off the ‘Blue Union’!
A LABOUR REVIEW PAMPHLET
The Merseyside strike began when a Transport and General Workers’ Union official interfered in the hiring of men to unload a cargo of bulk sugar and deprived blue union members of the job.
How (the ‘blue union’) came to Merseyside and to the other northern ports is told in the following pages.(1) The recent strike underlined the conclusions which are drawn there. The scope of the strike showed that the roots of the blue union’ are deep on the northern waterfronts. And once more the nature and methods of TGWU docks officialdom was patently clear.
For three and a half years thousands of northern dockers have defended
their right to be in the blue union’. The depth of their grievances
against the TGWU official machine and the bitter hatred it has engendered
among them has been abundantly demonstrated.
They have recently tried to ensure that representatives of the Dock Labour Board discriminate against blue union’ members in the allocation of jobs.
On all sides there is preparation by the employers for an offensive against organized Labour. Top trade union leaders were talking recently of the Government having declared war on the trade unions. Yet, at a time when a solid militant front of the working class is a crying need, TUWU docks officialdom attacks the most militant section of the port-workers.
The power of these men does not come from their support among the dockers as the following facts show. In April 1955, 13,000 Merseyside dockers struck when an attempt was made to prevent ‘blue union’ men from working on the docks at all. In October 1955. 10,000 Merseyside dockers struck for a day when two ‘blue union’ men were sacked. In a ballot last December, organized by the TGWU for representatives on the Merseyside Dock Labour Board, the winning candidate polled only 201 votes. Another ballot was later run by the ‘blue union’, scrutinized by rank-and-file members of the ‘white union’. The blue union’ nominees received four times the votes cast in the TGWU ballot.(2)
The majority of Merseyside’s portworkers stopped work in the recent
strike against discrimination. The TGWU officials can certainly lay no
claim to be carrying out the wishes of their own members in their war
against the NASD.
If this article helps to make more widely known the struggle of the blue union’ dockers and wins a wider sympathy and active support from members of the Labour Party and trade unions then it will have fulfilled its purpose.
BETWEEN September 1954 and May 1955 ten thousand men
left the Transport and General Workers’ Union and joined the National
Amalgamated Stevedores and Dockers. This ‘walk-out’ involved
approximately 40 per cent, of the dock workers in Liverpool, Birkenhead,
Manchester and Hull.
During the ten years preceding this large-scale re-cruitment to the ‘blue union’ there were at least six major dock strikes. In these struggles pressure was building up inside the TGWU, to which the overwhelming majority of dockers belonged, and the 1954-55 break with this union has to be seen in the context of these strikes and of daily life on the docks.
THE DOCK LABOUR SCHEME
Nevertheless the dock worker is by no means living in workers’ paradise. The dockers’ millennium has not yet arrived. Government officials, trade union leaders, learned sociologists, all those gentlemen who have put the dock workers under the microscope (in the years since the war the dockers have been subjected to more ‘learned’ inquiries than any other section of the British working class) have all tended to assume that the Dock Labour Scheme has raised the status of the dockers from the most depressed industrial workers to the most privileged, well-paid and even coddled of trades. But it is necessary to brush away the slush and to assess the Dock Labour Scheme in its true light and examine closely the real conditions in the trade which have existed since the end of the war. We must examine the real relations between the employers and the dock workers.
With the post-war expansion of trade and almost negligible unemployment in the country as a whole the docker was in a much stronger position than before the war to press home his demands for an improvement in pay and conditions. During the war it had been found necessary to abolish the system of casual hiring of dock labour and it would certainly not have been possible to return to casual labour after the war. ‘Fall-back’ pay and its accompanying indirect control of labour under the Dock Labour Scheme was a price the employers had to pay for preventing the full realization of the dockers’ aims. Thus the Dock Labour Board’s disciplinary powers have been used to compel workers to do particular jobs and to accept conditions of work which were formerly accepted only under the threat of unemployment. Compulsory overtime, for example, is a burning, unresolved issue on the docks and has been sustained only through the threat of suspension and other penalties which local boards are empowered to impose under the scheme. However it would not be true to say that the dockers oppose the Dock Labour Scheme. Dock workers are most resolute in the maintenance of ‘decasualization’ and often their demands have been concentrated on improving the scheme. On Merseyside, for instance the dockers have complained that employers have in many cases broken the provisions of the scheme in employing non-registered workers.
