causing such widespread shudders through the whole cumbrous machinery of wage-fixing. . .”  The shipowners’ and government’s position was shared by “the farming and commercial community for whom watersiders’ wages were merely a burdensome impost on the cost of their exports and imports.”[85]

Bollinger has further noted that from the first few days onwards, when acting prime minister Holyoake rejected out of hand “realistic” union proposals to settle the issue, there was little way out for the wharfies in particular.  “From this point, the watersiders were to be faced with the opposition not only of the employers, but of the state as well – and the terms for a truce were to become whatever the whim of the moment might move the politicians to decide: and these terms were to shift and change, being consistent only in always containing some element which was well known to be currently unacceptable to the watersiders.”[86]  Thus when the watersiders accepted the specific form of arbitration demanded by the government, the government demanded that the union’s elected leaders be replaced as union spokespeople; when it looked like the wharfies might accept this, the government demanded the union accept permanent fragmentation into 26 local mini-unions.[87]

As the entry for the dispute on New Zealand History online notes, “Instead of simply forcing the wharfies to accept the original 9% increase, the government resolved to destroy the old Waterfront Workers’ Union and replace it with new unions in each port.”[88]  This view is reinforced by Jack Marshall, one of the members of the Holland government who later went on to be prime minister himself.  In the first volume of his Memoirs, published in 1983, Marshall records: “The specific issues of wages and arbitration could have been settled in a few weeks if we had been willing to allow the old leaders to return to run the old union.  Barnes and Hill were soon willing to make major concessions. . .  We were equally determined to get rid of the militant troublemakers, and to break up the national union.”[89]

Suspension of democracy

During the dispute, the full power of the state was mobilised on the side of the bosses.  Democracy was effectively suspended.  Freedom of the press was squashed.  Public meetings were banned.  It was illegal to print material in favour of the watersiders and their allies.  The printing of leaflets was driven underground and there were regular raids of premises, including private homes, suspected by the cops of having the printing presses.  Homes of those handing out the leaflets were also visited.[90]  It was even made illegal to provide food to the workers and their families.  According to one National cabinet minister, “Unless we had in the regulations those clauses which prevent freedom of assembly and freedom of speech, we would not have been able to deal successfully with this strike issue. . . it would, in a very short space of time, have become a general strike.”  These regulations were described by Barnes as the “worst in a British dominion since the British terror in Ireland during the post-WW1 independence struggle.”[91]

The armed forces were used on the Wellington and Auckland wharves from the end of February, in Timaru  from March 4 and Dunedin a few days later.  On March 1, the Holland government used the powers of deregistration introduced in 1939 by the first Labour government; the NZWWU was deregistered and its record books and funds seized by the state.  The seizure of assets included the union halls, so even meetings had to be held elsewhere.[92]  In a number of cases, workers’ marchers were attacked by the cops.  For instance, on May 2 police baton-charged workers trying to march to parliament and on May 16 wharfies carrying out picketing activities in Auckland were violently attacked by police.  The worst attack came on June 2, when cops attacked and batoned marchers in Auckland, injuring 22.

There was very significant support for the watersiders.  Miners and freezing workers went on strike and seamen refused to co-operate with the military who had occupied the wharves; even some in the armed forces refused to take part in the repression and scabbing.[93]  Rail workers and drivers refused to move goods handled by scabs.  In the opening weeks there was a possibility of victory.  The workers even got support from sections of farmers.  Barnes would say later, “We got a fantastic response from farmers.  They used to send in truckloads of produce – all in open defiance of the regulations.”[94]  A rural Nelson housewife of the time would later record that, although it was illegal to give sustenance to workers involved in the dispute, and their families, “When representatives of the West Coast Miners Union arrived on our doorstep looking for food for those in strife, we did not hesitate.  From them we learned a number of facts that never appeared in the newspapers.”[95]  Connie Birchfield also records, “. . . there were friendly farmers who donated sheep, and market gardeners who gave vegetables, and tradespeople who provided other goods and services for nothing.”[96]

