Brief History of the Dockers
As long ago as the Bronze Age trade between Britain and
Europe was already taking place, as artefacts found on various coastal sites
have proved. The only way for this trade to take place was, of course, by
sea, and ancient ships would regularly carry goods between our shores and
those of the near continent. As this trade increased with time, and as the
ships grew much larger, more and more labour was required to load and unload
these vessels. There was very little mechanisation, and the loading and
discharging of cargo was, therefore, highly labour-intensive. From these
early beginnings would evolve an informal pool of specialised labour
throughout the ports of the UK - the Dockers.
These men worked on a casual labour system which meant they had to present
themselves for work each morning so that the chief stevedore could pick out
the men he wanted for that day. There could be up to 2,000 men attending the
call whereas the number required might only be 200. The stevedore picking
the men would have family, friends and favourites in the crowd, and would
maybe receive payments, or bribes, from others. Without work, the families
of the men not chosen for the day would go hungry. It was a system where the
favoured few would have regular employment and the many would not.
The Port of London, which employed the largest number of dockers, set the
standard for the rest of the country. In 1889 things came to a head and, in
protest at poor working conditions and at the abject poverty in which the
dockers and their families were forced to live, a strike was called. After
five long weeks of negotiation and stand-off, the employers finally agreed
to meet almost all of the dockers’ demands, and the men returned to work.
They had won the strike, but the hated ‘call’ system continued to exist.
Despite the victory of the 1889 strike, disputes continued and, in 1890, the
ship owners formed the Shipping Federation under the leadership of Cuthbert
Laws, with a view to restricting unionism and eliminating further industrial
action. The Federation equipped three sailing ships, the Paris, the Ella and
the Lady Jocelyn, to house ‘blackleg’ (non-union) labour, and these could be
transported to any dockside location where strike-breaking action might be
No further industrial unrest took place until 1911,
when the recently formed National Transport Workers Federation (NTWF)
consisting of 16 unions involved in dock work and transportation, approached
the Port of London Authority (PLA) for a wage increase of 6d to 8d per hour,
improved conditions and a formal recognition of all unions. These requests
were refused, and a strike was called. Elsewhere in the country other
branches of the NTWF also went on strike, and it soon became a national
Lord Devonport, Chairman of the PLA, after consulting the employers and ship
owners, offered 7d per hour and a reduction of one hour in the working day.
The cost to the employers would have been around £200,000 but the union,
seeing scant improvement on the 1889 conditions, rejected these proposals.
However, Devonport refused to negotiate further, and said publicly that he
would starve the men back to work. Ben Tillet at a mass meeting of dockers
on Tower Hill said “Oh God strike Lord Devonport dead”, but after two weeks
the men were forced to return to work on Devonport’s conditions.
In 1922 Ernest Bevin and Harry Gosling established the Transport & General
Workers Union (TGWU), fifty organisations formed into the worlds largest
trade union of the day. However, they failed to attract all the dockworkers,
and the National Amalgamated Stevedores & Dockers Union remained on their
own. They were soon poaching members from the TGWU, and this began decades
of conflict between the two unions.
Between the world wars labour relations remained poor and in 1923 the
employers proposed a reduction in pay from 8s (40p) per day to 5s 6d (28p)
for a four hour minimum working day. After 8 weeks on strike the men had to
return to work. Eight months later Bevin demanded 7s (35p) for the half day,
and Devonport offered 6s (30p). Devonport, in his reply, said something that
Bevin described as “the greatest insult ever offered by an employer to a
trade union leader”, and Bevin said he would not negotiate again with
Devonport unless he apologised. Bevin called a strike and the union won.
In 1926 the Trades Union Congress called a strike involving key industries
- Docks, Gas, Electricity and Railways. In the Port of London ‘blacklegs’
i.e. non-union labour, helped to unload ships with the assistance of the
Royal Navy, and soldiers from the Guards Regiments drove the lorries
carrying goods to and from the wharves. Even men from the middle and upper
classes, including university students, volunteered to act as labourers to
handle cargo. The strike ended in defeat for the Unions and, in 1927, the
government passed the Trades Dispute Act which restricted the ability of the
workers to strike.
In 1947, based on Bevin’s wartime registration scheme for dockworkers, the
National Dock Labour Scheme was established. Under the scheme, dock labour
was decasualised, and a register of dockers was set up - hence the term
‘Registered Dock Worker’, or ‘RDW’. The NDLS became responsible for the
allocation, pay and conditions of the dockers, and a modified version of the
‘call’ system was introduced. The National Dock Labour Board was also
established, comprising 50% employer and 50% union representation, and this
controlled the recruitment and dismissal of the dockers.
Nevertheless, disputes continued through the 1950s & 1960s and, by the
1970s, ports were closing due to loss of trade brought about by larger
vessels using deep-water harbours and by the increasing containerisation of
cargo. As a result, the number of dockers was also in decline. In 1960 there
were 23,000 Registered Dock Workers, but by 1971 only 16,500 remained, their
numbers being cut over the years by various severance schemes.
In 1989 the Employment Secretary Norman Fowler
terminated the National Dock Labour Scheme, signalling the end of the era of
the Registered Dock Worker. The dockers came out on strike, but eventually
took the severance payments on offer and the system of casual dock labour
was reintroduced. The working system of the Ports had gone full circle - a
good thing or a bad thing? Depends which side of the fence you are on!
Jack Dash, who was considered by the employers to be one of the most
militant of the Union representatives, said “the closing of the docks was
bound to happen, it was changes in trade which brought about the closures.
Although I was accused of shutting the docks, none of them closed until
after I retired”.