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 celebrated as the New Unionism; a moment in which hitherto unskilled unorganised labour fought in often insurrectionary struggles to secure employment security, regulated hours and pay, and the recognition of independent trade unions to represent them. The resulting “general workers” unions, although forged in a baptism of fire, soon gave way to the authority of mostly unelected union bureaucrats much studied and derided by Beatrice Webb and Sidney Webb in their famous caricature of 1894. In London, Ben Tillet’s Tea Operatives Union gave rise to the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers’ Union. In Liverpool in the same year James Sexton’s National Union of Dock Labourers organised 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 and were 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 great general workers unions – the Transport and General Workers’ Union and the National Union of General and Municipal Workers, now part of the GMB. The dockers’ unions were to merge as the Transport Workers Federation in 1910 which in turn formed a major section of the TGWU in 1922. But in 1923, as an inaugural gesture to its newly formed members, the TGWU struck its first national agreement with the dock employers in the form of a cut in wages. The stevedores, who had joined the initial surge into the TGWU, then split away in outrage to form the National Amalgamated Stevedores, Lightermen, Watermen and Dockers, which covered much of the port of London and the various wharfages and moorings in the south east. Initially this defection involved over 40,000 workers. In 1927, in further defiance of the TGWU, they divided further along “craft” lines and renamed 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 into northern ports – but always in the teeth of a highly bureaucratised and often violently hostile TGWU. In terms of its organisation the NASD was a ramshackle affair compared with the mighty TGWU and its appointed and superannuated full-time bureaucracy. NASD officials in the main were periodically elected. As often as not they were expenses-only volunteers from the ranks 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 owners barely 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 English counterpart until as late as 1972.

The war years The protracted depression of 1929 onwards saw layoffs and casualisation wreak havoc in dockland communities. Despite these pressures, and with over 60 per cent of its membership either on short-time working or laid off at any one time, the NASD retained 4,000 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 blockade from May 1940 onwards that the UK docks were eventually (as a war emergency measure) brought into regulation through compulsory registration. The TGWU – with its boss Ernest Bevin as minister for labour in the wartime coalition government – became an early beneficiary of this essentially corporatist development. However, with a grudging recognition that the union did sometimes represent a majority of some work grades in some docks, the NASD was able to obtain recognition within the new National Docks Labour Board. But despite a burning hatred between the bureaucracies of rival docks unions, relations at quayside level between the unions were remarkably good. Even before the war there had been instances of sympathy strikes between the unions over job price disputes and victimisations. The practice of one group of dockworkers “blacking” (not handling) a disputed cargo had long been a nightmare for bosses and union officials alike. In June 1940 the Dock Labour (Compulsory Regulation) Order ended the chaos of casual labour in one swoop and extended bargaining recognition in return for labour discipline. This emergency act was consolidated the next year with the Essential Work (Dock Labour) Order. This effectively set up the National Dock Labour Corporation and its entrusted operatives 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, but suffice to say that in June 1941, with Nazi Germany attacking the USSR, the Communist Party 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 which generations of dockers had fought so long. Yet the terms on which these conditions were struck were far from ideal. The abolition of casualisation was replaced by “fall back pay” in return for reporting for work but to find no work. But the price required for this was in the form of 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 a panel would find almost instinctively against a NASD member on the carpet. Despite such punitive 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 negotiations on 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 accusation murmured too by the Communist Party, which still regarded convoy supplies to the USSR as an essential proletarian duty. This was despite the fact that under Arthur Deakin’s leadership of the TGWU proscribed Communist Party members from holding office at any level in the union – a proscription upheld too by Bevin when he had been TGWU general secretary. Clement Attlee’s Labour government took no time in calling troops into the docks to off-load ships and effectively act as uniformed strikebreakers. And although the officials of the NASD supported the strike throughout, their negotiating officials eventually succumbed to combined pressure from the Labour government and the TGWU. It recommended a return to work despite the strike holding solid. Yet although a defeat, the terms on which a settlement was reached was by no means unfavourable regarding the opportunities for further unofficial strike action in the years to immediately follow. In an urgent bid to get the docks back to normal working, the government strongarmed ports employers into accepting discussion of demands set out in the Dockers Charter – many of which (such as an end to the casual labour system) were to be eventually incorporated into 1947 docks legislation.