In smaller ports there was especially strong support from small shopkeepers, tradesmen, coalmen and even some bigger firms, such as Cadbury’s in Dunedin which broke the regulations to supply chocolate to the families of locked-out workers.[97]  Gwen Percy would recall of the lockout in Port Chalmers, “It was nothing for you to open your front door in the morning and you’d find something on your doorstep.  You never knew where it came from, it might be rabbits, some eggs or some baking.”[98]  Freezing workers came with vans of meat, while miners and workers in the boiler room of Dunedin’s Hillside Railway Workshops worked all the overtime they could get and donated the extra pay to the wharfies in Dunedin and Port Chalmers.[99]  By contrast, when representatives of the local Labour Party addressed deregistered WWU members in Dunedin and Port Chalmers in May 1951, they told them “strikes and lockouts are no good to anyone”.[100]

Sandra Lee, whose brother, father and grandfather were all locked out in ’51, has recalled, “I’ve never heard a wharfie’s kid who experienced ’51 say they ever went hungry.  Most mornings in our house, for example, a box of vegetables would appear at our family’s doorstep in Molesworth Street, where all my family were stacked up like sardines.  And we always knew it came from ‘dear old Harry Wong’s’ fruit and vegetable shop next door.”[101]

The lockout also saw the women in watersiders’ families being mobilised.  In Lyttelton, for instance, Baden Norris, a locked-out wharfie in 1951 and subsequently historian of the port and Antarctica, noted how “wives became a lot more interested in the union” during the dispute and a women’s committee was formed, despite harassment by the cops.[102]  “. . . each locked-out watersider owes eternal gratitude to the women’s committee.”[103]  In the case of Port Chalmers, as one of the male interviewees in Andrea Hotere’s study put it, “. . . we were doomed without the support of our wives”.  The women in Port Chalmers and elsewhere were vital to working class solidarity.[104]  Both Norris and Hotere also note that during the dispute a number of wives went out to work and that this was a new development which had an impact on gender relations in waterfront communities.

The official position of the Labour Party was summed up at a mass meeting in Auckland on May 13 in the notorious words of its new leader Walter Nash: “neither for nor against”.[105]  Nash had earlier criticised the way in which the media had presented only one side of the story but, at the mass meeting, denied Barnes the right to speak.  Barnes later recorded: “Nash’s performance was indicative of the spineless and despicable attitude of the Labour Party.  With the exception of Tommy Armstrong, and to a lesser degree two others, the Labour seat-warmers didn’t have the guts of a disembowelled whitebait.”[106]  Nash’s attitude wasn’t confined to the central leadership and the parliamentary seat-warmers, either.

The end of the dispute

On July 11, wharfies voted to return to work and did so five days later.  A layer of the leading activists, however, including Jock Barnes and Toby Hill, found themselves blacklisted.  The WWU itself was replaced by 26 local port unions, many established by the employers and some with as few as a dozen members.[107]  Drivers and freezing workers in Wellington found their unions broken into new, smaller unions.  The process of rebuilding would take many years.  It wasn’t until the middle 1960s that a national watersiders’ union came into existence again.[108]

In the period 1951-61 working days lost per 1,000 wage and salary earners were only a tenth of those lost in Canada and a ninth of those lost in the United States, hardly countries known as centres of class struggle.  Whereas in the years immediately before 1951, days lost per 1,000 workers in New Zealand had been just over 218,000 (1949) and just under 271,500 (1950), in the ten years following 1951 figures ranged from 19,000 to about 30,000 with a bit of a spike to 55,000 in 1955.[109]  It wasn’t until 1962 and then 1968 – the year of the second National government’s nil general wage order – that the number of workers involved in strikes exceeded the 1951 figures and it wasn’t until 1970 that the number exceeded the numbers on strike in 1949 and 1950 and the number of working days lost in those two years.[110]

The significance of the 1951 defeat is summed up extremely well by Tom Bramble as “a tragedy not just for the many wharfies who were blacklisted or cast to the four winds but for the New Zealand labour movement and, indeed, New Zealand society more generally.  The defeat of the wharfies ushered in more than 20 years of nearly uninterrupted conservative rule, which secured for New Zealand an image as an intellectual and political backwater, locked into the British monarchy, rigid social and sexual mores, and fierce hostility to anything that might upset this idyll.

