Saturday, 28 February 2009

Remembering 1951

Police confront Watersider's protest march. Wellington, 1951.

This curious little posting over at The Standard caught my eye. In it "Irish Bill" rather piously informs his readers that the infamous Waterfront Lockout (which began on 27 February 1951) and even the Great Strike of 1913, are events which he "unlike other commentators on the Left" prefers to "commemorate" rather than "celebrate" because "in both cases working people suffered greatly for little gain".

Sadly, this rather sniffy attitude towards the two great industrial struggles of New Zealand history is all too typical of a certain kind of Labour Party member/supporter. To me, it betokens a disdainful attitude towards working-class independence in general, and militant trade unionism in particular. (The very best exponent of the mindset, even back when he was still a member of the NZLP, was Dr Michael Bassett, whose book, Confrontation ‘51 positively reeks of middle class superciliousness.)

Needless to say, I consider Irish Bill’s comments regarding the Lockout to be dead wrong. As Jock Barnes, himself, said in his foreword to Dick Scott’s celebrated 151 Days:

"As surely as night follows day, an offensive by the Holland Government against the workers of New Zealand was inevitable. And years of inspired press propaganda had made it clear that the New Zealand Waterside Workers Union would be objective number one. Its record of progressive thought and militant policy, not only for its own members but for the working class as a whole, had made that certain ….. But the intended blitzkrieg developed into a long and costly offensive. While thousands of workers, their wives and children, suffered dearly, money power took some mighty blows. It is still licking its wounds. The boss is always the worker’s greatest organiser, and [in 1951] he educated tens of thousands of workers in the fundamentals of capitalist economy. From that education the people will inevitably collect a rich dividend ….. The working class can thank those who fought [in 1951] for the conditions they still enjoy. Every day suffered by a miner’s wife and children, every further day that a freezing worker, watersider or seaman stood and fought back, reduced the chances of a general offensive."

In my book No Left Turn, I interogate Barnes's claims, but from a very different perspective to that of Irish Bill’s:

"Was [Barnes] right? Were the people of New Zealand, in ways which, for more than five decades, they have been actively discouraged from investigating, the genuine beneficiaries of the bitter industrial struggle that racked their little nation from 15 February until 15 July 1951? A swift survey of the principal historical judges of this event: Keith Sinclair, Bill Sutch, Michael Bassett, Bert Roth and James Belich; would suggest not. As far as New Zealand historiography is concerned "1951" was, at best, an heroic – if ultimately futile – reprise of 1913; further proof that the trade unions could not "take on the State and win". At worst, it was simply an avoidable and unmitigated disaster. But, as we shall see, 1951 marked not a sudden and irrational recrudescence of the insurrectionist impulses of 1908-1913, but the ruthless reimposition of the corporatist compromise between capital, labour and the state that was first broached in the depths of the Great Depression, and then consolidated through daily application during the Second World War. Adapting the union movement to the political and economic realities of Corporatism emerged as the prime political mission of the men who have emerged as the villains of the 1951 tragedy: Walsh and Young, Fraser and Nash. Their unacknowledged and unappreciated role? To keep the milk of Labour’s social and economic reforms, by separating out – and ruthlessly sacrificing – the cream of the labour movement."

For the next forty years, from 1951 to 1991, working people in New Zealand enjoyed the protection of the unqualified preference clause and national awards. Why? Because Sid Holland was really the worker’s friend? No. It was because Jock Barnes and the 20,000 trade unionists who held out against the Emergency Regulations for 151 days, taught the National Party a bitter lesson in the dangers of attempting to crush working class organisations by force majeure; just as Fintan Patrick Walsh and the moderate leaders of the Federation of Labour demonstrated to Holland and his successors the wisdom of maintaining a corporatist approach to industrial relations.

In this respect "1951" was not a defeat but a victory for the NZ working class. Their greatest defeat, in 1991, was visited upon them not at the hands of the traditional enemy, the National Party (although it did its best!) but from the hands of its own trade union leaders. Tragically, the CTU was led by men and women who, like Irish Bill, saw only defeat and failure in the great moments of working class resistance, and who forgot that, so long as you’re willing to fight, you can never truly lose. Because the example you provide for the generations to come of resistance to injustice, and self-sacrifice in a noble cause, is always in and of itself a triumph of the human spirit.


Anonymous said... long as you're willing to fight, you can never truly lose."

Nice prose Chris, but it reeks of outdated and useless class war sentiment.

May I paraphrase ? " long as you keep fighting the class war, you can never really win."

. said...

Whos been in the waterfront Museum in WGN?

Very impressive and you could imagine the hatred the port authority and the watersiders had for each other just by assaying the attitude evident in the architecture and photography.

Anonymous said...

Irish Bill’s superfluous original post was disrespectful to boot. The ’51 lockout is certainly an ongoing source of good material for analysis precisely because of the character of those directly involved and the underlying politics. What drama –state forces, collaborationist politicians and unions, militant workers, staunch unions, underground resistance–as Dean Parker, Renee, Rudy Sunde, Dick Scott and others have revealed.

One wonders what might constitute a defining event for todays bloggers that casually dismiss the likes of Johnny Mitchell, Ron Black, Jock Barnes, Jim Knox, Ernie Delaney, Bill Andersen etc. A good long read of the “Hollow Men” perhaps? Or perhaps an avatar blackout–that really showed ’em! It is a rare event that is seriously discussed 50 years on.

A loyalty card from ’51 was a passport to all sorts of useful things, the banned watersiders scattered far and wide and assisted other NZ unions to look beyond the award system. The “wagon men” (often scabs not soldiers, under cover of army vehicles) were not forgotten either when they popped up at work sites. The legacy of this dispute runs deep. I recall at Jim Knox funeral (Jim being ex FOL President and a ’51 veteran), Jock Barnes delivered a thunderous attack on KG Douglas from the CTU (Douglas was present) to the horror and embarrassment of many at the gathering. In retrospect Jock was right, the failure to at least attempt a general strike when thousands were marching daily already, of even a limited duration, was a tactical blunder of the major variety with serious consequences lingering today.

I have posted before here as to the true nature of this “blunder”.

As for anonymous’s “outdated and useless class war” –hello, dispatches tell me it is still going on out there in 90 day fire at will land.

Anonymous said...


As long as there are people who desire to have part of society imporverished or in severe hardship so so another part can be enriched, there will always need to be a class struggle.

It is because of the 'class of 51', the 'class of 1913' and even the 'class of 1908' that you can enjoy your high paid 9 to 5 job with the hour long lunch break.

And now, the battles they fought and won, are going to have to be fought and won once more, .