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Brian Parkin: Pop-ups through history – the dockworkers' NASD union

Brian Parkin: Pop-ups through history – the dockworkers' NASD union

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Brian Parkin from Leeds SWP looks at the history of the dockworkers' NASD union and its rivalry with the TGWU – and considers the lessons for revolutionaries today.
Brian Parkin from Leeds SWP looks at the history of the dockworkers' NASD union and its rivalry with the TGWU – and considers the lessons for revolutionaries today.

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Published by: revolutionary socialism in the 21st century on Sep 07, 2013
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05/15/2014

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Pop-up unions through history
Brian Parkin, Leeds SWP, August 2013
Pop-up dockers
The great Dock Strike of 1889 was probably the crowning glory of the period now celebratedas the New Unionism; a moment in which hitherto unskilled unorganised labour fought inoften insurrectionary struggles to secure employment security, regulated hours and pay, andthe recognition of independent trade unions to represent them.The resulting “general workers” unions, although forged in a baptism of fire, soon gave wayto the authority of mostly unelected union bureaucrats much studied and derided by BeatriceWebb and Sidney Webb in their famous caricature of 1894. In London,Ben Tillet’s TeaOperatives Union gave rise to theDock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers’ Union. InLiverpool in the same year James Sexton’s National Union of Dock Labourersorganised across the Mersey to Birkenhead as well as inland to the port of Manchester.These new general unions outnumbered many of the traditionally craft based unions andwere soon to exert a considerable influence within the TUC. Despite repeated counter attacks by employers, they were able through subsequent mergers to form the two greatgeneral workers unions – theTransport and General Workers’ Unionand the National Unionof General and Municipal Workers, now part of theGMB.The dockers’ unions were to merge as the Transport Workers Federation in 1910 which inturn formed a major section of the TGWU in 1922. But in 1923, as an inaugural gesture to itsnewly formed members, the TGWU struck its first national agreement with the dockemployers in the form of a cut in wages.The stevedores, who had joined the initial surge into the TGWU, then split away in outrageto form the National Amalgamated Stevedores, Lightermen, Watermen and Dockers, whichcovered much of the port of London and the various wharfages and moorings in the southeast. Initially this defection involved over 40,000 workers.In 1927, in further defiance of the TGWU, they divided further along “craft” lines andrenamed themselves the National Amalgamated Stevedores and Dockers. Largely confined to the port of London and the South East, the NASD did on occasion make forays intonorthern ports – but always in the teeth of a highly bureaucratised and often violently hostileTGWU.In terms of its organisation the NASD was a ramshackle affair compared with the mightyTGWU and its appointed and superannuated full-time bureaucracy. NASD officials in themain were periodically elected. As often as not they were expenses-only volunteers from theranks of victimised or disabled dockworkers. Despite the demands of all dockers for compulsory registration of ports and an end to the casual labour system, dockyard ownersbarely ceded recognition to even the TGWU.But in 1932 in Scotland there was yet another challenge to the hegemony of the TGWU.Dockers on the Clyde in Glasgow and Campbeltown left the union in disgust at yet another negotiated wage cut and formed the Scottish Transport and General Workers’ Union
 
(Docks). This union obtained TUC recognition but remained separate from its Englishcounterpart until as late as 1972.
The war years
The protracted depression of 1929 onwards saw layoffs and casualisation wreak havoc indockland communities. Despite these pressures, and with over 60 per cent of itsmembership either on short-time working or laid off at any one time, the NASD retained4,000 members in London and around 2,000 on Merseyside.It was with the outbreak of war in 1939 and with the threat of the German U-boat blockadefrom May 1940 onwards that the UK docks were eventually (as a war emergency measure)brought into regulation through compulsory registration. The TGWU – with its bossErnestBevinas minister for labour in the wartime coalition government – became an earlybeneficiary of this essentially corporatist development. However, with a grudging recognitionthat the union did sometimes represent a majority of some work grades in some docks, theNASD was able to obtain recognition within the newNational Docks Labour Board.But despite a burning hatred between the bureaucracies of rival docks unions, relations atquayside level between the unions were remarkably good. Even before the war there hadbeen instances of sympathy strikes between the unions over job price disputes andvictimisations. The practice of one group of dockworkers “blacking” (not handling) a disputedcargo had long been a nightmare for bosses and union officials alike.In June 1940 the Dock Labour (Compulsory Regulation) Order ended the chaos of casuallabour in one swoop and extended bargaining recognition in return for labour discipline. Thisemergency act was consolidated the next year with the Essential Work (Dock Labour)Order. This effectively set up the National Dock Labour Corporation and its entrustedoperatives as a limited company covering over 40,000 dock workers in over 50 “scheduled”ports and wharfs.I will deal with the issues of the British left in relation to the dock union rivalries below, butsuffice to say that in June 1941, with Nazi Germany attacking the USSR, the CommunistParty had no difficulty in urging dockworkers to make sacrifices for the war effort.Throughout the war years, regular work and a guaranteed minimum wage in exchange for the promise to report each morning seemed to have conceded the conditions for whichgenerations of dockers had fought so long. Yet the terms on which these conditions werestruck were far from ideal. The abolition of casualisation was replaced by “fall back pay” inreturn for reporting for work but to find no work. But the price required for this was in the formof compulsory overtime on demand and associated threats of suspension and deregulation,ie loss of job and union “ticket” in the event of a second “offence”. A further point of contention involved disciplinary panels. A TGWU official sitting on such apanel would find almost instinctively against a NASD member on the carpet. Despite suchpunitive clauses, the wartime industrial relations front held peacefully – until April 1945.
The 1945 national dock strike
In the spring of 1945, after two years of refusals by TGWU officials to press for negotiationson basic pay, a rank-and-file strike wave hit the British ports. TGWU and NASD members
 