Only in the late 1960s, when the labour movement finally shook off the shackles that Barnes’ adversaries had so keenly locked upon it, did New Zealand society start to come alive again, not just industrially, but socially and politically as well.”[111]  For instance, Lukey, writing in the Canterbury University history journal in 1970 about the 1951 dispute, noted, “. . . in recent months a new trend in union negotiation seems to be emerging” and identified this as a shift from the institutions of arbitration and conciliation to more direct bargaining.[112]

However, the seeing off of the militants in 1951 did not lead to a further lurch rightwards, with a full-scale assault on the rest of the unions and the working class by National.  Quite the contrary.  National had promised in its 1949 election campaign to abolish compulsory unionism.  However, both employers and National’s allies atop the Federation of Labour, most particularly Walsh, favoured it.  (It was militants like Jock Barnes who actually opposed compulsory unionism.)  So while attacking compulsory unionism had been a useful reactionary election slogan, National quietly dropped any plans to push through legislation along those lines.  Compulsory unionism, the welfare state and the levels of state spending during the first Labour government were maintained by National.  Indeed, as Bassett noted in 1972, National partly won the 1949 election by picking up a section of working class votes in marginal electorates, such workers understanding that National Party rule would not mean a return to lower living standards.  National had no particular desire to lose such working class votes by a return to Forbes/Coates-like policies.[113]

The long postwar economic boom, plus the wool boom of the early 1950s (linked to the Korean War), meant that New Zealand had the highest living standards in the world in the 1950s, and continued to enjoy high living standards through the 1960s and into the early 1970s.  When the long economic boom ended, Labour was in power and immediately began to attack the working class, even provoking a near-general strike in 1974 (this will be the subject of an upcoming Redline article).  Labour and National, just as with the first governments of each party in the 1935-1951 period, took turns trying to boost capitalist profitability by increasing the rate of exploitation of the working class and breaking progressive trade unionism: Kirk/Rowling, Muldoon, Lange/Douglas, Bolger/Richardson and then the Clark government and now Key/English.


One of the greatest lessons of 1951 is that we need to break this vicious cycle by building a new political movement of, for and by the working class, a movement aimed at getting rid of the whole rotten system of exploitation and replacing it by production for human need and thus the creation of a world of freedom and plenty.

Both New Zealand and the wider world today are quite different from 1951.  The Cold War finished twenty years ago, with the internal collapse of the Soviet bloc and the restoration of capitalism there and in China.  The waterfront industry plays a less critical role in the New Zealand economy and the advent of containerisation and greater mechanisation has massively reduced the number of waterside workers and their socio-economic weight.  The wharfies’ 1951 allies have also seen massive restructuring; the meat works have been decimated, sea-faring has declined and the seafarers and wharfies have had to merge their unions simply to survive, miners and transport workers’ numbers and weight in the economy has also declined.  The traditional blue collar workforce has been partly replaced by new, low-paid, unorganised service workers and by the growth of white-collar state sector jobs.  There is no politically- and industrially-advanced section of workers, as in 1951.  And, although there are a lot more far left groups today than there were in 1951, their total membership is only a fraction of that of the CPNZ in 1951.  Moreover, none of them have any base in the working class.  This is hardly surprising, since union membership itself has also massively declined and even rudimentary class consciousness has largely collapsed.  We are not about to see any repeat of 1951.

The 1951 lockout, however, is not just part of a bygone era; it has important lessons for today.  The first one is the role of the state.  The fundamental role of the state is to ensure stable conditions for the most profitable exploitation of workers and it is therefore an essentially repressive institution (or set of institutions).  In New Zealand, this basic aspect of the state is generally not widely observed,[114] but 1951 indicated just how repressive the bosses and governments are prepared to be and how they use the power of the state to crush opposition where it can’t be deflected or bought off.

