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Frontier Of Dreams

Sundays 6.40am | TV ONE

1951 Waterfront Dispute

In New Zealand links between communism and unions worried many people. The Watersiders Workers Union was seen as the most sinister of all. They had been on strike many times in recent years and the new National government aimed to get tough.

In early 1951 the watersiders and the government clashed in one of the worst industrial disputes in New Zealand's history.

When there was a disagreement over pay in 1951 the watersiders union banned working overtime. Their employers retaliated by locking them out. The National government saw a chance to show who was in charge and it became a bitter, drawn-out struggle.

Prime Minister Sidney Holland came down hard on the wharfies. The government declared a State of Emergency. It imposed drastic restrictions on union activity, curbed free speech and made it an offence to help locked-out workers or their families.

These measures incensed many who thought the government had gone too far. The wharfies were joined by miners, freezing workers and seamen. More than 20,000 workers downed tools.

Undaunted by the scale of the dispute, Prime Minister Holland continued his campaign. He deliberately set worker against worker by forming 'scab' unions from men who wanted to return to work. He used the army and the police to protect these men from the fury of the militant workers.

As the government set out to prove that they could control the unions, their members clashed with police in a series of ugly incidents where tempers frayed and blood flowed. But the real fight was for the opinion of the public. The unionists could not put their side of the story because the government made sure they had no voice.

As the ships lined up on the wharves and farmers couldn't get their wool away, a frustrated public were overwhelmingly against the wharfies. Union leaders such as Jock Barnes and Toby Hill were demonized by the press and became hated and feared. Faced with extreme resistance, the unions eventually caved in and the men limped back to work.

The bitterness would last for years. But one thing had become clear - militant unionism would have no place in the still conservative fabric of New Zealand life.