Kōrero: Unions and employee organisations

Whārangi 6. Unionism after the Second World War

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1951 waterfront dispute

Tensions between unions and employers increased during the Second World War, and erupted once peace came. The increasing influence of Communist Party members in unions such as the carpenters, drivers and tramwaymen was a growing challenge to the Labour Party–Federation of Labour (FoL) alliance. In 1948–49 the militant left-wing unions walked out of the FoL and formed the Trade Union Congress.

In 1951 the country’s largest ever industrial showdown began when employers locked out waterside workers who refused to work overtime. Other unions joined them in what became the 1951 waterfront dispute. The militant unions were destroyed, their leaders were blacklisted, and the FoL strengthened its power within the labour movement.

Decline of union influence

Although the FoL remained a major force in the national economy, advances in technology meant that the union movement steadily declined in numbers, strength and political influence after 1951. Through the 1950s many of the country’s major mines, traditionally the strongholds of revolutionary unionism, closed down. New technologies allowed smaller crews to sail larger ships, and increasingly the British shipping companies hired labour from Third World countries, so the Seamen’s Union also lost much of its former power.

The labour movement was steadily transformed by post-war prosperity and inflation. The most important issue for most manual workers was rates of pay, rather than overturning the system.

Public-sector organisations

The nine state-service organisations – covering the public service, post office, railways and teachers – had first formed a Central Committee of Combined Service Organisations (CSO) to fight pay cuts and lay-offs in the economic depression of 1931–32.

After the Second World War the CSO became quite powerful in negotiating on issues that all state-sector employees shared, such as superannuation. Wages and conditions improved, but not fast enough for members’ liking. Left-wing influence in the unions grew rapidly. In the mid-1950s women public servants demanded equal pay for equal work, and when the government introduced the Government Service Equal Pay Act in 1960, the Women Teachers’ Association was the first to take advantage of it.

Sisterhood is powerful


In 1956 a 25-year-old Inland Revenue clerk, Jean Parker, became the first woman to successfully challenge the appointment of a male cadet to a higher-paid position – but the Public Service Commission told the department to reduce her pay and responsibilities. The nation’s women erupted in indignant protests. The government forced the commission to back down, and women’s organisations formed the National Council for Equal Pay and Opportunity.


Industrial unrest began to grow in 1944–45, and peaked in 1951, one of the few years of the 20th century when New Zealand had more industrial unrest than Australia. The percentage of unionists who belonged to the Federation of Labour fell steadily over this period, from about 80% during the Second World War to 67% in 1956.

Transforming the workforce

The proportion of professionals working for salaries increased rapidly after the Second World War, and the organisations which represented them began negotiating their salaries and conditions of employment. When inflation began to soar in the 1970s, these very respectable organisations became more active in demanding better conditions for their members. The Association of University Teachers actively recruited new members so they could pressure the government for compensation for inflation, and rates of pay equivalent to colleagues in Australia (pay parity).

The FoL and its member unions were becoming increasingly out of touch with the workforce. FoL president F. P. Walsh was succeeded by his deputy, Auckland plumber Tom Skinner, in 1963. The following year Jim Knox, a tough wharfie, became Skinner’s deputy, and by 1969 the two men succeeded in expanding the FoL to cover 85% of all registered unionists. But professional organisations rarely joined the FoL, and women, Māori and Pacific Islanders – who took on most part-time and unskilled work – were not represented on its executive.

Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Erik Olssen, 'Unions and employee organisations - Unionism after the Second World War', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/unions-and-employee-organisations/page-6 (accessed 13 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Erik Olssen, i tāngia i te 11 Mar 2010