The second lesson is the utterly treacherous and anti-working class nature of the Labour Party.  It was the first Labour government, the one we are often told was ‘socialist’, that began the offensive against the watersiders and other democratic and militant unions and workers.  The National Party simply finished off the job.[115]

Thirdly, workers need militant, political, fighting democratic unions – the fact that the NZWWU strove to be that type of union enabled the workers to hold out as long as they did.  And, while the conditions that produced that kind of blue-collar union with that kind of social-economic weight may well not exist in this country today, the basic spirit of the NZWWU remains essential if there is to be any serious defence of workers’ interests, let alone real working class progress.

There are also lessons to be learned on the negative side.  A crucial one is that the workers were severely handicapped because, apart from the tiny Communist Party, they had no political movement of their own.

The NZWWU had remained affiliated to the Labour Party, even as the Labour government carried out assault after assault on the wharfies and other ‘troublesome’ workers and even though wharfie leaders like Jock Barnes genuinely hated, despised and denounced the Labour leaders.  Even after all the wharfies had experienced of the treachery of Labour, going right back to the scrap-iron to Japan issue, Toby Hill could bizarrely declare in the run-up to the 1949 election, “Labour is us and the Labour government with all its imperfections is our Government.”[116]  Of course, it was no such thing; it was a capitalist government, absolutely dedicated to managing an economic system based on the exploitation of workers and to doing whatever was necessary to preserve that system.

Today, few unions remain affiliated to Labour but no alternative, genuine workers party has emerged either.  A political movement of, by and for the working class is essential for workers’ liberation and even for galvanising support around individual struggles.

Perhaps another lesson is that in disputes as critical as 1951, a war of fixed position is not a good idea from the workers’ side.  Throughout the dispute the initiative seems to have remained with the government and the bosses and their allies in the Federation of Labour.  While the overall political conditions were a major factor in this, you can’t win a war through occupying purely defensive positions.  Whether it was physically possible for the wharfies to have occupied and held the wharves and gone onto the offensive is a very moot point – it’s easy to suggest a strategy 60 years later! – but 1951 nevertheless indicates that workers need to go on the offensive to have a real chance of winning.[117]  Baden Norris, for instance, has put forward the view that they should have listened to Australian watersiders’ leader Jim Healy whose position in disputes there had been, “Never get yourselves locked outside of the gates.  You can’t fight from a position of weakness.”[118]

Noel Woods, who was chief research officer at the Labour Department in 1951 and appears to have been broadly sympathetic to the wharfies and their allies – he has certainly noted how the government set up the confrontation with the purpose of smashing the union – has suggested “the outcome of the dispute was a foregone conclusion.  If a union is going to be in confrontation with the government, quite distinct from an employer/employee situation, it has to have at least three main supports.  It has to have public sympathy for its cause; it has to have solid backing from the whole trade union movement; and it has to be able to see, in the last extremity, a successful call for a general strike.”  But, in his view, at the start of 1951 the watersiders “did not have even one of those legs of support.”[119]

The aim for the future, in any case, should not be simply to relate what they did or even to repeat what they did; rather, it should be to stand on their shoulders.

Further reading: Interview with Jock Barnes: part one here, part two, here; see also, Labour: a bosses’ party, here.

For the story of the Auckland Carpenters’ dispute, see here.

[1] As Belich notes, “1913 involved a much higher proportion of the workforce, the strikers had more allies, and the conflict was much more violent and genuinely threatening to the established system”; James Belich, Paradise Reforged: a history of the New Zealanders from the 1880s to the Year 2000, Auckland, Allen Lane/Penguin Press, 2001, p300.

[2] A recent example is the article on the 60th anniversary that appeared in Maritimes, the magazine of the Maritime Union of New Zealand.  MUNZ was formed by the merger of the seafarers and watersiders and recently re-affiliated to Labour.  The article omitted the entire period of utterly vicious Labour attacks on militant unions and workers that preceded, and opened the way for, the 1951 government-employer assault on the wharfies and their allies.  It’s impossible to understand 1951, however, without analysing the role of the first Labour government.

