HC Deb 15 July 1949 vol 467 cc924-31

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Snow.]

3.57 p.m.

The Minister of Labour (Mr. Isaacs)

I feel that I should give the House information on the discussions that have been going on with representatives of the Stevedores' Union and the Lightermen's Union in relation to the allegations that the Canadian seamen had been "double-crossed" over the agreement of 23rd June made with the Canadian ship-owners through the intermediary of the High Commissioner for Canada. The House must know that this allegation was made the excuse for a recurrence of the stoppage on 27th June after the full resumption of work that took place on 24th June.

On Wednesday morning last, Mr. Barrett, General Secretary of the Stevedores' Union and Mr. Lindley, General Secretary Designate of the Lightermen's Union, saw officers of my Department. They requested the good offices of my Ministry to arrange a meeting between the High Commissioner for Canada or his representative, and representatives of their respective executives to hear at first hand his explanation of the recent agreement between the Canadian ship-owners and the Canadian seamen.

Mr. Barrett and Mr. Lindley stated that the request was made with the full authority of their respective executives and that the purpose of the desired interview was to enable the executives to satisfy themselves as to the understanding between the Canadian parties in regard to the provisions of the agreement governing the return voyage up to arrival at the terminal port in Canada. Mr. Barrett and Mr. Lindley explained that it was considered that questions that might arise after the men's arrival at the terminal port were not regarded by them as the concern of workers over here, and that subject to the executives being satisfied as to the understanding between the parties in regard to the provisions of the agreement governing the return voyage to the terminal port, it was proposed to tell the Canadian seamen that they had received from the British workers the maximum amount of support they could expect and that they should now do the decent thing—go back to Canada. If the Canadian seamen would not follow this course, the executives would propose to tell their members that the time had arrived when they must think of their country first and resume normal working.

It being Four o'Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Snow.]

Mr. Isaacs

In view of this, I considered that it would be of assistance if the High Commissioner could grant this interview, and the High Commissioner was so informed. The High Commissioner then postponed his engagements so that he could personally render such assistance as was in his power.

The meeting duly took place with an officer of my Department present and full information was supplied to the executives from the official records of Canada House. A statement by the High Commissioner for Canada summarising the information given by him with regard to the part Canada House played on 23rd June last was supplied to me and, with the agreement of the High Commissioner, I issued it to the Press last night. It seemed to me important to ensure that a statement of the information supplied should be available to all concerned. With the permission of the House I will circulate a copy of this statement in the OFFICIAL REPORT, as it is a complete narrative of events. May I interpose that it is reprinted in full in today's issue of "The Times."

The meeting between the executives of the two unions and representatives of the Canadian seamen duly took place yesterday afternoon. When it ended, a further meeting with officers of my Department was requested by the two general Secretaries. A meeting was arranged for this morning and duly took place.

At this meeting, Mr. Barrett and Mr. Lindley proposed that my Department should try to arrange a meeting between the High Commissioner's Office and the Canadian seamen with the two general secretaries present, or, alternatively, that the meeting should be between the Canadian shipowners and the Canadian seamen, the purpose of such a meeting being to discuss the interpretation of the provisions of the agreement. It has always been made clear, certainly to Mr. Barrett, that the Ministry would not become involved in any way in the Canadian seamen's dispute. Mr. Barrett and Mr. Lindley were accordingly informed that their proposal could not be entertained.

I was most dissatisfied with the outcome of yesterday's meeting between the two executives and the Canadian seamen as reported by Mr. Barrett and Mr. Lindley. No point was put forward this morning which, in my view, could excuse the executives from following the course they had indicated to my Department or that could justify the proposal for the further meeting. Accordingly, Mr. Barrett and Mr. Lindley were asked to arrange for their executives to attend at my Department as early as possible this afternoon so that the matter could be more fully gone into. Mr. Barrett later telephoned, however, that the Unions were unable to arrange for their executives to attend today.

