Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Vol. 34, No. 18. October 6 1971
1951 the underground press
1951 the underground press
"The remarkable fact about this lockout-without precedent in the history of this and many other coutries - is that the longer the struggle lasts, the more the dockers develop to even greater heights their solidarity."
Information Bulletin, Trade Unions International of Seamen and Dockers. (W.F.T.U.) June 1951.
"... the swarms of clandestine leaflets, posters, pamphlets and appeals that make up a remarkable volume of underground literature"
-British New Statesman and Nation.
"In its election householder 'The People versus the Wreckers' (a plagiarism of the title to a union pamphlet) the Nationalist Government referred to union publicity as inflammatory, unbridled, scurrilous, poisonous, malignant, savage, filthy and foul. The list is not exhaustive; "Un restrained" was also one of the words used."
-151 Days (Dick Scott).
"Yet in all the unions' publicity... much of it reflecting the heat of the moment and all of it written under great provocation, not one line can be found urging sabotage, terrorism or any other primitive reaction to employer brutality."
-151 Days (Dick Scott)
Never in New Zealand's history has there been such a flood of illegal underground literature as appeared during the waterfront lockout of 1951 - 151 days of courageous struggle and solidarity by workers and their allies against the full weight of the forces of the State the Government, police, daily press and radio.
Dick Scon, in his "151 days the official history of the great waterfront lock-out and supporting strikes Feb 15th to July 15th, 1951" writes, "To meet the clamorous demand for union information it is estaimated that 650,000 official bulletins were issued, 400,000 major pamphlets and printed leaflets and perhaps 400,000 miscellaneous appeals, stickers, dodgers, "rolls of dishonour", "flat beer" lists, verse, open letters. These figures may be conservative. The Wellington Watersiders' Official Information Bulletin is alone estimated to have been circulated in a quarter of a milliion copies.." Only about 100,000 of the total propaganda produced would have been legally printed.
In relating something of the union publicity story in Wellington during those momentous 151 days, it is necessary to understand how the watersiders organised for their fight. Wharfies have always represented a very diverse section of the community from every possible trade to accountants, university professors, businessmen, officers in the armed forces etc. There was never a subject brought up in which you couldn't fine an 'expert' from growing roses to astronomy. So when the shipowners locked out the men and the long struggle began, the basis was there for an organisation where the skills and abilities of everyone could be brought into full play. An Action Committee was set up, superceding the Executive of the Union and numbers of subcommittees established under its control - publicity, finance, relief. There was a bootmaker's shop working full time, a transport section with qualified mechanics working all day, full-time hunters, butchers and fishermen. The women's auxiliary became an important section. For instance no wharfie's child born during that period went without a fully-equipped layette. Meetings were held every morning, which everyone had to attend. These daily meetings were the organising centres, the place where the ideas of everybody could be freely put forward. At the same time the workers and their wives developed an amazing discipline and solidarity. It became like a city within a city, with "a" workers' government in operation.
This then was the framework in which the publicity committee worked. As the struggle against the shipowners and Government intensified the full force and power of the fascist legislation embodied in the Emergency regulations became concentrated on the propaganda coming out from union centres throughout the country and particularly in Wellington. Just as it became a crime to give a wharfie's child a biscuit, so it was a crime to hand anyone a leaflet "likely to encourage" the workers. Publication of any material presenting or supporting the watersiders' case, and later that of the freezing workers, drivers, seamen and miners, was an "offence" against the law. When a radio announcer, fed to the teeth with the endless appeals he was forced to make for wharf labour, said after the night's announcement, "Hell I don't like scab-herding anyway," he was immediately sacked.
The myth of the so called 'freedom of the press' was never more clearly exposed than in 1951, as the dailies, under government pressure and by their own self-imposed actions completely blacked any news of the workers' case and what was really happening in the course of the struggle. The barrage of lies and distortions continued daily over radio and in the press in an all out effort to break the workers' solidarity and sow the seeds of disunity. As Scott says, "Testimony to the effect of union publicity was the fury with which the press and Government attacked it.... the least reference by union bulletins to the industrial character of Government supporters, to labour renegades or to police actions brought forth howls of mortal anguish."