[3] Tom Bramble, “Introduction” in Jock Barnes, Never a White Flag, Wellington, Victoria University Press, 1998, p10.

[4] Sandra Lee in David Grant (ed), The Big Blue: snapshots of the 1951 waterfront lockout, Christchurch, Canterbury University Press, 2004, p128.

[5] Bill Sutch, The Quest for Security in New Zealand 1840-1966, Wellington, Oxford University Press, 1966, p370.

[6] P.N. Pettit, The Wellington Watersiders: the story of their industrial organisation, Wellington, Wellington Branch of the Waterside Workers Union, 1948, p140.

[7] Anna Green, British Capital, Antipodean Labour: working the New Zealand waterfront, 1915-1951, Dunedin, Otago University Press, 2001, pp9-10.

[8] See, for instance, Andrea Gillian Hotere, “The 1951 Waterfront Lockout in Port Chalmers”, University of Otago BA honours dissertation, 1989, p50.  At Port Chalmers, she records, wharfies “performed twenty-five different kinds of waterfront work” (p49).

[9] Bramble, p11.

[10] Green, p11.

[11] See, for instance, the opening chapters of Bert Roth, Wharfie, Auckland: Auckland Branch of the New Zealand Waterfront Workers Union, 1993; an unsigned article in New Zealand Transport Worker, December 11,1936, refers, however, to attempts going back to the late 1870s; see Pettit, p13.

[12] C.J. Meade, “New Zealand Waterfront Unions, 1951-67”, Otago University Political Studies MA thesis, 1980, p96.

[13] Both cited in Hotere, p40.

[14] Green, p27.

[15] Unfortunately, the bureau system did not make much difference in small ports where a ship might arrive only once every few weeks; even then, there wasn’t enough work for all wharfies; see Hotere, p48.

[16] Hotere, pp14-15.  She also notes that the long working hours meant the men got to see their children “for only an hour or so a day if they were working on a ship” (p12).

[17] Public support for the wharfies’ ban forced the government, shipowners and scrap iron merchants to back down; Barnes, p53.

[18] See Murray Horton, “Labour’s introduction of peacetime conscription and the fight against it”,

[19] Quotes from NZWWU circular to branches, June 2, 1950, cited in Hotere, p30.

[20] Barnes, interviewed in Tony Lane, “Watersiders: the conscience of the working class“, Socialist Action Review, vol 3, no. 4, October 2, 1981.

[21] Green, p72.

[22] The driver was Jim Knox who, many years later, became president of the Federation of Labour.  Knox quoted in Roth, p106.

[23] Roth, p109.

[24] Barnes, p14; Green, p74.

[25] The winners of the women’s one got to choose the winners of waterside workers’ glamour boys parade; Green, p73.

[26] Ibid, p57.

[27] Ibid, p53.

[28] Ibid, p56.

[29] For an account of the repressive policies pursued by the first Labour government during World War Two, see Murray Horton, “The secret history of World War 2”:

[30] Barnes, p58.

[31] Ibid, p55.

[32] Ibid, p66.

[33] L.G. Lukey, Industrial conflict in New Zealand, 1951-1961, MA thesis, Canterbury University, 1966, p31.

[34] Ibid, pp43-45.

[35] Barnes, p58.

[36] Ibid, pp67-68.

[37] Ibid, p67.

[38] See, for instance, Phil Briggs, Looking at the Numbers: a view of New Zealand’s economic history, Wellington, NZ Institute of Economic Research, 2003.

[39] Lukey, p61.

[40] L.G. Lukey, “The 1951 Waterfront Crisis”, Historical News 21, August 1970, p4.

[41] Barnes, p81.

[42] Lukey, 1966, p31.

[43] Roth, p101.

[44] Baxter was another ex-communist who had shifted rightwards politically; he held the position of FOL national secretary from 1944-1969.

[45] Roth, p106.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Barnes, pp84-5.

[48] Barnes cited in Roth, p102.

[49] FOL cited in Roth, p102.

