The 1951 Lockout of port workers lasted 151 days

The 1951 Waterfront Lockout and class struggle

The 1951 Lockout is one of the most important labour disputes in NZ history. It lasted 151 days and ended in defeat of the wharfies and their allies in the labour movement. But at the same time it is a struggle that represents the best traditions of working class struggle against bosses bent on suppressing unions and destroying hard won gains. We can use the documentary 151 Days to look at the significance of social class in the immediate post 2nd WW period. We can do this by comparing the a number of different views of social class – Maori, neo-liberal, liberal, radical and Marxist. Jock Barnes book Never a White Flag or Dick Scotts 151 Days are essential reading for anyone seriously interested in this topic.

Maori viewpoint

I take the view that Pre-European Maori society did not have class divisions between those who worked and those who lived of that work, as distinct from some other Polynesian societies such as Tahiti and Hawaii that had developed classes (see Marshall Sahlins, ‘What Natives Think, about Captain Cook for example’.) However, with colonisation Europeans tried to impose a class concept onto Maori society as chiefs were held to have land ownership rights similar to the British gentry (Michael Basset being a recent example).

Capitalist colonisation has created ‘classes’ within Maori society, whatever Euro-standpoint you use – for neo-liberals/Cons, an ‘underclass’ of welfare and Treaty beneficiaries as opposed to successful individuals who have escaped dependency (Alan Duff); for liberals, a residue of poor and marginalised Maori and a minority of successful professionals and businessmen and women (Steve Maharey – a sociologist turned politician, now a University CEO); for radicals, mainly manual workers, some middle class, some small capitalists and a few big capitalists (see Annette Sykes); for Marxists, wage workers, petty bourgeois (self-employed) some small capitalists and a few large capitalists (Brian Roper). But of course each of these standpoints has a distinct concept of what class means, and therefore what impact is has on Maori society.

The 1951 Lockout showed that most Maori were manual workers working on the wharves, freezing works, railways, mines and heavy construction. They made up a sizable part of the workers who became involved in the Lockout and solidarity strikes. At that point we could say that as well as their own Maori traditions of work they were now part also of the capitalist working class. Therefore they tended to take on the radical and Marxist views of social class and class struggle (Hone Tuwhare).


Neo-liberals are usually capitalists who see the individuals as sovereign and free; and classes as artificial divisions in the market, introduced by state interference in market forces and/or invented by liberals, radical and Marxists. Conservatives may sometimes use the term ‘class’ to mean ‘status’ or social standing. Both tend to agree that individuals will find their place in the market through their own efforts. The only ‘class’ recognised by neo-liberals is the ‘underclass’ a category of people who have failed to compete in the market and are dependent on the state for support. Ideally, they should be freed from dependency and those who are ‘deserving’ should be kept alive by private charity. Since individuals are free, workers who join unions introduce a labour monopoly (similar to an employers’ monopoly) into the market that prevents employers from individually contracting workers making them compete for for jobs driving down wages. Individual employers are justified in breaking this monopoly by employing other individuals to replace unionized workers.

The 1951 lockout is regarded by the employers as a strike because the wharfies refused ‘normal’ overtime i.e. they broke a contract between buyers and sellers of labour. This was the stand taken by the then National Government under Prime Minister Syd Holland. Holland’s stand against the union was backed by the US which sent Secretary of State, Foster Dulles, to NZ to stress the need to take a strong stand against ‘communist’ influence in the unions. [Dulles attended a Cabinet meeting sitting at the head of the table].The ship-owners were justified in ‘colluding’ to lock out the workers and replace them with other workers. When the wharfies sought support from other unions this increased the monopoly of labour and justified the state stepping with the army to break the strike and suppress solidarity as sedition. The suspension of civil rights (banning meetings, street marches, publications etc) was justified to prevent the unions from halting production, distribution and exchange and therefore the threat to the property rights of the employers.

The outcome, the defeat of the unions after 151 days, and the jailing and victimisation of the leaders over many years, was a victory for the employers /conservatives. It set the course for industrial relations over the next decades as the defeat of the radicals in the unions left the unions much weakened and incapable of pushing for a better share of the national income over the period up to the end of the post-war boom in the 1970s. When some of the unions recovered and began striking in the 1970s the conservatives returned to the ‘red scare’ message and the image of dancing Cossacks which led to Labour’s defeat after one term in office in 1975. Muldoon spent the years up to 1984 attacking ‘communists’ in the meat workers, drivers and boilermakers unions. Labour’s neo-liberal reforms of the 1980s were driven through with little resistance from a weakened and moderate labour movement.

