‘The principles of our policy are based on the brotherhood of man.’ said Labour leader Clem Atlee on July 26th 1945, the day before Labour took office after its historic landslide in the khaki election. The received wisdom runs thus: the generation that had been through World War II, following on from the desperate times of the 1930s, elects a radical Labour majority which resolves to act on behalf of the working class and transform society in the interests of the producers of the wealth… Among the gains that follow, the NHS is born, the skeleton of the welfare state is built into protection for all, from cradle to grave, crucial industries are nationalized.
Of course there is a kernel of truth here. But as much as some of what was created then has become a vital part of our lives, the radicalism of the ’45 Labour government very much had its limits. They were determined that the reforms they were set on implementing would go only so far; and that they would set the pace, change would be undertaken FOR the workers, not BY them. Those groups who pushed for things to be taken too far would be reined in. Many of the Labour leadership had been part of the wartime coalition government, and were well accustomed to using the apparatus of state repression when necessary. It didn’t take them very long to begin using it against the workers they claimed to be acting on behalf of, when demands for a tiny bit more of the pie didn’t fit their plans.
Not long at all – less than a week, in fact. Within a few days of being elected the Labour government sent troops in to the Surrey Docks, London, to help break a dockers’ ‘go-slow’ which had been going on for ten weeks. In the following six years the army was to be used to break strikes tens of times – often in the docks, a major venue of struggle in the late ‘40s.
At the same time, the hierarchy of the Transport & General Workers Union were attempting to keep down militancy, keep men at work, and control activists and unofficial leaders it considered as too radical. Often an alliance of union leadership, employers and government representatives would be mustered against the dockers. But when the T&G leaders proved incapable of controlling the workers and keeping their demands to a ‘reasonable’ level, the soldiers would be wheeled in. This hardened the union leadership’s resolve to expel ‘troublemakers’, as a union that can’t guarantee control over its membership starts to become redundant in the eyes of capital and the state.
MAY 1949 saw the most vicious piece of strike breaking in the whole history of the Labour Government. The Canadian Seamen’s Union was involved in a strike against wage cuts. On May 14. the ‘Montreal City’, which had been worked across the Atlantic by a blackleg crew provided by the International Seafarers’ Union, (an organization affiliated to the American Federation of Labour and having very few members on Canada’s Eastern seaboard.)arrived at Avonmouth. Dockers refused to unload the ‘black’ ship. On May 16 the employers threatened to penalise the dockers for this refusal. This brought out all Avonmouth dockers, in a lightning strike. The employers then said they would hire no labour for other ships until the dockers hand-led the ‘black’ ship. The strike had become a lock-out.
On May 22, 600 Bristol dockers came out in solidarity with the Avonmouth men. Three days later lockgate men and tugmen in Avonmouth also came out in support, refusing to handle ships until the Avonmouth dockers were allowed to work again. They were promptly suspended. On May 27, the Labour Government sent troops to unload a banana ship in Avonmouth. Crane drivers promptly refused to work alongside the troops.
The same day a ‘black’ ship was diverted from Avonmouth to Liver-pool. Merseyside dockers refused to handle her and 45 of them were suspended. One thousand Liverpool dockers then joined the strike. On May 30, 1,400 more dockers in Liverpool came out. The Avonmouth men instructed their ‘lock-out Committee’ to seek support from other ports.
On June 2, troops began unloading all the ships lying in Avonmouth dock. About 11,000 dockers had by now joined the strike. On June 6, merchant seamen manning the ‘Trojan Star’ refused to sail her out of Avonmouth because the lockgates were manned by troops. Other seamen also joined in. On June 14, the Avonmouth dockers returned to work. But the struggle had meanwhile flared up in London where employers refused to hire labour for newly arrived ships unless the ‘black’ Canadian ships ‘Argomont’ and ‘Beaverbrae’ were unloaded. By July 5, over 8,000 London dockers were on strike.
On July 7, troops were moved into various London docks to unload ships. Drivers of meat haulage firms and fruit and vegetable firms said they would not carry goods unloaded by troops.
On July 8, the Labour Government announced it would proclaim a State of Emergency on July 11. The only effect was to ensure that Watermen, Lightermen, Tugmen and Bargemen also joined in. Over 10,000 dockers were now on strike. On July 12 the Government started pouring blackleg troops into the docks. Another 3,000 dockers came out. The Executive of the Lightermen’s Union told their members not work alongside the troops.
The Labour Government had got itself into a thorough mess. It now started issuing Emergency Regulations. It set up an Emergency Committee, headed by a former Permanent Under-secretary at the Home Office, Sir Arthur Maxwell, to run the docks. It is not known if Sir Arthur was later issued with an honorary membership card from Transport House … for services rendered.
By July 20, over 15,000 men were on strike. They only returned to work on July 22 when the Canadian Seamen’s Union, having obtained certain concessions, withdrew their pickets from certain ships and announced that they were terminating their dispute, so far as Britain was concerned.
When the strike was over, the T&G hierarchy determined to discipline some of the unofficial leaders of the strike.
In MARCH 1950, the Transport & General Workers Union bureaucrats expelled three dockers from the union because of the active part they had played in the Canadian Seamen’s strike a few months earlier. A mass meeting of dockers was called by the Portworkers Defence Committee, an ‘unofficial’ rank-and-file body. On March 26, a ban on overtime was decided. The ban was temporarily withdrawn on April 3, but when, on April 18, the appeals of the three expelled men were rejected a protest strike started in the Royal Group. By April 21, 9,000 dockers were out. Mass meetings called for a ballot of portworkers to decide whether the action of the union leaders should be upheld. On April 24, the Labour Government moved troops into the docks. This worked like a charm: a further 4,500 dockers joined the strike.
The London Dock Labour Board then made threatening noises. All those who didn’t report for work by May 1st would ‘have their registrations cancelled’ (i.e. would be expelled from the industry). On April 29, a mass meeting decided to return to work and to fight the expulsions through the branches.
Well worth a read: The Labour Government vs. The Dockers 1945-1951.
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online