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27 Feb 1951: Lest we forget

datePosted on 08:42, February 27th, 2009 by Anita

On 27 February 1951 the government deployed the army onto the wharves in an attempt to break a union.

My summary of the Waterfront Dispute: the workers took action as part of a pay dispute by refusing to work over Finn, the ports locked them out, the government declared a state of emergency, rolled in the army and put in draconian regulations that, amongst other things, made it illegal to give food to the children of locked out wharfies.

Today I’m thinking of three things

  1. The courage of the wharfies and their families
  2. The strength and kindness of everyone who broke the law to make sure they had food and shelter
  3. That the “reforms” of the 80s and 90s broke the unions in a way the army never could.

What do we need to do to return power to workers?

The documentary produced for the strike’s 50th anniversary is available here, thanks IrishBill.

15 Responses to “27 Feb 1951: Lest we forget”

  1. imperial zeppelin on February 27th, 2009 at 10:36

    What do we need to do to return power to workers?

    We (workers) only need to excercise it.

    Nothing has been taken away. Our present situation is grounded in false perceptions and fears, nurtured through and by media and laws and lack of confidence.

  2. Julie Fairey on February 27th, 2009 at 11:41

    Thanks for writing about this Anita. Glad to hear you are on a People’s Train!

    I did not know at the time I became politically active that my mother’s family was involved in the Lockout. My maternal grandfather was one of the wharfies locked out, their families not able to be assisted by anyone, and he was subsequently black listed and never worked on the wharves again. I don’t think he was a particular trouble-maker or leader, but one of the masses. The long term effects that it had on the family were massive, in terms of health and relationships, as well as financial.

  3. Phil Sage (sagenz) on February 27th, 2009 at 12:07

    don’t forget to write about the wharfies going on strike during the war to get more money for their protected occupation whilst their countrymen and women were fighting overseas

  4. Thomas Beagle on February 27th, 2009 at 12:36

    “…put in draconian regulations that, amongst other things, made it illegal to give food to the children of locked out wharfies.”

    I’ve mentioned this to a few people who seemed to be a bit too much on the “this could never happen here” smug train about US torture policies.

  5. James on February 27th, 2009 at 13:17

    That this sort of State violence and repression of freedom could happen in NZ should serve as a reminder to those who want the State involved in the economy and our lives more than it is now…

    This historical example of what can happen in the absense of a free market should give pause for thought…

  6. Anita on February 27th, 2009 at 13:49

    James writes,

    This historical example of what can happen in the absense of a free market should give pause for thought…

    I know that a free market is a perfect panacea, but…

    Can you please explain how a free market would’ve made that particular situation better?

  7. Julie Fairey on February 27th, 2009 at 17:11

    Maybe James means that the Government wouldn’t have been able to make it illegal to sell food to those families, and The Market Would Have Provided?

    Of course that ignores the fact that the families had lost their incomes, and thus would not have been able to afford to buy any food.

  8. jcuknz on February 27th, 2009 at 17:38

    Yes it is a day to remember and should be remembered as the tragedy of two groups of foolish men locking heads together .

    I hope these days neither side is as stupid or strong enough to create a similar situation.

    The strength of a union is in its ability to talk to management and vise versa to solve the problem. I believe there are quite a few union leaders these days capable in a way quite absent in the days of the waterfront. The action of the government of the time was completely disgusting to put it politely.

  9. James on February 27th, 2009 at 22:45

    Can you please explain how a free market would’ve made that particular situation better?

    The absense of force that would have meant the State couldn’t do what it did…..obvious.

    Of course that ignores the fact that the families had lost their incomes, and thus would not have been able to afford to buy any food.

    But people could have fed them without becoming criminals in the process….a free market is simply free people interacting with mutral consent….that was prevented by State violence….you belive that if people aren’t menaced by the State at gun point they won’t assist their fellow men Julie…? typical socialist mindset..

  10. Nineteen fifty one at The Standard on February 28th, 2009 at 16:57

    […] [hat-tip: Anita] […]

  11. Dean on February 28th, 2009 at 19:12

    Of course that ignores the fact that the families had lost their incomes, and thus would not have been able to afford to buy any food.

    It’s also ignoring the fact that the same group of people went on strike during the war, while they were in a protected occupation, while other citizens were off fighting.

    I’m not saying the government of the day acted appropriately. I’m just saying that in this case the cause the union was representing wasn’t exactly fair or just when you take into consideration their previous actions – something “pro worker” union supporters love to forget about or to pretend simply didn’t happen.

  12. Anita on February 28th, 2009 at 20:44

    Dean writes,

    It’s also ignoring the fact that the same group of people went on strike during the war, while they were in a protected occupation, while other citizens were off fighting.

    Can you explain why a union shouldn’t strike during a war? Or why being a protected occupation should prevent them striking?

    BTW can you provide a ref to the strike, I’m struggling to find anything useful.

  13. Dean on March 2nd, 2009 at 19:35

    Can you explain why a union shouldn’t strike during a war? Or why being a protected occupation should prevent them striking?

    Well, let’se see.

    It could have something to do with a militant union who knew there weren’t enough spare people around to fill the ranks should they go on strike, due to there being a war. They see the perfect way to hold a country to ransom – just like so many unions did up until the late 80s – and go for it.

    If that doesn’t strike you as the typical example of a militant union then I don’t know what will.

  14. Anita on March 2nd, 2009 at 20:30



    That doesn’t explain why workers shouldn’t strike during wars.

  15. Pablo on March 2nd, 2009 at 21:18

    It seems to me that Dean is trying to offer the example that a union, without economic justification or grievance, could strategically opt to strike during wartime for unmerited benefits (however defined) knowing that the lack of surplus labour and urgencies of war production would favour it. However, the assumes uniformity of opinion and lack of nationalism/patriotism amongst the rank and file, who could have relatives in combat theaters and who may not be disposed to follow an “anti-patriotic” union leadership. It also assumes absolute leadership control over the rank and file, which again, presumes ideological unity.

    Then there is the issue of lock-outs should some part of the union movement go out on strike.

    In any event, the example of strikes during wartime is irrelevant to 1951.

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