26 February 2015

Shipowners and the 1951 waterfront lockout

The 1951 waterfront lockout - 'the big blue' - still casts a shadow over New Zealand history. Robert Chapman suggested that smashing the unions 'was eventually to transfer the role of being the normal party of government from Labour to National'. Most commentators have also focused on the political fight between the government and the unions. Recently, though, Anna Green has put the shipowners back into the picture, highlighting their stevedoring operations. Stevedores organise and supervise the loading and discharge of ships and it was an extremely profitable business. In 1937 Shaw Savill said that 'stevedoring paid the SS and A Co. so handsomely that they would not lightly abandon it'. Geo H Scales Pacific did very well out of stevedoring in the postwar years. Yet despite the profitability of stevedoring, the lines paid its supervisors badly and went to counter-productive lengths to cut costs. According to Green, 'In pursuit of maximum profits, the shipping companies engaged in a policy of minimum investment on the waterfront. Ambitious to secure a fast turnaround in port while employing the cheapest possible labour, they came into constant conflict with the waterside workers, culminating in the extremely damaging dispute of 1951'.

- Gavin McLean, Captain's Log: New Zealand's Maritime History, Auckland, 2001, p.158-9. 

For more on the dispute, see the above-quoted Anna Green, British Capital, Antipodean Labour: Working the New Zealand Waterfront 1915-1951, University of Otago Press, Dunedin, 2001. 
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