I must confess that when I was informed on Wednesday morning of the course of action proposed by the executives of the two unions, I could not help feeling that however regrettable previous events had been, this new course of action would be fully in accord with the honourable traditions of British trade unionism. Indeed, I am sure that the House will agree that it would have been a duty that any responsible trade union leader owed to the general community. When I asked the High Commissioner to accede to the request for the interview, I did so in the thought that, given this opportunity to form an independent judgment on an authoritative impartial statement of the facts, the accredited leaders of the men could be relied on to carry out their part of the understanding. We are in a situation where the men have the right to expect that their accredited leaders will act with a full sense of responsibility both to them and to the nation. I regret that this opportunity has not been taken.

Major Sir David Maxwell Fyfe (Liverpool, West Derby)

May I say, first, that I am sure that all quarters of the House welcome this example of the policy of giving full information of and publicity to any points of difficulty that arise? With regard to the whole content of the right hon. Gentleman's statement, obviously we shall all have to study it in black and white, but I am sure that again I am speaking for the House and the country in saying that nothing which the right hon. Gentleman has said will reduce the desire in this House and in the country that wiser counsels and greater responsibility will prevail, and that before the weekend is out reconsideration of this grave situation will be taken by all concerned.

Mr. Piratin (Mile End)


Mr. Speaker

This is all coming out of the time of the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Albu).

Mr. Piratin

I regret taking up the time of the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Albu), but as the statement has been made by the Minister, I think I must ask a question. Will the right hon. Gentleman say whether there is any obstacle in the way of carrying out the proposition of these two union representatives meeting the High Commissioner in the presence of the Canadian seamen; and does not he recognise that they feel justified in asking that because, perhaps, they would like to have someone present who knows about all the actions which are proceeding in Canada, at the same time that they hear the Commissioner's statement? Would he look into that, and, further, can he say how many boats are now being worked by British troops in the London ports, and when they are likely to arrive at s.s. "Beaverbrae" and s.s. "Argomont."

Mr. Isaacs

With regard to the second part of the hon. Member's question I have absolutely no intention of giving any such information. With reference to the first part, we must be fair to the High Commissioner. He is not the employer or the shipowner, and he did not make the agreement. The agreement summarised by Captain Murray on behalf of the Canadian owners, which was accepted by the men and not questioned by them until afterwards, is as follows: 1. Crews to go back on the ships; 2. Crews returning at old rate of wages; 3. Owners not to prosecute men on arrival in Canada; 4. Men not required to sign on with any union to go back. Point No. 3 has been taken up. The seamen argue that the ship owners gave an undertaking that the Government or anybody else would not prosecute them in Canada. The shipowners have given their guarantee and said that they will stand by it.

Mr. Gammans (Hornsey)

Would the right hon. Gentleman say something on the strike generally in view of its growing seriousness and its effect on our economic position? Do the Government expect to be able to provide enough troops next week to unload all ships awaiting unloading? Will the right hon. Gentleman also say whether, in regard to this particular union, he has asked Mr. Deakin of the Transport and General Workers' Union if he is going to come from Scarborough and try to get some sort of discipline among the men?

Mr. Isaacs

So far as Mr. Deakin is concerned, he is represented by a most able and competent official, a Mr. Bird, who has done his utmost to keep his people informed. He is on the spot and working all the time. It must be remembered that the men working in the docks are, in the main, members of the Transport and General Workers' Union. So far as the question about troops is concerned, all I can do is to repeat the Government's assurance that they will see that everything that can be done will be done to secure the freedom of the port.

Following is the statement by the High Commissioner for Canada referred to by the MINISTER OF LABOUR [COL. 926]:

Following a request to the Ministry of Labour from the representatives of the Executive of the National Amalgamated Stevedores and Dockers and the Watermen, Lightermen, Tugmen and Bargemen's Union, the High Commissioner, on 13th July at 2.30 p.m. met representatives of the Executives. The Chief Industrial Commissioner of the Ministry of Labour, Sir Robert Gould, was present. The following statement summarises the information given by the High Commissioner with regard to the part Canada House played on 23rd June last when, at the request of the strike leaders of the Canadian Seamen's Union, the High Commissioner's office acted as an intermediary between them and the owners of the two vessels in the London docks.

