Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 33, No. 1 18 February 1970
On the Wainui Dispute, containerisation, the Union Steamship Company, shoes, ships and kings and things
It's hard to think of current industrial dust-ups in an historical perspective, but it's sometimes helpful to try. The fact is that the latest disturbances, the months-old Wainui dispute—that flared at one point into a brief national stoppage—and the collision between the watersiders and the Union Steam Ship Co. over the pre-packing of container cargoes, have many points of contact with all the worst industrial showdowns in our nation's short history. And they have much in common with each other.
To begin with, they both concern the identical employer—a fact which has curiously escaped the attention of most press commentators. All New Zealand's really major outbursts of class warfare—1890, 1913, 1951—exploded first in the maritime industry, and two of them (1890 and 1913) were quite deliberately provoked by the Union Steam Ship Company. They cost the economy untold losses, but the company which triggered them had enough resources to ride out the inconvenience for the sake of its single objective in each instance, which seems to have been quite simply to bust militant unionism in the industry.
Militant unionism has been traditionally endemic in the maritime industry, and fairly obviously still is. The fact is that you can't have large numbers of men employed together without their becoming acutely aware of their identity as employees, and that awareness is really all that so-called militant trade unionism amounts to.
The Union Company thought it had done for militant unionism in 1890 when it smashed the Maritime Council. It had, too—for the moment. But by 1913 the unions of wharfies and seamen were back in business, as strong and militant as before, this time amalgamated in a new outfit known as the Red Fed. So the Company had another go, and smashed that. But by the post-World War II period, the wharfies were still militant, and had thrown up leaders like Barnes and Hill who talked and acted exactly like the leaders of the Maritime and the Red Fed before them. Only this time there were certain differences in the situation.
For one thing, although highly confident in their own strength, the watersiders were isolated from the bulk of the trade union movement—having been gradually manoeuvred out onto a limb by the 'moderate' leadership of the Fol under Walsh in the last years of the 'don't embarrass the Labour Government' era, and finally pushed into leaving the Fol in 1950 and taking all their militant allies with them.
For another, the Union Steam Ship Company was no longer a homegrown entity. Back in 1917 it had been swallowed by the P & O Line—in the face of public indignation. The Minister of Marine of the time (the Hon. George Russell) described the takeover as "a national disaster" and declared that he was sure most New Zealanders were "in favour of the State assuming the place of the P & O, and the Union Company becoming a national concern."
It is hard to imagine big overseas combines being particularly interested in smashing unions in this outer fringe of civilisation, whose additions to their costs of operation must have been a very minor irritant in the context of their far-flung empires of interest. But the shipowners' truculence certainly contributed just as vitally to the manufacture of the 1951 waterfront dispute as did that of Barnes and Hill. This much is made quite clear in Dr Michael Bassett's forthcoming book on the dispute. And, as in 1913, the Government threw its weight into the ring on the shipowners' side, ignoring every' opportunity for a compromise, pushing the dispute on to the bitter end to wring every last drop of cheap political kudos that could be had from it
In their isolation from the rest of the trade union movement, the waterfront militants were sitting targets for the campaign of obliteration that was opened up on them. It was only their almost incredible obduracy—call it foolhardiness if you like, or courage, it adds up to the same thing—that made them stick it out for so long. But in the end their union was smashed once more—together with the unions of all the other militants who stood by them, with one conspicuous exception.
That exception was the Seamen's Union. Led (driven might be a better word) by Walsh, who had organised the isolation of the wharfies in the pre-1951 years as the chief brains of the Fol, the Seamen's Union had a deeply divided personality. Its traditions and the instincts of its members predetermined that it wouldn't scab on the wharfies; and yet its unchallenged strong man was the wharfies' implacable enemy. It is common knowledge now that the Holland Government omitted the Seamen's Union from its otherwise universal obliteration campaign as a quid pro quo for the help Walsh had given in crushing the wharfies. Without the Seamen's Union. Walsh would have been left without a power-base in the trade union movement.
Today, the wharfies seem to be as incurably militant as ever, and so do the seamen. Walsh is nearly seven years dead, and the men who have taken over his reins in the Seamen's Union were more enthusiastic battlers for the Union's policy in 1951 than he was. The Fol is a very different affair too. Its new secretary, Knox, was an Auckland watersider in 1951. The Fol has shifted noticeably to the left, especially since the return in the late 50s of the reformed unions smashed in '51. But the new leftism tends to take new forms.
One form, associated with the 'old guard' militants who claim to have learned the lessons of 19 years ago, is that of fighting selected and realistic issues at times of your own choosing, above all never being provoked into a fight when it happens to suit the employer. This policy has been followed with marked success in recent years by several unions, including watersiders, drivers, and seamen.
