Lessons of 1951: The waterfront lockout 60 years on (part two)

By Josh Glue, Workers Party Hamilton Branch

(Part 1)

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, who were 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 for those who struggle for workers rights today.
In this second of two articles about this pivotal moment in the history of the working class of this country, we will examine the way working people came together to oppose the emergency regulations and support the wharfies, the way the government 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.

The people choose the wharfies

With the Waterfront Workers Union (WWU) locked out by the ship owners and deregistered by the collaborationist Federation of Labour, and the National government’s draconian Emergency Regulations in place to restrict their ability to fight for better pay and conditions, things looked bleak for the country’s hardest fighting union. If the union accepted the government’s conditions for return to work, it would spell the end of their union and near-guarantee a deterioration of conditions, pay, and negotiating power.
The emergency regulations made any material support for the wharfies illegal and any media argument in favour of them illegal. Despite this thousands of workers up and down NZ voted to strike in solidarity with the WWU. Miners, freezing workers, and hydro-electric workers struck, voicing support for the WWU and showing opposition to the regulations. This was followed by railway and gas workers “blacking” (refusing to transport) cargo loaded by scab (army or non-union) labour. At the height of the lockout, 22,000 workers were locked-out or on strike, but only 8000 were wharfies. The majority were working people who fought for the rights of their fellow union members. As the strike wore on, this popular support became pivotal. Sympathisers established relief depots throughout NZ that distributed donated food and clothing to the families of locked out workers, in violation of the regulations. Women played a major role in this work, through women’s associations, church groups, and the auxiliaries of the unions themselves. These women helped feed 22,000 people, in opposition to the law, in the service of common justice.

The police choose the bosses

During a brief period in late May-early June the government relaxed restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly. People responded by having more public talks and demonstrations. On the last day of May a peaceful solidarity march occurred, and was peacefully dispersed by police. The next day another march was held, advertising an upcoming WWU talk. The police ordered the marchers to disperse, giving a 5 minute deadline. Within 3 minutes, as marchers were starting to leave, the police charged, bringing their batons down on the heads of the protesters. Most of those attacked ran or fell, while a few fought back with their fists or banner poles. One policeman, being beaten by a union man, begged “Don’t hit me, I’m just doing my job!” while dozens of other policemen beat those who didn’t defend themselves. The day came to be known as Bloody Friday. Amongst those with arms broken and faces bloodied at the hands of the police were women and the elderly; even one Gallipoli veteran was injured. Although the public outcry against this violence was strong, in less than 24 hours the “free” press jumped from semi-honest reporting on the attack to saying the demonstrators attacked the police with bottles and sticks. One witness who saw much of the attack out of the windows of a tram said, “Men and women were being hit by lumps of wood by big, strong uniform-protected police. It was the most cruel and unbridled display of unnecessary force I have ever witnessed.”

Long-grind and defeat

Those on the left looked to their leaders to support the strikers and oppose the government. The Labour Party paid only lip-service to the rights of the strikers, pleading for more humane treatment, not opposing the government’s general line. The Federation of Labour also failed the strikers, choosing the side of the government and the ship owners over men who had so recently been comrades and fellow workers.

The lockout continued into July, until the wharfies, desperate and worn out, their leader Jock Barnes frivolously imprisoned over a criminal libel charge, their union funds depleted, returned to work, accepting the government’s union-crushing conditions. The working men of the waterfront fought against repression and injustice in this country, and did not defeat it. The power of the government to ignore the will of the people and enforce the cruel exploitation and petty injustice of capitalism was reinforced in the eyes of every New Zealander. The implementation of fascistic laws against freedom of speech and assembly was defended by the government. But there are other ways to view the waterfront lockout. The defeat on the waterfront gives working New Zealanders today, in 2011, a lesson in the nature of our society. When working people fought, not for revolutionary transformations, but for simple union freedoms and improvement in their conditions, the government responded by throwing everything it had at destroying their union, demonising their leaders through propaganda, and attacking those who took to the streets. The events of 1951 were an example of the violence of the class system and the brutality with which the ruling class is willing to implement in order to crush popular and democratic movements. Despite the immorality and illegality of the emergency regulations, the police lined up squarely with the government, enforcing the law.

The history of New Zealand is also a history of class struggle

As a witness of Bloody Friday put it, “What happened on Queen Street is a warning of how ruthless and cruel authority can be when it is under no control.” Most importantly, those events stand as a testament to the power of ordinary people, a lot like you or me, to fight against injustice even at the risk of their own freedom and safety. The support and opposition shown by regular people was inspiring. Thousands of workers had an opportunity to actively break the law, to put the need to feed the hungry above the government’s will. Thousands of regular people chose what was right over what was lawful. Likewise the level of support from other workers showed what is possible when working people unite in struggle. In the face of repression on a scale this country had never really seen before, tens of thousands of working people banded together to help each other. The story of the relief depots, the women’s auxiliaries, the support strikes, and the wharfies themselves and the strength with which they challenged the power of the powerful is an inspiring chapter in NZ history, a piece of our collective class history that can never be erased. Every fight brings the working class one step closer to liberation, and 1951 was a big step. As waterfront workers’ leader Jock Barnes put it:

1951 was a year in which no compromise was possible. The veil of class consensus was ripped from NZ politics, revealing the harsh reality of a bitter class conflict. Conceding in these circumstances would have meant utter demoralisation of the entire militant wing of the labour movement…we had no option as unionists and men to fight back and make our attackers pay as dearly as possible. In this we succeeded.

Working people fighting to advance pay and conditions on the job through union activism today have the brave tradition of the Jock Barnes and the wharfies to inspire them.

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