The Five Jailed Dockers

The dockers are worried about their jobs, or rather about the drop in standard of living they will suffer if they lose them. Since 1967 the number of dockers has fallen by a third, from 60,000 to 40,000, mainly as a result of the so-called container revolution. One aspect of this problem has been that much container work, even in dock areas, has been done by workers other than dockers, some non-union, some members of other unions, but all generally at lower wages.

It is the policy of the dockers’ unions, the Transport and General Workers Union and the rival National Amalgamated Stevedores and Dockers (expelled from the TUC in 1959 for “poaching” TGWU members), that the work should be done by dockers, at dockers’ wages. To this end, the dockers have taken various forms of industrial action, official and unofficial, legal and illegal, from blacking container firms to a national docks strike.

A number of the blacked container firms took the TGWU and some of the shop stewards (from both unions) to the National Industrial Relations Court complaining that the blacking was an “unfair industrial practice”. The Court agreed : the TGWU was fined at least £55,000 and, eventually, five dockers sent to prison for “contempt of Court”.

The reaction to the jailings shows that working-class, or at least trade-union, solidarity still exists. Besides other dockers, thousands of newspaper workers, miners, train drivers and others (including those at the blacked Midland Cold Storage depot) stopped work. Such was the pressure that even the TUC would have called a one-day general strike of all its ten million members if the five dockers hadn’t been released, an unprecedentedly during move from the Knights of Congress House. And of course they were released, obviously as a result of this working-class resistance. The government itself may not have directly influenced the Courts, but the workers on strike did. The House of Lords and NIRC were left with no alternative but to hurriedly concoct some legal excuse for letting the men out.

This was a successful defensive action by the working class and one which the Socialist Party of Great Britain welcomes just as we would have supported the one-day TUC general strike. Not of course that we share the romantic illusions of those who thought that such a strike might have been the beginning of “the revolution”, but because experience has shown that, on occasions such as this was, a general strike can be a useful weapon to defend the interests of the working class within capitalism. The Industrial Relations Act was designed to make working-class industrial action in defence of wages and working conditions less effective, so it is in the interest of the working class to try to make the Act itself ineffective.

This said, there is one reservation we must make, from a Socialist and working-class point of view, about the dockers’ activities. Their struggle had a sectional aspect in that they were pushing their interests as one section of the working class not just against employers but against another section of the working class. For their demand that container work should be done by dockers is a demand that it should not be done by those now doing it. This at least was how it was seen by the workers at Midland Cold Storage, all members of the TUC-affiliated Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (USDAW). In a leaflet dated 10 July and issued to lorry drivers they declared:

“We are entitled to defend jobs that are ours. The dockers want our jobs and with your help are prepared to close down our firm. Why? The work we do is no different to that done in the many Cold Stores throughout the country.. We are not blacklegs — we are ordinary working men and we want our jobs. Dockers who picket our Depot have no greater claim to work available in a community. If they have, is your job really safe?”

It is because we as Socialists stand for the interests of the working class as a whole that we cannot take sides in such inter-union or inter-worker disputes and cannot endorse the dockers’ campaign.

Their action in picketing places such as Midland Cold Storage, though understandable (as is the reaction of the USDAW members employed there), illustrates one of the limitations of trade unionism. Trade unions, as the very word suggests, represent not the working class but just sections of it, their members, and in pursuit of the legitimate aim of protecting their members’ standard of living often emphasise, and exaggerate, the sectional divisions within the working class. This the Socialist Party does not support.

Needless to say, the concern expressed for the other workers by their employers and Mr. Heath was so much hypocrisy. The former were concerned rather with not having to pay dockers’ wage rates and Mr. Heath with saving his anti-working class Industrial Relations Act. Some of the older dockers may also have seen as hypocritical too the support expressed by the Labour Party for the five jailed men. They may have recalled the occasion in 1951 when a Labour Attorney General, acting on the instructions of a Labour cabinet which included Mr. Wilson, prosecuted some dockers for breaking an anti-strike order, also unsuccessfully as it turned out.

So, while the solidarity strikes to get the dockers released demonstrated the usefulness of trade unionism for the working class, the pickets and counter-pickets at the docks demonstrated the opposite: its tendency to divide the working class by sections rather than to unite them as a class. Working class unity, which is indispensable if capitalism is to be ended and replaced by Socialism, is a task for a political, not the industrial, organisation of the working class. To this end the Socialist Party of Great Britain exists and we appeal to all workers to join our struggle so that the system which forces them to engage in these degrading squabbles for jobs can be quickly abolished.

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