Sixty years ago, on 14th February 1951, the New Zealand Waterside Workers Union implemented an overtime ban in support of their wage claim against the cartel of British shipping companies who controlled the most of New Zealand's wharves.
An overtime ban was considered the most appropriate form of industrial action because, although in theory the basic working week was forty hours, in practice the men typically worked sixty to eighty hours a week just to earn a living wage. The shipping companies immediately responded by putting all the men on a two-day penalty for collectively refusing overtime. They were arguably entitled to do under the government regulations at the time. On 19th February, the shipping companies went further: they posted notices insisting that each individual worker agree in advance to accept whatever hours of work were offered for a day, in advance of the worker being engaged for the day. As overtime was not usually announced until several hours into the working day, this meant workers would have to accept in advance to work for a day whose hours were not known. This explicitly contravened the same government regulations. The workers refused to comply with this new unilaterally-declared condition and rightly considered themselves to have been locked out. That is why this article is about the waterside lockout, not the waterside strike.
Work on the wharves was brought to a standstill. The press and the National government fully backed the shipping companies. They argued that the wharfies were depriving the New Zealand people of the "necessities of life". This claim was so manifestly untrue that it was later watered down to "causing great inconvenience". Either way, it was a fallacy. If the watersiders had been allowed to work a forty-hour week with an overtime ban, priority could easily have been given to unloading any imports that might be considered to be of the greatest social or economic importance. The government used this alleged emergency to justify the introduction, on 22nd February, of the Waterfront Strike Emergency Regulations. The regulations defined the lockout as a strike. They amounted to a draconian set of measures for dealing with an industrial dispute and a drastic curtailment of civil liberties. It became an offence to publish anything likely to encourage a strike or report of any such statement made by any other person. Any member of the Police Force of the rank of sergeant or above could ban any procession or meeting he considered likely to be "injurious to the public safety or to the public interest". Any member of the Police Force of the rank of sergeant or above could search any premises where "in his opinion an offence against these regulations has been, is being or is about to be committed". It was even made illegal to provide food or funds to feed the locked-out watersiders and their families.
To understand how a wage dispute between a group of workers and their employers almost immediately invoked such oppression on the part of the state, it is necessary to take a step back and review some trends in the history of industrial relations on the New Zealand waterfront up to that time. Since the late 19th century, the New Zealand economy had been largely dependent on the export of wool, meat and dairy products to Britain and, in exchange, the import from the same country of fertilisers, machinery and most manufactured goods. Yet a vital piece of infrastructure required to enable this trade was from 1873 controlled by a private cartel: the three (four from 1933) British shipping lines that formed the New Zealand Shipping Conference. The shipping companies argued that the cartel's co-ordination of sailing timetables was of public benefit. But the main purpose was to fix freight charges. At one stage there was talk in New Zealand of giving the business to Scandinavian shipping lines. But so keen were the New Zealand government and exporters to avoid any disruption to trade that they were effectively passive takers of whatever price the cartel set. So shipping company profits were consistently high, though of course the shipping companies refused to open their books to show their true costs when negotiating the freight charges with New Zealand officials. Amongst those costs was the wharf infrastructure in New Zealand, which the British shipping lines were largely responsible for financing. But the freight charges were based on cost plus: the longer it took to unload and load a ship, the more the shipping companies charged. So there was no incentive to improve efficiency by investing in wharf facilities.
As a result, the shipping companies relied on heavy and dangerous manual work by the wharfies rather than on advanced machinery to get the job done. Instead of using gantry cranes, goods often had to be carted from ships to the railhead on large man-drawn carts. Conditions in the ships' holds were particularly hazardous. Men were injured and killed when goods fell out of the slings that were used to hoist goods out of the holds. And there was little protection from the toxic dust of products such as lime and the fertilisers guano and basic slag (a by-product of steel-making, high in phosphates), all of which the wharfies were expected to shovel by hand in the holds. Work in meat freezer holds could lead to kidney failure. Wharfies were not issued with protective clothing to work in the freezers, apart from sacking to wrap around their feet, mainly to protect the carcasses they were standing on, and a brief experiment with jerseys. Clearly, health and safety on the wharves was appalling. Exactly how bad it was is impossible to say because no accident statistics were compiled for the wharves till 1937. Even after that, the national statistics compiled by the Marine Department were clearly below reality: they were less for several years than the figures compiled separately only for Auckland by the Shipping and Stevedores Association! At any rate, such was the importance of the wharves for the New Zealand economy that the government tolerated health and safety standards on the wharves that fell well short of those applied to factories. Despite the fact that New Zealand industrial relations were highly regulated, there was evidently not the political will to improve matters.