As the influence of the information bulletins and pamphlets spread like a prairie fire in Wellington, the hunt intensified to find out where and how they were produced and distributed. Dozens of homes were raided and ransacked by plainclothes police with no warrants and usually late at, night. Private mail was confiscated, phones were continually tapped, people followed, and firms' supplies of paper checked on. But all in vain. They never did discover the typewriter, the gestetners, the distribution centres shifted nearly every night - for the hundreds of thousands of copies produced. The coppers were certainly close once or twice. On one occasion, police, barging in to what they thought was a likely flat, discovered to their joy an antiquated printing machine. Together with all the type face, it was whisked away in a great flurry of elation. Imagine their rage to discover it was not the much wanted machine that was producing what Minister of Labour Sullivan called 'this vile stuff?.page break
"Some of the best political cartoons: in N.Z. history," is the way in which Rona Bailey described the cartoons printed in the Waterfront Newsletters in 1951. Printed on these pages are some of these, along with the front pages of the pamphlet 'If it's Treachery Get Tuohy' and a scab list.page break
As an aid to understanding of some of these;
Bill is Bill Sullivan the then Minister of Labour,
Sid is Sid Holland the then P.M.
Section 18 b of the Regulations allowed any member of the police force to enter any property where in his opinion an offence against the regulations had occured.
Pig Iron Bob is Bob Menzies then P.M. of Australia.page 12
The best they could do was fine the owners about 14 pounds for not having it registered, despite the fact that it was shown that a Government department had a similar unregistered machine. The name of the magistrate who gave the verdict will be known to many - M.B. Scully, It can now be said that the police were incredibly close to the offending typewriter that night! On another occasion, the originals of the cartoons appearing regularly in the Wellington publicity were hastily shoved under the mattresses of younsters asleep, as word of another raid came through.
He seeks it here, He seeks it there.
Our Dave he seeks it everywhere.
Is it above or is it below.
If he can't find it soon, our Dave will go.
An elaborate decoy system was developed to smuggle the bulletins in to the daily meetings and it never failed. 'Obvious suspects' with big bundles under their arms ostentatiously whooped over fences, dived into cars, raced away at the sight of a copper. At the appropriate moments, the police would be baited in a highly organised fashion to divert attention. It seemed that the only gendarmes who were wide awake to what was happening were those dragged in from the country and they were more concerned about getting back to their women and gardens. Taxi, bus and truck drivers, privaty and Government employees by the dozens all became distributors and all were subject to prosecution if caught.
On March 12th, the first illegal Official Bulletin of the Wellington Watersiders had appeared in an edition of 2000 copies. The opening article, "Workers' United Front" stated, "The united front of the workers can defeat Holland's fascist Waterfront Strike Emergency Regulations, and can assure trade union independence and peace.
"It seems certain now that with the amount of support we are receiving, that our policy must be to stiffen up our struggle. Towards this end we must get every possible rank and file worker to insist on decisive action in his own union. The time for procrastination is over. Trades Unionism must fight now if it is to survive. This struggle is not simply a wharfies' struggle; it is a question for all workers. United action now is the only reply to Holland, the would be union-smasher." The Bulletin carried its first cartoon of a policeman wielding a truncheon - extremely prophetic in view of what was still to come, the Cuba St. battoning and the police brutality on Bloody Friday (May 18th) in Queen St. Auckland.
Fifty two issues of the Wellington bulletin were produced. A new issue appeared every two or three days, in editions ranging from 2000 to 6,500 copies and in one case 9,000. Dick Scott notes, "The wide influence of the watersiders' information bulletins not only sprang from their defiance of a Government which feared to debate its actions. For tens of thousands of New Zealanders they gave a twice and thrice-weekly news service which took over from a discredited daily press."
