Division and defeat - 1951 waterfront dispute

Despite the scale of the 1951 dispute, the wider labour movement was not united behind the watersiders' cause. In fact, only 8% of the country's union members took part in the dispute – the other 200,000 continued working. The watersiders’ militancy had isolated them from most unionists, who were affiliated to the more moderate Federation of Labour (FOL). Fintan Patrick Walsh and other FOL leaders called on wharfies to ‘abandon their Communist-dominated misleaders’. Meanwhile, Walter Nash’s Labour Party Opposition sat uncomfortably on the fence, denouncing government repression but refusing to back either side.

Attempts at mediation were undermined by the ideologies, intransigence and egos of those involved. Sensing victory, the National government took a hard line with the unionists. Instead of simply forcing the wharfies to accept the original 9% increase, the government resolved to destroy the old Waterfront Workers’ Union and replace it with new unions in each port. As the dispute dragged on into winter, there was widespread intimidation and sporadic outbursts of violence.

‘Terrorists’ and truncheons 

On 30 April a railway bridge near Huntly was dynamited, presumably by striking coal miners. Train drivers were warned in advance and no one was hurt, but coal supplies were severely disrupted. Prime Minister Holland denounced it as ‘an infamous act of terrorism’.

On several occasions, unionist street protests were broken up by ranks of baton-wielding police. The worst incident occurred in Auckland on 1 June – dubbed ‘Bloody Friday’ – when police violently dispersed up to 1000 marchers in Queen Street. One victim suffered a suspected fractured skull, and 20 others had to be treated for lacerations, concussion and bruises.

By the end of May, with new unions of strike-breakers (denounced by unionists as scabs) registered in the main ports, the wharfies’ position was becoming increasingly hopeless. Eventually, after a five-month struggle, they conceded defeat on 15 July. Jock Barnes, meanwhile, had been sentenced to two months in prison for 'defaming' a police constable.

The aftermath

Militant unionism was dealt a crushing blow. Many watersiders were blacklisted (banned from working on the wharves) for years afterwards. Holland immediately called a snap election, which took place on 1 September 1951. The electorate delivered the government a resounding victory, with National winning 54% of the vote and four more seats than in 1949.

The defeat of the wharfies reasserted the FOL’s control over the New Zealand union movement. Bitterness between supporters of the watersiders and FOL leaders, such as Fintan Patrick Walsh, lingered for decades, even though Walsh himself adopted a more militant stance in later years. For many unionists, though, the watersiders’ loyalty card – bearing the words ‘stood loyal right through’ – was a prized badge of honour. More than half a century later, the 1951 dispute continues to hold a central place in the history and mythology of the New Zealand labour movement.

How to cite this page: 'Division and defeat - 1951 waterfront dispute', URL: http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/politics/the-1951-waterfront-dispute/division-and-defeat, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 24-Jun-2014