In addition to the heavy work and dangerous conditions, until 1937 there was no job security. Men were expected to present themselves for work each morning with no guarantee of employment for a working day which could vary from a minimum of two hours to twelve or more. Consequently, trade union militants were easy to victimise. And men often had to bribe the foremen to secure employment.
With little political support until the election of the first Labour government in late 1935, it was up to the wharfies themselves to fight to improve their working terms and conditions. Due to the casual nature of the work, worker resistance usually took the form of informal on-the-job tactics rather all-out strikes. The wharfies carried the memory of the all-out strike of 1913, which had been defeated due to the use of scab labour. When work was in short supply, as it often was in the inter-war period, there was a tendency for the wharfies to work slowly to spin out a job, at least till the next ship was in sight. The threat of victimisation limited that tactic. More widespread and often with the tacit connivance of the employers was the practice of 'spelling'. Wharfies and foremen alike agreed that is was physically impossible for the men to work eight or more hours in a row in hazardous environments such as freezer holds. So the practice developed of workers assigned to a hold taking turns to take a 'spell' of rest on deck or off the ship for an hour or more while their mates worked all the harder down in the hold to cover for them.
Such practices gave the wharfies the reputation in the press for laziness, though of course little credence was given to the arduous and hazardous working conditions that led to them. But the co-operation required for on-the-job resistance helped the wharfies develop the solidarity necessary to obtain improvements in working conditions. Selected hazardous cargoes could be 'blacked' (the workers would refuse to handle them). The following were some of the main bones of contention and subject to complex agreements between the union and the shipping companies, often mediated by the state's arbitration system: maximum loads of various kinds that could be safely put in a sling; extra money for handling hazardous cargoes; how to determine when wet weather made the workplace too slippery for work to safely continue.
With the economic downturn of the 1920s and 1930s, the employers were able to use the threat of unemployment to claw back many of the gains made by the workers after the First World War. But in 1937, thanks in large part to the support of the Labour government, the wharfies scored a major victory on the issue of job security. Although work remained casual, a labour bureau was set up at each port to determine who was eligible for work and how the work was to be apportioned between them. The union had effective control of the labour bureaus. The power of the foremen to hire and fire was at an end.
The approach taken by the American armed forces during the Second World War to handling the cargo of their ships in New Zealand was an eye-opener for the wharfies. Extensive equipment was used, including jitneys, fork-hoists, mechanical stackers, tractors and trailers. The contrast with the poorly-equipped wharves operated by the British shipping companies was stark.
With the post-war economic boom, the wharfies were able once again to make gains on the health and safety front. The delay of a ship in port due to industrial action could cost the shipping companies thousands of pounds. The extra rates demanded by the wharfies for handling a hazardous cargo, for example, would be small change in comparison. As in the past, the shipping companies refused to countenance improving efficiency and working conditions by investment on their part. Rather, they saw the way of dealing with the increasing disruptions to work on the waterside as being a showdown with the union with the help of the National government. Fearing that making a stand on a health and safety issue would gain public sympathy for the wharfies, the shipping companies picked the dispute over wages for their showdown.
