On the dockers, racism and workers’ confidence

Issue section: 

I’d like to add a couple of points to Dave Lyddon’s response to Sabby Sagall’s article in July/August edition of SR.

I spent a long time talking to and recording dockers in London (mainly at the Royal Docks), Liverpool and Hull and a few other ports in the early 1980s (copies of the material are in the Labour History section of the Modern Records Centre at Warwick University Library). I was friendly with Micky Fenn, Eddie Prevost, Bob Light and several other dockers from my years spent at the dockers’ Connaught Pub with Labour Worker and Socialist Worker.

Sabby is right that a majority of dockers did not march in support of Powell’s speech, though there were enough of them to make life very unpleasant for the band of students and International Socialists (IS) members who counter-protested outside parliament. But he’s wrong to suggest that the defeat of the nine-week strike in autumn 1967 demoralised the militants or the London dockers in general.

The strike wasn’t over containerisation; that came five years later. It was broadly about the issue of the Devlin Report and the conditions for “decasualisation” of dock labour. And though the strike was unsuccessful in winning the militants’ demands, the relatively favourable economic situation and the shop steward system which was set up very quickly strengthened the dockers’ sense of confidence.

In fact it could well be argued that the pro-Powell strike indicates the existence of a work culture in which striking, even for occasional non-economic issues (such as in support of the nurses’ pay dispute in 1962), was far more common than in other industries, where support for Powell was strong but workers were less confident. It’s also true that none of the leaders of the pro-Powell strike had any influence in the post-1968 events.

Containerisation did begin to impact on some of the more politically aware dockers towards the end of the 1960s, but didn’t really become the focus for national action until early 1972, when the national Port Shop Stewards Committee was set up, dominated by London (mainly the Royal Docks), Liverpool and Hull.

The events of summer 1972 were the high point of the post 1967 militancy. The IS played a small but significant part in supporting and encouraging the more militant elements in London, though we had no influence in Liverpool or Hull. (When five dockers were imprisoned for picketing a container depot in east London, the IS print shop produced the first version of the poster “Five Dockers are inside: Why aren’t you out?”, designed by Micky Fenn and Vincent Flynn on the back of a Woodbines packet outside Pentonville Prison on the first night of the imprisonment.)

The end of the dock strike after the TGWU agreed to negotiate was accepted in London by a mass meeting, with most of the militants very depressed by it. This led to the first package of voluntary severance proposals. The militants held the port shop stewards committees together for some time, but the rapid advance of containerisation from 1972, combined with the demoralising effect of the redundancies, undermined the dockworkers’ confidence.

The strike at Grunwick in 1976 and the involvement of miners and other groups of workers as well as dockers were fantastic to experience.

But the dockers’ involvement in the demonstrations in support of the Grunwick workers was the last expression of that confidence in the dockers’ ability to act independently of official trade unionism and influence events. This confidence had its roots in the postwar economic expansion and the political input of militants from both Communist Party and Trotskyist.

Two years later the Royal Docks closed, and both Liverpool and Hull had major reductions in numbers and confidence.

Fred Lindop
•Fred has dealt with some of these issues in the following articles:
“Unofficial Militancy in the Royal Docks 1945-67”, Oral History, Volume 11/2, Autumn 1983.
“Racism and the Working Class: strikes in support of Enoch Powell in 1968”, Labour History Review 66 (1), April 2001.
“The Dockers and the 1971 Industrial Relations Act”, Parts 1 and 2, Historical Studies in Industrial Relations, no 5, Spring 1998 and no 6, Autumn 1998.