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1951 Waterfront Dispute

Discover the reasons behind and controversial response to the 1951 Waterfront strikes, Aotearoa New Zealand's largest industrial action.
Black and white photograph of protestors in hats and long coats and holding placards are pushed back by helmeted police at a city intersection.
© Te Papa. All rights Reserved

World War periods

The union movement began to be revitalised after WWI, though there were divides between more radical and moderate members. Through the great depression of the early 1930s, unemployment soared and unions lost members and influence.

They rebounded under a 1935 Labour government where the Federation of Labour (FoL, the latest iteration of the Red Feds) negotiated with government for universal wage increase, and a basic living wage for all. This government introduced compulsory unionism, swelling the FoL ranks, and the close relationship between the two powers led to Aotearoa New Zealand introducing the world’s first non-income-tested universal pension, and holiday pay for all workers.

After WWII, increasing tensions between workers and employers ramped up again, and the unions again faced division between the more moderate Labour party aligned unions and the more militant ones, with the latter often having a few members aligned with NZ Communist Party values. Eventually, this led to a break, with the more militant unions leaving the FoL to form the Trade Union Congress, firmly opposed to the arbitration system.

1951

The Trade Union Congress was led by one of the most militant unions – that of the ‘wharfies’, the watersiders. The country depended on the export and trade centred around the docks and after the austerity of WWII began to fade, the working class began to push again for better pay and conditions. In 1949, the Labour government was ousted by Sidney Holland’s National Party, who promised to disempower the militant unions.

The industrial action that kicked off in 1951 was both the longest, and the largest, in Aotearoa New Zealand’s history. Rhetoric on both sides was highly politicised. As New Zealand History puts it, ‘the dispute took place in a climate of Cold War suspicion. The opposing sides denounced each other as Nazis, Commies, traitors and terrorists’.

Stoppage

In 1951, the Arbitration Court granted a 15% pay rise to all workers within the arbitration system. This did not apply to the Waterside Union workers, who had previously negotiated a 6% raise. The shipowners refused to extend the 15% increase to the wharfies, only offering them the 9% difference. The wharfies refused, and resolved to cease working overtime until they received the same pay rise as the other unions.

The ensuing clash was marked by a significant disconnect between the parties about the nature of the dispute. The employers classed the refusal to work overtime as an illegal strike and ordered them to work the overtime, or cease employment. To the workers, this amounted to an industrial lockout by their employers. Either way, work at the wharves again came to a grinding halt.

State of Emergency

The government declared a state of emergency in February, citing the economic impact on the export trade. Prime Minister Holland announced that the watersiders had ‘declared war on the people’, and sent in troops to take over the dock workers’ labour. Emergency regulations were rolled out that gave the government power to seize union funds, prohibited strike meetings and the distribution of any union publications, and banned any media outlets from speaking favourably of the strikers, or sharing their perspective. Police were empowered to enter premises and arrest without warrants. Jury trials were cut, and presumption of innocence was reversed. The CIA even became involved, covertly flying cargo between the North and South Islands to help break the dispute.

People were banned from giving any material support to the wharfies and their families while they were unemployed – including helping to feed their children. As one striker, Baden Norris, remembers in an RNZ article:

“It was illegal, for instance, for a mother to feed her [striking] son. One would think that would be impossible but it wasn’t. The law stated that you weren’t allowed to… I always feel sad that my dear old mother would have to sneak up from the depot in a big overcoat so that nobody could see what she was carrying – that really saddened me – tough times.”
Strikers children at Clifton Terrace School in Wellington were separated from other children at morning tea and lunchtime in case they shared their school lunches, an illegal act under the emergency regulations that could see the principal arrested. Almost as unprecedented was the suppression of free speech enacted by the Prime Minister.
”Just as it became a crime to give a wharfie’s child a biscuit, so it was a crime to hand anyone a leaflet “likely to encourage” the workers.”
Rona Bailey, for Salient, 1971
That is not to say that such publications weren’t produced and disseminated, as seen below, and as we will learn more about in the next step.