While most workers had recently got a 15% pay rise awarded by government arbitration, this did not cover the wharves. The shipping companies offered the wharfies 9%. Given that the main problem for the wharfies was no longer so much a shortage of work as too much work, with working weeks routinely being doubled with overtime to make ends meet, the 9% offer was surely deliberately provocative. It coincided with the expulsion of the Waterside Workers Union from the Federation of Labour, New Zealand's trade union confederation, over a letter from the union's executive to the Federation's executive accusing them of being 'agents of the employing class' due to their strike-breaking role in the carpenters' strike of the year before. With their continuing super-profitability, the shipping companies could easily have paid the wharfies the 15%. That was never in dispute, but was never discussed by the press. Had it been better known, the wharfies would undoubtedly have gained more public support. Instead, as the shipping companies had hoped, the timing of the dispute at the peak of the economically important export season led the government to pose the dispute as an issue of the authority of the state. From that point onwards, the shipping companies became almost invisible in the public eye, even when they slapped a 50% surcharge on the freight rates to compensate for earnings lost as a result of the dispute, giving them higher than average profits for the year 1951.
In the cold war atmosphere of those times, National politicians and Federation of Labour executive members alike alleged that the watersiders' struggle was on the direct orders of "the international Communist party". In reality, none of the Waterside Workers Union executive and only two of the 50-man national council were Communist party members. The New Zealand Communist Party did fully support the watersiders' struggle. However, by the end of April, the Communist Party's private assessment was that the wharfies no longer had much real prospect of victory and should therefore have organised an orderly return to work. Particularly in view of the opposition to the struggle by the leadership of the Federation of Labour, this may well have been an accurate assessment. But the Communist party failed to make this point to the union and most wharfies stayed out till the eventual return to work on 16th July. So, if anything, the Communist party was pressurised by majority watersider opinion rather than the other way round. And, according to the party's own self-criticism published in 1952, they failed to capitalise on the dispute to point out the political conclusions that could be drawn from it, rather being caught up in the day-to-day organisation and support for the struggle.
If anything, a better case can be made for the government's oppressive measures being part of a concerted international anti-union offensive on the part of capitalist states. New Zealand's emergency regulations were just the worst of the anti-union laws that were being enacted in several countries at around the same time, including the Taft-Hartley Law in the USA and the Crimes Act in Australia. Sid Holland, New Zealand's Nationalist prime minister explicitly identified New Zealand as the USA's ally in the cold war. He had actually returned from a visit to the USA, where he had told President Truman that "your fight is our fight", just before the waterside dispute began. John Foster Dulles, President Truman's special envoy, later to be Secretary of State under Eisenhower, had meetings in Wellington on 20th February with Holland and with the whole New Zealand cabinet. This was the day the government suspended control of the waterside industry by the Waterside Industry Commission and two days before the emergency regulations were gazetted. We do no know exactly what Dulles discussed with them (or at least I don't), but the timing seems unlikely to be a coincidence, particularly in view of Dulles's record as an anti-communist crusader.
For the watersiders' struggle to have succeeded, it would probably have been necessary for the Federation of Labour to call a general strike. Instead, the Federation's executive supported the setting up by the government of scab unions, saying that the Waterside Workers Union had only themselves to blame for their troubles. They refused to take any action against the emergency regulations, saying that trade unions should not engage in political action and that in any case the regulations would be lifted once normal working resumed on the wharves.
Due to the Federation executive's blatantly strike-breaking role, the Federation split, with the foundation of the Trades Union Congress by unions sympathetic to the wharfies. The miners, freezing workers, drivers and seamen came out on strike in support of the watersiders, in the case of the seamen in defiance of their union leadership. Most of these workers remained out for the five-month duration of the strike. Australian and American watersiders also refused to handle goods on ships from New Zealand. But it was not enough. The split in the wider trade union movement made a crucial contribution to the eventual defeat of the watersiders. Crucially, the use of troops and scab labour, supported by the Federation executive, allowed more and more ships to be loaded and unloaded as the dispute progressed. And ships from New Zealand were unloaded in British ports, where the waterside workers were exhausted from a recent defeat and where the New Zealand watersiders got no sympathy from the leadership of the British Trades Union Congress.
Also crucial was the equivocal role of the Labour party. While many individual party members were of course actively involved in supporting the watersiders, the leadership mostly remained silent. The party had two daily newspapers which could have countered the black propaganda of the bourgeois press. Instead, on the one occasion when one of the party papers published an article by a member, writing in a personal capacity, unequivocally supporting the watersiders, that issue of the paper was withdrawn from circulation!