Nevertheless, seen in relation to the power which the dockers have had since the end of the war, the scheme has helped the employers to maintain - ‘discipline’, to maintain their grip on labour during a period of trade expansion.
THE TRANSPORT AND GENERAL WORKERS UNION
The union bureaucracy was also strengthened by the way in which the scheme was used to guarantee contributions to the TGWU. On Merseyside and in Manchester registration books (without which no docker can be accepted for work) were issued only on production of a clear TGWU card. Thus the union was guaranteed its members no matter how little activity was carried on in their interests. The vast majority of dockers in these two cities stamped up their union cards only at the six-monthly intervals when the registration books were issued. They looked on the union not as an organization for the defence and betterment of their conditions but as an ‘overhead charge’ for the maintenance of their job. The official could ignore the worker’s dissatisfaction with the way the union was behaving, secure in the knowledge that union dues would still be paid each April and October.
The TGWU official machine was quite generally detested by the dockers. Officials made agreements with the employers behind the backs of the men. Men were disciplined with the consent of union officials and often saved only by ‘unofficial’ strike action.
A group of students who investigated conditions on Manchester docks in 1950-51 reported: ‘There is no doubt that there is widespread dissatisfaction with their union among dock workers in Manchester. Relations with the union were criticized more than any other aspect of employment.’(4) In their interviews these investigators heard repeated often a story which summed up the attitude of the full-time union officials, who, of course, are not elected by union members but appointed by the union leadership. One official, it seems informed the dockers at a branch meeting that he did not care what they thought about him. He had himself and his job to think of first and if he had to choose between being popular with them or standing in well with the high officials, he would not hesitate to choose the latter.
Most of the leaders of the mass resignations from the TGWU to join the ‘blue union’ had been members of the TGWU for many years. There were ex-branch committee men and ex-lay officers among them, and all had put up a prolonged fight inside the union against the officers. But, secure in their appointments, the officials could afford to ignore the demands of the rank-and-file members, to ignore votes of censure and votes of no confidence. Thus rank-and-file dockers who sought to further the interests of the men with traditional militancy and solidarity continually collided with the bureaucratic apparatus of the TGWU. The desire for a national, democratic portworkers’ union in these conditions inevitably grew and matured.
Ever since the war real working-class leadership on the docks has been in the hands of unofficial committees which sprang up in every dispute. In every major strike, too, one section of the workers had proposed a break from the TGWU. But always the leaders of the unofficial committees put forward the alternative of transforming relations inside the TGWU and wresting democratic rights from the entrenched union apparatus. Finally however, in 1954, in the words of one rank-and-file leader, the bankruptcy of this policy of staying in the TGWU became clear and led to the ‘biggest prison break in all history’.
THE PRISON BREAK
For many years we dockers of Hull have resented the way the Transport
and General Workers’ Union has handled our disputes. Time after
time we have reported our grievances to the TGWU only to receive the reply:
there is nothing we can do, our hands are tied.
Four weeks after the Hull meeting a thousand Birkenhead dockers packed themselves into Birkenhead Town Hall and enthusiastically agreed to follow Hull’s example. All but a tiny handful of Birkenhead’s 2,000 dockers subsequently applied to join the NASD. Manchester followed soon after and by the end of the year dockers were flocking into the ‘blue union’ from every group of docks on the Mersey waterfront.
THE BLUE UNION
The Dockers’ Section of the NASD was itself formed by a break from the TGWU. In June 1923 40,000 dockers came out on strike against an agreement signed between the TGWU leaders and the port employers accepting a reduction of wages. As a result of this sell-out by Bevin and his colleagues, thousands of London dockers and lightermen left the TGWU and joined with the Stevedores’ Protection Society (a union of long standing which did not join in the amalgamation of dockers’ and other unions which led to the formation of the TGWU in 1922) to form the National Amalgamated Stevedores, Lightermen, Watermen and Dockers’ Union.
The new union was expelled from the TUC, since the trade union leaders were anxious, as ever, to protect the growing power of the TGWU bureaucracy. In 1927 the new union divided to form two separate organizations, the Watermen, Lightermen, Tugmen and Bargemen’s Union and the National Amalgamated Stevedores and Dockers.
