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Declassified intelligence documents, released in January, reveal the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was involved in the 1951 Wellington Waterfront lockout.
The lockout lasted 151 days and was initiated after ship owners offered wharf workers a 9% pay increase despite the Arbitration Court, after a round of national bargaining, issuing a general wage increase of 15%.
In protest, workers refused to work overtime hours. Ship owners declared this an illegal strike and they no longer hired those who refused to work.
At its peak, the lockout involved upwards of 22,000 workers, including those from New Zealand Waterside Workers’ Union, as well as coal miners, freezing workers, seamen, and drivers.
The state owned New Zealand Government Railways contracted Straits Air Freight Express (SAFE) to bypass the ports and connect the railway lines between the North and South islands.
Unable to meet demand, SAFE commissioned the services of four C-46 aircraft from Civil Air Transport (CAT), an airline owned and operated by the CIA.
CAT began operations in May 1951 and over three months “flew 17 million pounds of cargo across Cook Strait, flying 96,000 miles in 1300 crossings.”
The air link undermined the work stoppage power of the workers, who faced repression from the hostile National government of Sidney Holland who had seized union assets, introduced laws regarding the ability of the police to search and arrest, and made it illegal for citizens to assist striking workers or their families.
A 1949 CIA document, “Communist Influence in New Zealand”, suggests an ideological dimension to the CIA’s involvement in the 1951 lockout.
It identifies the labour movement as “the only source of Communist strength” in New Zealand. “Control of important labour union posts in the Waterside Workers’ Union, New Zealand Federation of Labour, and the trade union councils has given Communists greater influence than the Party membership indicates.”
However researcher Grace Millar, who wrote her PhD on the lockout, suggests “it’s easy to overplay the role of anti-communism.”
“There was a lot of anti-communist rhetoric — but I think the National Party’s desire to break up the Watersiders’ Union was driven by the economic power that the union had and its willingness to exercise that power.”
At the time of print, the US Embassy had failed to respond to a request for comment.