From The Notebook, International Socialism (1st series), No.24, Spring 1966, pp.6-7.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
The Devlin Report on ‘certain matters concerning the Port Transport Industry’, published last August brought few surprises for militants in the docks. Devlin has been called upon many times in the past to help the Government with ‘modernisation’ and ‘rationalisation.’ The Report proposed ‘decasualisation’ of Dock Labour. All dockers should be offered work with the employers. If work is not available the minimum wage rate will be paid by the Board. There was no stated condition for such decasualisation, but the report made it dear that the dockers would have to pay for their new scheme in the ‘ending of restrictive practices.’
It recommended that the National Association of Stevedores and Dockers – the ‘blue’ union – should be represented on the National Joint Council for wages and conditions and on a new subsidiary of the Council – a Modernisation Committee. This recommendation was the result not of any sympathy with the generally militant line of NASD, but with the desire to stamp out unofficial strikes. Devlin and his colleagues – none of whom had ever worked in the docks – felt that the officials even of the most militant union could be bribed into submission. The Committee of Inquiry, apparently, differed among themselves when they discussed the employers. The argument was a familiar one: between those inspired by an ideological faith in private ownership and those who realised that a single employer (if necessary the State) would be able to ‘rationalise’ and ‘modernise’ more easily. They ended up with a weak compromise whereby the 1,500 employers would be scaled down to about 16. This view has recently been severely criticisd by Mr Dudley Perkins, chairman of the Port of London Authority, who, not surprisingly, thinks that the PLA should be the sole employer in the London docks.
That such discussions had very little to do with the best interests of the dockers themselves is proved by the near-hysterical language employed in the report when referring to dockers who are not imbued with what the Report describes as ‘a deeper sense of responsibility.’
‘There is undoubtedly (says the Report in a poignant passage) a minority in the docks of men who are well aware of the damage that can be done to the national interest by disruption in the ports. The source of that power is the misconceived loyalty of the docker and that source must be removed ...’ (p.9)
Spread at random throughout the Report are references to ‘wreckers’ and the assertions that all attempts of the dockers to run their own industry should be ruthlessly subordinated to ‘the national interest.’ There are, to sweeten the pill, a number of suggestions, which could well be taken up without conditions, for improving working conditions in the docks. The publication of the Report was followed almost immediately by a series of meetings between Ray Gunter, Minister of Labour, and the docks officials of the TGWU. Once again the dockers themselves were scrupulously barred from attendance. Late in August, following a description of ‘wreckers’ in the docks as ‘economic saboteurs’ from John Stonehouse, Ministry of Aviation Under-Secretary, a Modernisation Committee was set up to implement the main Devlin proposals. Lord Brown of Machrihanish – a Labour peer and former businessman who had done rather well in the export field – was appointed chairman.
The TGWU immediately showed an unaccustomed interest in its members, and started to distribute 65,000 leaflets boosting the Devlin Report. On 4 September the general secretary of the NASD, Richard Barratt, accepted the invitation to sit on the Modernisation Committee, as well as the condition attached that he ‘accepted his responsibilities under the Devlin Report.’ The extraordinary collapse of the official NASD leadership as well as the TGWU’s co-operation with the employers and the Government has led to a rapid increase in the influence and effect of the unofficial dockers’ committees. The NASD officials in the North refused to accept the demands of their London leaders that they should stop recruiting members from the TGWU. The ‘unofficial’ Port of London Liaison Committee was greeted with considerable support throughout the country in its demand for a rejection of the Devlin Report and a minimum wage of £18 10s, 50 per cent pensions and sick pay and three weeks holiday. In Bristol, where the dockers were out on unofficial strike for 27 days in a dispute over payment for the loading of packaged timber, the dockers decided to keep their unofficial committee – formed during the strike – and agreed with the demands of the London Committee. The signs are that these unofficial committees may link up; and that their militancy may well exceed by a considerable margin the somewhat characteristic moderation of Jack Dash. The dockers will prove tough obstacles to the Government’s emasculation plans. No group of workers in Britain is less easily pushed around. Further, the dockers know only too well that ‘nationalisation’ through the Dock Labour Boards is a bitter farce.
Nearly a third of all dock strikes in the last ten years have been prompted by the arbitrary decisions of the NDLB, which behaves in the tradition of classically arrogant employers. Despite the acceptance of a miserably small wage increase to ‘tide them over’ until Lord Brown’s committee comes forward with its proposals, the signs are that the dockers will respond with the same sort of contempt towards High Court Judges and Ministers of Labour.
Last updated on 19.10.2006