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The New Zealand docks dispute

For five months since the 17th of February, 1951, New Zealand was in the throes of one of the longest and bitterest Trade Union struggles in its history. The struggle commenced with the lock-out of the Waterside Workers (Dockers) and the imposing of the "Waterfront Strike Emergency Regulations" and their amendments, 1951.

The miners, the Wellington freezing workers, the New Zealand Federated Seamen’s Union struck as a protest against the Emergency Regulations. The miners, freezing workers and the federated seamen had no wage dispute and they ignored the advice of their Union National Officers to remain at work.

On February 8th the employers of waterfront labour offered 4½d. an hour wage rise following the Arbitration Court award of a 15 per cent increase. On February 10th watersiders at Wellington and at New Plymouth ceased working overtime as a protest against the employers’ offer. The workers claimed that 4½d an hour was only 9 per cent increase in a forty-hour week and that their ability to work overtime had been included when the wage rise was computed. The employers argued that the rise offered was exactly in line with the 15 per cent Arbitration Court award.

The employers began dismissing men on the 15th of February for refusing to work overtime. Workers alleged that they had been locked out and stated that they were willing to work the forty-hour week. Employers replied that refusal to work overtime was a breach of the agreement.

On February 19th the Government issued an ultimatum calling on the watersiders to resume normal work including overtime and to place their wage claim before the Waterfront Authority, failing that, the Waterfront Commission would be suspended. The same day, the waterside workers saw displayed on the engagement boards a notice to the effect that if they were not prepared to work overtime they were not to lift their discs (sign on for work). Meetings of watersiders at all ports on that day rejected the Government ultimatum.

The workers claimed that the position was an "open lock-out by the employers" and a "calculated attack" on Trade Unionism and the forty-hour week. The Prime Minister of New Zealand declared a state of emergency on February 22nd.

The Government issued sweeping emergency regulations on February 23rd, giving power to suspend all awards, use members of the armed forces on the waterfront, extend the powers of the police, deal with any person who incited or aided the continuance of the dispute, place all union funds in the hands of the receiver, etc. A Waterfront Strike Notice was issued ordering all watersiders back to work on Monday, February 26th, or to suffer a "declared strike" under the regulations.

On that Monday, meetings of watersiders in all ports rejected this ultimatum. The following day the Government ordered servicemen on to the waterfront at Wellington and Auckland, and the New Zealand coast seamen walked off all ships being worked by servicemen. Some Wellington Harbour Board employees were suspended for refusing to assist the servicemen, and meetings of seamen, drivers and others were held everywhere.

The Trade Union Congress called on the Government to resign. The Federation of Labour affiliations recommended the calling of a compulsory conference between the disputing parties. Over a thousand workers employed on hydro-electric plants at Waikato ceased work. All Waikato underground mines and some West coast mines were idle. The Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants instructed all branches not to handle any material on the waterfront that was normally handled by the watersiders. Freezing workers at Ngahauranga, the Gear Meat Workers at Petone and at several other centres stopped work. The Golden Bay Cement Works closed down.

The Government de-registered the New Zealand Waterside Workers’ Union on February 28th, and the Parliamentary Labour Party called on the Government to arrange a compulsory conference between the parties.

On March 1st receivers moved into the Waterside Workers’ Union offices throughout the country. Bank accounts amounting to £20,000 were taken over. The Federation of Labour announced that it had done "everything that it could be expected to do within reason", the Union could only blame itself for its position.

On March 5th all mines in the Greymouth district had come to a standstill. The Wellington Drivers’ Union took a ballot and decided not to work with the troops at the waterfront.

By April 10th the Government had used everything in the bag to force the watersiders back to work. Emergency Regulations, all the Anti-Trade Union legislation brought down by the Labour Government with a few embellishments by the present Nationalist Government. It was made an offence to discuss the Emergency Regulations at any meeting, even the leader of the opposition was refused permission to do so. But the watersiders, the miners, the freezing workers and the seamen stood firm.

On two occasions members of the Watersiders’ Union were sent cards to sign if they wished to return to work under the new conditions and as members of new Unions that had been registered, but very few took advantage of the offer. The majority showed remarkable determination to preserve their Union and to support their elected representatives. The Government refused to negotiate on any grounds that would enable the old Union to return on a National basis or to negotiate with any deputation that included the old Union’s president and secretary, H. Barnes and T. Hill. If the workers had been prepared to sacrifice these two, a settlement might have been brought about. These two men were branded as the trouble makers and the old Communist bogey was thrashed until it became a joke. It was a Communist plan, cried the Government, and the watersiders were dupes. Seventy-five per cent of the members of the old Union were ex-servicemen from the 1914-18 and 1939-45 wars and it is ironical that these men, who supposedly went away to destroy the Nazi monster in the last war, should return to face another one with similar earmarks as soon as they demanded a little more of the wealth that the working class produces, in order to maintain their already miserable living standard, or a little of the "new order" that they were promised whilst they were fighting their masters’ enemies. They have the new order, but it is worse than the old one. Socialists have maintained through both wars that the common enemy of the workers in every land is Capitalism and not their fellow workers of a different nationality.

