Rediscovering the 1949 Carpenters’ Strike

The following was delivered as a talk at the International Socialism Day School 2013 by Kevin Hodder.

The 151 day waterfront lockout, and its eventual defeat, of militant workers is legendary, and widely recognised as the beginning of the end for one period of union militancy in New Zealand. Its story is widely known in political circles.

The 1949 Auckland Carpenters struggle, an epic battle prefiguring the 1951 dispute in many ways, has been almost completely hidden from history. It is an important part of New Zealand labour history, and yet its story – and its political lessons – are almost impossible to find out about now.

I had never heard of this struggle, or even of this union, prior to being asked to look into this particular dispute. It was, then, to my great surprise to discover that what happened in 1949 would easily be considered one of the defining struggles of New Zealand unions in the ongoing fight between labour and capital, between workers and bosses. As part of my research into the history of this struggle I was further shocked to find that there remained almost no record of the details of the strike. Indeed, the only two documents I could find dedicated to the struggle were opposing views. The first, published by the sell-out Federation of Labour National Executive, calls the striking workers communists and wreckers and all manner of similarly flattering names in “The History of the Carpenters’ Dispute: Communist Activities Exposed”. The other is an account written from the point of view of the workers themselves by the head of the union before and during the struggle, Roy Stanley. The latter is called “Fighting Back: The True Story of the 1949 Carpenters’ Dispute.”

To this day, almost nothing has been written on the subject, except as footnotes to the ‘51 lockout. Scholarly resources are slight, and it is hidden from popular memory: there is no wiki page for it (indeed, it doesn’t even warrant a mention in the page for “1949 in New Zealand”).

In this article I outline the struggle and offer some analysis. This draws on work I am doing producing a pamphlet documenting the history for a new generation of unionists and activists.

Te Ara, the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, sets the scene rather well:

“After the Second World War, booming economic conditions and a shortage of skilled labour encouraged unions to press for better conditions for their members. High inflation was making life hard for workers and their families, so the government’s policy of resisting wage increases was fiercely opposed by strong unions. However, the Cold War atmosphere meant that this militant union activity was regarded with hostility, even by the Labour government. In 1948 a go-slow by Auckland carpenters gained higher rates of pay, but another go-slow in 1949 resulted in a lockout. Within days all building work in the Auckland area came to a standstill. The government backed the employers and refused social security benefits to the locked-out carpenters. The Federation of Labour supported the government, the union was deregistered and its militant leadership discredited.”

New Zealand carpenters have one of the oldest and deepest histories of labour disputes in our movement’s history. Samuel Parnell, the “father of the eight hour day” in New Zealand, was a builder who came to New Zealand in 1840. He demanded, and won, the “outrageous” condition that he work no more than eight hours a day. This demand was picked up by other carpenters’ and the “way things are” were explained to any new carpenters arriving by boat, with violators “ducked” in the harbour.

They were radical from day one.

The Awards system was a product of the 1894 Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration act, a law introduced by the Liberal government during the so called Lib-Lab period of extremely close cooperation between the Liberal Party and the labour unions and associated MPs, a collaboration which saw some policies desired by the unions brought in. This law created, among other things, an arbitration court which unions were free to register to be able to call upon. Registration under the Act meant that unions were able to bring a dispute before the court and the employer or employers in question were compelled to go to arbitration but, just as under current Employment Relations law, the catch was limitations on the right to strike and both parties were bound to the decision of the court. Additionally, the Registrar of Industrial Unions, who oversaw the registrations had leeway to reject registration of a union if there already existed a registered union in the same trade and locality. This – combined with the right of the court to award preferential hiring rights to specific unions – allowed the state to give a lot of weight to one union over others.

Worst of all, branches of national unions were treated as separate entities, both in regards to registration and awards. In other words, an award to members of a union in one region did not extend to other regions; if a registered branch went for an award already won by a different branch of the same union, they may be awarded a different settlement by the court, and if an unregistered branch went out on strike, then registered branches either could not, or could choose not to go out in support in order to retain a privileged bargaining status. This divided the strength of national unions by breaking the bonds of solidarity even between members of the same national union.

