While the Waterfront Commission made some improvements, it was unable to secure the wholehearted co-operation of the watersiders which was necessary for the quickest possible turn-round of scarce shipping. One particularly irritating example of lack of co-operation was the practice of ‘spelling’ which became blatant during the war. This practice is described in the 1952 report of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Waterfront Industry.1
‘In this industry work does not proceed steadily without intermission. Many circumstances combine to reduce productive time. All this is mentioned because, from the very nature of the work involving as it does coordination with many other services, there are delays or spells during which the worker has to wait. These delays, or spells, are not referred to, but rather the practice of taking spells and of not working when work is available.
‘This had developed before the war to an extent, but during the time of Commission control it was organized by the workers and increased. It was worst in the main ports, and it spread to secondary ports almost as if by direction. In unloading an overseas ship there might be twelve men in the gang in the hold. The practice obtained of only six men being in the hold working while the remaining six were absent spelling. On a discharging inter-colonial ship there might be normally, say, six in the hold and four on the wharf, but in fact you would never get more than four in the hold and two on the wharf. Spelling was practised equally in the ship and on the wharf and on overseas inter-colonial and small coastal ships. It might vary in detail on ships of different sizes and from port to port, but it usually meant that from one-third to one-half of the men at any time were spelling.
‘The organisation varied. Spelling might be on a two-hour or an hour basis. If on a two-hour basis, six men worked for two hours, being replaced by the other six at the end of the two hours, and so for spelling on a one-hour basis. In other words, at any one time there was only half the number working or men worked half the time for which they were paid. On inter-colonial ships there might be in the hold from one-half to two-thirds of the gang. With coastal ships the men in the hold might work only two-thirds of the time for which they were paid and might spend one-third of their time away from the job spelling. On the wharf the same practices obtained, and from one-third to one-half of the gang on the wharf might at any time be absent spelling.
1 Parliamentary Paper H–50, paragraphs 27 to 33.
‘The matter went deeper. When men were working on special cargoes an additional rate was claimed and charged for the whole time, although the worker might not even be upon the ship or wharf, but might be in town or at his own home. In some cases the arrangement was that some men would not work overtime hours, and then they did not go down in the evening or came down only to put in a nominal appearance and then left. But pay was drawn at an overtime rate for the full evening's work, plus special cargo rate if that happened to be payable.
‘At times men spelling might remain on the ship or on the wharf, or they might go off the wharf and up to town on their own business, or home. The practice was worst at Auckland, Wellington and Lyttelton. At Dunedin, at certain hours, with the ships there, there were almost always two men away from the hold and two away from the wharf. This practice never really got properly established by watersiders employed by the Wellington Harbour Board, whose officers took prompt action and prevented its establishment. It is proper to say that here supervision was easier. It cannot be said that it was not attempted.
‘Spelling in some cases meant a reduction in the spread of hours, say, from 59 to no more than an effective 30. From 1942 to 1946 the foremen at Auckland and Wellington were taken over by the Commission to make the best use of the limited number of foremen when working round the clock. Much would have been tolerated in the war years owing to the long spread of hours of the waterside workers, but the spelling practice went beyond all reason.
‘The Commission was well aware of the practice and employers were continually complaining of it. During Commission control spelling became organised and increased and was done more openly, whereas it began surreptitiously. The employers did in time endeavour to stop spelling and to meet the legitimate needs of the men for a break during the morning and the afternoon, but did not receive much support in any quarter.’
In spite of all attempts to improve output on the wharves, spelling continued to be abused and was not brought under control until the Government took firm action following the prolonged waterfront dispute of 1951.1
1 Then a National Government with William Sullivan, later Sir William Sullivan, as Minister of Labour.