Yesterday and today, in London history: Dockers refuse to load munitions for anti-Soviet forces, 1920.

When World War 1 came to an end, in November 1918, there were millions of men in uniform across Europe. After the initial nationalist fervour and pro-war enthusiasm that had seen mass enlistment in the first year or two, the war fever had largely abated. Mass slaughter, the stalemate of trench warfare, the horrors of soldiers’ experience – trauma, disease, cold, horrific wounds, as well as vicious military discipline, punishment of those who refused orders, were unable to fight any more… Many of those on the many fronts across the continent had been conscripted.

After over 17 million deaths and 20 million wounded, all most of those in the respective armies wanted to do was go home. Long years of fighting had largely engendered a widespread cynicism and disillusion – with the war aims, with the high command, with pro-war propaganda…

Out of this war-weariness, and inspired by the Russian Revolution of 1917, (itself a product of army mutinies and revolts from a population enraged by the privation and poverty the war had aggravated), French and British army mutinies had erupted in 1917-18. Revolts, mutinies and uprisings among her allies left Germany mostly fighting alone by the beginning of November, and German mutinies had played a major part in Germany’s decision to open talks about ending the war with the allies…

But celebrations of peace were somewhat premature. And the British government, for one, was determined not to end the fighting, but to carry on the war – but against former ally, Russia.

After the October Revolution had overthrown the liberal government there, the new Bolshevik government had fulfilled one of the main aims of the revolution – to pull Russia out of the war.

This in itself enraged France and Britain, as it left Germany free to move large forces to the western front. But the overthrow of tsarism and then the bourgeois Kerensky government, and the beginnings of social revolution across Russia, also scared the pants off governments worldwide. And the leading allied nations were among the most worried. What if workers across Britain took Russia as an example? There had already been a huge upsurge in workplace organising, strikes, and social struggles as the war progressed… The British and French establishments were determined not only that radicals inspired by the Soviet upsurge be repressed, but to organise military intervention in Russia, to support the anti-revolutionary forces already fighting a civil war there, and if possible help them restore a more acceptable regime and crush working class power.

By this time of course, in Russia itself, the processes were already at work that would hamstring working class control and produce a Bolshevik dictatorship which would largely destroy any real communist potential within 3 years… However, it was all one to the western powers.

Plans to mobilise some of the millions conveniently still under orders and turn them against Russia were already underway long before the Armistice between Germany and the Allied powers was signed on 11 November.

An agreement had been drawn up in December 1917 between France, Italy and Britain to act against the Bolshevik regime, subsidise its opponents, and prepare ‘as quietly as possible’ for war on them.

Between February and November, British troops had already been sent to invade parts of Russia. Clauses within the peace agreement itself make it clear that troops were to be moved across Europe to the east, and ensured that free access to the Baltic and Black Sea for French and British navies would ease plans to invade Russian territory.

And immediately after the ‘peace’, plans were stepped up, along with a concerted propaganda campaign against ‘bolshevism’ in the press, designed to whip up support for military intervention.

But the plans involved reckoning on thousands of soldiers as pawns, and that British workers would have no view or no say in the matter. This was to be a serious miscalculation.

In the early months of 1919, there were still over a million British soldiers still in uniform, some in France but many more in army camps in this country. Many were expecting immediate demobilisation now the war was over; this expectation turned to frustration and then to eruptions of protest. Attempts to delay demobilization in order to facilitate intervention in Russia were certainly going on, but bureaucratic delays and simple problems of scale were also for sure causing backlogs and a slow process of sending soldier home. But in January 1919, a number of mutinies, protests and demonstrations in army camps in southern England and around London, demanding immediate demobilisation, broke out, causing serious alarm in government circles; especially as industrial unrest was increasing. Mutinies, links between discontent in the armed forces and on the home front had led to the Russian Revolution and to revolutionary uprisings still then raging in Germany, Hungary and elsewhere… The soldiers’ protests led to a swift acceleration of demobilisation, in order to scotch further rebellion in the ranks.