Solidarity

Despite the emergency regulation however, the wharfies and their families were supported by a nationwide relief network. The 8,000 wharfies and 4,000 miners and other labourers who striked with them organised vast distribution networks for food and coal for heating. The network extended beyond just fellow strikers, to a wider net of solidarity. Baden Norris describes such an example:
”One man, I never knew who he was, came up to shake my hand in London Street in Lyttelton and when I opened my hand there was a ten shilling note he had pressed into it. He took off into the crowd without me even [able] to thank him.”
As Connie Birchfield recalled:
”Somebody produced a slaughtered sheep to share. I got the impression it was stolen but now I know there were friendly farmers who donated sheep, and market gardeners who gave vegetables, and tradespeople who provided other goods and services for nothing.”
Labour MP Mabel Howard called the dispute ‘a war on women’, for the impact it had on strikers’ wives and their families. Many women entered the workforce for the first time to support their families and the wider effort, walked at the head of marches to signify their peacefulness, and organised the Auckland Women’s Auxiliary to help coordinate the relief network. Still, facing uncertain food supplies, many of the strikers were forced to break ranks and return to work as ‘scabs’.
At the height of the dispute, 22,000 workers were involved in the strike, which lasted for a total of 151 days.

Conflict

Though not as violent as the 1913 strike had been, there were several serious events and clashes throughout the strike. Explosives were set off on a railway bridge, likely by striking coal miners, in what PM Holland called ‘an infamous act of terrorism’. A 1,000-person march in Auckland’s Queen Street was met by police batons in an event dubbed ‘Bloody Friday’ in which many marchers were injured.

Defeat

Despite its size, the strike only accounted for less than 10% of Aotearoa New Zealand’s unionised workforce. Sid Holland’s government resolved not only to deny the watersiders’ demands, but to crush the Waterfront Workers’ Union entirely. Eventually, new unions of strike breakers were set up, and negotiation between the government/employers and the strikers broke down. According to NZ History, ‘[a]ttempts at mediation were undermined by the ideologies, intransigence and egos of those involved.’
The strikers eventually conceded defeat after five months and many (including the protest leaders) found themselves banned from working the docks for years. Many retained a sense of grievance for the way they had been treated by the government. As Baden Norris recalls,
“A lot of men thought that they’ve done their duty but they were branded by the Government as enemies of the state. That’s what saddened me mainly. Certainly, a lot of the ex-servicemen never got over that.”

Strikers took comfort in their solidarity to the cause though and it was remembered by many with pride, as illustrated by the loyalty cards issued to those who remained true to the cause for the entire five-month dispute.

A wallet sized card, printed in green and red ink. I reads: New Zealand Waterside Workers' Union waterfront Lockout '51. Stood Loyal righ Through. one hundred and fifty one days' February 15 to July 15 1951. It is signed by Union leaders. New Zealand Waterside Workers’ Union :Waterfront Lockout ‘51. Napier Branch. [H F Hewett] stood loyal right through, one hundred and fifty-one days – February 15 to July 15, 1951. [Signed by W? Barnes, National President; Toby Hill, National Secretary, and J Black, Napier Secretary]. Ref: Eph-A-LABOUR-1951-01. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22355492.

Further resources

‘A Century of Struggle’, full length documentary of Seamen’s Union strikes in NZ

History of Unions and employee organisations in NZ

RNZ Article, War on the Waterfront

The 1951 waterfront dispute. New Zealand History

The 1951 waterfront dispute, Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand

The 1951 Waterfront Dispute: 151 days that shook New Zealand

Video series – Basil Frost remembers the 1951 waterfront Strike

Waterfront Strike Chronology of Events, Press Newspaper, 20 July1951

‘Axe to the head helps humanity shine through in bitter dispute’, Stuff article.

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