After a month of silence by Walter Nash, the party leader, he made some comments in support of the watersiders at the Federation of Labour's national conference on 24th April, while saying that the police were doing a great job. As a result Nash was banned under the emergency regulations from speaking at a public meeting in Auckland the next day. Two other Labour MPs were banned from speaking at meetings of their constituents. The government had gone a step too far. Even the bourgeois press felt obliged to publish in full Nash's consequent statement arguing that the emergency regulations undermined democracy. The government had to allow Nash to attack the regulations and support the watersiders' wage claim to a very favourable reception at public meeting of ten thousand in the Auckland domain where, however, his demand that "scurrilous attacks on the Federation and others must cease" met with a storm of interjections, as did his suggestion that the watersiders might be able to settle the dispute even if the government would not recognise their union leaders. For a few weeks, the government had to relax the regulations and the Waterside Workers Union leaders were allowed to put their case to several mass meetings around the country, with a total audience of 35,000. These events showed the potential for a watersiders' victory with support from the Labour leadership. But Nash lapsed back into silence and the opportunity was lost.
On 9th July, the National strike Committee – seamen, watersiders, freezing workers, miners and drivers – unanimously voted to return to work. While the shipping companies made even bigger profits than usual for 1951, thanks to the freight surcharge, the dispute had cost the government millions. The watersiders had not improved the pay offer. Paying them what they had asked for would only have cost £200,000 a year. The labour bureaus were abolished, with full control of hiring and firing being returned to the shipping companies. The Waterside Workers Union, along with the supporting striking unions, had been deregistered during the dispute. Watersiders returning to work had to join the port-based scab unions that had been set up during the dispute. The watersiders had been assured that there would be no victimisation, but in reality many were never allowed to work on the wharves again. By October 1951, 43% of the membership of the new port unions had been members of the deregistered Waterside Workers Union. By 1955, the Wellington and Lyttleton unions were controlled by former members of the old union.
The shipping companies claimed that their regaining control of hiring and firing led to increased productivity, but this could have been due more to substantially increased bonus rates paid after 1951. During and after the 1951 dispute, shipping company directors admitted in private correspondence that the long hours the men had to work was a major source of industrial strife. But they did not address the issue. The practice of 'spelling' continued after 1951 and many of health and safety issues caused by lack of investment continued to provoke conflict on the wharves in the following decades.
The chronic under-investment in the New Zealand wharves by the British shipping companies was typical of British capital. British capitalists tended to rely for their profits on the super-exploitation made possible by the legacy of imperialism. So they were not motivated to invest in plant and machinery. For most of the 20th century, they attained the lowest rates of investment of any of the large industrialised capitalist countries. As a result, Britain was transformed from 'the workshop of the world' to 'the sick man of Europe'.
The New Zealand government's implementation of its antidemocratic emergency regulations during the dispute had been a mixed bag. In the smaller ports and in one mining town, unionists were for a time prevented from holding meetings or could only hold them with police in attendance shutting people up for saying anything they thought contravened the regulations. Many people were harassed by having their homes searched by the police who, however, kept no records of exactly how many such searches were conducted. The most dramatic applications of the regulations were when marches in Wellington on 2nd May and Auckland on 18th May were dispersed by the police with batons: in Auckland twenty-two unionists required medical attention after receiving baton blows to the head. Ultimately, the government failed to stop the watersiders and other supporting unions from holding daily meetings of their members, especially in the bigger ports. And they could not stop funds from flooding in from around the country and from overseas to support the watersiders, the strikers in other industries and their families. The government concentrated its efforts on press censorship but could not stop a large volume and variety of illegal literature from being widely distributed.
At any rate, the government's behaviour is a classic case study for the Marxist theory of the state, which argues that, in the last analysis, the state is merely a body of armed men whose purpose is the oppression of one class by another. Democracy is only allowed by the capitalist ruling class so long as it does not think its vital interests will be jeopardised. But the limits on the New Zealand government's ability to implement its draconian regulations are symptomatic of an important conclusion that can be drawn from our analysis of the dispute: ultimately it was probably not state oppression but the splits, equivocations and downright betrayals on the part of the various sections of the wider trade union and Labour leadership that was decisive in leading to the defeat of the watersiders.