Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Vol 35 no. 4. 22 March 1972
It is a pity that Tony Simpson was so wrapped up in his particular view of how history should be written that he could find no time in his alleged review of Mike Bassett's Confrontation '51 to talk about the 1951 Lockout. Mike Bassett, it appears, does not write history the way Simpson likes it - so Simpson has to resort to irrelevant arguments about, for example, whether Bassett is a revolutionary, to pad his review. Simpson accuses Bassett of being boring - and then proceeds to trot out the boring facts that he (a) has read a short story by Noel Hilliard, (b) knows an old I.W.W. song, and (c) drinks piss with wharfies, or at least knows they tell "inumerable anecdotes and tales" about the 1951 Lockout in the pub.
Simpson does not claim that Bassett's account of the lockout is inaccurate or wrong. In fact he says that "lf one wants the facts on the '51 Lockout they are here..." His only criticism of Bassett is that he does not express the feeling of the time,—"...the record of men and women who felt and thought in certain ways on both sides." Such an approach to the '51 Lockout is incompatible with Bassett's chronological and analytical approach. The question Simpson raises by this criticism is simply whether Bassett's book presents an explanation of the lockout which is not readily available elsewhere, and which offers some historical lessons from this particular event.
Simpson's criticism of Basset might have some point if literature on the lockout was more readily available. However Confrontation '51 is the first full acount of the '51 Lockout to be published which attempts to explain what happened and why in a reasonably, objective way. Dick Scott's 151 Days which was first published in 1952, expresses the wharfie's point of view in an angry and partisan way, which is hardly surprising. Unfortunately, bigotry against watersiders is still strong enough in New Zealand to make 151 Days easily disregarded, because it is partisan. 151 Days rates with The Tragic Story of the Waihi Strike, by Harry Holland, "Ballot Box" and R.S. Ross as a great record of the struggles of militant unions in New Zealand. However Bassett's academic objectivity will serve better in showing what did actually happen in 1951. And there are 728 (footnotes) for those who doubt Bassett's word, to check.
The lessons of the 1951 Lockout for those people who support militant trade unionism in New Zealand are quite apparent from Confrontation '51 even though Bassett does not spell them out explicitly.
Firstly, the ease with which the National Government of the day could break the Watersiders' Union and their allies is quite apparent. Since 1951 the law has certainly not improved for militant unions. It is just as easy, if not easier for the Government, whatever its political colour, to pick off militant unions today as it was then - for example the Seamen's Union deregistration last year.
Secondly, the '51 Lockout shows how one-sided the press in New Zealand can become in a showdown between government and employers, and militant unions. The N.Z.B.C. today, however, is certainly far more independent than the Broadcasting Service was in 1951. But the press bigotry against the watersiders over the container dispute last year shows that the daily press is still a strong weapon against militants.
Thirdly the Labour Party's impotence in 1951 shows how helpless Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition can be when the Government decides to squash militant unions In any case the 1935-49 Labour Government had provided a good deal of the legislative machinery for Holl-and's National Government to use against the watersiders.
Finally the, serious divisions in the New Zealand labour movement after the Second World War, between the moderate arbitrationist unions under the leadership of the Federation of Labour, and the militant unions under the Watersiders' leadership, were possibly the main factors enabling the Government to defeat the wharfies and their allies so easily. F.P. Walsh, the F.O.L. Vice-President in 1951, in fact fought alongside the Government in smashing the wharfies; a performance unlikely to be repeated again so blatantly. However the present F.O.L. leadership is, by and large, moderate and apparently unwilling to take on the Government in any serious fight,—again, the deregistration of the Seamen's Union.
Bassett's study of the 1951 Lockout in fact expresses many of the weaknesses of militant unions in New Zealand, and should therefore be seriously studied by militant unionists and their supporters. Those who are taught at university, (and those who teach), that New Zealand is a liberal democracy would do well to read Bassett's book, and ponder about the 'rights' of our trade unions. Finally perhaps Tony Simpson should read Confrontation '51 again, and try to suppress his obvious desire to put Bassett down. I humbly suggest that Simpson might learn that the history of militant unionism in New Zealand is a history of serious struggles and defeats- a little more in fact, than jolly anecdotes and old 'Wobbly' songs That is, of course, if he is serious when he talks about revolution.