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!