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The 1951 New Zealand waterfront dispute was the largest and most widespread industrial dispute in New Zealand history so far. During the time, up to twenty thousand workers went on strike in support of waterfront workers protesting financial hardships and working conditions. Thousands more refused to handle "scab" goods. The dispute, sometimes referred to as the waterfront lockout or waterfront strike, lasted 151 daysâ€”from 13 February to 15 July 1951.
The distance of New Zealand and Australia from their traditional markets, meant that ports played a pivotal role in the economies of the countries. The waterfront inevitably became point of conflict between workers and their unions on one side, and capital (the employers) and the state on the other.
During the Second World War due to labour shortages, watersiders and other workers worked long hours, often as much as 15-hour days. Following the war, New Zealand wages fell far behind the cost of living, but on the wharves working hours continued to be high. In January 1951 the Arbitration Court awarded a 15% wage increase to all workers covered by the industrial arbitration system. This did not apply to waterside workers, whose employment was controlled by the Waterfront Industry Commission. The shipping companies that employed the watersiders instead offered 9%. The watersiders then refused to work overtime in protest, and the employers locked them out.
The attitude of the watersiders puzzled many rural New Zealanders. The 40-hour-week legislation had been introduced supposedly to "protect" factory workers who had chosen to work long hours all year round. But New Zealand also had an agricultural economy, requiring all farm-workers - shepheds, shearers, hay-makers, truck-drivers, freezing-workers, fruit pickers - to work longer hours in summer, with much more free time in winter. In addition, watersiders and freezing workers were already earning incomes approximately 30% higher than most workers, receiving about 10 shillings an hour. In comparison, schoolteachers and truck drivers were getting about 7/-, female chefs 5/- and nuns teaching in Catholic schools 1/6 an hour. Wool prices tripled in 1951 and Cockies who had been struggling to survive on small sheep farms, getting low wool prices for 22 years, were starting to pay off their debts. They felt that the watersiders were trying to blackmail them by refusing to work according to the agricultural work cycle.
The watersidersâ€™ union had strong leadership. President Jock Barnes and secretary Toby Hill spearheaded trade unionism in New Zealand, by starting the Trade Union Congress in a breakaway from the Federation of Labour (which was allied to the Labour Party). The government and employers hated them because of it. The employers, through the newspapers which they owned, carried out long campaigns against the watersiders trying to isolate them from other workers. The employers were determined to smash the watersiders' union and set out to provoke a dispute which they thought they could win.
The strike was a major political issue of the time. The National government, led by Sidney Holland and the Minister of Labour William Sullivan, introduced Emergency Regulations, and brought in the navy and army to work the wharves. Holland condemned the action as "industrial anarchy", and explicitly sought a mandate to deal with the strike in the 1951 elections. The government was re-elected with an increased majority. The opposition Labour Party, led by Walter Nash, attempted to take a moderate position in the dispute, with Nash saying that "we are not for the waterside workers, and we are not against them". Labour's neutral position merely ended up displeasing both sides, however, and Nash was widely accused of indecision and lack of courage.
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