It also did make the government think more carefully about conscripting soldiers into an intervention force for sending to Russia. Clearly squaddies were not necessarily going to be happy to be pawns this time. Public opinion in Britain was also heavily against intervention in Russia…

The soldiers strikes of January certainly scotched the idea that a mass military force could be sent to help smash the Russian Revolution. But it wasn’t the end of the British government’s plans to support the ‘white’ armies fighting against the Bolsheviks.

And just as soldiers put their twopennorth in, organised workers would also have something to say on the matter.

From the early days following the Russian Revolution, British socialists of various stripe were enthused by the idea that workers were taking control of a major world power, and inspired by the thought of this spreading worldwide. The clear attempt by the British authorities to aid in smashing the revolution (while at the same time coming down hard against strikes and socialist movements here) drew fierce opposition from the British left.

In early 1919 the Hands Off Russia movement was born, an umbrella group uniting almost all sections of a (usually fairly fractious) left, to build resistance from within to any military campaign against Russia.

In fact, it united the British Socialist Party, the Socialist Labour Party, the Industrial Workers of the World (the British version of the famous ‘Wobblies’), the London Workers’ Committee (the capital’s equivalent of the Clyde Workers’ Committee – the shop steward-based organisers of the Red Clydeside era) and Sylvia Pankhurst’s (anti-parliamentary communist) Workers’ Socialist Federation A great deal of support was also given by George Lansbury’s Daily Herald (left labour) and its associated Herald Leagues, also then at their height.

As well as vigorous campaigning, some in the movement recognised that large amounts of munitions and other materials were likely to be needed for any Russian war. Even after the authorities reluctantly drew back from sending large forces of men to fight, they promised arms and other military supplies to the white Russian armies. This would have to be transported through the docks.

The Hands Off Russia movement involved lots of trade unionists and socialist activists: and especially in London, they had strong links with dockworkers in the East End; socialism and unionism was strong in the docks, and dockers were particularly militant around this time. The Hands Off Russia Campaign made a point of holding meetings around the docks, not just because there was a good receptive audience, but because these were workers who might be able to actually hold up the supply of munitions to the Russian reactionaries:

“Many of the comrades could be seen outside the London docks and shipyards selling ‘Hands Off Russia’ literature and our members were also selling inside. Day after day we posted up placards, stick backs and posters on the dockside, in ships and lavatories.” (Harry Pollitt)

Harry Pollitt, later Communist Party supremo, then a member of the Workers Socialist Federation, was an East End socialist activist, involved in this campaign. According to Pollitt after Lenin’s ‘Appeal to the Toiling Masses’, a call for international solidarity with the Soviet state – reprinted in Sylvia Pankhurst’s paper, the Workers Dreadnought, but banned by the Home Office – he kept hundreds of copies inside his mattress to avoid seizure if he was raided. Pankhurst handed out 1000s of copies around the docks and the East End. Pollitt credits Melvina Walker, a leading WSF member, as an important and tireless propagandist in the agitation against intervention: “She toiled like a Trojan. If on a shopping morning you went down Chrisp Street, Poplar, you could rely upon seeing Mrs. Walker talking to groups of women, telling them about Russia, how we must help them, and asking them to tell their husbands to keep their eyes skinned to see that no munitions went to help those who were trying to crush the Russian Revolution.”

The campaign slowly built up, including a one-day strike against intervention in summer 1919, co-ordinated with workers in other western countries, though only patchily supported. British aid to the reactionary forces continued. But subversive efforts to sabotage this process were at work…

In February 1920, Hands Off Russia meetings were widely reporting rumours recently printed in the Workers Dreadnought (though originally hailing from the German communist paper Rote Fahne) that the recent defeat of the white Russian reactionary general Yudenich had partly been due to the fact that British guns supplied to his forces had had parts removed – by workers in British armaments factories.