It was the latter union, by now a member of the TUC, that the northern dockers joined when in 1954-55 they marched out of the TGWU like a previous generation of dockers thirty years before. At the time of the Hull strike the NASD had 7,000 members – 3,000 in the Dockers’ Section and 4,000 in the Stevedores’ Section. It operated only in London. The militant and democratic traditions of the ‘blue union’ attracted the northern men. Traditionally, in the NASD all major issues were referred back to the rank and file for final decisions. So it was necessary for the applications to join the union from the dockers of Merseyside, Manchester and Hull to be discussed by the rank-and-file members. The London meetings of the NASD came out overwhelmingly in favour of accepting these applications. The ‘blue union’ began to enrol the new members.
As in 1923, the General Council of the TUC immediately gave its support to the bureaucrats of the TGWU and the NASD was suspended from the TUC for ‘poaching’. But the ‘blue union’ continued to expand in the North. Offices were set up in Hull, Birkenhead, Manchester and, finally, Liverpool. The TGWU leaders threatened dockers with loss of jobs if they joined the blue union. In September 1954 the Birkenhead branch of the TGWU posted notices inviting 1,000 men to register at once to fill their waiting list for jobs on the dock and thus to replace dockers who wanted to join the NASD.
But in April 1955, when the dockers in Merseyside and Manchester applied for their new registration books, the threat to deprive ‘blue union’ members of their livelihood was decisively defeated. When ‘blue union’ men were refused registration books because they could not produce a TGWU clearance card, the men of the Manchester and Birkenhead docks struck, together with 13,000 of Liverpool’s 17,000 dockers, completely paralysing the three ports. After a two-day strike the Manchester Dock Labour Board capitulated and the Merseyside Board followed suit. The first attempt to bludgeon men back into the TGWU had failed—miserably.
In the early months of 1955 large mass meetings of dockers were held in Hull, Manchester and Liverpool. Branches and regional committees of the NASD were rapidly set up. By March 1955 there were five branches in Birkenhead, twelve in Liverpool, two in Manchester and seven in Hull. Full-time officers were operating in all these northern ports.
The popular nature of the movement was shown in the large attendances at branch meetings. Hundreds of dockers were swept into trade union branch activity for the first time in their lives. Many, acting as branch officers and committee members, gained their first experience of organizing administration and meeting procedures. That first great organizing of the dock labourers sixty years before must have resembled, in many ways, these virile, raw but energetic forces which thronged the union meeting rooms. What a startling contrast to the tiny branch meetings of the TUWU! Apathy disappeared. In its place Came enthusiasm. Dockers felt not just that they ‘belonged’ to the union. The union belonged to them.
Meanwhile opinion was hardening that it was time to begin negotiations for the recognition of the NASD by the employers in the northern ports. Finally a delegate meeting in London at the beginning of May 1955 resolved to propose strike action as from May 23 if recognition was not granted. The recommendation went before mass meetings in London, Hull, Manchester and Merseyside. In Hull only twenty-two men, in a meeting of 1,500 voted against the strike ultimatum. It was the same in all the ports. Everywhere the recommendation was endorsed by absolutely decisive majorities.
THE RECOGNITION STRIKE
The employers placed the onus for non-recognition on an ‘inter-union struggle’, stating that recognition was a matter for the unions to settle among themselves. In this way the employers left themselves a way retreating. There was also a great measure of put opinion behind the ‘blue union’ dockers on the issue of their fight to belong to a union of their choice. This feeling was reflected in a sympathetic editorial in Manchester Guardian. Sympathetic action by dockers in other ports could have been developed. The TGWU leadership was desperately afraid of the spread of strike. Mr A. E. Tiffin, general secretary of the TGWU was later to reveal how near they felt the NASD came to success. Speaking to a Docks National Committee in August 1955, and dealing with the resistance of union to the demand of the blue union’ for recognition, he declared: That battle could have been lost. In my opinion it was one of the greatest crises we have had to face for a long period of time.’ A statement issued by the TGWU on the eve of the strike testified to a state of near-panic. It called on its docker members to remain at work, and declared that only ‘a reign anarchy and terror’ could result from the ‘blue union’s’ action.
The TUC condemned the strike and demanded the ‘blue union’ should hand back the northern men the TGWU. What the 10,000 workers concerned thought about it all was apparently felt to be unimportant in Smith Square. Then, as now, the matter was for the TUC leaders merely a question of making ‘suitable’ arrangements at the top. The ranks could be herded around and bartered.
When the strike started, leaders of the TGWU declared that they were willing to spend £9 million break it. Such prodigality with union funds was unheard of when it was a matter of a wages application being rejected by the employers. Here it was a question of defending the power of the union apparatus. There were no barriers now to releasing the full financial resources of the union and the energy of officials, all of which had usually remained securely under lock and key in fights against the employers.
