This year marks the 70th anniversary of the longest and one of the most polarising labour disputes in New Zealand’s history. Now digitised on Wellington City Recollect is a selection of what were then illegally printed pamphlets and newsletters from one of the main players in the dispute, the Wellington Waterside Workers’ Union.
Though it is now passing from living memory, the 1951 Waterfront Dispute remains one of the most contentious industrial conflicts from our past. Lasting 151 days, it was the longest serious industrial action ever taken in New Zealand and involved more people than any other strike in our history with over 22,000 members of the Waterside Workers’ Union and other sympathetic labour groups involved. It was a deeply divisive and polarising event with different sides accusing each other of being ‘communists’ or ‘fascists’ respectively with many of the attacks becoming increasingly personal and vindictive. Even the name and nature of the event was in dispute with the Government, port authorities and shipping companies calling it a ‘strike’ and the waterside workers calling it a ‘lock-out’. This distinction remained a contentious issue among some historians and political scientists for decades after the event.