HC Deb 12 April 1949 vol 463 cc2637-42
Mr. Eden

(by Private Notice) asked the Minister of Labour whether he has any statement to make on the strike at the London Docks.

The Minister of Labour (Mr. Isaacs)

Yes, Sir. In discharge of their responsibility under the scheme the National Dock Labour Board on 26th November last issued a directive to the local boards instructing them to remove from the register men who, by reason of failing health or other physical incapacity which appeared to be of a permanent nature, were unable to meet the minimum requirements of the scheme or men who for any other reason were not carrying out to the full their obligations under the scheme, whether in the reserve pool or in employment.

The National Dock Labour Board includes four representatives of employers and four representatives of workers, the workers' representatives being drawn from the Transport and General Workers' Union, the National Union of General and Municipal Workers and the National Amalgamated Stevedores and Dockers, and I am informed by the Board that the directive was issued after full discussion and as a result of a unanimous decision.

This directive has been implemented in various ports throughout the country and in London on 10th January the local board appointed a sub-committee consisting of two employers and two trade union representatives to deal with the matter. Finally, as a result, 33 men were given notice of termination to take effect on 9th April.

The men concerned had a right of appeal to tribunals selected by the two sides of the industry, and 21 appeals were lodged. One was allowed, leaving a total of 32 men whose notices took effect. Although the National Amalgamated Stevedores and Dockers are represented both on the national Board and the London Board, members of that union decided on Sunday last to stop work on Monday in protest against the dismissals. The strike has spread and I am informed by the Board that there are now approximately 13,000 men on strike, including members of the Transport and General Workers' Union, which union, however, condemns the strike as being unwarranted.

This is a strike against the provisions of a scheme which was adopted by a national conference of the workers. If any modification or variation of the scheme is desired the National Joint Industrial Council for the industry provides the means by which it can be discussed, and if agreed brought to my notice.

This stoppage of work, affecting as it does the whole traffic of the Port of London, constitutes a challenge to authority. There can be no doubt it is inspired by motives hostile to the best interests of the dockers as a whole and of the public. Important issues are involved and I would ask to be excused from making any further statement at present.

Mr. Eden

I think we would all understand the right hon. Gentleman's desire not to make a further statement, but may I ask how many ships are at present held up and whether he could make an estimate of the effect of this on the trade in the Port of London up to date; also whether I was right in understanding that all the unions concerned, and not only the Transport and General Workers' Union, were represented on the Board which took this decision?

Mr. Isaacs

I shall be glad to answer the right hon. Gentleman's question. Although I cannot say definitely, I think the number of ships held up is about 50 and it is bound to have a very serious effect on the supply of goods and requirements for the people of London, especially as it has happened, as on previous occasions, just before the holiday period. All the unions are represented and the union which has declared this an official strike is on the Board and took part in the negotiations.

But it would be fair to the other large union concerned if I informed the House of the steps they have taken. During the night they had a leaflet printed which sets out the case of each of the 32 members affected and they finished the statement by this announcement: On behalf of the Executive Council we desire to put the following points to our members and to call on them to remain at work:

  1. (1) The policy of this union is that we must abide by the machinery which has been established between the National Dock Labour Board and ourselves under the Dock Labour Regulation Scheme.
  2. (2) Every one of our members has had an opportunity of presenting his case and also has the right of being represented at his appeal by an official of this Union.
  3. (3) In the circumstances we say to our members that the strike is unwarranted. The facts of each particular case are known.
  4. (4) Of the total employed in the Port of London—"
which is approximately 27,000— the number involved is as stated above"— that is 32. (5) It cannot be said that there has been any desire or attempt to deal with any question of redundancy. The issue is whether a man is an effective Port worker or not. That is signed by the Docks Group Secretary of that union.

Mr. Eden

The Transport and General Workers Union?

Mr. Isaacs

The Transport and General Workers Union.

Mr. Mellish

Can my right hon. Friend say what action can be taken against these irresponsible elements in dockland who are causing this trouble and strife and also make a comment on the fact that one of the bona fide organisations ordered men to strike and completely ignored the fact that they should have given 21 days' notice? Will he also take note that the vast majority of the people involved do not know why they are on strike and their loyalty is again being exploited by irresponsible elements?

Mr. Isaacs

I should like to endorse the closing words of my hon. Friend's supplementary question. There is ample evidence that this trouble is being fomented by irresponsible people. As to the action to be taken, I have today had this letter sent to Mr. Barrett, the Secretary of the National Amalgamated Stevedores' and Dockers' Union, after a conversation on the telephone. We put this in writing: I refer to our telephone conversation today when you informed me that the strike at London Docks has received the official support of your Executive. The Minister cannot enter into any discussion on the merits of the present dispute but, as I informed you, he feels he should have some explanation of the action of your executive in lending official support to what is clearly an illegal strike. I am accordingly to invite your Executive to meet me here today for that purpose.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

Are any perishable foodstuffs involved—

Mr. Ellis Smith

Stir it up.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

—and, if so, are any steps being taken to safeguard them?

Mr. Isaacs

Perishable foodstuffs are involved and the Government will take steps 'to see that every opportunity is taken to preserve them.

Mr. Gallacher

As one who has often been associated with what are known as "irresponsible people," may I ask if there is no way of handling this question that originated the strike, other than through directives? Is there any method of consultation of any kind with the dockers, apart from the fact that certain officials sit on a particular board? Is there any consultation with the dockers? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, despite the fact that it is not desirable nowadays to show loyalty to the working class, my sympathies are all with the strikers?

Mr. Isaacs

So far as consultation is concerned, the normal process with members of a union is through their union officials, and the union officials in this case took part in the preliminary negotiations and were parties unanimously to this directive, which was issued for the purpose of clearing up these matters. As to the question of where loyalty lies, loyalty lies with those who are prepared to abide by the rules of their union and not to throw them overboard.

Mr. Lipson

Is Mr. Barrett a member of the Board which gave this directive?

Mr. Isaacs

Yes, Mr. Barrett is a member of the Board.

Mr. George Porter

Is it not a fact that the only method by which willing men can get on the register is, normally, by the wastage which takes place in regard to the organisation of the dockers?

Mr. Isaacs

The normal way of getting on the register is when there are vacancies and more men are required. But when one considers the conditions under which dockers had to go to work in the old days and the conditions under which they now go to work and get security of some reward if they are not required to work, it is a very great tragedy indeed that the scheme should be risked?

Mr. Mellish

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is a complete machinery here which can be used, and is it not a shocking thing that an organisation has a meeting on a Sunday calling an official strike on the Monday without 21 days' notice? It is a fair neither to the membership of the organisation, nor to the Government, nor the Minister of Labour.

Mr. Isaacs

Yes, Sir, but I hope I made it clear that official machinery was used and the Appeal Board of two workers' representatives and two employers was used, and it was against the decision of.their own Board and constituted machinery that action was taken.

Mr. Drayson

Is it not undesirable to issue a pamphlet giving particulars of these 32 men, as 'that might jeopardise their getting employment elsewhere?

Mr. Isaacs

Names are not mentioned in the leaflet, but merely the cases. When there are cases in which a man has done only one half-day's work in 50 weeks and others have done two days' work in 50 weeks and are paid their stand-off wage all the time, it is necessary that those men who had been fomented into taking action by an allegation in the leaflet of the Stevedores' Union, should have the true facts brought home to them by the loyal union.