HC Deb 05 June 1912 vol 39 cc133-6

May I ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer a question of which I have given private notice, namely, whether he is now in a position to make his promised statement on the question of the transport workers' strike in London?


I shall have to trespass on the patience of the House in making a general statement as to the position. A strike has for some time been threatened among the transport workers in the Port of London, owing to disagreements between employers and men about questions of interpretation of the agreements made last summer. Various questions were referred to arbitration, but there were still outstanding questions which caused friction in the Port. More especially trouble arose owing to the fact that a number of individual employers refused to be bound down by the agreements entered into by the Trade Associations. The Associations had no power to enforce compliance with the terms of these agreements upon dissenting employers if they were not members of the Association, or if they had left the Association. In fact, most of the trouble in the Port of London is due to the absence of security on either side for the due performance of agreements entered into. The Board of Trade having exhausted every effort to avert the coming struggle, the Government decided to act under Section 2 (1) (a) of the Conciliation (Trade Disputes) Act, 1896, and held an inquiry "on the facts and circumstances of the present disputes affecting transport workers in the Port of London and on the Medway." Before the inquiry was actually set up, the strike was precipitated in consequence of a dispute arising in regard to the question of the Federation ticket. Various other disputes were in progress at the time, and as the result the strike gradually spread to other classes of labour, and finally a general strike of the transport workers of London was declared.

On 21st May Sir Edward Clarke was appointed as a Court under the above section of the Conciliation Act. He held his inquiry on 24th and 25th May, and his Report was presented to the Government on Monday, 27th May. On the following day the President of the Board of Trade, on behalf of His Majesty's Government, forwarded copies of the Report to the parties interested. The Report has appeared in the Press and will shortly be circulated as a Parliamentary Paper to the Members of the House. His Majesty's Government further invited both parties to a Conference on Friday, 31st May, "in order to consider and discuss the various matters contained in the Report with a view to endeavouring to arrive at a general settlement of the labour disputes, which so seriously affect the trade of the Port and the interests of the public."

On Wednesday and Thursday, 29th and 30th May, some members of the Cabinet interviewed the employers. It then became apparent that the employers were unwilling to attend the proposed Conference at the Board of Trade on the Friday. The men accepted the invitation to the Conference. Having seen the employers, the members of the Conference decided to see the men in like manner in lieu of the proposed Conference. Since then further interviews have been held by members of the Cabinet with both parties separately with a view to ascertaining their respective attitudes on the points at issue. It was explained that there were employers in London who did not carry out, or did not consider themselves bound by, the agreements entered into last summer. The representatives of the employers stated that they had no control over those employers who were not now, or had never been, members of the Association, and that friction and difficulty thereupon often ensued. The Government therefore suggested that the employers might form a federation strong enough to control the action of all the members of their separate trades who might be found unwilling to conform to the general rates and conditions agreed to between the principal employers and the men, so that the agreements might become binding on the employers generally.

It was further contemplated that if a federation of that kind were to be formed, a Joint Committee should be constituted representative both of employers and of men in order to deal effectively with all labour questions affecting the Port of London.

In reply to the suggestions of the Government the decision of the employers was given in the following terms:— That His Majesty's Ministers be informed that their suggestion with regard to the formation of a federation of employers has been most carefully considered, and it is the unanimous opinion of those employers who have this day discussed the question that under existing conditions such a scheme is impracticable. Moreover, the employers desire that it should be distinctly understood that, whilst they are willing to discuss with His Majesty's Ministers at all times any suggestion made, by them, no such suggestion, however acceptable in other respects, will be adopted until work has been resumed throughout the Port. Further, that they will not, under any circumstances, consent to any recognition of the Union or Transport Workers' Federation ticket, or to any discussion for such recognition. The decision of the men was in the following terms:— This London Strike Committee of the National Transport Workers' Federation agrees to accept the Report of Sir Edward Clarke. The establishment of a Joint Board representing the various transport interests of the Thames and Medway. That the Transport Workers' Federation shall be recognised as the representative of the men's side. That all men shall be reinstated in the positions they occupied previous to the dispute. In answer to the decision handed in by the men the employers gave the following reply:— (l)The employers cannot accept Sir Edward Clarke's Report as an award on the points dealt with by him (2) and (3) The employers are willing to consider any suggestions which may be put before them by the Government for the formation of an organisation for dealing with labour questions in the Port. (4) With regard to the proposal that the whole of the men should be reinstated, this is impossible, as a number of the vacancies have already been filled, but as many as can be taken on will be given work as opportunity arises In the case of permanent and registered labourers of the Port of London Authority, they will likewise be taken on as work is available at the current rates of pay but with no special privileges. In these circumstances, although many questions of difficulty will remain, the prolongation of the strike now seems chiefly to rest upon certain matters contained in Sir Edward Clarke's report and upon the question of the method of the resumption of work and of the re-employment of the men. It would appear that the question of the recognition of the Federation ticket as a condition precedent to the resumption of work by the men is not pressed; and a spirit of moderation on both sides ought to meet with little difficulty in finding a way to an amicable settlement.

Regard must be had, however, to the permanent peace of the Port, and it is of the utmost importance to devise a method by which disputes may be settled in future. Agreements now made between representatives of the employers and the men have, for the reasons I have already referred to, no sufficient binding force. They are made on the one side by associations' representative of each trade acting separately, and not including by any means the whole of the trade; and on the other, by trade unions forming part of a federation of all the trade unions concerned. There is, moreover, no denned sanction for any breach of agreement by either of the parties. The ultimate object to be aimed at should be the formation of a general Joint Board fully representative of the whole body of employers and men, with power to determine and settle all questions of dispute that may arise. As a preliminary, however, to the formation of such a Board, there would have to be constituted a federation of employers, which, by its influence over the trade as a whole, could give a wider effect and more positive sanction to agreements made between the employers and the men than are now possible. Such a federation would be formed as an addition to existing labour committees in each section of trade for the discussion and arrangement of minor differences. It is with a view to the ultimate creation of a Joint Board of the kind now indicated that the Government have made the suggestion to the employers and the men to which reference has already been made, and they trust that means may be found to give effect to it.


Arising out of the answer of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, as it is a mere statement which does not go beyond the present moment, I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House on a definite matter of urgent public importance, namely: "The immediate necessity of the Government, in pursuance of the terms of the Conciliation Act, compelling the employers to accept a Joint Board for the settlement of the dispute which is now in progress in the Metropolis."

The pleasure of the House having been signified, the Motion stood over, under Standing Order No. 10, until a Quarter past Eight o'clock this evening.