After the upheaval of 1951 there were very few industrial disputes until the early 1960s, even though the country had a shortage of labour, so unions had bargaining power with employers.
However in the 1960s and 1970s the number of strikes reached an all-time high. High inflation meant that prices were rising faster than workers’ wages. In June 1968 the unions applied to the Arbitration Court for a general wage order for all workers. The court chose to keep wages at the same level. Public faith in the state arbitration system was permanently damaged and industrial disputes rose by 70% the following year.
Ploughshares into swords
Some of New Zealand’s earliest political strikes were in the late 1930s when Japan was invading China and preparing for world war. New Zealand watersiders refused to load scrap iron for export to Japan because they knew it would be made into weapons and ammunition. ‘My old frying pan is not coming back to rip the guts out of any New Zealander,’1 said Auckland wharfie Paddy Roonan.
The 1960s and 1970s saw a rise in strikes called to make a political point to the government. The country’s first political strike had been during the First World War, when miners struck to oppose military conscription. From the early 1960s unions held small strikes and trade bans to protest sporting contacts with apartheid-era South Africa, involvement in the Vietnam War, Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor, trade with Chile’s military junta, French nuclear testing in the South Pacific, and other issues.
The Māngere Bridge dispute
The 1978 Māngere Bridge dispute is the longest in New Zealand’s industrial history. When the new bridge across Manukau Harbour was nearly complete, most of the workforce was due to be laid off. Some carpenters and labourers protested at the company’s offer of redundancy payments. The company refused to negotiate, and in May 1978 all 140 carpenters and labourers working on the bridge were sacked. Their unions banned other workers from taking the jobs of the dismissed men. They picketed the site (holding protest placards, they prevented people from crossing their picket line) to make sure no work was carried out until the dispute was settled.
The bridge stood unfinished for almost two and a half years. The number of active picketers fell to 16 before work began again with better redundancy agreements.
The 1979 general strike
New Zealand’s only nationwide general strike was in 1979. It began after the Drivers Union and transport employers agreed on a wage settlement and the government stopped the settlement. The Federation of Labour called a one-day strike of all its members in protest. On 20 September 1979 almost 300,000 workers took part in marches around the country. The government called the strike an ‘absolute fizzer’, but it agreed to refer the drivers’ dispute to the Arbitration Court, which upheld the original agreement.
Traditionally strong unions such as those of the seamen, watersiders and miners were becoming less important, as new technology changed their roles and weakened the bonds between workers. In this period professionals and public servants such as engineers, teachers and nurses took industrial action, often for the first time.
Union members were raising more personal grievances with their employers, and these required a simpler process of conciliation than traditional industrial disputes. Legislation during the 1970s and 1980s established an industrial mediation service and removed penalties for striking while a dispute was being arbitrated. Government-sponsored arbitration grew less important as employers and employees negotiated directly.