[50] For lack of amenities see, for instance, Roth p105.

[51] All figures cited in this paragraph are from H. Roth, Trade Unions in New Zealand past and present, Wellington, A.H and A.W. Reed, 1973, p172, table 5.  In 1932, however, over 108,000 working days were lost, the highest since 1923 and a figure not again matched until 1949.

[52] Lane, op cit.

[53] Lukey, 1966, pp62-3.

[54] Roth, p117.

[55] The story of the Auckland carpenters’ dispute is told in Roy Stanley, Fighting Back, Auckland, Carpenters Union, 1950; Stanley was secretary of the national union.  A film of the same name was made on the dispute by Cecil Holmes.

[56] The information that Fraser considered going after the wharfies at that time is from Belich, p300.  The Fraser and Semple quotes are in Belich, p305.

[57] Michael Bassett, Confrontation ’51: the 1951 waterfront dispute, Wellington, A.H. & A.W. Reed, 1972, p30.

[58] Green, p139.

[59] Ibid, p20; she also notes, “Had the shipping and stevedoring profits been widely known, there might well have been less public sympathy for the employers’ refusal to pass on the full amount of the Arbitration Court general wage increase to the waterside workers in February 1951” (p22).

[60] Roth, p109.

[61] Ibid, p111.

[62] Roth (p112) says, “3000 people filled the Town Hall and Concert Chamber, while (there was also) a large overflow audience. . .”

[63] Baden N. Norris, United to Protect: a history of Lyttelton waterfront labour, Christchurch, 1980, p138.

[64] Dick Scott, 151 Days: the great waterfront lockout and supporting strikes, February 15 – July 15, 1951, 50th anniversary facsimile edition, Auckland, Reed Books in association with Southern Cross Books, 2001 (first published 1952, by deregistered New Zealand Waterside Workers Union), p17.  The satchel-snatching reference relates to National Film Unit documentary-maker Cecil Homes having his snatchel nicked from his car outside parliament in November 1948.  The official NZ History site says the satchel, which contained Holmes’ CP membership card and correspondence with PSA leader Jack Lewin about an upcoming Public Service Association stopwork – the PSA was “pursuing pay demands with increasing militancy” – was grabbed “apparently by a member of the prime minister’s staff”.  It was then handed over to Walsh and, later, to Walter Nash who released the contents to the press, thereby smearing both the PSA and Lewin as some sort of dupes of communism.  Holmes lost his job and, although winning reinstatement, migrated to Australia and never returned to New Zealand.  (The information in this footnote comes from:

[65] Belich, p305.  Belich’s comments are quite insightful – and interesting because he certainly isn’t a supporter of Jock Barnes and the most advanced sections of workers.

[66] Scott, p17.

[67] Roth, p115.

[68] “Conflict over a special rate for lampblack,” Green records, “began in Lyttelton with a dispute involving the Korowai in 1946, and in February 1950 on the Levernbank” (Green, p141).

[69] Scott, p27.

[70] Roth, pp117-8.  McLagan jeered that Sullivan’s shoes were smoking hot from running away from confrontation with the wharfies.

[71] Transport Worker article, cited in Scott, p29.

[72] Scott, p30.

[73] The government quote is taken from Roth, p117.

[74] Green, p144.

[75] Green quotes several employers’ representatives, ibid.

[76] Roth, p114.

[77] Ibid.

[78] Ibid.

[79] Barnes, cited in ibid.

[80] Sandra Lee in Grant (ed), p126.

[81] Scott, p57.

[82] Holyoake in New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, August 18, 1960, p1634; cited in Michael Bassett, Confrontation ’51: the 1951 waterfront dispute, Wellington, A.H. & A.W. Reed, 1972, p127.

[83] Ibid, pp126-7.

[84] Belich, p299.

[85] Conrad Bollinger, Against the Wind: the story of the New Zealand Seamen’s Union, Wellington, New Zealand Seamen’s Union, 1968, p221.  It should also be noted, however, that many small farmers provided assistance, especially food, to the wharfies and their allies.