Another form, associated with some of the political sects of the outer left, is that of fighting anywhere, any time, on any old issue, just so long as it's a battle. This policy also involves a change of line by its principal sponsors, for in 1951 the Communist Party was one of the strongest advocates of a drawback by the watersiders before the point of no return. But New Zealand's majority C. P.—a small enough splinter, but historically influential in the maritime industry has also changed in 19 years, having followed the Peking side of the world communist split. Its current line seems to be more appropriate to an Asian or Latin American country with a permanent revolutionary situation than to this rather fat and dozey backwater. But one has to admit that, even if it lacks the advantage of realism, it does have a certain elan.
The current disputes are, to some extent at least, on the union side of the barricades, influenced by these two new forms of industrial militancy, and the duel between them. But it takes two sides to make an industrial quarrel, and militant unionism doesn't take root without genuine grievances The maritime industry is full of them.
The Union Company, which has a lion's share of our coastal trade, as well as a few ships still plying further afield, is the biggest single employer of New Zealand seamen. But it's owned and ultimately controlled overseas, and its owners have a minimal interest in its survival. Over the years they have axed services to other countries, three ships off the transpacific run in 1958 alone, and the last ship off the American trade in 1966. They weren't interested in maintaining jobs for New Zealand sailors, and direct services for New Zealand commerce, which could be more profitably (if less efficiently) served by other branches of the P & O octopus employing cheaper crews.
If the policy advocated by the Minister of Marine had been put into effect in 1917, and the Union Company had been nationalised rather than allowed to slip into the hands of Leadenhall Street, we might still have a thriving international fleet homing on New Zealand waters.
One of the ways in which the Company's attenuated interest finds expression is in a scandalously casual and outmoded industrial policy. Nobody in New Zealand is finally responsible, so nobody cares. The Company, along with other overseas shipping companies using our port facilities, solemnly promised the watersiders union a few years ago that, before any moves were made for the containerisation of cargo from our ports, there would be the "fullest preliminary consultation" with the union to ensure the protection of watersiders' employment. The whole of the wharf hold-up could have been avoided if any attempt whatever had been made by the ship owners to honour that promise.
The press managed to present the whole affair as a demarcation dispute between unions wharfies versus storemen and packers—and no doubt the inherited bureaucratic structure of the union movement contributed its mite to the trouble. But that wasn't the nub of it at all. The principal responsibility lay fair and square with the employers. They're in business shifting cargo for profit. Cargo comes in varying forms and amounts, subject to contract with business firms, and big changes (steam winches to electric, hand-carts to fork-lifts, individual cases to prepacked pallets and container units) are contracted for to increase profitability.
But the shipowners also contract with the wharf unions who represent their labour force-the guys who actually do the yacker. And they have to these guys at least as great a responsibility as they owe to their business customers. But the company in question, despite the promise to consult the unions on the container question, seems to have sprung the first shipment of containerised cargo on the wharfies working the inter-island ferry without warning—and thus provoked (almost certainly through damn stupidity rather than dark design) the whole dispute that scorched the headlines for weeks.
The Wainui trouble boils down to much the same thing, The Seamen's Union has been trying to get a roster system into operation for years, to ensure fair distribution of work for its members, Without such a system in the maritime industry, where jobs depend on the uncertain movement of ships, some men could be left jobless for long periods while others just chanced to walk straight off one ship onto another. The waterfront, after years of agitation, devised the 'bureau system' (which still operates) over thirty years ago to meet essentially the same problem for wharfies.
Smaller companies accepted a roster operated by the Seamen's Union for some time before it was apparently accepted by the Union Company. But the Company, as always shuffled on the deal. The idea of a ready-made crew virtually provided by the Union was considered to breach the traditional right of the Ship's Master to choose his own crew. After all, chaps, Sir Francis Drake did. Deck officers didn't seem to mind—possibly recalling that the Seamen's Union had come out in their support when they struck for better pay and conditions back in 1961. But not so the engineers, who decided to make a showdown of the Wainui, where one engineer happened to dislike a particular motorman.
If the Union Company wanted an excuse for cutting out the last two Company ships running to Asian ports, this was it. But it isn't necessary to presume that there was a Company plot behind the Marine Engineers' fatuous stand for the retention of feudalism at sea. No doubt the 'red guard' element in the Auckland Seamen's Union helped to keep the pot boiling. But the Company could have stepped in and stopped the whole ballyhoo at any point. The Company has kept its officers and engineers on pay throughout the hold-up. It's only the seamen who have been hurt—apart from the shippers of all that cargo, and the national export drive. At least, if the seamen seem to be a bit woolly on exactly where their own interests lie, one has to admire their selfless tenacity of purpose. It's been a lot easier for the engineers to stick by their principles, on full pay. If the Company had really wanted the Wainui to sail, it could have switched a few engineers between ships months ago, and the trouble-would have been over.
Moral? There isn't any really, other than the obvious one that our short-sighted ancestors missed a rare opportunity when they failed to nationalise the Union Steam Ship Company 53 years ago. Maybe it's not too late