Created By: Radical Wellington Walking Tour
The 1951 Waterfront Lockout and supporting strikes were together the biggest industrial struggle since the Great Strikes of 1913. Watersiders and their supporters were pitted against the National government, the shipping companies, the CIA and the right-wing leadership of the mainstream union movement, headed up by the sinister Fintan Patrick Walsh. The Labour Party refused to support them, and every major newspaper across the country attacked them as saboteurs and wreckers. Police harassed those trying to provide food to watersiders’ families, and watersiders’ meetings and information rallies were routinely broken up and dispersed. Recently released documents show that even the CIA was involved in breaking the lockout, secretly flying goods from Paraparaumu to Blenheim to keep supply lines open. Against all of this the women and men of the waterside community “stood loyal right through”, holding out 151 days until they were forced to accept defeat. Their defeat was a significant victory in the New Zealand theatre of the Cold War, ushering in twenty years of almost uninterrupted National party rule and decades of industrial calm.
The immediate causes of the lockout were complex, and are still disputed, but its cause in outline was this: the Waterside Workers Union, under the militant leadership of Jock Barnes and Toby Hill, stood for class struggle unionism, relying on their members’ industrial strength against the shipping companies. This was anathema both to the official union movement leadership, who had grown comfortable with collaboration and arbitration under the First Labour Government, and a threat to big business and ‘business as usual’ across the country. National leader Sid Holland smeared the watersiders as Communists determined to wreck the country and acting on orders from Moscow. The union was, in fact, a remarkably democratic body, and Jock Barnes was too much a free-thinker to adhere to Soviet Communism or the restrictive environment of the CPNZ.
Coal miners, freezing workers, seamen and some railway workers went on strike against the emergency regulations the National government passed during the watersiders’ lockout. The army was sent on to the wharves, and watersiders were arrested when they tried to argue their case in public. As many as 20 000 workers were locked out or on strike at the height of the conflict. Money and solidarity came from international unions. But, eventually, exhausted by constant police harassment, and ground down by months without pay, the lockout broke down. Militancy on the wharves was broken for the next decade, and Jock Barnes was driven out of the industry.
But if the watersiders went down to defeat, their heroic struggle over 151 days inspired new generations of trade unionists in the next great rank-and-file revival of the 1970s. Their campaign remains a point of reference in New Zealand unionism close to 70 years on from the battle.
This photo shows a march of watersiders and their allies being stopped at the corner of Cuba and Dixon Streets by police on May 3, 1951.
Want to learn more?
Dick Scott’s 151 Days is the classic account, and is widely available in libraries and second-hand bookshops. Victoria University Press published Jock Barnes’s memoirs, Never a White Flag, in 1998. The edition contains a long, contextualising introduction by Tom Bramble.
This point of interest is part of the tour: Walking Radical Wellington