The strength of most unions was so low at that point in time, however, that many unions of the period welcomed the protection the act offered, and were largely unconcerned about the downsides.

While it is true that the arbitration system did award pay increases, reductions in working hours and improvements in conditions in the first years of the system, these benefits, according to Bert Roth in his Trade Unions in New Zealand, “extended only to a narrow stratum on the New Zealand working class, mainly the small craft unions”. The majority of labourers and essentially all women workers – who were largely not in the early trade or craft unions – were excluded from the benefits being handed down by the court.

As the decades rolled by and union strength grew, the value of the protection and stabilisation offered by the Act began to pale in comparison to the restrictions it imposed, both for the employers and the Unions. The arbitration court became increasingly conservative, favouring the employers from 1901, and was eventually defanged entirely to remove even the pretence of recourse for unions. It later had its powers reinstated by the first Labour government in 1936. Despite being reinstated by the elected representatives of Labour, the Arbitration court was known among the radical unions as Labour’s Leg Iron, a tool of the employers to keep the forces of labour in check. Take, for example, this cartoon from the Maoriland Worker (right, date unknown)

The bulk of the carpenters involved in the ‘49 were only a few years back from the Second World War. The promise made to these men was that the state would look after them. This shouldn’t have been a problem – after all, even in the middle of the war, the building industry was still making millions in profits, yet the share of national income going to workers fell.

So it was in this environment that the Auckland Carpenters’ Union came into conflict with the employers beginning in December 1948. It was a simple economic issue – a pair of pay cuts – imposed by the Arbitration Court. The first was a revocation of pay while travelling to/from jobs. This had been won a few years before, also through an award, since the workers could be asked to work on any job, anywhere in the city. The second was a relative reduction in pay for skilled over unskilled workers on building sites. The explicit mandate of the Arbitration court, the so called “Stabilisation Regulations”, was to maintain relative pay rates of various groups of workers, so lack of action by the Arbitration court on this matter was dumbfounding. Indeed, the court had often quoted this mandate in order to keep pay rates down, but when the shoe was on the other foot, the court refused to abide by its own standards.

Nonetheless, the prevailing law forced the Carpenters to accept the ruling of the court, with no recourse to strikes or otherwise. Labours’ Leg Iron at work. The carpenters fought not only for a better deal from the court, but the very structures which had been used to undermine working class organisation and struggle for decades.

The court was an instrument of capitalist rule. In the words of Robert Semple, when he was “Fighting Bob Semple”, president of the Runanga Miners union during the general strike of 1913 (before he became Labour Party MP for Wellington East):

“If you brought Demosthenes from the grave, or Christ from the clouds, and appointed either of them as your representative in the Court of Arbitration, their efforts would be fruitless, and the gang of time-serving Trade Union officials of this country know it, but for their own personal interest they disguise the fact from the toiling masses and lead them to believe that there is some hope for them in the four corners of a Court, which is created by the oppressors of Labour, and whose duty is to keep the working class on the lowest level of subsistence from the cradle to the grave.”

To quote Stanley’s pamphlet Fighting Back:

When the carpenters got their award in December 1948, two things became quite clear to them. One was that the “Stabilisation Regulations” existed only for the purpose of holding down wages. The second was that the Court’s attack on an important award condition would set a precedent and a pattern for similar attacks on other workers. A duty to trade unionism as a whole was involved.

What sort of union would lie down to this kind of insult?

The union wanted to fight, and for far more than to simply address a pay cut. Indeed, when the award came into force, several groups of unionists walked off the job before getting any kind of clearance from the executive of the union. The demands were simple – ignore the Court’s ruling, and reinstate the allowance that had been cut. The threat was strike action or on the job go-slows – a tactic which had worked well to gain benefits for Auckland’s carpenters in recent years.

