Ted Grant

Lessons of the docks strike

Source: Militant, no. 119 (August 25, 1972)
Transcription: Francesco 2010
Proofread: Fred 2010
Markup: Niklas 2010

The dock strike has been “settled”, the dockers have made some marginal gains. But the terms of the settlement are practically the same as those rejected by the dockers previously.

The Financial Times, organ of big business, comments with satisfaction on this fact in an article on this agreement in its issue of August 18th while listing the gains of the workers:

“no compulsory redundancy, retention of the national dock labour scheme on which the registered dockers’ protected system of employment is based, abolition of the temporary unattached register—the dockers’ labour pool—with men being allocated to permanent dock companies”.

These were the terms formerly turned down plus an “inquiry” conducted by the government into the small private wharves and ports outside the docks’ labour scheme—the “non-scheme” ports.

Hardly had the dockers resumed work when Vestey’s announced that it is to close its cold store at Nelson’s wharf in Lambeth which employs 87 registered dockers. It said that Jones [General Secretary of the T&GWU, the transport workers’ union] and Aldington [Chair of the Port of London Authority] had been informed of the decision weeks ago.

Thus the grim spectre of the whittling away of the jobs of the dockers and transferring the work to cheaper inland centres employing much lower paid workers has not been lifted. Midland Cold Storage is owned by the same Vestey concern, over which the struggle has been waged over the last few months.

They used the National Industrial Relations Court to try and stop dockers picketing the firm. This £10 million concern have announced that they will close down Midland Cold Storage rather than employ dockers! The reason is not at all that they object to dockers, but that they want to employ cheap labour in order to increase their profits.

Hundreds of millions of pounds have been lost through the dockers’ strike. The government and the employing class prefer this loss and dislocation rather than concede the demands of the dockers for security of employment—wages were not the issue in this strike.

What was noteworthy was the poisonous role of the capitalist media in presenting a distorted picture of the struggle and the aims of the dockers. The reptile “popular” capitalist press, the radio and television all gave a false picture.

In its editorial of August 21st the Daily Express gave the game away. The building workers are receiving the same poisonous treatment as the dockers:

“Workers are being ‘conned’ into stopping work by freelance strike operators who claim to be acting on behalf of the official builders’ union. There are also reports of violence and intimidation reminiscent of the dockers’ and miners’ strikes.”

Thus the kept press gives a rehearsal of the savagery with which it will attack the labour and trade union movement in the struggles in the future to defend and improve living standards and the democratic rights of the workers won in the bitter battles of the past.

The new method of the workers of flying mobile pickets to ensure class solidarity, first used by the miners, then the dockers and now the building workers has reduced these spokesmen of the interests of the employing class to virtual hysteria and apoplexy. Militants and active workers in the movement must draw the due conclusion and strengthen and extend such methods in the struggles of the future. It has hit the employers in a tender spot, hence these agonised cries.

Class solidarity and the support of workers in other industries and unions is vital for every section of workers involved in strikes. No section, however strong, can stand on its own against the employers, the press and the state machine. That is why the unskilful presentation of the dockers’ case by some of the London stewards did an enormous amount of damage.

These were members of the “Communist” Party and the Morning Star, alleged voice of the vanguard, published articles repeating these crude ideas without criticism. They pictured the situation as if the dockers wished to empty out other workers in container depots doing “dockers’” work. Thus the Morning Star and the CP gave encouragement to prejudices and political backwardness both among the dockers and other sections of the working class.

The Liverpool shop-stewards, other than CP members, particularly the LP chairman of the dockers’ shop-stewards committee, Jimmy Symes, came out with the tried and tested position of “the rate for the job” everyone doing container work of stuffing and stripping to receive dockers’ pay, consequently on Merseyside there was complete harmony between the transport workers and the dockers and the lorry drivers gave full and unstinted support to the fight of their docker brother trade unionists.

The London dockers are among the best in the world at shifting cargo. In Tilbury berth 39 they pack 42 containers an hour as against 16 in Australia and 30 in Hamburg. But now a container ship’s cargo is discharged 30 times faster than that of a conventional ship. There has been an increase in British ports from handling 25 tons of freight to handling 600 tons per week using the same manpower. 15 container ships now carry and turn round the same amount of freight as 85 conventional ships to Australia did formerly.

Ninety percent of the dockers in fact are now redundant to requirements, consequently the campaign against the dockers. The above-quoted issue of the Financial Times “diplomatically” stated:

“Those who regard last Wednesday’s Transport House demonstrators as typical of the country’s dockers consider that as a lazy, militant, pilfering breed, the dockers have priced themselves out of business and have forced shippers and others to create depots away from dockland to reap their financial return from property development instead of employing dockers and to take their large cargoes to European ports for trans shipment to the UK in small vessels which can be unloaded at small ports and private wharves.”

That is the real attitude of the employers and their lackeys to the dockers and every other section of the working class if it comes to that.

The dock force is to be whittled down according to the Times and the Financial Times from 42,000 to 30,000 by 1975 and to 25,000 by 1980. This shows how right the shop-stewards are not to accept the lying promises of the port employers. Apart from the old and the sick, who are to be squeezed out by the employers’ pressure and with “generous” redundancy payments gained by the organised pressure of the strong union organisation, others will “have to go” to meet the ports target.