struck side-by-side and without strike pay. With nothing but wartime rations to feed their families, they stayed out on strike for six weeks.Their action was condemned by Bevin and the TGWU as unpatriotic; an accusationmurmured too by the Communist Party, which still regarded convoy supplies to the USSR asan essential proletarian duty. This was despite the fact that under  Arthur Deakin’s leadershipof the TGWU proscribed Communist Party members from holding office at any level in theunion – a proscription upheld too by Bevin when he had been TGWU general secretary.Clement Attlees Labour government took no time in calling troops into the docks to off-loadships and effectively act as uniformed strikebreakers. And although the officials of the NASDsupported the strike throughout, their negotiating officials eventually succumbed to combinedpressure from the Labour government and the TGWU. It recommended a return to workdespite the strike holding solid.Yet although a defeat, the terms on which a settlement was reached was by no meansunfavourable regarding the opportunities for further unofficial strike action in the years toimmediately follow. In an urgent bid to get the docks back to normal working, the governmentstrongarmed ports employers into accepting discussion of demands set out in the DockersCharter – many of which (such as an end to the casual labour system) were to be eventuallyincorporated into 1947 docks legislation.
The National Dock Labour Board of 1947
In 1946 the Dock Workers (Regulation of Employment) Act was brought in, supplemented in1947 with the National Dock Labour Scheme. This required compulsory registration of allport operators and all dock workers in all “scheduled” ports. A guaranteed weekly minimumwage would be paid to every dock worker reporting for work. A National Dock Labour Board was set up with an executive board comprising four employers and four union officials. At the national level these positions would be byministerial appointment. NDLB local boards were set up to cover all major ports and groupsof smaller registered ports and wharfs. The local boards were to effectively operate as localdock labour exchanges in order to ensure the most economic and effective deployment of labour on a wherever needed basis. The overall scheme covered over 60 UK ports and thelocal boards were charged with “disciplinary power over men and masters alike”.In reality the NDLB provided the TGWU with a “bureaucratic closed shop”. TGWU officialsinvariably sat on disciplinary panels and it was not unknown for a reinstatement to besecured by a kick-back payment referred to coyly but knowingly as an “overhead charge”.This charge was usually exchanged with a receipt in the form of the accused leaving with awhite TGWU membership card despite the fact he may also hold a blue card as a member of the NASD. This practice prompted one NASD steward to taunt the TGWU officials as “havingno power other than to deprive men of their livelihood”.
The 1950s: brothers in arms
 At dock-side level the continued offensive of the TGWU machine against the NASD often ledto bitter “demarcation” disputes between members of the rival unions. Despite the continuedhostility of the TGWU the smaller dockers’ union had been admitted to the TUC on the

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Jara Handala added this note
Just realised there was a comments box at the RevoSoc blog, & as that will be read by more I've just posted there a version of this.
Jara Handala added this note
[a 5th one] & http://web.warwick.ac.uk/services/lib... °°°°°° Hope this helps trying to learn what trade union organising can offer.
Jara Handala added this note
[4 of 4] Upper Denby, 1995, 10pp. °°°°°° review article of KS & JA: Tom Cowan, 'The Blue Union', Revolutionary History, v.6, nos.2-3, 1996 http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/... °°°°°° the tapes archived at Warwick U: Bill Hunter, 'Bob Pennington Remembered', Workers Press, 12 Oct 96 http://revolutionaryhistory.co.uk/obi... & http
Jara Handala added this note
[3 of 4] [Used °°°°°° coz paragraph breaks automatically post what's composed.] . . . Pennington's article: https://www.marxists.org/history/etol... °°°°°° Keith Sinclair, How the Blue Union Came to Hull Docks, Hull, 1995, 20pp. °°°°°° John Archer, The Struggle for an Independent Trade Union by the Dockers in Merseyside and Hull During 1954–55,
Jara Handala added this note
[2 of 4] which co-produced 'International Socialism' for a while with the Socialist Review Group. The issue he co-edited with Kidron published his 'Docks: Breakaway & Unofficial Movements' (7 pages). He & prominent NASD members gave taped interviews in the early 1980s; in the 1990s a number of Marxists wrote pamphlets & review essays on the NASD.
Jara Handala added this note
[note 1 of 4] The top right-hand corner says, "the history of the dockworkers' NASD union and its rivalry with the TGWU – and considers the lessons for revolutionaries today", so I was surprised Brian did not mention the work of Bob Pennington as a NASD full-timer in the north of England 1954-7. At the time he was a member of The Club, as was Gerry Healy. He then joined Solidarity,
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