Locked Out

The union voted 1700 to 29 for strike action, in the form of the previously successful go-slow. Any employer who didn’t reinstate the cuts would find their carpenters working at a snail’s pace. As it had in the past, the tactic worked well here too – despite the support and legal backing of the arbitration court and the implicit support of the government, of the 900 employers in the greater Auckland area only 30 refused to submit to the workers’ demand. These 30 employers were the largest, employing a significant fraction of the carpenters.

The 30 big employers, still refusing to meet the workers demands, took the immediate step of locking out all carpenters in their employ. More importantly, they enforced this same policy on the 870 smaller employers with blackmail. These employers had significant influence over the major suppliers of timber and plasterboard, which all builders had to deal with. These suppliers threatened to cut off supply to the smaller businesses if they too did not lock out their carpenters. Only 500 carpenters had been “going slow” as a result of their employers refusal to play ball, but 1500 workers were locked out.

The employers went one step further, though. The Chamber of Commerce, the Employers Association, the Manufacturers Association and others all colluded to deny the locked out workers any alternative employment. The government denied any benefits normally afforded to the unemployed. They were to be starved out.

The peaceful approach

Now, it’s worth mentioning here that the heads of the Carpenters’ Union tried every possible avenue of legal redress to get their dispute heard and settled. This meant initially trying to keep a lid on their own members’ spontaneous activity. First and foremost, they approached the Minister of Labour, Angus McLagan. A former miner, who only two years prior had said he “would never be party to a reduction in workers’ conditions”, they hoped he would intercede on their behalf and ask that a labour tribunal be set up which could overrule the Arbitration court’s decision. The minister made no promises but promised to “think it over”. A conference was set up between employers and the union, and several weeks passed in discussions, before the employers came back, rejecting every demand of the union, though – still – only 30 employers were holding out. Seven weeks had now passed since the award had come into effect.

The only hope for the workers for a “peaceful” settlement lay with the ministers as yet un-made up mind regarding a tribunal. He alone, as a representative of the state, was in a position to bring this whole thing to a close without the union and the employers going to war.

Three weeks later, the workers still locked out, he came back with his decision. There would be no tribunal.

Cold War

The state had a genuine choice about what side to favour in this dispute. They could easily have settled this dispute, one way or the other by coming to the table. They did not. This may seem strange, considering Labour’s stated ideology of social peace and partnership, but the reasons for this are rooted in the times. The first major factor was the Cold War. We all know about the cold war hysteria that swept the US – McCarthy, Black booking, anti-communist propaganda films, the whole nine yards. New Zealand wasn’t too different. The state both feared, and recognised the value of the fear of, “communism”.

The Right feared that the USSR would attempt to extend its influence across the “free world”, and the liberal left feared another economic depression, like that which hit during the 30s. Radical unions were of concern to both. The spectre of communism, much vilified in the press and by the government, was a convenient means by which to undermine the support of the radical unions.

The carpenters’ union had repeatedly clashed with the policies of Labour before, during and after the Second World War. They organised to oppose conscription, opposed the war and organised in support of free speech. Communists and socialists were elected to leadership positions time and again, for decades. Since 1934, to quote H Roth’s “100 years of Fighting Back”,

“The emphasis now was no longer on gaining concessions through pleading in the arbitration court, but on strong industrial organisation on the job, increased rank and file participation in union affairs, and ultimately the establishment of a socialist economic system.”

Roy Stanley was the national organiser of the Auckland Carpenters’ Union from 1934 and National Secretary from 1943 until it was destroyed. He was also one of a number of proud and open members of the Communist Party in the leadership of the union. He was also an extremely successful organiser, seeing the union grow by a factor of 10 under his leadership, and a respected radical. He was once described by future Prime Minister Peter Fraser as “one of the ablest trade union representatives in the country”, and when he was sent to jail for “subversion” he insisted on union rates for prison labour, and organised the prisoners to demand better food. In short, he was an outstanding militant.