National’s ECA of 1991 was able to exploit this passivity to legislate the neo-liberal dream of putting an end to collective bargaining, allowing employers and individual workers to enter into individual contracts without union involvement. By 2000 neo-liberals and conservatives could claim that employers and workers could buy and sell labour as individuals with almost no interference from the state. Classes (as monopolies) had been virtually abolished by free market forces. All that remained was the ‘underclass’ dependent on state welfare.


In 1951 while the Government went on the attack, there was huge support among the majority of the people for the unions up against what they saw as the monopoly of wealth and power of the ship-owners. Liberals think that the power of employers and labour should be balanced in a state of industrial harmony. The Labour Party, represented by Walter Nash, came out in front of a mass meeting in the Auckland Domain standing firmly in the middle as “neither for nor against” the unions. As you would expect Labour sought to reconcile the ‘classes’ by state negotiation and arbitration.

The Labour Party and the majority of unionists were liberal. For them Aotearoa/NZ was a haven of equality and a refuge from the class-ridden UK represented by the ship-owners. Social classes only existed as a result of imbalances or monopolies of wealth and power. The state could redistribute wealth and power and ‘reconcile’ classes. These policies would create upward social mobility of workers and a ‘middle class’ country. That is why the colonial state had recognised the right of workers to unionise in the 1880s as a social counterweight to the power of the employers. And then the forerunner to the Labour Party, the Liberals, following the great Maritime Strike of 1890, introduced the IC&A Act in 1894 to prevent future economic damage from industrial conflict. From henceforth the state’s Arbitration Court would ‘reconcile’ the workers and employers classes by means of wage orders that would ‘balance’ wages with profits.

In practice the Court tended to favour employers and after a ‘nil’ wage order in 1907 a number of unions including miners and seafarers left the IC&A and formed the syndicalist [def. workers strength is in the unions not parliament] ‘Red Federation’. This led to a period of industrial upheaval which culminated in the Waihi Strike of 1912 (see Harry Holland’s The Tragic Story of Waihi) and the general strike of 1913. The defeat of the militant unions and onset of WW 1 suppressed the militant labour movement and steered it into the newly formed moderate Labour Party until in the 1930s depression widespread unemployment and poverty sparked worker demonstrations and the first so-called Queen St riot.

1951 was the next major clash between workers and employers sparked less by economic hardship and more by the intensification of class confrontation referred to as the ‘cold war’. The hostile stand taken against the USSR by the US and its allies spread to NZ where the Holland government targeted ‘reds under the beds’ in the unions. This polarisation between strong conservative anti-communism and the radicals (very few reds) in the unions, left the liberals somewhat bemused like Walter Nash stranded in no-man’s land in the class war.

The liberals’ class neutrality meant they criticised the British ship-owners use of the lockout, but they also criticised the radicals in the unions for breaking away from the moderate Labour Party-affiliated Federation of Labour to form the radical Trade Union Congress. The solution was always moderation and the video shows how even Dick Scott (In 151 Days) was critical of Jock Barnes’ leadership in keeping the dispute going well beyond the point where there was any hope of averting defeat. The liberals blame Barnes and the other ‘militants’ in the unions for abandoning conciliation and arbitration and inflicting an unnecessary defeat on the union movement from which it would take decades to recover. But Barnes, a radical syndicalist, was not going to retreat. The hard right government was demanding the union submit to compulsory arbitration and give up basic rights and conditions, that is, union breaking. Barnes was backed by 2000 wharfies in Auckland until the very end refusing to back down and sacrifice the gains of past struggles.

Ironically, the Fourth Labour government benefited from the aftermath of this defeat when it imposed its shock Rogernomic reforms in the 1980s. With its return to government in 1999, and a shift to a Blairite conception of ‘stakeholders’ in the market which includes the labour movement, the Labour Party has tried to restore a ‘class harmony’ to industrial relations with the Employment Relations Act of 2000 and the amended ERA of 2005. Yet radicals might say, how is this different to the ECA – the workers share of wealth has gone down and bosses gone up.


The Waterside Workers’ Union was a bastion of radicalism. It contained many battlers from previous fights such as the General Strike in 1913 who were brought up with syndicalist, anarchist and socialist ideas [as were most of the first Labour Party leaders like Harry Holland]. Its paper, the Transport Worker (edited by Dick Scott) carried educational stories on the ‘Red Federation’. In 1951 the union officially supported the Labour Party but it was highly critical of its weak-kneed liberalism. Witness its criticism of the Fraser government’s ‘cold war’ politics (Fraser responded by calling the watersiders ‘wreckers’); its attacks on F.P. Walsh the right-wing leader of the FOL [who also owned a huge dairy farm]; its political campaign to ban shipping iron ore to Japan when it invaded China; its opposition to conscription in 1949 and the All Black tour to South Africa. The union was on the left of the labour movement. It was working class conscious with an active social and sporting calendar involving the wives and families. Politically its program was for gender equity, subsidised housing for workers, the scrapping of Royal tours and spending on defence, and the nationalisation of key industries.