In March and April, learning that barges in the London docks were being loaded with munitions destined for ships bound to supply anti-Soviet forces, Hands Off Russia activists approached dockers to ask them not to load them. According to Pollitt, they seemed to ignore his pleas.. but an old docker approached him and told him not to worry. As the barges reached the ships in the North Sea, several cable ‘mysteriously snapped’, and much of the cargo was lost in the sea!

This was the immediate prelude to the best known action around this issue – the dockers refusal to load munitions on the Jolly George, in May 1920.

On 10 May, as the ship Jolly George was being loaded with a cargo labeled ‘OHMS Munitions for Poland’ in the East India Dock. Poland was at war with the Soviets and Polish armies had advanced deep into the Ukraine. The dockers at work there realised it was destined for the white Russian Armies. By this time, much of the guns had gone on board; but the coalheavers refused to stock the ship up with coal, unless the munitions were removed. While this situation led to a stand-off on the dockside, a deputation of dockers went to visit the Dockers’ Union general Secretaries, Ernest Bevin and Fred Thompson, and received assurances that the union would back a strike if the cargo remained on board.

The following day, the export branch of the Dock, Wharf and Riverside General Workers Union passed a resolution calling on the Transport Workers Federation and the Labour Party to support them in preventing the Jolly George from sailing… The Jolly George could not sail. Four days later the munitions were unloaded back onto the docks.

The dockers were not necessarily all in sympathy with communism, though many were inclined to some form of socialism. The Hands Off Russia had, however, tapped into a general feeling of revulsion at the idea of further warfare, and a sense that any cause the government was supporting was worth opposing… Without a doubt, the January 1919 mutinies and the campaign against the shipping of munitions helped to prevent the smashing of the Soviet Union (even if the dreams and aspirations of the Russia workers were soon to be channelled into the dead ends of repression, the Kronstadt massacre, state capitalism, Lenin, Stalin and 70 years of gulag and betrayal… Interestingly, the Jolly George incident was long-remembered in the Soviet Union -commemorated by the stamp shown at the beginning of this post, printed in 1970).

For the moment, though, the actions of the dockers in May 1920 struck a blow that had huge significance.

According to Harry Pollitt, as the unloaded cases of munitions sat on the dock, on May 15th, “on the side of one case is a very familiar sticky-back, ‘Hands Off Russia!’ It is very small, but that day it was big enough to be read all over the world.”

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London radical history: More than 300,000 London workers are on strike, 1889.

“The proverbial small spark has kindled a great fire which threatens to envelop the whole metropolis.” (The Evening News, 27th August 1889)

The seminal strike of the London dockers in 1889 began on 14th August, as thousands slaving in one of the hardest, most insecure and worst paid job in London refused to work until wages were raised, minimum hours guaranteed, and other conditions improved. Within a few days the port of London was a standstill. There was widespread sympathy for the dockers, but money for strike pay was scarce. But a strong campaign of processions into the City, calls for support going out nationally and internationally, and effective picketing and blocking of scabbing, kept the struggle powerful.

The dockers’ strike may itself have been partly inspired by the 1888 matchgirls’ strike and the agitation of the East End gas stokers for better wages and conditions… But the outbreak of the strike itself lit a fuse among London workers, especially the low paid and casually employed.

A rash of strikes and disputes broke out in the second half of August and early September 1889; concentrated in (though not limited to) East London. In a rough triangle between the City, Kings Cross and Blackwall, there were at least 50 strikes outside of the docks. In South and west London there were at least another 16.

A newspaper report listed some of the trades that had come out: “…coal men, match girls, parcels postmen, carmen [cartdrivers], rag, bone and paper porters and pickers and the employees in jam, biscuit, rope, iron, screw, clothing and railways works…” Not included here is the large-scale strike of Jewish tailors in the East End in August-September. It has been suggested that 300,000 workers in London were out on strike on September 1st 1889, a huge number, which may even be an under-estimate.

There was also a rent strike in Commercial Road in Stepney: a banner in Hungerford Street announced “As We are on strike landlords need not call”, following it with a rhyme:
Our husbands on strike: for the wives it is not funny
And we all think it is not right to pay the landlord money
Everyone is on strike; so landlords do not be offended
The rent that’s due we’ll pay when the strike is ended.

