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New Book Shatters Myths Of Waterfront History

Fifty years ago in New Zealand the waterfront dispute of 1951 had just begun. Echoes of this event resound today in the current conflicts in South Island ports. A timely new book takes the long view, looking at the history of the waterfront from early in the twentieth century, and challenging widely-held views.

The book, British Capital, Antipodean Labour: Working the New Zealand waterfront, 1915-1951, is by Dr Anna Green, a senior lecturer in history from the University of Waikato, and is published by the University of Otago Press. It is to be launched in Wellington on 16 February at Lockout '51, a seminar organised by the Trade Union History Project to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1951 dispute.

This dispute has widely been seen as a conflict between the government and a stubborn union, with the employers and the role they played all but absent. Says Dr Green, "One of the original aspects of this book is the inclusion of the missing element in all previous state and union-centred accounts of waterfront relations: the employers." The author draws on her research about the shipping companies, closely scrutinising their financial power, their political influence in New Zealand, and their methods of labour control.

British Capital, Antipodean Labour is the first book to look at the processes of work on the waterfront. The author focuses on three ports: Auckland, Wellington and Lyttelton, revealing how the work of loading and unloading ships was done, and the conditions in which the 'wharfies' worked. These include pay, hours, and the dangerous and unpleasant nature of much of the work.

Says Dr Green: "Understanding the waterfront working conditions of the past may be of considerable relevance to the present. The trend of the last decade towards temporary contracts, casual and part-time labour reflects aspects of the pre-war working experience on the waterfront."

"My argument represents a major challenge to widespread public myths about the New Zealand waterfront workers, and revises previously published interpretations of waterfront conflict which focus almost exclusively upon the institutional and political context," says Anna Green. She adds, "Understanding the causes of the 1951 conflict also sheds new light upon New Zealand's complex relationship with Britain during the middle decades of last century."

The incorporation of oral histories from both former employers and waterside workers has provided a much deeper understanding of the meaning of work in an insecure environment. The lives of workers and the strength of the union are well illustrated, as are also the views and actions of the employers.

A feature of British Capital, Antipodean Labour is the collection of thirty historical photographs showing work processes on the wharves. The text is enlivened with often humorous anecdotes, gleaned from the oral histories. The book will interest any serious reader of New Zealand history, as well as those working in management, business and industrial relations, as well as economists and historians.


About the Author Dr Anna Green is a senior lecturer in the history department at the University of Waikato. She is author, with Kathleen Troup, of Houses of History (Manchester University Press and New York University Press), and numerous book chapters, articles, papers and reviews. British Capital, Antipodean Labour is based on her PhD thesis and adapted for a general audience. Contacts for Anna Green: work phone (07) 856 2889, extn 6280 home phone (07) 838 4048

British Capital, Antipodean Labour Working the New Zealand Waterfront, 1915-1951 Anna Green paperback, 204 pages, ISBN 1 877133 99 X Published February 2001, $39.95


Philippa Jamieson, Publicist, University of Otago Press, tel 03 479 9094, fax 03 479 8385, email

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