It is no surprise then, that his union was chosen as an object lesson. The objective was to bring the radical unions to heel, smashing their strength and scattering their ability to draw solidarity from other unions. This was entirely unsurprising coming from the state, even the first Labour government, who – let it be said – had certainly delivered a great deal of legislative change to the benefit of workers in the 30s but had become increasingly conservative over the 14 years it held power. These former leaders of the Red Feds had sold out their principles of radicalism and firmly donned the cap of small-L liberal progress. The real shock was the role played by the Federation of Labour National executive.

The FOL steps up

This was the logical point for the Federation of Labour to step in. After all, the Carpenters’ union was affiliated, and the actions of the employers were a gross violation of the established norm for industrial relations. Indeed, the National Council of the FOL voted unanimously only the day after the lockout was announced to give “moral and financial support to the New Zealand Carpenters and Joiners’ Union”. Furthermore, by decision of the council, the executive was ordered to take “all necessary steps to bring about a satisfactory settlement”, but from the Executive, not a word.

A brief historical note is probably due here. The Federation of Labour was made up of a number of executive bodies. The highest, like most truly democratic institutions, is the mass conference, where representatives from all affiliated unions and branches were present. The decisions of the conference should be law, as far as any other section of the Federation is concerned. The next highest was the National Council. A smaller body, but still sizable, it was empowered to make decisions about national policy, subject to ratification by the conference. The National Executive, as the name implies, was tasked with executing the decisions of the higher decision making bodies. These bodies are distinct, and this distinction becomes important later.

The National Council had put the word out for financial and moral support, and the money flooded in. Unionists from as far afield as Australia contributed to the strike fund. Hundreds of jobs were found for locked out carpenters, but it wasn’t enough. The lockout would choke the carpenters if it was not broken. Fortunately, the Carpenters’ weren’t the only radical union in town.


The watersiders and drivers, following the letter of the FOL National Council resolution – moral and financial support – took action. Together with the Carpenters, they created an Action Committee to coordinate union efforts. They warned any and all organisations, associations and companies not directly involved in the dispute to essentially butt out. Any company, not affected by the award, refusing to hire locked out carpenters would in turn be blacklisted. When you control the boats and the roads, you’re in a pretty strong bargaining position with manufacturers.

Every company issued with this threat folded. Immediately. The big builders panicked, immediately calling a conference with the companies and “persuaded” them to reinstate the blacklist. On the other hand, the Auckland Trades Council voted to throw their lot in with the Action Committee, and railwaymen and general labourers joined the boycott.

The first company to feel the wrath of the Action Committee was the Auckland Farmers’ Freezing Company. No stock went to the works, no meat went to the ships, no dairy products were moved from the coolstores for shipment. Soon a half dozen more big firms were blacklisted. Once again, the employers panicked. To quote Stanley, “They saw the power of the workers when unity was achieved round a trade union issue and they realised by what a thread they maintained their exploitation of the workers.” Stanley argued that these days of the unified blacklist by the Action Committee, represented “the greatest industrial solidarity since the great strike struggles of 1912-1913”. Two days into the blacklist, two and a half weeks into the lockout, the united front of the employers was about to crumble. The victory of the unions was imminent.

Betrayal of the FOL National Executive

When the lockout was announced, the Federation of Labour National Executive was conspicuously silent. They made no objection to the National Council ruling, or to the formation of the Action Committee, or even to the initial phase of the blacklist. However, they also took no action to distribute the decision of support by the National Council as they had been instructed, and lifted nary a finger to deliver on said support. When it appeared that the radical unions could win, however, without any action from the National Exec, something had to be done.

When the National Executive finally sprang to action, not to support the locked out workers, but instead to demand that the dispute be handed over to them, this was received largely with dismay.

