New Zealand waterfront workers strike for better wages and shorter hours, 1951

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Timing
Time Period:  
February 15,
1951
to
July 15,
1951
Location and Goals
Country: 
New Zealand
Location Description: 
The harbors of New Zealand
Goals: 
An at least 15% wage increase, and the end to overtime work.
 

Between February and July of 1951, up to 22,000 waterfront workers (wharfies) in New Zealand struck for better pay and shorter workings hours.

During World War II, the New Zealand government played a much larger role in peoples’ lives than it ever had before. It lengthened workers’ hours to supplement the war effort, and New Zealanders generally accepted these changes as necessary for the war effort. While a court ruling in 1951 rolled back these changes for some workers, the ruling did not include wharfies. After the end of the war, the government also increasingly branded the labor movement as communist in a series of high profile incidents, leading to increased tension between the two sides. In 1949, the more conservative National Party gained power, and promised to confront organized labor. The following year, the militant Waterside Workers’ Union, plus other hard-line unions, split off from the Federation of Labor, which was allied with the Labour Party, to form the Trade Union Congress, led by the fiery Jock Barnes. Barnes’ militant unionism let the government brand him a communist and marginalize the Trade Union Congress from the rest of the organized labor movement.

The dispute between the government and the workers came to a head on February 15, 1951, when, after weeks of negotiations for a salary raise (due to the rising cost of living), dock employers locked out their workers. In response, the locked out workers began to strike. Six days later, Prime Minister Sidney Holland declared a state of emergency, and expanded the police’s ability to crack down on the strike. The military started performing the wharfies’ work on the 27th. The government suspended freedom of speech, association, and press. To get around government repression, workers used a hidden radio transmitter to transmit pro-strike messages, and circulated banned pamphlets. Workers also held protest meetings and, later in the campaign, conducted public demonstrations in protest of the government’s actions. Holland’s government also outlawed any forms of assistance to the striking workers. Despite the ban, workers received significant aid from sympathetic supporters. In solidarity with their fellow workers, several different types of industrial workers also went on strike, meaning that more than 20,000 workers were striking in a country of only 2 million people.

Despite the support for the strikers, there was also significant opposition to the strike. Only 8% of unionized workers went on strike, and the Federation of Labor called on the wharfies to dismiss their “Communist-dominated misleaders”. The differing ideologies and significant egos of leaders within unions prevented a united labor policy. The government decided it had the chance to completely crush the strike, and refused to offer compromises.

The situation became increasingly tense as the strike progressed. On April 30, striking coal miners likely bore the responsibility for a bridge demolition. No one was hurt. Coal companies had used the bridge for transporting coal, and as a result, the supply of coal to the rest of New Zealand was severely disrupted. In response, the government used the Navy to ship coal from remote parts of New Zealand to centers of commerce.

Police frequently attacked pro-strike protesters, and brutally repressed any type of demonstration either against the government or in support of the wharfies. In one incident on June 1, police attacked a march of 1,000 protesters in Auckland, seriously injuring around 20.

By late May, strike-breaking wharfies had created their own union and filled the jobs the striking wharfies had vacated three months before. After this, little hope remained, and the striking wharfies finally capitulated on July 15, but waterfront employers blacklisted many of them, preventing them from returning to work. Jock Barnes received a two-month jail sentence for defaming a police constable.

The strike became a deeply divisive issue in the labor history of New Zealand. Even its categorization is contentious. The government insists it was an illegal strike, while workers say their employers locked them out. The defeat of militant unionism by the government meant that the more moderate Federation of Labor gained power within the union movement, and the Waterside Workers’ Union and the Trade Union Congress were marginalized.

Research Notes
Influences: 

The protests influenced organized labor for many years in the future, and the 1981 protests against the Springbok rugby tour were influenced by this campaign (see "New Zealand Anti-Springbok Rugby Tour Protests, 1981") (2).

Sources: 
"The 1951 Waterfront Dispute." New Zealand History Online. 31 Mar. 2011. Web. <http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/politics/the-1951-waterfront-dispute/division-and-defeat>.

"The 1951 Waterfront Dispute." Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand. The New Zealand Government, 13 May 2010. Web. <http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/strikes-and-labour-disputes/7>.

"Confrontation on the Waterfront." The Evening Post [Wellington] 16 Feb. 2001: 4. Lexis Nexis. Web.

"Desperate Days on Waterfront." The Evening Post [Wellington] 16 July 2001: 7. Lexis Nexis. Web.

Shaw, Bob. "A Watersider's View of the '51 Strike." The Evening Post [Wellington] 31 Jan. 2000. Lexis Nexis. Web.

"Waterfront Dispute Echoes down the Years." The Evening Post [Wellington] 12 Aug. 1998. Lexis Nexis. Web.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Danny Hirschel-Burns, 19/04/2011