1951 New Zealand waterfront dispute

The 1951 New Zealand waterfront dispute was the largest and most widespread industrial dispute in New Zealand history. During the time, up to twenty thousand workers went on strike in support of waterfront workers protesting against financial hardships and poor working conditions. Thousands more refused to handle "scab" goods. The dispute was sometimes referred to as the waterfront lockout or waterfront strike. It lasted 151 days, from 13 February[1] to 15 July 1951. During the strike, the Watersiders' Union was deregistered and its funds and records were seized, and 26 local watersiders' unions were set up in its place.[2]

Don't Scab! 1951 Waterfront Dispute (12229830095)
Ships in Wellington harbour during the dispute

The lockout has been described[by whom?] as "a key element in the mythologies of the industrial left in this country".[3]


The distance of New Zealand and Australia from their traditional markets, meant that ports played a pivotal role in the economies of the countries. The waterfront inevitably became a point of conflict between workers and their unions on one side, and the employers and the state on the other.

During the Second World War due to labour shortages, watersiders and other workers worked long hours, often as much as 15-hour days. Following the war, on the wharves working hours continued to be high. In April 1950 the Waterside Workers' Union lead a walk out of the Federation of Labour (FOL) and set up their own Trade Union Congress, unwittingly isolating themselves from the general union movement. Shortly afterwards severe stoppages on the wharves occurred, infuriating most of the general population. The government threatened to declare a state of emergency before Labour Party leader Peter Fraser intervened and opened the way to a settlement.[4] In January 1951 the Arbitration Court awarded a 15% wage increase to all workers covered by the industrial arbitration system. This did not apply to waterside workers, whose employment was controlled by the Waterfront Industry Commission.[5] The shipping companies that employed the watersiders instead offered 9%. The watersiders then refused to work overtime in protest, and the employers placed the men on a two-day penalty. The men said it was a lock-out, the employers said it was a strike. When the Waterside Workers' Union refused to accept arbitration the government could make a stand on the principle of defending industrial law and order.[4]

The lockoutEdit

The lockout was a major political issue of the time. The National government, led by Sidney Holland and the Minister of Labour Bill Sullivan, introduced heavy handed emergency regulations,[6] and brought in the navy and army to work the wharves and also deregistered the Waterside Workers' Union under the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act. Under the emergency regulations Holland's government censored the press, made striking illegal and even made it illegal to give money or food to either strikers or their families. The proclamations have been described as "the most illiberal legislation ever enacted in New Zealand".[7]

In a surprise move, the FOL, which was supported by the majority of unions, backed the government. FOL President Fintan Patrick Walsh was of the opinion that the manner of the strike threatened the existing arbitration system necessitating their defeat.[8] The watersiders held out for 22 weeks, supported by many other unions and sympathy strikers, but ultimately conceded defeat. The miners and seamen who held sympathy strikes were likewise beaten.

As a result, the Waterside Workers' Union was split up into twenty-six separate "port unions" to deliberately diminish its influence.[9] Many watersiders and other unionists involved were blacklisted (e.g. Jock Barnes and Toby Hill) and prevented from working on the wharves for years afterwards.


A cartoon comparing Holland's reaction to the strike to Nazism

Holland condemned the action as "industrial anarchy", and explicitly sought a mandate to deal with the lockout by calling a snap election. The opposition Labour Party, now led by Walter Nash, attempted to take a moderate position in the dispute, with Nash saying that "we are not for the waterside workers, and we are not against them". Labour's neutral position merely ended up displeasing both sides, however, and Nash was widely accused of indecision and lack of courage. The government was re-elected with an increased majority in the ensuing 1951 election. Holland was seen as opportunistically using the strike to distract voters from the other issue of rapidly rising inflation which could have made the scheduled election in 1952 harder for him to win.[10]

Militant unionism in New Zealand was crushed and the union movement remained fractured for years between the FOL and the defeated militants. The Labour Party was likewise split between the ardent anti-Communists, led by Bob Semple and Angus McLagan, and the moderates, such as Walter Nash and Arnold Nordmeyer. There was a concurrent tension between the FOL and the Labour Party for many years following the strike.[4]

Much later it emerged that the families of both Keith Locke and Mark Blumsky were under surveillance by the Police Special Branch (now the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service). [11]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "War on the wharves – 1951 waterfront dispute". New Zealand History Online. Retrieved 30 October 2009. The Waterside Workers' Union protested by refusing to work overtime from 13 February. The shipping companies in turn refused to hire them unless they agreed to work extra hours. When no agreement could be reached, union members were locked out.
  2. ^ Hayward, Janine. Historical Dictionary of New Zealand. p. 360.
  3. ^ "Never a White Flag: The Memoirs of Jock Barnes (review)". Kōtare 1998, Vol.1 , No. 1.
  4. ^ a b c Sinclair 1976, p. 282.
  5. ^ "War on the wharves – 1951 waterfront dispute | NZHistory.net.nz, New Zealand history online". Archived from the original on 14 October 2008. Retrieved 2 June 2009.
  6. ^ Waterfront Strike Emergency Regulations 1951, via New Zealand Legal Information Institute
  7. ^ Bromby, Robin (1985). An Eyewitness History of New Zealand. Currey O'Neil. p. 210.
  8. ^ Walsh, Pat. "Fintan Patrick Walsh". Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Retrieved 23 April 2017.
  9. ^ Sinclair 1976, p. 286.
  10. ^ Gustafson, Barry. "Holland, Sidney George". Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Retrieved 30 October 2012.
  11. ^ "Secret strike files opened". Stuff/Fairfax. 27 March 2008.

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit