Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Harold (“Jock”) Barnes, 1907-2000

by Michael Bassett

This obituary to Barnes was published in the Dominion, Wellington, on 6 June 2000.

Every society has its false heroes. Guy Fawkes in Britain and Australia’s Ned Kelly spring to mind. Both were killed for their stupidity, but their notoriety and their glamour increased over time. Jock Barnes, the President of the New Zealand Waterside Workers Union 1944-52 who died last week, lived long enough to witness a handful of incurable romantics trying to lionise him. They have an uphill task. Surrounded by “yes” men, Barnes led his union into a confrontation with Sid Holland’s National Government in February 1951. He persisted for 151 days in a lost cause after a State of Emergency was declared and troops were put on to the wharves to shift cargo. Barnes’s stubbornness caused untold misery to thousands of watersiders’ families, and eventually cost around 10,000 people their jobs. The national watersiders’ union which had earlier been a progressive force within the labour movement was smashed, and in its place 26 smaller, weaker port unions established round the country. Industrial law was changed adversely to workers’ interests, and the cause of unionism was set back by at least a decade. The Labour Party, lost two, and possibly three elections (1949, 1951 and 1954) largely because of Barnes and the indelible memories left behind of his union’s thuggery. A workers’ hero? Pull the other one!

Barnes had a loud mouth and an ego that were in inverse proportion to his common sense. As a young man during the Great Depression, he was fired from his public service job for sending incendiary reports to an Australian paper about the 1932 riots. He joined the Labour Party and expected Savage’s government to reinstate him. When Labour ministers gave him a wide berth, he flirted with John A. Lee and Colin Scrimgeour who both sought to topple Peter Fraser’s government. Lee made little progress, so Barnes joined the watersiders’ union where he muscled his way to the presidency with fiery anti-government rhetoric while New Zealanders were locked in mortal combat in the Middle East and Pacific. Barnes precipitated strikes in the run up to the 1946 election. They were timed to inflict maximum harm to Labour’s re-election chances. Claiming to be a friend of the working man, Barnes fought most aspects of government policy between 1946 and 1949. His tactics caused a slowing down in the turnaround of ships at a time when the British desperately needed our produce; time-wasting practices such as spelling and feather-bedding on the waterfront pushed up transport costs, and Barnes led walkouts of workers on the most trivial of issues. On one occasion he threatened to clear Auckland’s wharves because employers refused to pay “embarrassment money” to wharfies required to unload a shipment of toilet pans! Having reached the top, Barnes and his henchmen controlled membership of the union and refused secret ballots on sensitive issues. He would make promises then fail to deliver. Transcripts of his many confrontations with Fraser and Holland reveal a man whose negotiating style was akin to Fiji’s George Speight. Not surprisingly, Barnes had alienated most other unions and the great bulk of New Zealand’s workforce long before the 1951 dispute began.

It had a trivial beginning and could easily have been resolved by arbitration. Barnes refused. Over the next five months he alienated what little support he still had. Miners who struck in opposition to the Emergency Regulations were humiliated, and thereafter saw a steady movement away from coal as an energy source. Drivers and freezing workers who struck in sympathy were deregistered. And in Auckland only 100 of the 2,700 watersiders got their jobs back. When the inevitable occurred, and new unions were formed to work the wharves, Barnes’s thugs intimidated them mercilessly. After helping defeat Labour in a snap election, Barnes went to gaol for criminally defaming a policeman.

While a handful of sentimentalists eulogised him as a hero, most workers detested Barnes and the wharfies. In my Mt Albert street he became a byword for everything wrong with militant unionism. Many younger members of his own de-registered union kept their distance from him and resolved never again to sacrifice the labour movement on the altar of personal ambition. In the 1960s and 1970s unionists with commitment and common sense re-built it, many working closely once more with the Labour Party. While some pushed the ailing economy too hard, and played their part in bringing the country to its knees in 1984, a new sense of realism characterised many union leaders. Perhaps the only good thing that can be said about Barnes’s union career is that others learned more from the disaster he caused than he ever did himself.

Historian and former Labour cabinet minister, Michael Bassett is soon to publish a biography of Peter Fraser.