The analysis of New Zealand waterfront industrial relations from the early-to-mid-1900s focuses predominantly on rank and file initiatives to alleviate intermittent employment and deplorable working conditions. This paper examines how forces operating beyond the workplace shaped waterfront industrial relations during the 1930s and early 1940s. While clearly important, job control initiatives remained but part of a complex relationship between union leadership and rank and file that worked to drive the watersiders’ claims for improved employment conditions in often-conflicting directions. Important distinctions between coastal and overseas shipping companies also set the boundaries for the type of actions conducted at the point of production. Far from remaining ‘unimportant’ as has been suggested, the arbitration system and the institutional forces of union and employer bargaining structure and strategy drove the industry’s pattern of industrial relations and had a significant influence on waterfront employment.