The National Dock Labour Board of 1947 In 1946 the Dock Workers (Regulation of Employment) Act was brought in, supplemented in 1947 with the National Dock Labour Scheme. This required compulsory registration of all port operators and all dock workers in all “scheduled” ports. A guaranteed weekly minimum wage 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 by ministerial appointment. NDLB local boards were set up to cover all major ports and groups of smaller registered ports and wharfs. The local boards were to effectively operate as local dock 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 the local boards were charged with “disciplinary power over men and masters alike”. In reality the NDLB provided the TGWU with a “bureaucratic closed shop”. TGWU officials invariably sat on disciplinary panels and it was not unknown for a reinstatement to be secured 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 a white 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 “having no 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 led to bitter “demarcation” disputes between members of the rival unions. Despite the continued hostility of the TGWU the smaller dockers’ union had been admitted to the TUC on the

grounds that it could rightfully claim to represent a majority of some grades of workers in some ports. And despite the constant invective from their own union on the NASD, it was beginning to dawn on many TGWU dockers that the main enemy might not only be the ports employers but also their own officials who seemed all too keen to uphold the letter of the NDLB agreements. But in September 1954 TGWU hegemony in the docks began to break down. In a period of eight months some 10,000 members quit the union in the docks of Liverpool, Birkenhead , Manchester and Hull and defected to the NASD. Yet such was the chaos in the docks that by April 1955 the pendulum had swung the other way with a strike of 13,000 TGWU members in Liverpool against certain cargoes being awarded to NASD members. And then again in Liverpool in September of the same year when 13,000 TGWU members went on strike against the sacking of two NASD stewards! Also on the other side of the Pennines in Hull on 22 August a year earlier “the biggest prison break-out in history” had been recorded when over 4,000 dockers voted to defect to the NASD over the practice of “hand scuttling” of grain from the holds of ships; a practice that was notoriously dangerous and back-breaking but one that the TGWU officials insisted that they do. And a month later on Merseyside the TGWU attempted to displace over 1,000 NASD members from off-loading on certain contracts. This massively backfired, with the entire Merseyside workforce coming out on strike and the stoppage spreading inland to Manchester. But it was on 23 May 1955 that the TGWU in collusion with certain port employers attempted to break outright the recognition and bargaining power of the NASD. This resulted in an immediate walk-out of over 20,000 dock workers supported by many TGWU members “in sympathy”. The TGWU officials then made an appeal for their members to break the strike and at the same time boasted that they had amassed a campaign fund of over £9 million (!) to bankroll the strike-breaking campaign. But in Liverpool when union officials arrived, one of whom had said “he would see the strikers reduced to eating crusts”, they were pelted by loaves of bread and rescued by police “from a howling mob of over 3,000 dockers and their wives.” And although the strike lasted a full six weeks, the NASD eventually succumbed to appeals by the TUC to call it off in exchange for reinstatement through mediation. 1955 proved to be a watershed for the NASDuin that a leadership hitherto more amenable to the influence and control of the rank and file was to become drawn into the “responsible” duties of a “respectable” union that all the burdens of recognition now demanded of it. Following the ending of the May1955 strike, the NASD executive attempted to discipline some of its “wilder” lay officials in the northern ports by barring them from holding office. When these (mainly branch secretaries) appealed against the ruling the leadership then enacted expulsions on the grounds that these members had “brought the name of the union into disrepute”. In protest thousands of dockers in the northern ports quit their union membership. With no other course of action open to them, the expelled members sought a judgement in the High Court and after considerable deliberation, the judge ruled that in engaging in unofficial action, the complainants had done no more than to legitimately uphold the interests of their members! Noting that loss of union membership also carried with it the certainty of

loss of livelihood, the ruling was that the expulsion action had been both “malicious and wrongful”. As a result of the ruling it was reported “that within days thousands of workers on Merseyside and in Hull were flocking back into their union”. Then in January 1958 a bitter demarcation dispute erupted in Liverpool when TGWU officials undercut a gang of NASD members for a job in off-loading a cargo of bulk sugar. The resulting strike represented a low point in relations between the two unions with a TGWU calling for the strikers to be sacked and urging his members to cross the picket line. This was too much for the TGWU members to swallow with one of them famously commenting “that our officials are acting as cattle drovers rather than like trade union leaders”.