The campaign the TGWU launched failed—at least so far as the rank and file were concerned. Officials in Manchester, who boasted they would lead the men back to work, waited at the dock gates—alone. When national officers of the union called their members to a meeting in Liverpool 3,000 dockers gave them such a rough handling that they had to call in a police escort before they could leave. As they left they were pelted with crusts of bread—a reply to an earlier threat of one official that the strikers would be forced to eat crusts.
The strike lasted six weeks. The men received no strike pay and suffered very real hardship. But in the end it was not a break in the militancy of the rank and file which prevented victory. If the outcome had rested solely on that there is no doubt that the ‘blue union’ would have won. Success can never be absolutely guaranteed in any working-class struggle. There were, however, many essential ingredients for success present at the beginning of the recognition strike. Why then did it fall? The answer lies partly in the lamentable weakness which quickly showed itself among a section of the London leadership of the NASD. They had welcomed the northern men into the union. They ended, not only by letting down the men in the north, but also by flouting the whole democratic traditions of the blue union.
THE ROLE OF THE COMMUNIST PARTY
The official line of the Communist Party towards the ‘blue union’ movement was not accepted by its own dock members without many misgivings and much opposition. Nevertheless in the days before the Khrushchev speech this did not prevent the ‘line’ from being carried through. As a result, not only did the Communist Party help to defeat the recognition strike, but in the process its own influence and membership on the docks were almost completely destroyed.
On December 31, 1954, an article by Vic Marney, a well-known docker member of the Communist Party appeared in Tribune. Tribune, incidentally, gave a sympathetic treatment to the ‘blue union’. Marney, at this time, was secretary of the ‘Liaison Committee’, an unofficial committee of TGWU members, influenced by the Communist Party. He declared in his Tribune article that the Liaison Committee had decided ‘under no-circumstances will they be involved in any struggle for the recognition of the NASD in the outer ports’. This was clear notice of an intention to blackleg. But when the strike began docker members of the Communist Party refused to become blacklegs. Unfortunately the Communist Party undermined the strike more effectively than if its members had openly crossed the picket-line.
The strike had not been on more than a few day when the Liaison Committee,
together with the executive of the lightermen’s union, met the London
executive committee of the NASD and demanded they call the strike off.
The pressure which they continued till the end of the strike on the London
leadership of the NASD was supplemented by the Daily Worker whose
reports played down the numbers on strike and the possibility of support
in other ports. This paper continually gave the impression that the strike
was about to be called off.
But the damage was being done. However near the employers came to giving way in face of the determination of the rank and file, they still held back in the hope that the opponents of the strike inside the trade union movement would succeed in their efforts to break it. The national delegate conference was forced to spend hour after hour, day after day, discussing formulas for capitulation, when a vigorous campaign to win support for recognition of the ‘blue union’ had every chance of a quick and overwhelming victory. The closing stage was reached when the delegate conference agreed to go before a disputes commission set up by the TUC. At the disputes commission the NASD was represented by the chairman and two national officers—both of whom were leaving their jobs at the end of the month.(5)
The TUC disputes commission demanded the expulsion of the northern men from the ‘blue union’. In return the suspension of the NASD from the TUC was to be lifted. Excluding northern representatives from the vote, the London executive met on Friday, July 1, and carried a resolution moved by a Communist Party member to accept the demand and to instruct the strikers to return to work the following Monday. This action was directly contrary to the procedure which had always been operated in the union. Previously rank-and-file meetings had always had the final word in beginning or ending strike action. The following weekend meetings called by northern leaders were held in the northern ports. Rank-and-file leaders called a meeting in London.
Despite the defections amongst the London leaders morale remained high in the ranks. But the northern committeemen had to take into consideration the length of the strike, the necessity to preserve forces and the added strain, after the repudiation of the North by London executive of the TGWU members who had supported the strike. They therefore recommended return to work—but as members of the ‘blue’. Six thousand dockers meeting in Liverpool reiterated their intention of remaining in the ‘blue union’. They announced that, while returning to work, they would carry on the fight for recognition as a united force with their brothers in other ports and would continue this struggle against ‘all those who opposed and under mined our fight for recognition’. In Birkenhead a great number voted against a return to work. A picture of the spirit of the men in the North was given by the Manchester Guardian reporter who attended the Manchester meeting:
As in Merseyside (and, it seems, in accordance with the new general policy of the ‘Blue Union’ in the Northern ports) the retreat was made in good order and the language was as firm and militant as it has been at any time in the last six weeks. No one, from the cheerfulness of the crowd, would have guessed that it was the end of a six week strike.
