Lessons of 1951: The Waterfront Lockout 60 Years On

By Josh Glue, Workers Party Hamilton Branch

The waterfront lockout of 1951 was one of the most important events in New Zealand labour history. For 151 days the men who worked the waterfront and those who supported them fought back against the combined power of the ship-owners and the state, determined to force cutbacks upon them and destroy their union. Seen as an historical defeat by some, an inspiring fight-back by others, the waterfront lockout holds important lessons to those who struggle for workers rights today.

In this first of two articles about this pivotal moment in the history of the working class of this country, we will look at the history of the Waterfront Workers Union and the events that led up to the lockout. In the second article, to be published in the April issue of The Spark Magazine, we will examine the way the lockout ended, the repercussions of that conclusion then, and the relevance of these events for working New Zealanders today.

Lampblack to Lockout

The Waterside Workers Union (WWU) was one of the most militant unions in New Zealand, at a time when union membership was compulsory, and unions were a lot more willing to fight than they are today. The WWU had been a fighting union for a long time, taking a militant and often highly principled stand on a number of issues over the years. In an inspiring show of international solidarity, the wharfies refused to load ships with scrap iron bound for imperial Japan in 1937. The first Labour government, despite the fact it still espoused a socialist political project tried to force the men back to work, only accepting their stance when they wouldn’t back down.

This determination and sure sense of right and wrong animated the men of the WWU, especially under Auckland branch and then national president Jock Barnes, who would rise to prominence for this leadership in the hard months of ’51. The wharfies were often seen stopping work to refuse to work ships with unsafe gangplanks, refusing to move toxic chemicals like lampblack without extra pay and safety equipment, or to demand the application of hard-won workplace rights. In these struggles the men often ran into opposition from the Waterfront Authority, a supposedly impartial body much like the employment court today, one which usually ruled in favour of the shipowners. Even a pro-wharfie ruling was no guarantee of fair treatment, as one ship’s captain could always ignore the ruling. The Authority often stood idly by such action, leaving it up to direct action of the men to get their legal rights respected by shipowners.

The NZ media, in particular the NZ herald and their cartoonist Minhinick, invariably took the side of the bosses in any dispute over wages or conditions at the waterfront. Even when the shipowners position was untenable, in obvious breach of labour law, The Herald always jumped to blame the wharfies and never retracted or corrected articles when proven wrong. Jock Barnes was often accused in later years of misleading his men to follow his grudges against this or that Waterfront Authority member or government figure. In reality it was the media, the shipowners, the government and many former comrades of the WWU that took actions against the union and its members to the level of Vendetta.

The Lockout Begins

As with most great industrial struggles, the events which started the dispute were small, while the rights and freedoms at stake were of massive significance to the lives of the people involved.

In 1950 the employment courts ordered a 15% pay rise across the NZ workforce. This pay rise would start to compensate for years of pay restrictions during and after the Second World War. The shipowners confederation, knowing full well the wharfies were paid far less than workers in similar branches of skilled labour, refused to honour this ruling. The wharfies called a work-to-rule strike in protest, insisting no overtime would be worked without a guarantee of decent pay.

In response, the shipowners locked out the waterfront workers on the 19th of February, 1951 and refused to let them back unless they accepted overtime and presented their grievance to the Waterfront Authority. The shipowners felt safe in the knowledge the Authority would probably rule in the shipowners favour.

All branches of the WWU voted to resist this ultimatum. Within two days the National government under Sid Holland declared a State of Emergency and soon sent troops to work the wharves. On the 26th of February Holland passed a set of Emergency Regulations, draconian and far-reaching, which made it illegal to be involved in any strikes, to support strikers, to publish material critical of the regulations or supportive of striking, or to engage in picketing or protest.

The people had no legal recourse against the regulations, which also allowed the government to seize union funds, send the army to strike-break and gave the police unlimited power of search and arrest to enforce the law, with a maximum penalty for breaching the law of 100 pounds fine, 3 months hard labour or both.

In many ways the regulations are themselves as interesting as the lockout. They showed the speedy willingness of the New Zealand ruling class to sacrifice democracy and workers rights for the sake of waging class war. In essence, the ship-owners and the Holland government set out to destroy the WWU. A general attack on all workers’ wages and conditions would only militarise the working class more and be likely to fail, but a directed attack on one vanguard union, backed by a vitriolic propaganda campaign, might isolate and neutralise some of the best working class fighters and leave other, weaker unions, open to coercion and restriction.

The mainstream media, ‘the voice of the people’ responded to these massive restrictions on freedom of speech by folding overnight, publishing insulting cartoons and editorial diatribes against the watersiders and especially their leader Jock Barnes.

Negotiation and betrayal

The Federation of Labour (FOL), a forerunner to the TUC, showed its collaborationist nature by deregistering the WWU and seizing their union funds. They continued by attacking the WWU leadership as communist stooges and calling for their removal, as well as rushing through the registration of scab unions up and down the country.

The Minister of Labour refused to acknowledge Barnes and National Secretary Toby Hill as the wharfies’ representatives because the WWU had been deregistered.

The Minister also gave conditions to the WWU for return to work (including “open” employment, an anti-union condition which would have seriously endangered unionism on the wharves). The WWU refused at first, but when Barnes accepted their conditions, the government added another: separate port unions with no national wharfies union. It became clear the government had no intention of letting the WWU make it out of this strike alive.

In the next issue of The Spark Magazine, we will look at the way working people came together to oppose the Emergency Regulations and support the wharfies, the way the government of this country attempted to crush this support, and the way the lockout ended. Most importantly, we will see the importance of these events for modern New Zealand, what we can learn today from the men and women who stood up for their rights in 1951.


  1. That was a frankly great blog!!

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