The fortunes of the left A significant factor in the improvement in relations between the TGWU and the NASD was a major change in the fortunes of the left within the larger union. For many years Arthur Deakin as general secretary had presided over an internal regime intolerant of left militants particularly those with membership of the Communist Party. Although the TGWU did not have a rule book which contained “proscriptions and bans” on members of named political organisations, Deakin made no bones about being an anti-communist and encouraged his senior regional officials to be likewise. The rise of a left - and in particular the growing popular support for Jack Jones; himself a former Liverpool docker, did much to repair relations between the TGWU and the NASD. Following the publication of the Devlin Report in 1964, Jack Jones as the TGWU docks national official made a deal with Dick Barrett of the NASD whereby they would secure the smaller union a place on the new port of London negotiating committee. This continued anarchy in the docks eventually inspired a special commission. Its report, the Devlin Report, noted the absence of “firm and responsible official leadership” and became an industrial relations template for the later Donovan Report, which formed the basis of the Harold Wilson’s ill-fated “In Place of Strife” blueprint for trade union legislation. A parallel development from the early 1960s onwards was the increased use of productivity bargaining by employers as a means of increasing profit margins through intensifying output levels whilst at the same time, undermining the strength of workplace union organisation and bargaining power. In the docks and ports there was also the threat to workplace organisation looming in the form of technical changes in the methods of unloading and loading larger vessels designed to carry cargo in sealed containers using entirely mechanised handling systems. A trial berth at Tilbury on the Thames had demonstrated in 1968 that such a system in continuous operation could cut the required workforce by at least 75 percent. It was against this background of imminent threats that the dockworkers were required to settle intra-union differences and turn to joint rank and file stewards committee representing both unions across the UK ports. Such a level of organisation probably attained its most developed level in the Port of London Royal group of docks with a joint stewards committee in which three of the leading stewards – Jack Dash, Mickey Fenn and Vic Turner – were members of the NASD.

Containerisation was a catalyst that enforced changes to working practices and threatened the imposition of massive job losses. It gave rise to a militant response, the kind of which successive attempts at trade union legislation had attempted to stamp out. Whatever the historic differences between (mainly the official leaderships) of the two docks unions, the overarching threat of anti-union laws was enough to forge unity in the protests against the government. And it was the extension of the same campaign in 1972 that was to see the NASD in partnership with the TGWU nearly bring down a government over the imprisonment of five rank and file dockers for militant unofficial picketing.

The National Stevedores and Dockers and the left Formed as it was in the cauldron of the post-Russian Revolution period and the end of the First World War, the TGWU as a newly federated general union incorporated a host of smaller affiliates, many of whom had been for years locked in various disputes. The botched docks pay (cut) settlement of 1922-23 instantly fractured the dockers membership and in many ways reinstated the old pre-war rivalries. A new but significant player entering this scene was the freshly minted Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). Although the CP had only been formed some two years previously at its founding congress in Leeds, a founding member present was Tom Mann who had done so much to help Ben Tillet establish the DWRLU in 1894. And although the new CP had attracted many seasoned trade union activists to its ranks, it was nevertheless in awe of the advice on offer through the Communist International. That advice, whilst insisting that communists everywhere seek to build in the trade unions, was also that where possible they should build revolutionary unions in direct competition to the existing unions that were under the leadership of rotten and discredited social democrats. In the UK this attempt to build new unions, or get the better of the existing ones to affiliate to the Red International of Labour Unions, proved to be a sectarian disaster. Then within months the line for the CPGB changed and a much more productive turn to build a Minority Movement was undertaken. I have no intention of examining this period nor the subsequent twists and turns that an increasingly erratic “Moscow line” inflicted on its Third International affiliates.

