HC Deb 13 December 1949 vol 470 cc2514-7

Mr. Eden (by Private Notice) asked the Minister of Labour whether he has any further statement to make about the dispute in the electrical power industry.

Mr. Isaacs

I regret to inform the House that at a meeting today the men employed at the Barking Power Station have decided to strike this afternoon. The Government are taking all necessary steps to maintain essential supplies, but the House will understand that load shedding may be inevitable in the circumstances. Service men are already carrying out essential duties at the three Power Stations which stopped work yesterday.

I would remind the men on strike that their action not only results in a breach of contract with their employers, and endangers the interests of the country, but is also a breach of loyalty to their trade union leaders who, in the course of negotiations extending over many months, secured for the majority of the workers in the industry a standard hitherto enjoyed only by the minority. No man will suffer any money loss. The Chairman of the trade union side of the Joint Industrial Council has issued a statement which sets out fairly the facts and circumstances that have led to the present position. With permission of the House, I will circulate a textual copy in the OFFICIAL REPORT.

There is no doubt where the men's duty lies. They should return to work at once and leave it to the joint machinery of the industry to deal with any point requiring settlement.

Mr. Eden

I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will agree that this is a very serious situation which has developed. Can he give us any more information than is in his answer about what load shedding will be necessary? It is clearly of the greatest importance that everybody should know what the position is likely to be. Secondly, may I ask what steps, if any, are being taken to bring before the men this information which is to be made available for us in the Vote Office?

Mr. Isaacs

So far as the extent of load shedding is concerned, it is impossible to give any definite indication, but up to now the Service men already installed in the stations are carrying out a satisfactory job, and I am sure that the House and the country are grateful to them. With reference to the statement, it is too long to read to the House, but I can say that the several unions are making every effort to make the facts known to their members. It may be that because the statement which the unions can make is such a satisfactory one somebody decided that it was just as well to call a strike before the men had the statement. The unions are certainly doing their best to draw the attention of their members to the need for using the constitutional machinery and to the danger to that machinery which will follow their action.

Mr. Hastings

Can my right hon. Friend say whether any arrangements are being made for this statement to be given out to the men at the works?

Mr. Isaacs

This statement was issued rather late last night by the unions and therefore I think that neither the Press nor the B.B.C. had an opportunity to deal with it in its entirety, and that only the main point was covered. However, I understand that the Federation concerned, through the President, are taking steps to bring these facts home to their members.

Mr. Henry Strauss

In addition to the matters which the right hon. Gentleman is bringing to the notice of the men, is it not fair in their own interests that he should also bring to their notice the fact that they are apparently committing a criminal offence?

Mr. Isaacs

Their attention is drawn to the fact that their action is a breach of contract.

Mr. Beverley Baxter

Can we have the assurance of the Minister—whose difficulties we realise—that this is not the beginning of another dockers' strike where we shall be having statements day after day which will possibly drag on for one, two or three weeks? If this thing can be settled in three weeks' time, cannot it be settled right away? Can we avoid the repetition of the dockers' strike?

Mr. Isaacs

Obviously, everybody concerned will endeavour to get a settlement, but we cannot just force men into a settlement. Every effort that can be made by persuasion to bring the facts home to them will be made.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

Was the Minister's attention recently drawn to a week-end * speech by the right hon. and learned Member for West Derby (Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe) in which he talked about the Tory Party giving men the right to strike?

Mr. Speaker

That has nothing to do with this strike at all.

Mr. Awbery

Will the Minister give an assurance that these negotiations will not take place with any body other than the recognised trade unions to which these men belong?

Mr. Isaacs

I can give a very definite assurance that there will be no negotiations by the Government with any body except the trade unions.

Mr. Osborne

Can any action be taken against the men who fomented this trouble which is obviously against the best interests of the men and the trade unions concerned?

Following is the statement:

The strike action taken by the manual workers at Brimsdown, Littlebrook and Taylor's Lane Power Stations of the British Electricity Authority has come at a critical stage in the negotiations for payments to meet their special conditions.

The National Joint Industrial Council for the Electricity Supply Industry has been working at extreme pressure to resolve as quickly as possible those difficulties arising from the recent wages agreement awarding 1½ d. per hour to all manual workers, although it was agreed that the 1½ d. per hour should merge in any excess payment that was not justified, in accordance with the conditions laid down in the national agreement. No worker within the industry has a smaller wage packet than hitherto but a small percentage of the workers in the industry have had their plus differential between themselves and workers of a similar craft reduced, because the majority of the workers have been brought nearer to the standard enjoyed by the minority.

In the case of the three Stations, every employee was in receipt of a percentage addition to the national rate of his grade, irrespective of whether the individual was working under conditions abnormal to the industry or not.

The recent agreement and the one to which the workers have evidently taken exception, made provision for l½ d. an hour increase in the basic wage for all workers to merge into the percentage addition, but it left open for negotiations to be conducted for those working under conditions abnormal to the industry to increase this l½ d. to at least 2d. per hour.

The Chairmen and Secretaries of the Employees Side of the Works Committee of Brimsdown, Littlebrook, Barking and Taylor's Lane Power Stations were given the opportunity on Friday, 2nd December, to meet their national trade union leadership. Here they were able to submit additional factual material for proposed negotiations with the Authority to retain those bonus payments which had previously been made.

A special meeting of the Negotiating Committee was held on Tuesday, 6th December, when despite the material and facts then in the hands of the officials, the trade unions were again unable to substantiate the continued payment of plus payments in their old form, but stress was laid on the provision in the agreement relating to abnormal conditions, and the Works Committees were advised to negotiate on this basis. I understand that certain discussions have taken place at works level.

A meeting had been arranged for Thursday next, 15th December, at which the largest possible representation from the men involved would have been able to meet their national leaders. A full report was to have been made to them of the negotiations to date and details given of how it would be possible under the conditions now operating in the Power Stations where they work, to make a successful claim for extra payments.

Various payments for abnormal conditions obtain in the industry from a minimum of 1d. plus adequate protective clothing up to time-and-a-half of the worker's normal hourly rate.

A special meeting of the National Council is to be held tomorrow (Tuesday, 13th December) but I feel justified in saying that the strike is to be regretted and cannot possibly have the support of any trade unionist who is prepared to at least allow the normal negotiating procedure to function, before a decision was reached that the negotiating machinery cannot adequately cater for the workers within a given industry.