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Nicholas Howard

[Dockworkers Defeated]

(Autumn 1966)

From The Notebook, International Socialism (1st series), No. 26, Autumn 1966, pp. 4–5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Nicholas Howard writes: ‘A real victory for trade-union sovereignty,’ was how Bert Ramelson, the Communist Party industrial organiser, described the bitter betrayal that ended the seamen’s strike. Since the unofficial disputes in 1960 the rank and file of the National Union of Seamen had given every indication that they at least had established sovereignty. The birth of two unofficial reform movements in the union, despite the imprisonments and finings used against them in 1960 and 1962, and the deaths of two lying and collaborationist general secretaries created a strong working-class union out of 50 years of near company unionism. Changes in the executive and changes in the union rules, both the result of pressures from below, plus a drastic decline in the competitive position of British shipowners produced the intransigent situation of 16 May 1966. Despite their previous support for the incomes policy, the union with optimistic solidarity took on single handed a fight for a 40 hour week that inevitably became a fight against the Labour Government, the ruling class and the bureaucracies of the TUC, the whipped NUR and Cousins’ T&GWU, among others. The failure of Cousins to resign from the Government during the strike should, incidentally, dispel any misconceptions about the nature of his fight against the incomes policy. After Wilson’s fireside chat and the State of Emergency, the NUS leaders still innocently protested that they had no quarrel with the state. Not so innocently, the Communist Party backed them up by insisting repeatedly that such talk was nonsense. With an eye on their Parliamentary image the CP’s role in the strike was thus intentionally to de-politicise it by calling for the impossible, Government action against the ruling-class power of the shipowners. It was, equally, opportunist, since by putting themselves in the vanguard of the whip-rounds for the strike fund they were able to benefit from the tremendous sympathy for the seamen among both industrial workers and others in the low wage brackets.

Communist leadership among the unofficial Portworkers’ Liaison Committees was hesitant and confusing. Nine days after the strike began, Jack Dash warned dockers not to take irresponsible action, but to express their sympathy through their full-time officials. The very next day these officials of the T&GWU and those of the NUS signed an agreement allowing shore gangs to move ships in port. This agreement probably fatally weakened the strike for it enabled the port authorities to avoid and forestall the port congestion which both the dockers and the seamen were hoping would bring the employers to heel. In the event congestion was so slow in building up, that, despite two declarations of emergency, not a single member of the armed forces was brought into the docks throughout the seven weeks of the strike. The congestion argument had also been used by Dash to convince dockers that sympathetic action was unnecessary, for if they struck unofficially they’d receive no strike pay, whereas if they waited for congestion to do its work they’d be laid off on attendance pay. The Communist leadership in the Victoria and Albert seamen’s dispute committee persuaded their angry members to accept the agreement, but to try and reverse it constitutionally. In fact the cautious constitutionalism of both the CP and the Labourite leaders of the NUS weakened the early strength of the strike. Inevitably, when nearly three weeks later both the union executive and the CP leadership in the docks called for the blacking of British ships in sympathy, confusion arose in London, Hull and Liverpool docks and failure was immediate. The rank-and-file docker had no idea whether all ships should be blacked and cargo work stopped or whether the call applied only to ships with cargoes destined previously for British ships. The unofficial committees, having failed to give a clear lead, and the NUS, which had constantly said that it did not want loading and unloading stopped, could hardly expect a port-workers’ strike, the only way to victory for the NUS, particularly when all were urging that action should be along the stultifying official channels. The reality of the Communist role in the strike makes ironic Wilson’s Parliamentary McCarthyism which, with a BBC TV inquisition, touched off the debacle at the end. Three days after all branches had voted for continuation of the strike, against the biased and puny offerings of the Pearson committee, and two days after the third ‘last offer’ by the now desperate and weakening shipowners, the ten men of ‘guts’ that Wilson had sought to impress turned their backs on the rank-and-file seamen. Together with the twelve full-time EC members and seven remnants of the era of Yates, they provided a majority that excused itself out of a strike it had never wanted on the grounds that it was causing hardship to the citizens of Britain. The hardship is yet to come, for the working class. So inefficient are British shipowners, that 55 per cent of all imports now arrive in foreign ships, so shortages were not felt and food prices remained stable during the strike. But so much was conceded by the seamen in terms of the incomes policy, a 15 per cent increase lost, as against five per cent this year and four per cent next year gained [1], that the breakthrough against this wage freezing policy will have to be made by some other not so well placed group of workers. The lesson for the working class is clear. Strike action to raise the standard of living by sections of workers needs the sympathetic action of other groups if it is to benefit all workers. Buying out of this responsibility by paying conscience money to strike funds will not do. There are other lessons for the rank and file of the NUS. With the late heroes of the reform movements having had to urge their angry brothers back to work, the fight against the shipowners and the incomes policy now becomes a fight for the constitution of the NUS. It is very doubtful if they will win, to regain in 1967 the Sundays at Sea leave agreement which they have lost, a loss of five days’ paid leave on average per man per year, for no extra money. More likely is that the bureaucrats of the TUC will move in on the officials of the NUS and show them how to do what the officials of the AEU, the ETU, the TGWU and the NUM, BISAKTA and all, have pioneered so well: namely, the art of running a union regardless of the class interests of their members. And the 1894 anti-combination law still stands for use against those Merchant Seamen who are on voyage.


1. These figures are those of the Pearson Committee. Their accuracy depends upon the individual shipowners’ policy towards overtime, which in the stringent aftermath of the strike is likely to be extremely mean.

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