In Hull the strikers marched back to work, as they had marched
through the city several times while the strike was on.
The six-weeks recognition strike demanded great sacrifices from these dockers, Since its betrayal they have fought a war of attrition which has imposed even greater strains on them. Legal proceedings dragged on for nine months. On the docks ‘blue union’ militants were disciplined for the smallest offence. Recognition was still denied. But the movement remained and was capable from time to time of showing its teeth. In October 1955 10,000 Merseyside dockers responded to a call for a one-day stoppage and won the reinstatement of two ‘blue union’ members sacked after an allegation that at a bus stop they called another docker a ‘scab’.
In March 1956 their ‘test case’, Spring versus National Amalgamated Stevedores and Dockers, came before the Liverpool court. The courtroom was crowded with dockers. A few days later judgment was given. Spring was declared wrongfully expelled. The northern men were back in the NASD.
But their fight was stilt not ended and it is not ended yet. Despite the fact that the northern men have established their right to be members of the ‘blue union’, both legally and by their stubborn determination, the TUC and the TGWU leaders still drag out discussions with the NASD On their future. TGWU officials continue their attempts to drive men back into their union. The TGWU leaders propose that the men in the North should retain their NASD cards, but with the TGWU ‘servicing’ them. This farcical proposal has been rejected both by London and northern dockers, for it is obviously the first step to eliminating the ‘blue union’ entirely in the North—and later in London. For while the ‘blue union’ exists at all it attracts dockers in struggle.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE BLUE UNION
If the bureaucratic apparatus ceases to be a servant of the members, if it preserve itself as master over the ranks, to perpetuate itself by a system of ‘appointments’ rather than elections, if it constantly beats down militant workers and groups, then expulsions are inevitable. So, too, struggles in which the workers have to fight against both the employers and the trade union leadership are inevitable. Moreover, given the right circumstances, large groups of trade union members will seek to break out of what has for them become a union ‘prison house’ in which all workers’ initiative, all attempts to express their own ideas on the defence of their interests, remain caged, canalized or simply suppressed.
Trade unions are essentially instruments of the working class. The value of their organizational structure can be measured only in relation to how that structure serves the interests of the working class. Of course no serious trade union militant will, lightly, propose a break with even the most bureaucratic workers’ organization. He will seriously consider the worker’s traditional loyalty to his union and the extreme difficulties of setting up new trade union organizations. But the mass walk-out of the ‘blue union’ cannot be regarded as in any sense artificial. It corresponded to long-acting processes deep within the TGWU. In 1954-55 these long-active forces burst out, an explosion of working-class struggle parallel to the explosion of the Hungarian workers against ‘their’ bureaucracy.
The fight for the ‘blue’ will be recognized by Labour historians as one of the most important developments in post-war trade union history. Many thousands of dockers have remained steadfast, with the aim of building a militant portworkers’ union, despite attacks and continuing pressure from inside and outside the Labour movement. Their spirit will yet win recognition and will yet create in the ‘blue union’ that national militant democratic union which they desire. In this they will provide many more important lessons for the working class on how to defeat parasitic Labour bureaucracies which have fastened themselves upon the world Labour movement.
(1) Reprinted from Labour Review, vol. iii, no. I, pp. 540, January-February 1958.
(2) see The Newsletter, December 21, 1957, p.265.
(3) ‘Dock Workers’ (Regulation of Employment) Scheme, 1947. The scheme is administered by a National Dock Labour Board and local boards consisting of equal numbers of ‘persons representing dock workers in the port and of persons representing the employers of such dock workers’. The boards are responsible for keeping registers of employers and men; as agents of the employers they pay wages due and are responsible for disciplining workers. Dock employers pay a levy to cover the cost of operating the scheme.
(4) The Dock Worker. An analysis of conditions in the Port of Manchester (University of Liverpool Department of Social Science, 1954)
(5) On July 3, the day before the strike ended, a feature article appeared in the Empire News under the name of one of these officers, the Stevedores’ Sectional Secretary. His term of office had ended two days before. It was a witch-hunting denunciation of the strike, full of unproven allegations, declaring the strike to be the responsibility of one man and calling for the handing back of the northern men to the TGWU.