[86] Ibid, p224.

[87] Ibid, p222.

[88] ‘Division and defeat – 1951 waterfront dispute’, URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 15-Nov-2007.

[89] John Marshall, Memoirs, volume one: 1912 to 1960, Auckland, Collins, 1983, p173.  Chapter 12, “The Wreckers Wrecked” (pp166-178) deals with the events of 1951.

[90] In Port Chalmers, for instance, the home of Ray Percy was visited up to six times a day by Dunedin Criminal Investigation Bureau cops; they even tried to get information out of his children when he wasn’t present; see Hotere, p103.

[91] National cabinet minister and Barnes quoted in Lane, op cit.

[92] In Port Chalmers the wharfies were offered the use of the hall of the Returned Services Association, an organisation not usually known for progressive sympathies; however in smaller ports local RSA branches often had a more working class complexion; see, Hotere, p66.

[93] Barnes, pp203-4.

[94] Barnes interview, Lane op cit.

[95] Sonja Davies, Bread and Roses, Auckland, David Bateman in Association with Fraser Books, 1993, p82.

[96] Birchfield cited from ‘War on the wharves – 1951 waterfront dispute’, URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 20-Nov-2007

[97] Hotere, pp96-7.

[98] Ibid, p101.

[99] Ibid, p69.

[100] Quoted in Otago Daily Times, May 23, 1951, cited by Hotere, p74.

[101] Sandra Lee in Grant (ed), p127.  Lee’s brother, father and grandfather were all locked out in 1951.

[102] Norris, pp149-50.

[103] Ibid, p150. Norris also records, like Hotere, that during the dispute a number of wharfies’ wives got jobs and this had an important impact on social life in the port.

[104] Hotere, p1.

[105] Barnes, p202.

[106] Ibid, p203.

[107] Lukey, 1966, p74.

[108] In the early 1950s a South Island Waterside Workers Federation emerged, largely at the initiative of Lyttelton, supported by Oamaru, Timaru, Greymouth, Westport, Nelson and Picton.  By 1953 all the South Island port unions were involved.  A similar federation emerged in the North Island and in 1964 Lyttelton, followed by Port Chalmers in 1965, joined the NIWWF.

[109] Lukey, 1966, pp88-89.

[110] Roth, Trade Unions. . ., p172, table 5.

[111] Bramble, p16.

[112] Lukey, “Waterfront Crisis”, p7.

[113] Bassett, p37.  Bassett was a left-wing academic at the time and subsequently a Labour MP.  By the time of the fourth Labour government he was still a social liberal but held hard new-right economic views, supporting Roger Douglas and, later, ACT.

[114] The exception would be habitual police treatment of individuals who are young, working class and brown in areas like Porirua and parts of south Auckland.  Otherwise the state’s repressive functions tend to be on display only a few times a century – 1913 and 1951 (massive industrial disputes), 1978 (Bastion Point), 1981 (Springbok tour), the 2007 ‘anti-terrorist’ raids.

[115] Moreover, this was no one-off situation; similar was to happen a couple of decades later.  The 1972-75 Labour government began the next round of serious assaults on the unions and workers, giving employers the power to take out injunctions and even imprisoning Northern Drivers’ Union leader Bill Andersen; the following National government continued the anti-union assault.  The 1984-1990 Labour government then launched the biggest attack on workers since the Depression and their set of policies were taken up and followed in the first term of the next National government (1990-93).

[116] Hill in the union paper, Transport Worker, November 11, 1949; cited in Bassett, p32.

[117] It’s interesting here to consider one of Ken Loach’s early works, The Big Flame.  This was a 1969 TV play in which wharfies in Liverpool, who know there’s little chance of winning their wildcat strike, decide that if they are going to be defeated it may as well be for something big that will leave a mark.  They therefore decide to occupy the wharves and run them until state forces break up the occupation.  As the veteran who suggested the occupation put it, “There’ll be no revolution, but you’ll have lit a bonfire”.

[118] Healy quoted in Norris, p157.

[119] Woods in Grant (ed), p20.


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