The history of the Carpenters’ Strike as published by the National Executive of the Federation of Labour is a fascinating work in hysterical anti-communism, hardline reformism and historical revisionism. Taken at face value, you would assume that millions of communists were poised to take over the country, using their powers of brainwashing to fool the populace into executing their nefarious plan. For all we know, they may even have believed it. However, in the context, it is pretty easy to surmise that the real reason that the National Executive feared the militant communists who held positions of respect and authority in the unions was that they threatened the system from which the National Executive derived their own existences, and that they had no interest in supporting radical unionism.

It is worth noting here that a great many of the leaders of radical unions in New Zealand were socialists, anarchists and radicals of other stripes. As is noted by Jared Davidson, author of Sewing Freedom and Remains to be Seen, the record of socialists and anarchists is a proud one in New Zealand trade unions.

Their own words, from the pamphlet produced by the FOL National Executive “The History of the carpenters’ dispute, 1949 : communist activities exposed” reveals the extent of their conservatism on the earliest pages:

“It cannot be stated too emphatically that, if we agree to support a Labour Government in its efforts to build up a more efficient and more just form of society, making changes only in so far as the majority of the people desire them, we are thereby compelled, every one of us, to take our share of the responsibility the government must carry for the maintenance of production and distribution and an acceptable standard of living for all. To be misled into speaking or acting against this policy is to make nonsense of our often expressed support both for the government’s policy and for that of the trade union movement. It follows that trade unionists must, in principle accept, and in practice abide by, the conditions established by the government in relation to industry and industrial disputes”

Later, they go on to say:

“In this dispute the communists and their fellow travellers applied their foreign technique in trading upon the traditional spirit of trade unionism; and endeavoured by cunning and deception to embroil the whole industrial system of the country in deliberately attempting to extend a comparatively simple issue to other workers and other industries…”

The National Executive supported the Minister of Labour when he attacked the unionists blacklist (no mention of the employers’ lockout and blacklist), and ordered everyone back to work while they, the Exec, worked out a solution. This caused massive confusion within the unions in the Auckland Trades Council and the Action Committee. Torn between the decision of the National Council and the statements from the National Exec, the railwaymen and the drivers ultimately did as they were told and dropped the boycott. The watersiders, true to their record as radical militants, maintained the blacklist until asked to give it up by the Carpenters. They knew when they were beat.

The boycott was broken, not by the employers, but from within.


The National Exec ordered that the Carpenters’ union surrender their struggle into their hands, go back to work and await resolution. However, when questioned, they offered no means by which the demands of the workers could be won. With no reason to believe that the Exec could achieve what they promise, the carpenters refused. They were asked to wait outside the chamber of the FOL National Executive. They waited. For three days.

On the third day, the representatives of the carpenters were invited back inside, as reporters left carrying a statement by the Exec. It was a public demand for surrender and it was delivered to the papers before it was delivered to the union. A full conference of the Carpenters’ Union again voted to continue the struggle on their own terms.

The government, supported by the FOL National Exec, responded by deregistering the union.

No Union

Under the compulsory unionism laws of the day, deregistration stripped the union of all legitimacy. In its place a “new union” was created, sponsored by the employers. The founding meeting had only 15 workers, and the elected leader was a complete unknown. Those few workers who had returned to work were taken, on the employers’ dime, to the first meeting of this union, and the entrance was guarded by hired goons and known employers. This meeting of 200 was told that the policy of the new union would be “co-operation with the employers”, and that they had no quarrel regarding the lost wages or travel pay.

The National Exec were silent.

Again the legitimate union held a mass meeting, and once again it was decided to continue the fight. Only the 200 who attended the new union meeting continued to work.

A few weeks later, at the National Federation of Labour Conference, it was clear the legitimate union still held the loyalty of the majority of unionists. They were, unsurprisingly attacked by the Executive, alleging that the dispute was in fact a “Moscow plot”. Nonetheless, the conference decided that “under no circumstances will this conference recognise the scab union” and furthermore that they would “place all resources and strength behind the bona fide carpenters’ union,” though this was later withdrawn. However, the conference still requested that the carpenters return to work.

