The Guardian August 1, 2001


The 1951 New Zealand waterfront lockout

The following is taken from a talk given by Harry Black, Secretary, 
Retired Members Association (Sydney) Maritime Union of Australia, at a 
meeting in New Zealand commemorating the 151-day strike of New Zealand 
waterside workers from February 15 to July 15, 1951.

All governments have agenda priorities. In Australia in 1950 and for the 
whole decade, Menzies had at the top of his hit list, waterside workers, 
seamen, miners, ironworkers. His dirty tricks department used all devices 
and methods to smash the militant unions: repressive legislation, slander, 
lies, blackmail, police security forces, all the apparatus of the 
capitalist state.

Menzies was brutally frank in his public and policy statements, indicating 
his intentions of dealing harshly with unions by way of suppressive 
legislation, and in particular to rid the unions of Communist leadership 
and influence.

Early in 1950 he forced through Parliament the Red Bill, which barred any 
member of the Communist Party from holding a position in any union. 

The Government published a list of Communists who were forbidden to hold 
office. This list also included Labor Party members and had to be amended 
on several occasions.

In New Zealand the same pattern and the same hit list. The politics, 
ideology and objectives of Menzies and Holland, (the Prime Minister of New 
Zealand at the time) were perfectly united and co-ordinated to serve the 
interests of their powerful and wealthy friends and smash the vanguard of 
the New Zealand and Australian trade union movements.

When announcing, in April 1951, the Government's intention to employ the 
Crimes Act to try and crush the waterside workers and jail trade union 
leaders, Prime Minister Menzies said: "The struggle on the Australian, New 
Zealand and British waterfront were linked together and emanated from 
instructions given by the World Federation of Trade Unions." This statement 
was completely untrue.

This same pattern of union suppression operated in America. In that country 
the Taft Hartley-Smith and McCarran acts were directed at the freedom of 
all working men and women.

In France and Italy, savage attacks were launched on workers' organisations 
along with police suppression of strikes and demonstrations. 

Here is revealed a worldwide conspiracy of violence and suppression against 
the progressive elements of the trade union movement. 

This violence and suppression against working men and women did not 
commence in the '50s or end in that period. From the time workers began to 
organise and struggle, reactionary governments have answered the call of 
their masters, the moneylenders, the carpetbaggers, the owners of big 
capital and business. 

Today the ruthless multi-nationals who plunder the national resources of 
every country wherever their heavy jackboots stamp, leave behind polluted 
environments, misery and unemployment. But their first objective and demand 
on all governments is to get rid of militant trade unions.

However, big business and reactionary governments can also rely on the 
support of extreme right-wing elements within the labour movement.

This unity of right-wing forces was experienced on both sides of the 
struggle in New Zealand and Australia in 1951. 

The mass media, with their daily lies, slander and distortions of truth, 
toed the line of their masters and as Marx stated, became the prize 
fighters of capital, with their venom and spite directed at striking 
workers and their leaders.

That is so today in their campaigns against the MUA the CFMEU and the Metal 
Workers in Australia.

It was highlighted in 1951 on both sides of the Pacific as the media and 
the right wing of the labour movement in both countries came out firmly in 
support of shipowners and stevedoring companies. 

For example, the New Zealand Federation of Labour tried to expel the 
waterside workers' union.

Solidarity across the Tasman

In Australia, the Waterside Workers' Federation (WWF) and Seamen's Union 
responded immediately to a call from New Zealand for support. 

The following resolution was endorsed at a Meeting of the Federal Council 
of the WWF in 1951.

"This Federal Council of the WWF recognises the justice of the New Zealand 
Waterside Workers Union struggle and its relationship to the struggle of 
Australian workers for increased wages and in defence of living standards.

One thousand pounds was placed at the disposal of the New Zealand Union and 
branches of the union were asked to give whatever financial support 
possible.

The moral and financial support of Australia wharfies and seamen continued 
to grow and a number of other unions also joined the financial lifeline.

Throughout the whole of the New Zealand dispute wharfies in Australia 
despatched money across the Tasman. This was achieved despite the Crime 
Act, with the threat of jail and the attention of Menzies security spies.

In the Sydney Domain, attended by 6,000 people, Sydney WWF Branch President 
Jim Young stated, "Even if it has to go by carrier pigeon we'll keep 
sending finance to New Zealand."

Police raids on union offices

This massive demonstration of support for New Zealand wharfies from 
Australian maritime workers angered the Menzies Government.

On May 25, 1951, security officers raided the Federal offices of the WWF 
and Seamen's Union. Vast amounts of records were taken, along with many 
documents, which had nothing to do with the New Zealand lockout. At the 
same time security cops invaded the Melbourne and Sydney Branch offices.

In Sydney all jobs immediately stopped work. Many thousands of workers 
converged on the Union Rooms. 

Wharfies, in the presence of the security cops paid their New Zealand levy, 
held a mass meeting and in defiance and contempt of the security cops 
reaffirmed their support for their brother wharfies across the Tasman.