1. On Thursday, 23rd June, the London papers carried a news item stating that the High Commissioner was calling the leaders of the Canadian Seamen's Union for a conference at Canada House as a last minute effort to avert a walk-out on the London docks. This statement in the papers was completely untrue and it came as a complete surprise to Canada House.

2. About 5.15 p.m. on Thursday, 23rd June, a telephone call was received from Arland, one of the strike leaders, asking for an urgent interview. It was agreed that he should see Sigvaldason, Administrative Secretary to the High Commissioner. Arland, accompanied by Doucette the chairman of the Strike Committee, arrived about 5.30 p.m. and they stated that they had a four-point solution which they would like submitted to the owners of the Beaverbrae and Argomont.

3. At this stage, Messrs. Hudd, Official Secretary to the High Commissioner, and Sigvaldason conducted the interview. The strike leaders listed four conditions as the basis on which they would return to work and stated that, if these conditions were accepted, they would urge the London dockers to unload and handle the Beaverbrae and Argomont. The following were the conditions:

  1. A. No victimisation. Through questioning this was interpreted as follows: Crews to be allowed to return to work on the ships. In the questioning and discussion concerning this point, it was clearly brought out that this could, in effect, only mean an assurance of return to Canada to the terminal port.
  2. B. Seamen to resume work at the rates of pay which prevailed when they struck.
  3. C. Owners of the Beaverbrae and Argomont to agree not to prosecute the seamen on return to Canada.
  4. It was explained to Arland and Doucette that the owners could not bind the Government of Canada nor any private individual or firm, and that this could only mean, therefore, an undertaking on the part of the owners of the Beaverbrae and Argomont.
  5. D. The crews not to be required to sign on with SIU when rejoining ships in London.

In the discussion, it was drawn to the attention of the strike leaders that, as they were aware, the owners had an SIU agreement and that the only significance of this condition would be that they would return to the ship as non-union crew.

4. The strike leaders said that they were anxious to know that same evening whether these terms were acceptable in view of the critical meeting of London dockers which had been called for the next morning. It was explained to them that Captain A. W. McMurray, the General Manager of the Canadian Pacific Steamships, was in London and that he could no doubt be consulted, but that it would not be possible to clear with the owners of the Argomont. It was agreed that they should telephone Canada House at 9.30 p.m. Thursday night.

5. Captain A. W. McMurray was contacted by telephone and he agreed to come down to Canada House for discussion. He was seen by the High Commissioner, Mr. Wilgress, and by Messrs. Hudd, Moodie and Sigvaldason. After some discussion, Captain McMurray agreed to accept the conditions on behalf of the Canadian Pacific Steamships and, as Lusi Limited, the agents for the Argomont, could not be contacted he agreed that he could speak for them in this matter.

6. At 9.30 p.m. Doucette telephoned Canada House and was informed by Sigvaldason that the owners of the Beaverbrae and Argomont would accept the four-point solution. Doucette stated that he would call back later that evening to advise whether the Canadian seamen were satisfied. At 11 p.m. Pope, a strike leader, telephoned to say that the Canadian seamen were satisfied and that they would go to the meeting of the London dockers at 7.30 a.m. to notify them that the Canadian ships in London were now clear and they could recommend that work should begin. Pope asked that the owners of the Seaboard Trader and Seaboard Ranger should be approached to see whether they would accept a solution on the same conditions as the owners of the Beaver- brae and Argomont. Sigvaldason advised that he would get in touch with Goulandris Brothers the next morning to get their views on the matter.

7. On Friday morning. 24th June, Captain A. W. McMurray issued a statement as follows:— Official statement by shipowners of Beaverbrae and Argomont today says agreement reached on four points between strikers and owners:

  1. 1. Crews to go back on the ships.
  2. 2. Crews returning at old rate of wages.
  3. 3. Owners not to prosecute men on arrival in Canada.
  4. 4. Men not required to sign on with any Union to go back.
"Owners' representatives stated 'very happy' that strike in London settled.