The WWU politics fits the radical category of class based on ‘unequal exchange’ where bosses profit from holding down wages and conditions. Some ‘Marxists’ in its ranks also saw class in these terms. They saw the class struggle as a world wide confrontation between employers and workers over the division of profits and wages. For example, Tom Bramble in his introduction to Jock Barnes book (Never a White Flag) talks of Dockers in East London, metalworkers in Melbourne, and carpenters in Auckland, in a common struggle with ‘workers in the Nissan factories in Japan, farm labourers in southern Italy and railway workers in France’ (18).

The two main classes were at loggerheads over which class would dominate the post-war world economy. The ship-owners, the government and the right-wing Walsh leadership of the FOL were out to smash the radical unions. But the militant wing of the labour movement in NZ and elsewhere was not about to lie down and die. At the height of the dispute 22,000 thousand workers were involved in industrial action in support of the WWU. This was made of up 8000 wharfies, 7000 freezing workers, 4000 miners, 1000 hydro workers and 500 drivers. Australian, Canadian and US unions refused to handle ships loaded by strikebreakers in NZ.

Class lines were drawn in the dispute. University students endorsed the government’s side, much as they had done against the ‘rioters’ of the 1930s. Academic historians like Michael Bassett and Erik Olssen (see Bramble’s Introduction) in writing about the dispute were more or less hostile to Barnes and the radicals. But Maori and women’s organisations came out in support of the wharfies showing that these members of the working class knew which side they were on. While unions in support eventually returned to work leaving the wharfies to fight alone, they did so under pressure and would have agreed with Barnes in 1972 who wrote in his review of Michael Bassett’s book Confrontation ‘51’. “We had no option as unionists and men but to fight back and make our attackers pay as dearly as possible. In this we succeeded.”

The defeat of the radicals was not inevitable. They were not bound to lose. Other struggles have seen governments back down. But the stakes in this Lockout were huge. It was a test of which class controlled society. Bramble contrasts the ’51 dispute with the collapse of union resistance in ’91 to the ECA. He says the defeat of ’51 did not destroy the unions or the class consciousness generated by the struggle. It could not be held responsible for the back down without a fight in ’91 which almost destroyed the unions so that today union membership is less than 20% of the workforce.


Unlike the radicals, Marxists think class is defined not by exchange relations but by the relations of production; as owners or non-owners of the means of production. Exploitation does not result from unequal exchange because the workers do not own the commodities they produce. The capitalists own these commodities, including the labour-power they buy from the workers, and sell them on the market. Part of the value created by the workers is paid to the workers as the value of their labour-power, that is the wage, while the rest is retained as surplus value or profits.

However, because this expropriation of value during production is hidden, workers perceive their exploitation as based on the capitalist not paying them the full value of their labour power. This is the precise point of difference between Marxists and Radicals. The WWU workers and some of the Marxists in the labour movement share the radical view. This is what led to the syndicalism of Barnes. It is a belief that the capitalists and their lackeys in the unions can be defeated by a moblisation of organised labour that has the power to force parliament from the outside to improve the rights and conditions of workers including fair wages and conditions.

From a Marxist standpoint we can see why Barnes and the radical unionists thought that the unions could wield enough power to make the bosses concede a living wage and decent work conditions. After all bosses are trying to get as much as they can using their state, the law and the armed forces. Workers on the other hand have the power of withdrawing their labour and halting production. It is a power struggle between those who own the means of production and those who are the producers of value.

Marxists however do not see exploitation as something that can be ended by strike action to reform the state. The state is a capitalist state that serves to make sure that workers remain exploited. It passes laws that protect the capitalists’ ownership of the means of production and uses force to break the power of organized labour. For organized labour to win and end class exploitation would mean the overthrow of that state and the capitalist system – the anti-capitalism of today. Therefore, unless the WWU had been able to break the power of the state though a general strike which won over the ranks of the military, prevented the use of scabs to do the work of the locked out and striking workers, enabled the working class to take state power and expropriate the capitalists’ property, then the wharfies would sooner or later go down to defeat.

In the context of the world situation in 1951 after a major war and during a long boom in which global capitalism accumulated rising profits, and the onset of the ‘cold war’, the conditions did not favour the victory of the WWU. In the long run however, Marxists argue that capitalists cannot raise the rate of exploitation fast enough to maintain profits and crises follow along with depressions, devaluation of capital (restructuring), export of capital and labour to new countries, markets etc. Thus the class structure necessarily leads to periodic cycles of growing inequality, rising exploitation and ultimately crises, which bring in turn a rise in strikes, industrial unrest, or ‘class struggle’. As the crises get worse the struggle gets stronger and the working class is able to organize as an international class capable of taking power and organizing a new, socialist society.