Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The Dispute at the London Docks (1949)

From the August 1949 issue of the Socialist Standard

The trouble at the London docks is an excellent illustration of the capitalist outlook of the Labour Government. The dockers are willing to unload all ships except the Beaverbrae and Argomont, the two Canadian ships which are involved in a Canadian trade union dispute. The dockers are also, prepared to see troops unload the Canadian ships but are not willing to unload them themselves because they contend that these ships are “black ships.” The Dock Labour Board refuses to allow the dock workers to unload other ships unless they are prepared to unload the two Canadian ships. At the moment of writing the government has threatened to declare a state of emergency unless the Port of London is working fully on Monday, July 11th; thus the Labour Government, like all previous capitalist governments, is taking the side of the employers against the workers.

On July 10th Reynolds News contained the following :
   “Mr. Sam Watson, chairman of the Labour Party, said at Brandon (Co. Durham) yesterday that the dock strike was the work of foreign agencies, was purely political and could be solved if the members of the unions threw out the anti-British agitators.”
What a familiar ring this statement has. For a hundred years every strike of any size has been put down to the nefarious influence of “agitators” sometimes foreign, sometimes home-grown. Many of the Labour leaders who are fighting the dockers were included in this category long ago; now that they support the Labour administration of capitalism they take up the capitalists’ cudgels and sing his tune.

But let us subject Mr. Watson’s statement to a little examination.

First of all the Government’s ultimatum requires that work must be resumed on all ships, including the two Canadian ships. Whatever may be the merits or demerits of the dockers’ attitude over the Canadian ships the fact remains that the Government is prepared to bring chaos to the docks and interfere with the unloading of food ships rather than permit the dockers to abstain from working two out of over a hundred ships, although over ten thousand dock workers have taken up this attitude. And yet we are told that the dock workers are solely to blame for the trouble, and that it is the work of “foreign agencies.”

Secondly the unions are the organisations of the workers in particular industries for the purpose of improving wages and conditions of labour or resisting a worsening of those conditions and wages. The trade union officials that the workers appoint and pay are appointed and paid to carry out the work that the majority of the workers in the union instruct them to do. Since the coming into power of the Labour Government leading trade union officials have attempted to curb their members’ struggles for improved conditions and, in particular, have used their position to try to prevent the workers from using the strike weapon, the only effective weapon the workers have on the industrial field. Labour Government still leaves the workers dissatisfied and struggling for improvement in their conditions; whoever gives adequate expression to this dissatisfaction in particular instances and attempts to put into practice the workers’ wishes is likely to receive their backing, regardless of political colour.

While it is true that the communists strive to fish in troubled waters a communist spokesman can only carry his fellow-workers with him if he is travelling along a road they want to travel. As long as he does this, and as long as the workers control his activities, it is immaterial whether he is a communist or a tory in political outlook. It is often forgotten by those not directly concerned that when workers come out on strike it is a very serious matter for them; they are jeopardising their livelihood and are hardly likely to do this at the behest of a few wild and irresponsible individuals. Whether their action is good policy at the given moment or not is immaterial; they have given it serious consideration and have taken action seriously, and therefore the charge that they are led by the nose by political agitators is particularly insulting when coming from the people they appoint and pay to fight their battles.

The fact of the matter is, in the dock strike as well as the other labour troubles that confront the Labour Government, that Labour Government has gone to the heads of leading trade union officials and they no longer adequately represent the views of their members. They have fallen behind and have given an opening for others who put the workers' case in industrial disputes more near to the demands of the situation.

Mr. Hartley Shawcross, the Attorney General, we are told (Reynolds, July 10th) delivered a “scathing attack on the ‘ wretched ’ unofficial dock strike ” and said:
   “But the freedom of the trade unions, the very right to strike, must depend on the members’ loyalty, and their use of the negotiating machinery."
To whom are trade union members supposed to be loyal? Surely to themselves and not to the officials who fail to carry out the policy for which they were appointed. As a lawyer Mr. Shawcross may be hidebound by legal formulae but that is his affair and not the workers. “Negotiating machinery” was not devised to help the workers but to aid the employers in keeping the machinery of capitalism running smoothly. Give a date weeks ahead when a strike is proposed so that (1) the employers can make adequate preparation to defeat it and (2) so that the workers will be bamboozled by long drawn out negotiations that will weary them into agreeing to compromises favourable to the employers. The strike that has the best chance of succeeding is the one that comes out of the blue and, if unsuccessful, is abandoned before the workers’ organisation has become too weak to enable them to strike again out of the blue with better success.

On the industrial field the workers are fighting the employers and their only loyalty is to themselves. Where the officials they appoint fail to recognise this they should be replaced by those who do. Strikes cause disorganisation and some suffering; if they did not do so they would be worthless as weapons to be wielded by the workers in disputes over wages and conditions.

In the present dispute the dock workers, rightly or wrongly, are taking sympathetic action to help fellow workers on the other side of the Atlantic. Until the Labour Government came into power this was an ideal supported passionately by all who claimed to be acting in the interests of the working class. Now “loyal citizenship ” has taken the place of international labour solidarity and Sir Hartley Shawcross concluded his speech with the threat:
    “The choice between the dockers on strike is whether they will resume work now as loyal citizens, or will continue to jeopardise the security of their employment by waiting until the community asserts its authority, as it can and will, by emergency measures.”
How like a statement emanating from a Tory Government or from the Russian Government? The "community” is, of course, the Government in power.

It is also claimed that the communists influence union action by carefully and artfully laid plans to influence the attitude of workers at conferences, mass meetings and so forth. But are they the only people that play this game? Are the trade union and labour leaders innocent of wire-pulling? What of the carefully-framed resolutions that are brought forward at the “right” moment and the speakers that are deputed to speak at the right moments? Or the weighty declarations backed by “my long and valuable work for the members”? There is only one way for the workers to arm themselves against wire-pulling and falling for seductive speeches and that is to know what they want and how to get it. Penalising people for their political opinions is not only undemocratic—it is fatal because one day the penaliser will find that he is throwing a boomerang which will come back and knock him out.

The Labour Government are now using the emergency powers regulations to try and force to their knees some of those workers who helped to place them in power. Is it too much to expect that this and similar Government attitudes in industrial disputes during the last four years will be remembered when the workers are called upon to vote in the General Election?

The Labour Government, backed by leading Trade Union officials, is constantly appealing to the workers to refrain from pressing demands for increased wages. In spite of this the demands are widespread and more and more insistent; there is unrest about living costs amongst the workers in industries all over the country and the Government does not appear to be able to do anything about it. In face of this, it is curious with what rapidity and unanimity the “state of emergency” was invoked—with everything cut and dried, and in a dispute where the workers adopted a customary trade union attitude of not unloading “black” ships. Can it be that the Government wanted a show-down in order to curb the general demands for increased wages?

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