Throughout the struggle the Parliamentary Labour Party in New Zealand sat on the fence, and the Labour politicians were subtle as usual.. At first they made no complaint against the Emergency Regulations or anti-Trade-Union regulations which their own party had used when it was the Government. Mr. Nash, the leader of the Opposition, said at a meeting in Hamilton that "he was in favour of applying regulations in any easy and not in a rigorous way as long as this did not tend to prolong the strike", and that the Labour Party "would have had no hesitation in using its powers to ensure that essential supplies were delivered to hospitals and homes". He said that he did not like to see freedom of speech curtailed or officials given the right to open private correspondence. Neither could he agree to the clause in the regulation which made it an offence to give food to assist watersiders’ wives and children. (Evening Post, Wellington, 30.3.1951.)

The Labour politicians claimed that they were neither for nor against the locked-out and striking Unions, but with the unflagging determination of these Unions to continue the struggle, the Labour men took the opportunity to get in and reap the spoils of the workers’ fight. The Import Supply Bill was debated in the House of Representatives, 26.6.1951, and the Labour Party politicians used the chance to debate the industrial situation generally. They expressed concern at the state of the country, urged a settlement of the strife and, with an eye to the future, they put in a good case for themselves.

The Government speaker, in reply, quoted from a pamphlet entitled "Statements concerning recent disputes affecting waterfront work" issued by the Minister of Labour in the past Labour Government. Therein the cause of the waterfront disputes was attributed to the attitude of "Barnes and Hill" on the various waterfront Commissions, and to the machinations of the Communists. This dispute gives the Labour Party a good weapon with which to fight the next election. It will be able to adopt the attitude of "we told you so" and to blame the Nationalist Government for all the workers’ problems.

The Federation of Labour played a vile part in the dispute, giving the Nationalist Government every aid to crush the watersiders and their allies. Even the Labour Party had to snub them. Thus is demonstrated the futility of compulsory unionism to the workers.

When the National Government brought in its Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Amendment Act, there was in it a threat to compulsory unionism. The officials of the Federation of Labour immediately dashed to the rescue and convinced Mr. Holland of the value of compulsory unionism, pointing out that "the Federation has yet to find any sections of the employers who object to its continuance" (Southern Cross, 3.11.1950). Without compulsory unionism the officials would lose their mainstay and the power they wield. They have now proved its value to the Government. Lack of knowledge and apathy of the members is of great assistance to these leaders of the Federation, as it is to all leaders.

The promise of support from the railwaymen seems to have been lost in transit and the strikers have rather a poor opinion of their brothers on the railways who failed to comply with the resolve "not to handle any material on the waterfront normally handled by watersiders".

The Government precipitated this struggle at a bad time for the employing class in New Zealand. It was at the height of the exporting season, thereby costing them an immense sum. The determination of the men, the active part played by the young members who were getting their first taste of such a struggle, and the support of wives who went out to work to help their menfolk continue the fight, are deserving of the applause of workers everywhere.

On July 11th the seamen, cooks and stewards who had been on strike in sympathy with the watersiders, returned to work and the National Council of the Waterside Workers’ Union recommended branches in all ports to return to work. The New Zealand Government is to seek an early dissolution of Parliament to test public opinion on its handling of the dispute. The leader of the opposition has charged the Government with fascism, dictatorship, opening mails, tapping telephones, suppression of free speech and freedom of assembly and other actions foreign to democratic government. This is denied by the Prime Minister (Manchester Guardian, 12.7.1951).

The outstanding lesson to be learned from this working-class struggle in New Zealand is that working conditions bitterly fought for and won through struggle on the industrial battlefield over the years can be wiped out, comparatively speaking, in a few minutes by those who control the political machinery. The political weapon is the dominant one and whilst it remains in the hands of the capitalist class no amount of struggle will free the workers from the yoke of capital. The same determined and heroic effort as our New Zealand fellow workers have recently waged, if directed towards gaining control of the political machine with a view to ending the wages system would solve all their economic problems. If only they would raise the cry, "Abolish the wages system" instead of making a modest demand for a tiny wage increase, then they would be heading towards a system free from lock-outs, strikes, poverty, atomic wars, ill housing, dictatorship, over-work and the host of other evils which beset them.

(This account of the recent New Zealand struggle has been compiled from information and material supplied by Comrade R. Everson of the Socialist Party of New Zealand.)

OVERSEAS SECRETARY, SPGB

(Socialist Standard, September 1951)