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War Economy

Early Wartime Troubles on the Waterfront

Early Wartime Troubles on the Waterfront

The outbreak of war brought a reduction in the volume of shipping in New Zealand ports and a corresponding reduction in the amount of work on the wharves. By 1940 the tonnage of shipping calling at New Zealand ports had fallen 17 per cent below 1938. Further reductions were to follow.

The wartime demand for greater speed in handling cargo and for a quicker turn-round of ships emphasised the unsatisfactory nature page 394 of the method of payment for waterfront work. Speed was essential in the interests of the war effort, but it was evident that, when work was scarce, men who worked at a slower speed received more wages than those who worked at top speed. This disincentive influence, coupled with general dissatisfaction over pay rates, gave a most unfavourable climate for a maximum war effort on the wharves.

At the biennial conference of watersiders, in November 1939, one of the principle topics of discussion was the ‘long and irritating delay in bringing to fruition the new waterside workers award’.1

Realising that no increase in the speed of work could be hoped for under the existing conditions, the Minister of Labour, the Hon. P. C. Webb, sponsored discussions between the Overseas Shipowners’ Allotment Committee and the New Zealand Waterside Workers’ Union. The discussions extended from December 1939 into January 1940. They revealed that discontent on the waterfront was gathering strength. Early in 1940, with still no decision on an award, the unions made the completion of award negotiations a condition to be satisfied before they would agree to any improvement in payment methods.

As the weeks went by and no conclusion was reached, the men tended to become critical of their union officials. The national executive of the union was accused of breaking faith with the men it represented. Early in February 1940, after several Ministerial statements in January, the Deputy Prime Minister announced that the Government had decided to appoint a Waterfront Emergency Control Commission, with power to control loading and unloading of ships, to organise the work so that a better despatch was obtained, and to ensure reasonable conditions of employment and payment for waterside workers. Meantime an inter-departmental committee was set up, but, before its report could be considered, fresh trouble broke out at Auckland and threatened to spread to Wellington. The Government took strong action, and regulations were made2 giving power to appoint a Waterfront Controller in any port.

Commenting on the regulations, the Minister of Labour said,3 ‘control by the Government is essential if we are to ensure the maximum contribution by the Dominion to the war effort. The need for a single control to fit into the convoy system for the protection of our seamen, our ships and the produce carried cannot be over-emphasised.’

The March regulations were superseded in April by the regulations which set up the Waterfront Control Commission.4 The new

1 Evening Star, Dunedin, 14 December 1939.

2 The Waterfront Control Emergency Regulations 1940. Gazetted 11 March 1940.

3 Reported in Evening Post, 11 March 1940.

4 The Waterfront Control Commission Emergency Regulations 1940, issued under the authority of the Emergency Regulations Act 1939.

page 395 regulations retained the power to appoint controllers, and four were appointed in June and July.1 Four wharf superintendents were also appointed.

Not unnaturally, all the unrest and the changes in control had led to a considerable reduction in the pace of work on the waterfront. There was some justification for the cable received by the Overseas Shipowners’ Allotment Committee from their London principals:2

‘Ministry of Shipping wish everything possible to be done to ensure prompt despatch and would welcome any reasonable scheme to improve waterfront conditions in New Zealand which are now notorious for inefficiency and expense.’

1 Wellington, appointed by Gazette notice of 13 June 1940; Auckland, 20 June; Canterbury, 5 July; Otago, 5 July.

2 Copy of cable enclosed with letter to Minister of Labour, 20 March 1940. Department of Labour file 3/3/1536.