For centuries, London’s status as a powerful centre of trade and then as capital of empire made the river Thames one of the busiest waterways in the world; and the many docks that grew up along its banks teemed with ships, loading, being unloaded…
London’s dockworkers gradually became one of the capital’s most powerful workforces; their solidarity and resolution forged in the back-breaking work, low pay and the casual nature of employment on the job. Pre-World War 2, you’d have no definite job, just line up every morning and try to get hired. Wages were low and many families lived in desperate conditions, impressing on the dockers the need for organisation.
In 1889, inspired by the matchgirls Strike, a Dockers union was set up and in August 1889, a huge strike broke out in the South West India Dock which spread to both sides of the river; the demands were a 2p rise to 6 pence an hour, plus overtime rates, an end to subcontracting middlemen and guaranteed hours of work… The strike was massive, and inspired numerous other East End workers to stop work. Vast daily procession of strikers wound though the East End, to huge ralliers held in Mile End Fileds and on Tower Hill. In the end the crisis passed & the bosses settled – only to chip away at the concessions over the next few months. But dockers would strike repeatedly over the next few decades, struggling for higher wages and better employment conditions, developing strong & vital bonds of solidarity & methods of fighting, as well as powerful links to docks in other ports in Britain & abroad.
After World War 2 a long struggle took place in the Docks… Even as the war ended dockers were on a go-slow protest against for a minimum wage and changes in piece-rates. The new Labour government sent troops into break the strike – as they were to do several times against dockers & others in the next 6 years – causing a mass strike, broken by the alliance of government, troops and unions.
The Transport & General Workers Union co-operated with bosses and state in administering the new National Dock Labour Scheme, an attempt to curtail the worst excesses of casualisation, which guaranteed registered dockers a wage, but under stringent controls and conditions like compulsory overtime. Many strikes in the next 3 decades were unofficial, with dockers bitterly resenting the T&GWU’s tie-up with management. Union leaders often made deals their members rejected, or tried to end action taken independent of them. Wildcat and unofficial committees grew up, like the National Portworkers Defence Committee. Unofficial leaders were often victimised, (or expelled from the T&G!) but support from dockers usually forced the bosses to back down
In JUNE 1948 London portworkers went on strike, after a number of them were suspended from work for claiming the usual special payment for handling zinc oxide. Particularly hard or unpleasant jobs were often paid at a special higher rate
As Conn Clancey, one of the 11 suspended dockers explained, his gang had been loading a ship with zinc oxide from canal barges. ‘There were 3,000 hessian sacks of the stuff, weighing 50 tons. We had done about 700 sacks and were getting very dusty and dirty. Down the hatch it was impossible to see. The stuff penetrates everything. It gets in your nose, mouth, eyes and hair and turns one blue’.
‘Eventually’, said Clancey, ‘we asked if there was a rate laid for the job. While enquiries were made we went back to general cargo work. It was a job for the View Committee. They said 3/4d. a ton was a proper rate. We were suggesting 5 bob although we expected to come down a bit, Another View Committee came next morning and we went on loading the zinc oxide. They still made it 3/4d. so we said there was no alternative but to talk it over with ‘the men on the stones’ – the other dockers. They voted we should finish the consignment and then have the matter looked into.
‘We went back and finished the job that afternoon. Everyone thought the affair was finished but in the morning I had a letter saying I was suspended. The penalty was like a smack on the ear when the fight was over. We finished all the zinc oxide. There was no time lost. While there was work to do we worked.’
Eleven dockers were then suspended for a week, without pay, by the National Dock Labour Board and their guaranteed week suspended for 13 weeks. On June 14 a spontaneous strike broke out against these vicious sentences. The strike later spread to Merseyside. It lasted 16 days and at one stage involved nearly 32,000 dockers.
The Manchester Guardian Weekly (June 24, 1948) commented: ‘It is plain from the way the strike has spread – within a week, in the face of every discouragement from officials of their trade union, the numbers out have grown from 1,500 to 15,000 – that there is fairly widespread discontent with the way some parts of the scheme are working. So broad a movement would hardly have sprung from so small an occasion if there had not been already a big head of pent-up emotion looking for an outlet before the incident of the zinc oxide cargo gave it one’.
The Times (June 29, 1948) with their usual gift of right-wing melodrama, proclaimed that the dock strike was ‘a challenge to be resisted as resolutely as the threat of attack by a foreign power’.
This is exactly what the Labour Government did. It drafted freshly conscripted troops into the docks. On June 29th, it proclaimed a State of Emergency. The ‘party of the working class’ used the Emergency Powers Act of 1920. This was a vicious piece of class legislation (for the other side) which had been introduced at the end of World War 1 by the Tory-dominated ‘hard-faced Parliament’.
The intimidation worked. The solidarity strike ended before His Majesty’s ‘socialist’ ministers really got down to churning out further ’emergency’ legislation.
The Emergency Powers Act, incidentally, has been superseded by the Civil Contingencies Act, but is effectively still on the statute book. It provides handy dictatorial powers to any government seeking to cope with any kind of mass working class activity, particularly any kind that might challenge established society.
Much more on dockers’ struggles and how the sainted Labour government of 1945-51 used soldiers to break their (and other workers’) strikes, can be read here.
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online