Barnes role as a militant unionist in the ‘51 Lockout was exemplary. He fought to the bitter end, rallying his troops against insuperable odds. Many have condemned him for taking the unions into a fight that they couldn’t win. That is rubbish. Unions can never win decisive battles against the bosses state with its police force and army. But they can advance the cause of the working class and defend rights and freedoms that make it more difficult for the bosses to impose their will on workers. More than that they can prepare the ground for more decisive victories of the working class. Not to have fought would have been to hand a victory to the bosses.
The reality was that Barnes did not pick the fight or the battle ground. The second world war was already a major defeat for workers who were subject to wartime repression and the defeats of revolutions in Europe and IndoChina at the hands of the Soviet Union and the imperialists. But the victory of US and British imperialism over Germany and Japan depended on the support of the Soviet Union, and the price the West paid was the expansion of the SU into Eastern Europe, and the Chinese and IndoChinese revolutions. Workers in the West including NZ rallied to win back some lost ground out of the post-war boom. It was time for the Western imperialists to show who really was boss.
At Fulton in 1948 Churchill pronounced that a cold war against communism had begun. Foster Dulles took this message to the Western allies, and a newly elected National government decided to provoke a battle with the labour movement to defeat the ‘enemy within’ as well as the foreign enemy – communism. The bosses enlisted the support of the rightwing of the labour movement under Patrick Walsh and in 1950, Walsh forced the wharfies and its allies to walk out and to form the Trade Union Congress.
A series of bitter skirmishes with the shipping companies followed. In rejecting a pitiful wage increase handed down by the Arbitration Court the union voted unanimously for an overtime ban. The bosses replied with dismissals and suspensions and the ‘lockout’ had begun. The union was then deregistered by the Court. The best accounts of the lockout are Dick Scott’s book "151 days" which came out shortly after the dispute, and Jock Barnes own book which came out in 1998. In the 151 days of the lockout, the bosses not only brought in the army to run the wharfs, they used the emergency regulations to prevent the unions from organising, publicising or meeting. Many workers (and come wives) were physically bashed up by the police and locked up.
Despite these efforts by the state and the government (the Labour Opposition infamously declared itself to be "neither for nor against" the union), mass support grew, other unions backed the wharfies and for a period the possibility of bringing down the National government was on. Barnes had this as his objective revealing his limited syndicalist perspective. He genuinely seems to have thought that had the Labour party not been stuffed with "timeservers" and "renegades" a change of government was possible. This was Barnes fatal flaw. For all his militancy, it went nowhere if it was aimed at changing a bourgeois government. When Labour refused to back the wharfies, defeat for Barnes was inevitable.
Could things have been different? Those who say that Barnes should have compromised to save the union, clearly see the union as no more than troops rallying behind a future Labour government. This would have been a sellout of workers interests. Barnes could not have done differently because the union movement was the creation of backward, semi-rural capitalist colony. What Barnes did was to take up the challenge to stand up and fight to spur the labour movement to attempt to outgrow this backward environment. It was not his fault that the wharfies and their allies could not jump over these objective conditions. For that to have been possible a strong communist leadership was necessary.
At the time the so-called ‘communists’ in NZ were Stalinist ratbags. They had zigged and zagged with Stalin into the popular front before and during the war. There were not real revolutionaries. That in itself was the result of the divisions in the labour movement caused by economic protection and insulation. After the defeats of the Red Federation in 1913 and the onset of the jingoistic Great War, many workers no longer believed in the need for independent working class politics. Instead they looked to Labour Governments and state welfare as a guarantee of their class interests. They were easily bought off by the post war boom, full employment and the promise of prosperity. The best we had was Barnes and the militant syndicalist tradition. And that’s the outlook that determined the goals and methods of the struggle.
The death of Jock Barnes and publication of his Memoirs remind us once again of one of the most important labour struggles in New Zealand’s history. The lessons of this struggle have to be learned afresh in the period ahead so that this time workers in NZ do not limit themselves to militant syndicalism but build a strong revolutionary party and go all the way to socialism.
From Class Struggle No 34 August-September 2000