The unionists did return to work, but only after yet another mass meeting voted to do so. Democratic decision making remained central to the running of the union, even after it was formally deregistered.

National Exec turn Scab

Despite the clear mandate from the Conference, the National Exec pushed the carpenters to join the Scab Union. The argument was that they should “infiltrate” this deeply undemocratic union to try and “turn it to their own means”. No word of “refusing to recognise the scab union” or supporting the bona fide union. More importantly, there was no indication of any action on behalf of the national exec in terms of settling the dispute.

7 months passed. The deregistered union continued to function, much as it had before, and the majority of carpenters’ continued to refuse to join the scab union. The state needed to force the issue.

The Labour Government introduced a bill, an amendment to the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act, that made it illegal to not be a member of the local registered union. This “Locality Clause” had only one purpose – to allow the state to outlaw any union it did not want to deal with, empowering the state to bring heavy punishment not only upon the leaders of any deregistered union but also upon each individual member. No carpenter would be able to work unless they were a member of the new scab union. Labour and National party MPs worked together to pass the amendment.

The bona fide union was dead. A final stop work meeting, attended by 400, voted to disband, to join the new union and to fight inside for democractisation. The carpenters were defeated, once and for all.

So just before I wrap up, I want to finish up with the last lines of Stanley’s fighting history:

“This is the end-result, for one loyal and militant affiliation of the New Zealand Federation of Labour, of the weakness and vacillation of the Federation’s leadership in a fight to defend trade union conditions.

The long struggle will be a great gain to the workers as a whole if it teaches the trade union movement the need for strong and courageous leadership. With a Big Business government at home, and threats of atomic war and slump abroad, the need was never greater. The weaklings and splitters have been completely exposed: their crucifixion of the workers’ best interests must be ended.”

Every trick, betrayal, deceit and law passed in effort to crush this union was refined to crush the watersiders two years later. A good case could be made that, had it not been for this round of practise in 1949, the state and the FOL would not have been in a position to smash the Watersiders. Alternately, had the betrayal of the FOL Exec not lead to the defeat of the Carpenters, the state of Trade Unionism in New Zealand would likely have been such that the watersiders would have easily won their battle.

There are a few lessons to be drawn from this dispute. The first is the role that organised workers can play in opposing unjust laws, even while operating within the capitalist framework. This does, however, often require workers to operate outside the law. The laws, after all, have been put in place to limit precisely this kind of organisation.

Second is the critical importance of solidarity between groups of organised workers. The full might of the Action Committee, composed of workers from a wide range of trades, and bound together in their community cause, were able to bring the employers to their knees in mere days. It took active betrayal by the supposed representatives of the labour movement to disrupt this power.

Third, it demonstrates the vital importance of organised socialist groups, with a political and organisational existence beyond the individual trade unions, in their ability to play a leading role in these struggles. The influence of the comparatively few communists in the radical unions was absolutely vital both in terms of guiding action and also in terms of guiding strategy. It seems highly likely that without the influence of organisers and ordinary unionists who had a wider political outlook, the cuts which precipitated this struggle would have been allowed to go unchallenged, as so many had before. In the modern era, in our times of historically low levels of struggle and politicisation among unionists and workers more broadly, the role of socialists is perhaps even more important.

I will leave you with the last line of the Cecil Holmes’ documentary film documenting the struggle of the Carpenters, made and distributed during the struggle itself as a lesson for all time. “From unity comes strength, and it is struggles like this that shall reshape the world”.

Kevin is working on a short history of the Carpenters’ Dispute we hope to publish as a pamphlet shortly. We recently republished Roy Stanley’s Fighting Back!: you can order a copy for $4 + p&p by emailing or writing to us at PO Box 7513, Newtown, Wellington.