Many people are aware of the 1951 waterfront lockout, when the National Party government of Sid Holland brought in draconian legislation and imposed six months of strong-arm state tactics to defeat the wharfies and their allies who comprised the vanguard of the organised labour movement and wider woring class. Much less well-known, however – even though it was very much one of the precursors of 1951 – is the 1949 Auckland carpenters’ dispute in which the union was deregistered by the first Labour government as part of its sustained assault on the most progressive sections of the union movement.
The following article is based on Roy Stanley’s 1950 pamphlet Fighting Back: the true story of the 1949 Carpenters Dispute. Stanley was the national secretary of the Carpenters Union and, like a section of carpenters at the time, was a member of the Communist Party. His consistently principled lead contrasts sharply with less committed and principled union officials. As well as being an attack on worker militancy, the Labour and bosses’ attack on the carpenters was an attempt to crush and sideline the CPNZ in the context of the developing Cold War. Labour’s position has always depended on attempting to destroy forces to its left.
Issues for carpenters
Ironically, Labour and the bosses’ assault on the Auckland carpenters came not in a period of recession and austerity, but at the start of the long postwar economic boom. However, as noted above, it was also the start of the Cold War, and Labour was utterly committed to the pursuit of that war.
The assault initially took the form of an attempted cut to the take-home pay of carpenters, done through rulings by the Arbitration Court.
After the war, working carpenters in the outer suburbs of the country’s largest city had won pay for travelling time, an important achievement as building workers often had to travel long distances to work wherever their employer wanted them to be. The employers, however, managed to get travelling time pay removed in December 1948 via the Arbitration Court.
The second issue for the carpenters was that inflation had eaten away at the margins for skilled workers, reducing them from 26% to just 4%. While the Arbitration Court was legally bound to restore the margins, it decided to refuse to do so.
As Roy Stanley put it, “In the view of the workers, the class-Court had refused to administer its own law, when the law favoured them.” The Court, he noted, was loaded against workers because, of its three judges, one was a representative of the bosses and another was “the representative of the employer-controlled state”.
This set-up was supported by the Federation of Labour (FOL) leadership which argued, “such unions as choose to be registered under the IC&A Act must loyally support that system and abide by the decisions of the Court, as they require the employers to abide by them.”(1)
In fact, the bulk of the employers in the Auckland building industry agreed to maintain payments for travel time; it was about 30 key bosses (out of 900 employers in the industry in Auckland) who refused. These were typically big firms.
The Carpenters Union’s leadership spent several months exhausting means for a resolution of the issue short of strike action, while the clamour of the rank-and-file grew. After initially making the usual ritual – and empty – sympathetic noises to unionists, Labour’s minister of labour, Angus McLagan, declared there could be no appeal against an award and that the carpenters’ assurances they would accept the result of an appeal could not be believed!
From go-slow to lockout
On February 11, 1949 a mass meeting of 1,700 carpenters took place in the Auckland town hall. It was the union’s biggest-ever meeting and voted overwhelmingly – there were only 29 dissenting votes – to take action, in the form of go-slows, against the employers who cut travelling time pay or did not pay the four shillings (40c) an hour which the workers claimed under the Stabilisation Regulations. In 1948 an earlier go-slow had achieved improvements in carpenters’ pay, but in 1949 the bosses responded differently.
The affected employers imposed a general lockout of carpenters in Auckland. They were backed in this by other big employers and by the Labour government. Small builders, dependent on supplies of materials, were coerced by the larger building firms to join the lockout. Although only 500 carpenters had been on the go-slow, 1,500 were locked out. The FOL central leadership, which was tightly linked to the Labour Party central leadership, not surprisingly did not protest.
Labour backs the bosses
Locked-out workers were denied social security, as the Labour government swung clearly in behind the most bullish of the employers. However, these employers had a problem. The opening of the postwar boom period meant that there was lots of work, indeed a labour shortage. Locked-out carpenters therefore tended to find alternative work while the dispute continued. So the master builders called on for capitalist class solidarity and prevailed upon the Chamber of Commerce, the Employers Association and the Manufacturers Association to join in, along with the government, to deny the men work and dole alike.
How much Labour was already helping out the bosses can be seen from the declaration of an official of the building employees group that “Government. . . representatives including the Prime Minister himself have warmly applauded the builders’ stand.”
On February 17, the national council of the FOL voted unanimously to support the carpenters. It was clear, however, that the FOL’s key figure, Fintan Patrick Walsh, and his cronies on the executive, were actually hostile to the carpenters. On the other hand, the locked-out workers received support from the wharfies, drivers, railway workers and other militant sections of the class. These workers took on the task of breaking the employers’ lockout and blacklist. For instance, Auckland drivers and wharfies voted to ‘black’ any employers who blacklisted carpenters.
Worker solidarity versus Labour and the bosses
When faced with this powerful display of working class solidarity, most employers buckled. Although the big employers’ groups managed to bring these employers back into line, the staunchness of the combined workers did come very close to breaking the bosses’ offensive around blacklisting. What really saved the big employers was the Labour government stepping in actively against the carpenters. McLagan publicly attacked the workers’ boycott – needless to say, he hadn’t attacked the bosses’ lockout and blacklist – and the FOL exec demanded the carpenters hand the dispute over to them. Then the workers engaging in boycott were threatened with lockout.
In his pamphlet, Stanley noted how events showed the close collaboration between the bosses, the Walsh gang atop the FOL, and the Labour politicians. Each of these three groups reinforced each other’s actions, in what certainly had all the appearance of a co-ordinated set of actions against the workers.