The “pop-up” and the Communist Party But what is interesting about this period and for the decade or so beyond, is that the CP did not seem to have any clear line in relation to the NASD. What is clear is that throughout the 58 years of what at first might have seemed like a “pop-up” union when it first started, many CP members were not only members of it but played prominent roles in the various disputes it was engaged in. And although the NASD does not seem to have acquitted itself as a “political” union, it did throughout its history welcome into its ranks both members of the CP as well as other socialists. Certainly the antipathy towards communists within the TGWU must have made the “blue union” look much more inviting. It is also true that in the period following the defeat of the 1926 general strike, the subsequent victimisations would have taken a heavy toll on a small Communist Party with a significant but modest industrial base. Certainly the ultra-leftist madness of the “Third Period”

that was to follow would have done much to marginalise the CP’s industrial influence further. But with the Popular Front line that was to follow and the almost fawning position that its members were required to adopt in relation to even the most reactionary of union bureaucrats, the position in relation to the NASD undertook a change. In a bid to appease the Deakin leadership of the TGWU and in the process hopefully get some concessions out of it, Harry Pollitt in 1937 suggested that members engaged inside the NASD “were creating a diversion from the central task of democratising the Transport Union and winning its leadership over to progressive ideas”. Of course one of the “progressive ideas” to which the Deakin leadership should be won to was maintaining trading links with the Soviet Union and speaking out against any moves to blockade or isolate it. Certainly the CP started to put more emphasis on the NASD being a “blue union” in a way that might suggest that it was in some way less than an independent union and to some extent more amenable to the employers. The onset of the war in 1939 saw the CP take an anti-war stance in support of the MolotovRibbentrop pact and although opposed to the various wartime measures, it found itself in difficulties with the dock labour acts that had conceded (at least as a temporary measure) many of the demands for a minimum weekly wage and an end to casualisation. The entry of the USSR into the war in 1941, as we have noted, saw the CP fully committed to the war effort to the extent that it not only failed to offer any leadership when a national ports strike broke out in 1945, it fully endorsed the “unofficial and highly irresponsible action” as undermining the war effort. And whilst making noises about the need to keep on supporting the Soviet war effort, they at least held back from joining the Atlee government and Deakin in condemning the strike as “unpatriotic”. But it was in the post-war battles that we have noted above that the CP’s line in relation to the NASD finally unravelled. When the threat of derecognition of the NASD Merseyside was rumoured in late 1954, Vic Marney, a Communist Party docker and delegate to the London Dockers Liaison Committee, was reported in the Tribune of 31 December 1954 as saying “in no circumstances would they [the London committee] be involved in NASD actions for recognition in northern ports”. Despite this invitation for CP dockers on Merseyside to scab, nearly all Liverpool and Birkenhead dockers supported the strike when it broke out in May. Yet throughout the six weeks strike the Daily Worker consistently refused to report on sympathy actions in other northern ports. And when a meeting of the TUC Dispute Committee was held on 1 July 1954, it was a CP member who recommended the TGWU demand that the NASD strikers return to work without conditions.

The Moscow line The problem for the Communist Party (despite its reputation as being one of the more supine of the CPs) was that it could never really adapt the Moscow line to its members on a “one size fits all” basis. And despite having bigger ambitions in relationship to the TGWU and the more “progressive” of its bureaucracy, it could never quite sell such a cynical perspective to all of its membership all of the time. So hence the persistent contradiction in CP industrial strategy where, insidiously at first, its rank and file approach began to lose grip on the “from below” emphasis, only to become a drive to use those autonomous workers organisations it