290 jobs have been “gained” in depots over the next 12 months, but already 87 jobs have been lost. 200 gained with 12,000 to go in the next two to two and a half years.

The dockers, through their militant shop-stewards’ committee and the union, by solidarity and sacrifice, have made big gains in standards of living and conditions. From among the worst-paid, they are among the best-paid workers. From among the worst conditions, they now have reasonable toilets, canteens and showers, at least in the big ports.

For a few years, there was an illusory security and decent conditions. Now all this is shattered. Technical advance is not for the benefit of the workers, but for the greater profits of the bosses. The “nation”, that is the ruling class, is to get the benefits. People like the multi-millionaire owners of the Vestey combine. The workers get insecurity, unemployment, worry and harder work.

Technology lowers standards!

Invention should be used to increase living standards and lower the hours of work. Under capitalism, it is used for exactly the opposite purposes. Thus the Times moans in an editorial of August 17th:

“In another respect, too, the public has reason to regret the course of this dispute. in the terms of the settlement…there is clear acceptance of the proposition that registered dock workers have a prescriptive right to work done in container groupage depots wherever they may be. But that is not all: this right is to be enforced—or rather it is agreed that it would be appropriate to enforce the right—by imposing financial sanctions at the ports on anyone who does not conform…stripped of its flannel this means a discriminatory surcharge on groupage containers coming from or going to depots where the work is done at rates of pay lower than those which registered dock workers have succeeded in extracting for a different kind of work…If the phrase ‘protection racket’ was not already assigned to the underworld it would fit. It requires no imagination to see how the generalisation of this right and its means of enforcement would block the economic benefits of technical change.”

This is a naked expression of what the “economic benefits” mean. But it also indicates the aim which the working class should counterpose to it: full support to the dockers and their defence of jobs and wage standards.

No witch hunts

The legitimate anger at the foolish use of violence against dockers’ delegates outside the Transport House conference, has been blown up by the capitalist news monopoly out of all proportion. It only took place in two or three isolated instances against the appeals of the shop stewards. It should not be used in the union to start a witch-hunt as this would divide and embitter the ranks far more than the stupid violence against the general secretary Jones and the lay delegates.

The resolutions of condemnation at a couple of ports are sufficient. Militants especially should guard against such scenes. The job is to raise the level of consciousness of the members through the shop-stewards’ committees and within the union branches. There are no short cuts in the struggle.

Similarly there is always the imperative necessity to involve the solidarity of other sections of the workers. No matter how strong and organised, no section of workers can stand alone. If jobs are being transferred elsewhere to undercut then these workers must be organised to gain the rate for the job. That is the only way to safeguard jobs and standards. Dockers’ rates no matter who does the job.

Even if this is gained it will not safeguard the jobs of the dockers. They must, in common with the rest of the working class, fight for a drastic lowering of hours, not only without loss, but with an increase of pay. Let technical progress be for the benefit of the class that produces the wealth not the parasites who batten on them! If there are to be jobs lost, then there must be alternative work and training provided without loss of pay! That is the programme to fight for, not who is to do a diminishing number of jobs!

Political struggle

There is a grim outlook for the dockers—and the rest of the working class—under capitalism. There is no escape as the experience of the dockers indicates.

The active dockers in recent years gained the right to be represented by shop stewards. They must strengthen their organisation and work in the union itself. Talk about breakaways can only be disastrous. It will damage the organisation without putting anything of substance in its place.

But precisely because the struggle for jobs is a political struggle it is necessary to link up the struggle in the unions with the struggle in the Labour Party. Union branches must be affiliated to and participate in the local GMCs [General Management Committees, the constituency organisation of the labour Party]—to fight for a socialist programme. Some members of the local branches should be active in their wards.

They should fight for a socialist programme for the next Labour government on homes, jobs and standards of living. New conflicts and flare-ups on the docks are inevitable. The “agreement” merely gives a temporary respite. The socialist consciousness of the shop-stewards and advanced militants must be carried to all the dockers and the rest of the working class.

The docks must be nationalised with minimum compensation to the Vesteys and their like on the basis of need and run under workers’ control and with the board of management two thirds appointed by the T&GWU and the TUC. Nationalisation on state capitalist lines like the railways and the mines will not save jobs.

Reformism, in this as in all questions, stops half way. Jones and other “left” leaders undoubtedly are sincere and wish to serve the interests of their members and the working class. But Jones himself has spoken of the dirty role of the capitalist press and has pointed out how their attacks on him led to an increase of membership of the union. Now they are praising him!!

Transform society

Kier Hardie asked publicly what he had done wrong when the capitalist press praised him. Jones and other “left” union leaders stand half way between the position of accepting capitalism and the struggle for a new social system. But it is impossible to maintain such a position, consequently they try and compromise with the employers and their system. This has inevitably bad consequences for the members of their unions and for the working class. Only the uncompromising position of Marxism can win the best results in the day to day struggle and prepare for the complete transformation of society which can alone bring security and abundance for the working class.