Kids' banned lunches, batons and anger

PAT BOOTH
Last updated 14:43 21/03/2012

The headlines and the rhetoric seem to have switched time back more than 60 years – strikes, lockouts, pickets and, I suspect, "scabs" if you are in the wrong place.

The place in 2012 – as in 1951 – is the Auckland waterfront. And the words are a reminder of a sometimes terrified novice reporter, barely months away from reporting small town A and P shows, suddenly switched to the Auckland front-lines of the worst industrial battle since the riots of the Depression.

When I button-holed Michael Bassett, former Labour Cabinet minister and author of a history of the 1951 wharf stoppage, to check our recall of those days, our memories came together like a jigsaw.

Bassett on the build-up to 1951: "Behind the dispute were years of tension ... The 1951 dispute escalated from a rather far-fetched dispute over wages in February 1951 into a full-scale confrontation between the Government and the national union, the NZ Waterside Workers Union.

"When the ship owners refused for reasonably legitimate reasons to pass on a then recent Arbitration Court pay increase to watersiders, they, in turn, collectively decided to refuse to work overtime.

"An individual could opt out of working overtime but a collective refusal was deemed by their work conditions to be a strike. The ship owners were entitled to penalise a collective refusal to work overtime by locking out all workers for two days as a penalty. By February 1951, virtually no work was being done on New Zealand's waterfront at the height of the export season."

Booth: I remember the strong men involved. Then, they all seemed larger than life: Wharfie leader Jock Barnes, who controlled 7500 on the country's waterfronts – 2700 in Auckland. National Prime Minister Holland who saw the wharf issue as a threat to the whole system of arbitration. His strong man was Labour Minister Big Bill Sullivan. Fintan Patrick Walsh, the tough image of the Federation of Labour, who – astonishingly to my young mind then – sided with the ship owners and the Government to brand the clash "a strike" where unionists claimed they were locked out. Labour parliamentary leader Walter Nash, memorably defined himself as "neither for nor against" the watersiders.

Bassett: "Behind the dispute were years of tension. The ship owners were spoiling for a fight to break open the heavy-handed activities of Barnes and his wharfie support.

"In 1950, the watersiders left the Federation of Labour and helped set up a rival Trades Union Congress, competing with the FOL for membership. The waterfront dispute was part of that struggle between two competing organisations for membership. That was why Walsh sided with the ship owners and the Government during the dispute which he and they called a strike. Behind the dispute was another important factor. From 1940, the central feature of New Zealand's economy was what was called `economic stabilisation'.

"Both Labour and National governments were intent on spending to the hilt – but regulating the economy to try to keep inflation under control. Rapid wages would, of course, push up inflation and threaten stabilisation.

"Under the Arbitration Act, wages were negotiated through a court system. Both National and Labour governments stuck rigidly to that process. Failing to acknowledge that their refusal to follow court rulings would be inflationary, the watersiders wanted to break free from these controls.

"The Government had weapons to keep control of the situation. They could declare a State of Emergency and the minister of labour could legally deregister a striking union, freeze its funds, and register another one in its place. In 1951, they did all four."

Booth: April 30 was one of two days in 1951, I'll never forget. Men wanting to register in the new waterfront union were told to do that at the Auckland Town Hall that Saturday morning. By the time they got there, hundreds of the old union had set up a gauntlet which "the scabs" had to run from Wellesley St to the hall door.

I was in the middle of it. I can see myself in old photos, sheltering against the wall as the deregistered unionists called for a charge to break down the town hall door. A Communist leader courageously climbed on to a parked car and shouted them out of it. Another day, when police batons broke up a protest march in Upper Queen St, I watched union wounded transferred to ambulances at the Trades Hall as an angry Barnes looked on from the steps.

As weeks passed, and food shelves in deregistered unionists' homes emptied, hatred and hunger grew, violence too. One man who answered a knock at his door one night not far from where I boarded, had his face slashed with a bike chain in front of his wife and children. Why? Because he'd joined the new Auckland union. That made him "a scab".

Back to the present: Over last weekend I listened to a tape of the Holland national radio announcement of the 1951 emergency laws. They'd been taken, he said: "Because of an attempt to overthrow the Government by force they have declared war on the people."

As evidence he quoted an attempt to blow up a coal-carrying railway bridge near Huntly.

Under the Emergency Regulations then it was illegal to provide help of any sort for a "striker", their family, even their children. Fire-eating Labour MP Mabel Howard called the rule "a war on women".

Police with extended powers of search and arrest ransacked homes looking for pamphlets and presses which were illegal under the act. Te Papa has one of the secret typewriters the police never found.

Newspapers were bullied by the regulations not to run the waterfront view. To their shame, they complied.

Jock Barnes was sentenced to four months' jail in Mt Eden for defaming a police officer.

As the weeks went by, support slowly ebbed. Other unions like miners, freezing workers, drivers caught up through what would now be called "collateral damage" – opposing the emergency regulations – ended their strikes. Old men with long memories still treasure cards which the deregistered union issued to members who "supported the 1951 lockout and stood loyal for 151 days".

After those 151 days, the wharfies faced up to the inevitable and agreed to work – in jobs which were no longer there for them. In Auckland, only 4.6 per cent got back on the waterfront. Not surprisingly, Jock Barnes was not one of them.

Perhaps, the strongest clue to his makeup and the history of 1951 is the title of his memoirs, published two years before his death in 2000 at 92: Never a White Flag, or the time he was said to have demanded "embarrassment money" for wharfies unloading a shipment of toilet pans! By the end of it all, the Barnes massive one union empire on all the country's wharves had been replaced by more than 20 much smaller unions, one in every port.

Not surprisingly, the Holland Government scored a big win in the snap election Holland called.

Bassett: "The differences, of course, between then and now are considerable. No capacity to declare a State of Emergency exists any more. Margaret Wilson's weak industrial legislation in 2000 provides no role for the Government if bargaining between the parties breaks down completely, as it clearly did in this case. Once `good faith' has evaporated on both sides, the way is open for a slug-fest ..."

Booth: But not, we trust, for another 151 days.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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