Dockers - A Brief History
Trade between Britain and Europe is known to have taken place as long ago as the Bronze Age, as artefacts found on various coastal sites have proved. This trade was, of course, by sea, and ancient ships would 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. Cargo-handling equipment in those days was quite primitive, so the loading and discharging of goods would have been highly labour-intensive. From these early beginnings evolved 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 but many would not.
The Port of London, which employed the largest number of dockers in the UK, set the standard for the rest of the country but, in 1889, matters came to a head as, in protest at poor working conditions and at the abject poverty in which the dockers and their families had 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 as before.
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 required.
No further industrial unrest took place until 1911, when the recently formed National Transport Workers Federation, consisting of 16 unions involved in both dock work and transportation, approached the Port of London Authority for a wage increase from 6d to 8d per hour; improved conditions, and a formal recognition of all trade unions. These requests were refused, and a strike was called. Elsewhere in the country other branches of the National Transport Workers Federation also went on strike, and it soon escalated into a nation-wide dispute.
Lord Devonport, Chairman of the Port of London Authority, 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, fifty organisations formed into the worlds largest trade union of the day. However, they failed to attract all dockworkers as the National Amalgamated Stevedores & Dockers Union chose to remained on its own. Before too long, the National Amalgamated Stevedores & Dockers Union began 'poaching' members from the Transport & General Workers Union, and thus began decades of conflict between the two organisations.
Between the two 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 eight 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 said he would not negotiate further with Devonport unless he apologised. Bevin called a strike and the union won.
In 1926 the Trades Union Congress called a strike involving key UK industries - docks, gas, electricity and rail. In the Port of London, ‘blacklegs’ i.e. non-union labour, helped unload ships with the assistance of the Royal Navy, and soldiers from the Guards Regiments drove 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 go on 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 National Dock Labour Scheme governed the allocation, pay and working conditions of the dockers, and introduced a modified version of the ‘call’ system. The National Dock Labour Board was also established at that time, comprising 50% employer and 50% union representation, and this organisation controlled the recruitment and dismissal of 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 rapid increase in containerised cargo. As a consequence the number of dockers began to 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”.