Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

The 1951 Waterfront Dispute

Reed Books, 1972

The dispute still arouses emotions and prejudices in most New Zealanders' hearts, and its reverberations can still be felt by all those concerned with industrial relations in New Zealand.

In 1950 the New Zealand Waterside Workers' Union was one of the most powerful and successful unions in the country. Adopting a more militant attitude to labour relations than that chosen by the Federation of Labour of the time, it withdrew and formed the Trade Union Congress, taking many other unions with it. The union's challenge to the National Government of the day over pay claims and the principle of direct negotiations with employees resulted in a bitter confrontation between a determined union and an even more determined ministry.

Both sides of the dispute adopted attitudes from which it became increasingly hard to resile; the dispute became bitter and protracted. The impasse was not helped by emotional accusations of "communist" subversion by ministers, great stubbornness by the watersiders, or by the one-sided attitude of the press. Isolated and disparaged by most other members of the community, the watersiders established among themselves an esprit de corps which saw them through 151 days of increasing hardship before the sheer weight of numbers and the political power of their opponents forced them to capitulate.

Written barely twenty years after the dispute, this is a serious, scholarly, and absorbing treatise on the use and misuse of power in a young democracy, and it is still consulted as the first substantial account of the dispute.