1951 waterfront dispute radio documentary

Extracts from 'Dispute' – an account of the 1951 waterfront conflict, produced by Lei Lelalu, narrated by Dougal Stevenson, 1968


Part one: different perspectives on the dispute

Dougal Stevenson, documentary narrator: By the end of 1950, then, the signs were there. The government was smarting at the outcome of the lampblack dispute, and it seemed obvious that if the watersiders should step out of line again, the Holland government might well take strong action against them.

The labour movement at this period was divided: on the one hand there was the Federation of Labour, on the other the recently formed and more militant Trades Union Congress, which the watersiders adhered to. In the struggle to come, the Federation of Labour would actively support the government and reinforce the attitudes of the press and the general public. Without this backing of public opinion, without the press, the employers would never have been able to contemplate the action they ultimately took.

Alex Fry was a journalist in Wellington at the time.

Alex Fry: From a reader's point of view the account of the strike – the normal account that we expect these days – simply did not exist, and most of the public who were, I think, generally prejudiced against the watersiders simply did not know what case the watersiders had.

Dougal Stevenson: During 1950 the end of the Korean War brought a rise in prices. The cost of living had increased rapidly and the government asked the Arbitration Court to make an interim general wage order. This was the essential spark. The court's order of 15% was generally held insufficient in view of the prevailing prices and the high national income. But, sufficient or otherwise, the award did not cover the watersiders who asked the port employers for an increase to give them the traditional penny an hour above the freezing workers. The freezing workers had received the 15% in addition to a recently negotiated sixpence an hour increase.

Jock Barnes, strike leader: The ship owners' representatives did meet us. They just said to us, 'You're going to get thrupence ha'penny an hour rise. That's our final word.' That amounted to 8.9% whereas every other worker in New Zealand had been given 15%.

Keith Belford, employer: The employers considered that the watersiders had no legal entitlement to the 15% given by the Court of Arbitration. They had their own tribunal, which they had insisted upon, to go to and ask for the increase if they wanted it. However, the watersiders wouldn't go back to the tribunal. They had quarrelled with it on other issues, and they demanded that the employers should concede the 15% outright. The employers did decide to restore the position to what it was before the general order of the Court of Arbitration. They would treat the ten shillings an hour that the watersiders had as also being an interim and would make up the balance, which amounted to about 9%.


Part Two: the Federation of Labour and government paranoia

Dougal Stevenson: As the dispute progressed, the government gained confidence and increased public support. Sensing the swing of sympathy from the strikers to the government, the Federation of Labour took the opportunity to censure its militant offshoot, the Trades Union Congress, and threw its support behind the government. A leader of the federation, Patrick Walsh, was also president of the national Seamen's Union, which defied him and struck in support of the watersiders. Walsh realised that to reunite the labour movement he would have to crush the strike and thereby show the rebellious unions the folly of their militancy. The government was already in a strong position. Walsh's active support in rallying the weaker unions to the government's side made a strong position virtually an impregnable one.

Jock Barnes: The Federation of Labour not only helped the government but without the support it gave the government and the scab-herding tactics of the Federation of Labour the shipowners and the government couldn't have won. It was only by the open assistance of the Federation of Labour that it was possible for them to win.

Dougal Stevenson: Without the support of the Federation of Labour, and denied the press and radio, the striking workers printed pamphlets to publicise their case. These were crudely produced and often scurrilous products, which the authorities tried continually to suppress. At times private homes like Mrs Mitchell's in Auckland were raided.

Mrs Mitchell: It was fairly early in the evening because I remember I was ironing at the time, and we had a dog and we heard the dog bark, and I think someone went to the front door and the back simultaneously and there was two … I presume they were detectives, and two came in the front and two through the back door. And the dog continued to bark, so I went out and there was a fifth one standing outside at the back. So I invited him to come in too. They were most polite, mind you, and my husband had a good collection of books and Detective Campen (sp?) was very interested in the reading material. They were more or less searching I suppose for — would you call it — seditious literature, because my husband was chairman of this publicity campaign at that time.


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Posted: 21 Jun 2011

do you have the list of names that was in the 1951 watersiders scab pamphlet?