could influence into a chorus of cheerleaders for the machinations of ever more dilute “broad left” and “progressive” causes. In this example of a “back to front” approach to the rank and file there are important lessons for revolutionaries today. And whilst there can be little doubt that the CPGB would have wanted to subordinate all of its dockworkers to its TGWU centred perspective, it was the determination of dockers to unite at port level and through joint stewards committees that both contained the bureaucratic dead hand of the Deakin leadership, but also ensured a place for the NASD as a counterbalance and alternative pole of attraction within the docks. But it was the unstoppable influence of containerisation – the same issue that brought the two docks unions together in the heady revolt of the Pentonville Five collision and the defeat of the Industrial Relations Act – that eventually brought about the demise of the “blue union”. In 1981 after nearly 60 years as a thorn in the side for employers and TGWU bureaucrats alike, the two unions, faced with a massive loss in membership due to redundancies, eventually merged. But any photograph or filmed record of the glorious moments of the 1972 dock strike will never be complete without sight of the banner of the London Dockers Joint Stewards committee with its enduring message: “Arise Ye Workers!” This was a moment when a “popup” union of 1922 vintage, still considered a breakaway by many, combined with the rank and file of the biggest union in Britain – and nearly brought down a government.

What can we learn? Revolutionaries should never be surprised at the innovative and unorthodox methods and forms of organisation that workers in struggle can sometimes resort to. As radicals in mid19th century England were taken aback by the independent ferocity of “physical force Chartism”, so were the Russian Social Democrats amazed by the workers councils – soviets, the autonomous organs of workers power that rose spontaneously from the heat of intense class struggle. Much of the epic history of class struggle is punctuated by events characterised by the ingenuity and imagination of workers that sometimes occurred despite the so called “leadership” of the working class rather than because of it. And as long as a bureaucratic caste will seek to ameliorate the worst excesses of the status quo in ways that ensure the perpetuation of its own sectional interests, then some workers will always look for alternative ways of organising. That, after all, is the impulse that revolutionaries within our tradition constantly try and channel into rank and file organisations, albeit within the existing framework of a union. The example of the NASD that I have drawn upon here is a reminder of the ways in which most unions evolved in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – by splits arising from unacceptable compromises and betrayals of the incumbent bureaucracy, or alternatively, by fundamental changes in the technical relations of production which in many cases led to massive shifts in the relative power of certain skilled groups of workers. The dockers’ “blue union”, like all of its general union contemporaries, arose during a period of popular syndicalism – a form of trade union consciousness that did much to build workers independent unionism well beyond the ranks of the skilled. And the success of that enterprise is that today we take as a given that workers irrespective of skill or tenure will experience the impulse to “combine”.

In the UK for 40 years following the Second World War, a social democratic consensus prevailed during which time a largely corporatist climate allowed a single trade union federation to assume certain “responsible” duties in the field of collective bargaining on matters such as pay and conditions. But for the past 30 years that consensus has given way to a neoliberal common sense, the ideological sentiments of which have increasingly incorporated social democracy and its symbiotic manifestation in much of the trade union bureaucracy. Under the weight of an austerity onslaught which seeks to obtain legitimacy from the new consensus, it is hardly surprising that many workers have abandoned hope in their trade union leaderships in despair. But better that workers seek alternative collective solutions in defence of their pay, conditions and jobs rather than vacate the field of class struggle entirely. And of course, whilst it would be far better that workers seek solutions through rank and file initiatives within their existing union, it may nevertheless be that given the suddenness and ferocity of the assault they face that they simply feel that they have no luxury of time required. Perhaps the Unison members at Sussex University were wrong in their “pop-up” initiative. Perhaps their brave but misguided scheme will come to a sad end. But perhaps it is also wrong for revolutionaries to assume an aloof and condescending critique of such an initiative, that unless explained more patiently will seem like those who should know better as giving aid and comfort to a trade union leadership we know to be rotten. And finally, it is sad that those seeking to gain an understanding and learn from such episodes are pilloried as heretics in an unnecessarily polarised debate that will only put off the necessary discussion about all aspects of class struggle that is needed if we are to navigate our way through the most turbulent crisis of capitalism in living memory.

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