Labour deregisters the Auckland Carpenters Union, backs scab union
Despite a huge media campaign against them, the Auckland carpenters voted by more than two-to-one to reject the FOL ultimatum. The minister of labour responded six days later by invoking legislation Labour had brought in ten years earlier, and deregistered the section of the national Carpenters Union within a 56-mile radius of Auckland; this covered about 2,600 union members.
A union meeting several days later voted overwhelmingly to carry on the struggle.
The same day, the bosses established a scab union, the scab meeting only attracting a third of the numbers of the meeting organised by the deregistered union. The scab union was provided with money from the bosses for an office, several officials, a typist, a car and trips to Wellington.
The scab union agreed, of course, to give up the claims around wage rates and pay for travelling time. And, of course, the Labour government recognised the scab union. The media ran nonsense stories about mass support for the scab union. Most carpenters stayed staunch and building work in Auckland came close to a standstill.
In mid-May Walsh and his clique went on the offensive at the FOL’s annual conference. They claimed the carpenters’ dispute was a communist plot linked with Moscow. McLagan, joined in the red-baiting and witch-hunting. According to him, the carpenters’ dispute was “a political strike organised and controlled by Communist leaders whose real purpose is to create industrial anarchy” (McLagan, cited in the New Zealand Herald, May 13, 1949).
Labour prime minister Peter Fraser attacked the carpenters in similar terms, declaring “The carpenters’ dispute is a true example of how Communists work,” he claimed (Fraser, cited in Auckland Star, May 19, 1949). Whatever about communists, the dispute certainly showed how the Labour government worked – line up with employers, deregister a militant union and support a scab union in its place.
Indeed, McLagan and Fraser had been given unlimited speaking time at the FOL conference to denounce the carpenters’ action and smear them as a “communist plot”. Buttressed by media support for them, the employers and the government, the right wing elements around Walsh won the battle at the FOL conference, just as they would later against the wharfies.
After 14 weeks out, the carpenters voted to go back to work.
Labour forces carpenters to join the scab union
Once back they faced further hassles from the bosses and the Labour government. For instance, cops would regularly show up on site when officials from the deregistered union appeared. Media campaigns continued to smear the union and encourage membership of the scab outfit. The union, however, managed to hold together, while the scab outfit basically collapsed – two months after its founding, its membership was in single digits – and the original demands were actually granted on job sites.
Labour, however, had no intention of letting the workers win. The Labour government brought forward new legislation, this time actually forcing carpenters to join the scab union if they wanted to work in Auckland. No wonder Stanley indicated that one of the key lessons in relation to this legislation was that “it showed without possibility of doubt the determination of the Labour government to build up a scab union.” Elsewhere Stanley records that “11 state agencies were mobilised by the Labour government against Auckland carpenters.”
The constitution of the scab union had given all power to its executive. Although this would make it very hard to capture, the members of the deregistered union voted to join it and try to transform it. Over time, the more progressive elements did regain the initiative in the union, and it would take progressive stands on political issues in the late 1960s and early 1970s such as against the Vietnam War.
Labour dependent on defeats of the working class
However, the workers had taken a severe hammer blow; right on the cusp of victory, the Labour government had stepped in to assure they were defeated. Moreover, this was no aberration. Labour had come into power in 1935 largely through the votes of workers, however it was already committed completely to managing capitalism better than the capitalists’ existing parties – Reform and United. Labour had been built after 1916 out of the defeat of the more radical labour movement forces in 1913 and it continued to depend on the defeat of working class forces to its left in the 1920s.
In the 1930s it set up its own tame unemployed movement to cut off the impact of the more radical unemployed workers movement. And, in power, it soon revealed its desire to lower workers’ expectations and subject them to state control in the interests of capital. Laws restricting workers’ rights were passed and implemented during the war and maintained after the war. (See, for instance, The secret history of WW2 in New Zealand and Behind the 1951 waterfront lockout for extended treatments of this subject.)
After the war, the Labour government was worried that the combination of eocnomic expansion and labour shortages might tip the balance of industrial relations in workers’ favour and began an increasingly full-on assault of the advanced sections of the labour movement and wider working class and progressive forces, culminating in its deregistration of the Auckland Carpenters Union and its introduction of peacetime conscription, both in 1949.
Labour began the offensive that was completed by the first National Party government and its defeat of the wharfies and their allies in 1951, a defeat it took the rest of the 1950s and most of the 1960s to recover from. Part of the division of labour between the National and Labour parties is that Labour softens up, batters and demoralises workers and National completes the job.
The political lessons from the Auckland carpenters’ dispute are that the machinery of state is ultimately there to protect the interests of capital at the expense of workers and that the Labour Party is there to wield that machinery against the working class whenever workers attempt to take on the bosses and make any serious gains.
From those lessons flow several practical conclusions. One is that the union movement and the working class need to be organisationally and politically independent – totally independent – from the apparatuses of the state and the Labour Party alike. In the case of Labour, no union should be affiliated to this scabrous anti-working class outfit and no worker and no union should hand over a penny to them. (See also The Truth about Labour: a bosses party.)
Workers need a movement which is beholden to no-one and has no interests other than our own. A political and an industrial movement of, for and by workers.
1. The Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act had been brought in by the Liberals in the 1890s and henceforth acted as “labour’s legal leg-iron” as the militant workers movement of the early 1900s put it.