Michael Kidron

Interview with Dick Barrett

(General Secretary of the National Amalgamated Stevedores and Dockers Union)

(January 1955)

From Socialist Review, Vol. 4 No. 5, January 1955, pp. 1–2 & 4.
Transcribed by Ian Birchall, Nina Kidron & Richard Kuper.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The importance of the National Amalgamated Stevedores and Dockers Union is out of all proportion to its size. With only 7,000 members to date this militant union has encountered problems which may well face the whole British Labour Movement in the future. Much can be learned from its struggle. The editors of the Socialist Review hope that the following article, based on a conversation with Dick Barrett, General Secretary of the N.A.S.D., will help to show the difficulties we shall be facing in our drive towards militancy. – Editors

General Unions and Industrial Unions

As was to be expected, Dick Barrett was critical of the sprawling general unions’ failure to conduct a campaign in the interests of their membership. “The T.&G.W.U. has got so much on its plate,” he said, “the leadership has its hands full in keeping the machine in running order without trying to make it move, and the rank and file, kept together simply because they happen to pay dues to the same central coffer, can be prevented from forcing the leadership’s hand by use of the time-honoured method of appealing to their sectional interest. And in times of relative industrial peace it is the sectional interests that count.”

What about industrial unions? Does Dick Barrett think these the answer to the outsize general union? Without answering either yes or no he went on to show how he envisaged the next step in organising dockland. At the moment, N.A.S.D. may be suspected of too big an appetite, of trying to cannibalise and poach members of other dockland unions. That is certainly not N.A.S.D.’s intention. On the contrary, if N.A.S.D. could have its way it would initiate a scheme for a federation of dockland unions on the lines of the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions, in which the N.A.S.D. itself, the Watermen, Lightermen, Tugmen and Bargemen’s Union, and the Scottish Transport and General Workers’ Union, would participate. Alternatively, the federation could be composed of industrial unions of a regional nature: one union for all London dockers, one for the Mersey-side, one for Southampton, and so on. The coveted prize of the general secretaryship would fall to no one; there would be a board of directors or a secretarial committee.

With one industry organised by one union, with a basis for common understanding by the membership of that union in their common participation in the day to day problems at work, there can be no gulf separating the leadership from the rank and file. No trade-union boss could appeal to his esoteric knowledge of the conditions of work in one corner of the union’s empire as a reason for his continuation in office; no union official would have to be appointed from above, and for life, because the security of permanence is needed for specialisation in the numerous technical fields covered by the giant union. The industrial union is officered by men elected from the ranks and answerable to the ranks; the union leadership is not encumbered with problems that do not directly concern the union rank and file in its entirety.

The Expulsion from the T.U.C.

The conversation then led to discussion of the N.A.S.D.’s expulsion from the T.U.C. and the position taken by the union leadership on the General Council. That Deakin should have supported the expulsion was natural, but that the expulsion was agreed to unanimously was scandalous. Barrett would say no more on the subject except to remind his interviewer that the N.A.S.D. had survived beyond the T.U.C. pale from its inception to right after the war.

We, however, need not keep as silent as Barrett on a subject which concerns every other trade unionist in the country. What happened to the votes of the reputed left-wing unions inside the trade-union world? Why did Openshaw and Cannon, the A.E.U. representatives on the T.U.C. General Council, vote for expulsion, and Campbell of the N.U.R., Birch of U.S.D.A.W., and Ted Hill of the Boilermakers Union? The solidarity of leadership? Maybe. After all, membership of the General Council is very like an extended period of paid leave and may include a trip to China besides the usual European tour.

We believe, however, that that is not all. The main reason is a political one: if any of the big union leadership were to support the vigorous, left-wing N.A.S.D. in its fight for union democracy (the right of the worker to choose his union), in its fight for the principle of voluntary overtime, that leadership would have to review its whole policy since the end of the war – the policy of voluntary wage-freeze under the Labour government, the current policy of increasing insurance payments as a condition of higher Old Age Pensions, the policy of encouraging overtime and soft-pedalling the struggle for higher basic wages in response to the higher cost of living, the bi-partisan foreign policy, and so on. Any union bureaucracy which dares to follow its own rank and file in challenging the assumptions of the T.U.C. General Council will find itself at loggerheads with the giants of the right – the general unions. No union bureaucracy would dare to engage in a battle with such powers unless forced to by its own rank and file. Every trade union official can quote the words of a spokesman of the N.U.R. national executive when asked about rumours of strike action to be taken in the near future: “The Union does not want a strike. But, like the proverbial wheelbarrow, we go only as far and as fast as we are pushed.” Only the conscious intervention of the rank and file will change Union policy; it alone can break the stifling solidarity of the T.U.C. General Council and allow the militant and democratic N.A.S.D. to breathe freely.

The Deakin-Pollit Axis

Talk of the spontaneous intervention of the rank and file in the conduct of their own affairs inevitably led us to discussing the role of the C.P. in the dock strike. Could Barrett help us understand why the Daily Worker was as adamant in its opposition to breakaway movements from the T.&G. as the T.&G. leadership itself? Could he explain why men from the Kremlin quays in Liverpool joined forces with officials of the T.&G. in posting up false notices in the Mersey’s dockland, saying that Barrett’s meeting was called off?

Dick Barrett agreed that such conduct was in line with the undemocratic character and usual policy of the Communist Party. In the eyes of the C.P. leadership it were better to work within the T.&G. and try to capture it than to string along and play second fiddle to a fighting leadership already functioning within the N.A.S.D. However faint the chances are of the C.P. gaining control of the T.&G., if they ever do they will have at their disposal an admirable machine free of all democratic control. The N.A.S.D. presents an altogether different picture: to take it over, the C.P. would have to compete with a militant, left-wing leadership, not with a hide-bound bureaucratic bunch which commands no allegiance from its own rank and file. This competition for leadership would have to be in the open as the N.A.S.D. constitution is one of the most democratic in the country, providing as it does for frequent elections of all officials, for regular branch meetings and so on. Under such conditions, the C.P. might as well not put up a fight. The fruit of the T.&G. may seem remote, but once plucked it can be held; the very democracy of the N.A.S.D. Which makes election to leadership comparatively easy, also makes its retention by any but a really Socialist and militant leadership a difficult job, an impossible one for the Communist Party.

Last updated on 16 February 2017