The spreading of the strike into social struggle in this way was hardly surprising in East London, where workers often lived close to their work, in close proximity to others who worked with them, and in dire poverty. Solidarity was a necessity. Many of the workers erupting were largely unskilled or semi-skilled, like the matchgirls and dockers, traditionally ignored by the craft unions of the skilled workers who had achieved relatively good wages and conditions and a position in society. This wave of ‘new unionism’ as it became known was spreading practical and committed trade union organization among those who the ‘aristocracy of labour’ had long considered feckless and not capable of collective bargaining. But is was also confrontational, where many of the craft unions had long settled into a collaborative relationship with employers. The status quo was threatened in more ways than one.

The whole of working class London was in ferment. The spreading of the strike to other trades began to worry the establishment – how many other industries would follow suit? A committee of the great and the good was formed to try to get the dock strike settled before things got too out of hand. The intransigent employers were to some extent leant upon to give concessions in order to lessen the pressure on London’s economy being jacked up as strike after strike broke out.

The bourgeois press of course was largely scathing of the strikes; the language used is interesting, as in several reports the spreading of strike action is likened to disease. “Strike Fever”… “the infectious example of coming out on strike”… “the infection has spread to other classes of laboring men…” Workers attempting to collectively push for a rise on wages to levels they can survive on and conditions bearable to work under are basically a plague, a pox, a sickness. It’s obvious really.

But if the employers were nervous and the press jumpy, the leaders of the dockers’ strike were also unnerved by the strike wave that their dispute had to some extent unleashed.

The Strike Committee’s response to the wildfire of class struggle had not been exactly joy… Far from it. To some extent they saw it as a distraction, likely to reduce donations for their own struggle, and as threatening the public sympathy the dock strike had garnered; they also disapproved of strikers simply walking out without organising in a union first. This they justified by suggesting that unionisation was essential for winning any dispute.

They issued a statement in late August: “We, the undersigned, strongly deprecate the rash action taken by unorganised workmen not directly connected with dock work of coming out on strike without reflecting that by doing so they are increasing the strain upon the upon the strike committee’s resources. Organisation must precede strikes, or defeat is certain.”

To some extent the committee’s view reflected a rigid approach that wasn’t taking account of the strength of enthusiasm spreading through the city. Rather than struggle growing from organisation, organisation was growing from struggle, all around them.

The statement seems to have created an intense debate, among the strike organisers and leaders, because on two days later, they took a step that directly contradicted the spirit of it. On 28th August the dock strike committee voted to issue a call for a general strike in London – not only recognising the strength of the widening strike wave, but arguing by implication that its extension would achieve a victory for the dockers.

It can only be imagined what might have then developed. Perhaps the wave had already reached its peak; but perhaps it might have lit a fuse that could not be put out.

In the end it is speculation, as less than a day later, before the call had in fact really been made, the committee reversed the general strike call. Some socialists and anarchists later denounced the decision as betraying a potential revolutionary situation… It has also been suggested that the call for a general strike was itself a last desperate throw, with the strike committee afraid that the dock strike was on the verge of collapsing; that it was calling for something that could not happen, a bluff that could only be called.

Whatever the truth of it, withdrawing the call did not abate the spread of organization through the unskilled workers of London, though it may have signaled to the dock owners and employers in general that the committee were willing to deal with disputes on an individual level, rather than escalate to an all-out class war. In this sense it may have hastened the settlement of the dock strike a few days later, with the wining of a wage rise. Unionisation continued to spread among the unskilled, though there were many battles to come, and victories were often followed by the clawing back of concessions.

The last few days of August and early September 1889 though, remain a time evocative and compelling, when both spontaneous activity and organization were growing, when possibilities seemed open…

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London’s radical history: Troops sent in (again) to break London dock strike, 1948.

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 of that year, 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

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London radical history: Expulsions of strike leaders from TGWU sparks dock strike, 1950.

‘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.

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online