1951 New Zealand waterfront dispute

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The 1951 New Zealand waterfront dispute was the largest and most widespread industrial dispute in New Zealand history. During the time, up to twenty thousand workers went on strike in support of waterfront workers protesting financial hardships and poor working conditions. Thousands more refused to handle "scab" goods. The dispute, sometimes referred to as the waterfront lockout or waterfront strike, lasted 151 days—from 13 February[1] to 15 July 1951.


The distance of New Zealand and Australia from their traditional markets, meant that ports played a pivotal role in the economies of the countries. The waterfront inevitably became point of conflict between workers and their unions on one side, and the employers and the state on the other.

During the Second World War due to labour shortages, watersiders and other workers worked long hours, often as much as 15-hour days. Following the war, on the wharves working hours continued to be high. In January 1951 the Arbitration Court awarded a 15% wage increase to all workers covered by the industrial arbitration system. This did not apply to waterside workers, whose employment was controlled by the Waterfront Industry Commission.[2] The shipping companies that employed the watersiders instead offered 9%. The watersiders then refused to work overtime in protest, and the employers locked them out.

The attitude of the watersiders puzzled many rural New Zealanders. The 40-hour-week legislation had been introduced supposedly to "protect" factory workers who had chosen to work long hours all year round. But New Zealand also had an agricultural economy, requiring all farm-workers – shepherds, shearers, hay-makers, truck-drivers, freezing-workers, fruit pickers – to work longer hours in summer, with much more free time in winter. In addition, watersiders and freezing workers were already earning incomes approximately 30% higher than most workers, receiving about 10 shillings an hour. In comparison, schoolteachers and truck drivers were getting about 7/-, female chefs 5/- and nuns teaching in Catholic schools 1/6 an hour. Wool prices tripled in 1951 and farmers who had been struggling to survive on small sheep farms, getting low wool prices for 22 years, were starting to pay off their debts. They felt that the watersiders were trying to blackmail them by refusing to work according to the agricultural work cycle.

The watersiders’ union had strong leadership. President Jock Barnes and secretary Toby Hill spearheaded trade unionism in New Zealand, by starting the Trade Union Congress in a breakaway from the Federation of Labour (which was allied to the Labour Party).

The lockout[edit]

The lockout was a major political issue of the time. The National government, led by Sidney Holland and the Minister of Labour Bill Sullivan, introduced Emergency Regulations, and brought in the navy and army to work the wharves. Holland condemned the action as "industrial anarchy", and explicitly sought a mandate to deal with the lockout in the 1951 elections. The government was re-elected with an increased majority. The opposition Labour Party, led by Walter Nash, attempted to take a moderate position in the dispute, with Nash saying that "we are not for the waterside workers, and we are not against them". Labour's neutral position merely ended up displeasing both sides, however, and Nash was widely accused of indecision and lack of courage.

The families of both Keith Locke and Mark Blumsky were under surveillance at the time. [3]

The lockout has been described as "a key element in the mythologies of the industrial left in this country".[4]


  1. ^ "War on the wharves – 1951 waterfront dispute". New Zealand History Online. Retrieved 30 October 2009. The Waterside Workers’ Union protested by refusing to work overtime from 13 February. The shipping companies in turn refused to hire them unless they agreed to work extra hours. When no agreement could be reached, union members were locked out. 
  2. ^ "War on the wharves – 1951 waterfront dispute | NZHistory.net.nz, New Zealand history online". Archived from the original on 2009-06-06. Retrieved 2009-06-02. 
  3. ^ "Secret strike files opened". Stuff/Fairfax. 27 March 2008. 
  4. ^ "Never a White Flag: The Memoirs of Jock Barnes (review)". Kōtare 1998, Vol.1 , No. 1. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Dick Scott 151 Days New Zealand Waterside Workers Union.
  • Jock Barnes (edited by Tom Bramble) Never a White Flag Victoria University Press.

External links[edit]