Technically well produced under difficult conditions and with minimum equipment, the bulletins contained some of New Zealand's most brilliant political cartooning. Their vital role in unifying workers throughout the country cannot be overestimated. Eagerly sought, they mostly passed from hand to hand, until almost falling apart. The Bulletins were lively, reflecting all aspects of the day to day events in Wellington, and throughout the country, as well as giving news of support from workers in other parts of the world. Government leaders, police and scabs came in for the greatest drubbing, both satirical and serious. Original verse, stories, rhymes and parodies frequently appeared, forming quite a part of the literature of 1951.
The highlight of publication was of course the famous 12 page cyclostyled pamphlet, "If its treachery, get Tuohy," in the first edition of 6,000 copies. This gave a run down on background, history and role being played in the struggle of F.P. Walsh, then President of the Federation of Labour. One couldn't buy a copy for two pounds after a day or wo; by the end of a week it was changing hands at five pounds. Reprints soon appeared in Auckland, Dunedin, Benneydale, Napier and Wellington (two more editions of 10,000 and 6,000). It became a matter of prestige to own one.
A later pamphlet, "Workers V Holland. Holland V N.Z." was published in two editions in Wellington by the Early Bird Press - their insignia a cock crowing on a copper's helmet. A number of editions appeared in other centres.
At one period the publicity committee had great difficulty in getting paper. The workers discussed it and decided that as taxpayers they were entitled to Government paper, in view of all the avenues of legal publicity being closed to them. Hundreds of reams mysteriously began to find their way from Government offices to the bulletin publishers. There was never a shortage again.
With the Government using every means at its disposal to obtain non-union labour - the shipowners were losing thousands daily - leaflets, articles in the offical bulletin, calling on workers not to scab on their workmates, poured out from union sources. The cover of the small leaflets and scab lists invariably showed a worker's boot crushing a rat (scab) with appropriate comment like "the names listed in this pamphlet are those of the creatures at present befouling the Wellington waterfront - when we pass an open sewer we will remember them"; or "creatures who have descended to the lowest depth known to a trade unionist and worker ratting on their own class and joining hands with the boss"; or even "creatures who voluntarily sell their honour as workers, trade unionists and men, a form of life so low that the hand of God, reaching down into the more, could not elevate them to the depths of degradation." If the language seems overly colourful today, it did not seem so then nor was it, as the scabs had to be taken to the wharves in covered wagons guarded by the army, the anger of the locked out and striking workers was so intense against them.
Have you see the 'covered wagons'
As they rattle through the town?
Not a soul can see inside them
Though there a plenty stand around.
With shame they hide their faces
As they hide within those cabs
They're members of the Holland Gang,
Down on the wharf they're Scabs!
Workers carried scab lists in their pockets for years afterwards.
The most ingenious pice of pamphleteering against scabbery was when some workers in the Government Printing Office took a Department of Health leaflet which depicted a rat and 'Beware industrial disease', printed across it "Don't scab" and issued it in thousands of copies. A worthy contribution from the Government!
The field of publicity, both prodiction and distribution was just one of many areas where dozens of ordinary working people with no special skills or experience defied the State to produce miracles in a just cause. With very little sleep, working always into the early hours of the morning to deliver the goods every day for months on end, they defeated all the combined efforts of Government and police to track them down.
Together with the daily meetings, and the relief organisation, union propaganda was one of "the three strategic fronts," (Scott) throughout the whole course of the lock-out.
Twenty years later, with the Government spoiling for another industrial showdown, with the knowledge of police action at the Ky, Agnew and 'Stop the Tour' demonstrations fresh in our memories, February 15th to July 15th, 1951 is a time to remember, an event to study. Young people who were not around in 1951 may think that it will not happen again or could not happen nowadays. Under capitalism, the basic purpose of the forces of the State never changes and when challenged it will act in precisely the same way as it did in 1951. It can and will happen again.