The security cops, their arrogance leaving them, found themselves besieged 
by angry wharfies who completely surrounded the building. 

Meanwhile a magnificent struggle was being waged by Australian seamen 
manning the "Wanganella", the "Aorangi" and a number of other ships. They 
levied themselves to pay regular finance to New Zealand wharfies. 

Crew members, at great risk to themselves, carried thousands of Pounds to 
New Zealand from various unions in Australia. Painters and Dockers and 
Ironworkers refused to repair black ships. 

From all around the country workers and their unions gave magnificent 
support to their New Zealand comrades.

While maritime unions were not daunted by threats and provocation, the ACTU 
Executive failed to give support and extreme right-wing grouper officials 
in Melbourne exposed Jim Healy and other Union officials to contempt of 
court proceedings. 

Despite this, the rank and file membership of Melbourne Branch gave great 
assistance with resolutions of support and hundreds of pounds in levies to 
the struggle in New Zealand.

From all around the Pacific support was directed to New Zealand wharfies.

The Pacific triangle

"Australia, New Zealand and the American West Coast, that is the maritime 
triangle of the Pacific, and from the third corner of the triangle, 
Canadian and US seamen and dockers extended their hand clasp to ring the 
ocean in iron solidarity", writes Dick Scott in his book "151 Days" (p 
152).

This great struggle has written one of the finest pages in New Zealand 
industrial history. Many lessons were learnt and understood from the 
conflict. The lessons are still relevant after 50 years.

Just prior to Easter 1998, Corrigan, the head of Patrick Stevedores in 
Australia sacked all his labour. Hooded goons, with savage dogs evicted 
wharfies on the night shift from their jobs. Locks and chains closed wharf 
gates tight. 

The Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) responded by placing pickets on all 
working wharves. Pickets had been operating on Melbourne wharves for many 
weeks. 

The use of hooded goons and savage dogs outraged many citizens who as a 
rule took little interest in political and industrial disputes.

International solidarity

But the company had not anticipated the strength and commitment of 
international affiliations and powerful union friends in various countries. 

Wharfies and seamen in New Zealand responded with declarations of support 
and solidarity. 

The US West Coast Longshoremen in the best traditions of Harry Bridges 
extended massive support. 

Dockers in Los Angles, challenged the shipowners and their law courts head 
on, when the "Columbus Canada", a container ship docked at Matson Berth, a 
Terminal Island. One thousand five hundred angry picketers chanting, "We 
support the MUA-No Scab Cargo in LA", met the ship.

The court ordered them to work but they refused to cross the picket lines. 
The ship had been loaded in Australia by scab labour and was forced to 
return to New Zealand and Australia with its full load of containers where 
the same containers were unloaded and reloaded by union labour.

As we look back to the 151 Days of 1951 and the heroic struggles by the 
wharfies, what are the main conclusions we can draw? What are the principal 
lessons that we have learnt?

First, the vital significance of international unity and solidarity. 
Further positive steps must be undertaken to unite every port in the 
Pacific, every working class organisation.

The second lesson we learnt with some bitterness, is the part played by 
reactionary conservative governments and their use of all the forces of the 
state against workers struggling to make a decent living  the police, 
armed forces, the courts and the use of scabs. 

Many workers do not see much difference between Labor and the Liberals. 
Look around and we see valuable people's property being privatised, sold 
off at bargain basement prices to national and foreign investors, powerful 
friends of politicians. Jobs are lost, more profit and dividends earned in 
Australia are sent overseas. Foreign investors pay very little taxation.

However in the 1950s the Seamen and Whafies had several outstanding union 
officials.

Both unions developed strong well-organised ship and job committees and 
produced some of the finest job delegates in the trade union movement.

Wharfies and seamen were convinced that their fight was our fight and 
nothing was allowed to deter them from supportive action. Money was a 
lifeline. It was defended with determination and responsibility.

"It is estimated that the amount of money sent from Australia to New 
Zealand by unions consisted of Miners: 6700 pounds, Wharfies 36,000, Seamen 

5000 pounds and overall from Australia over 50,000 poiunds (Dick Scott 
151 Days p 152). In those days that was a tremendous amount of 
money. 

Today we come across the Tasman, not with money but with greetings of 
friendship and declarations of unity and solidarity.

We commend and congratulate you on holding this Labour History Seminar.

We declare to this seminar that the MUA stands ready to assist and unite 
with our trade union brothers and sisters in New Zealand in all their 
struggles in the future.

Economic rationalism and globalisation are the policies and hopes of our 
oppressors. 

Fifty years ago New Zealand wharfies called for support. Unity in action 
was raised to a higher level. Younger workers will carry the banner of 
unity and solidarity around the world

As Marx and Engels stated in The Communist Manifesto: "Workers of 
the world unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains."

The last 50 years have proved that!

Back to index page