Jim Higgins

Seamen back from the brink

(September 1976)

From the Spectator, 18 September 1976, p.16.
Published here with kind permission of the Spectator.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The National Union of Seamen is an interesting little union. Its history is studded with examples of its willingness to be very unpopular with the rest of the trade union movement. Under its then General Secretary, Havelock Wilson, it was expelled from the TUC in 1926. Much more recently it was expelled for registering under the Tory Industrial Relations Act. A very long time ago one of its officials tried to shoot Emmanuel Shinwell, who happened to be running a rival Seaman’s Union at the time. All of which seems to indicate a certain spirit of independence among seafarers.

Most recently, of course, they have been brought back from the brink of a very damaging strike through the combined blandishments and bullying of the General Council of the TUC.

In the brief time that is left to us, before the next crisis occurs, it might be as well to consider one or two questions arising from the recent unpleasantness. For a start there is the strange lassitude displayed by the Government. From their conduct, one might imagine that the business, of imports and exports was the sole concern of Len Murray and Jack Jones. The Government’s sole contribution to the dispute seems to have been the rather negative stratagem of not supporting the pound, apparently in the hope of convincing the seamen of the gravity of the situation. A ploy that was almost certainly quite lost on Mr Jim Slater (NUS General Secretary) and that almost as certainly contributed to the smart rise in Minimum-Lending Rate.

In a way, even stranger is the conduct of the TUC. Those with good memories may recall that the TUC is the central trade union body designed to improve the pay and conditions of Trade Unionists. For the present they have taken on the role, traditionally by employers and governments, of saying “No” to demands for more money. All of this in defence of a demonstrably feeble Labour government, the strict letter of the social contract, and a handful well-worn truisms.

It is a piece of received wisdom, for example, that if the seamen get £2 extra, then the gates will be opened to a tidal wave of excessive wage claims. Now this can only be true if there are large numbers of trade union leaders anxiously awaiting the chance to break the social contract. Such willingness is obviously the case in the NUS; not so in the overwhelming majority of unions.

There will of course always be unofficial strikes but these alone cannot cause wages explosions, for that you need large-scale official action.

What is true that the TUC, in their anxiety to ensure adherence to the strict letter of the contract have made of the seamen a cause célèbre, and pointed to the prospect of obtaining benefits other than those by the social contract. Now this sort of gap in the fabric of the contract is just the sort of thing that quite a few groups of workers are looking for and no doubt we shall be hearing more such cases in the future.

The NUS executive now occupy a rather enviable position They will be able to represent themselves as being held back by the diktat of the TUC while avoiding the ignominy of a long drawn-out, probably unsuccessful, strike. Not only that: as Mr Jim Slater has said the net result of the TUC investigations will probably be rather more money spent on the seamen than if their original case had been met in full. As employers usually discover to their cost special payments (in the NUS case, captive time, waiting time and improved pensions) are difficult to quantify accurately and inevitably cost more than originally planned.

The whole case, represents a useful insight into the bureaucratic mind. The essence of the bureaucrats problem is not to ensure that money is not spent but that it should not be spent under a particular label. Like so much in trade union negotiation, the effort expended is to find an appropriate formula rather than a just solution

For the fact of the matter is that the seamen have suffered rather a rough deal. Their 1975 settlement was large but split into three parts, because the employers were pleading poverty. After some heart-searching the NUS agreed to defer their enjoyment of the full settlement. This generous gesture was turned against them by the introduction of the social contract and its twelve month rule. Which of course brought them smartly up against the flinty-hearted TUC.

It is very much an open question as to whether the non-support of the TUC would have materially affected the course of the strike had the seamen decided to go it alone. No doubt Jack Jones would have instructed his docker members to cross NUS picket lines. But the dockers even today have a very strong aversion to “blacklegging”. It would have been interesting to see whether Mr Jones had more control in the docks, than the rank and file militants. That is certainly an open question.

But these are but interesting speculations. The strike has been deferred for at least a fortnight, and probably for ever. In the process of this little comedy of errors, the government has proved cowardly, the TUC has proved itself inflexible, and the seamen have done rather well. If it is a story without heroes, it has at least has a victor.


Last updated on 2.11.2003