Featured in Issue XIV – August 2021
In 1951 the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU), now Unite, signed off a weekly two shilling pay rise. In Birkenhead the unofficial Port Workers’ Committee (PWC) saw the increase as inadequate and called a mass meeting, which then voted for strike action,. When 2,000 men walked out on the 2nd of February, their union the TWGU denounced them. Nonetheless within a few days the strike spread to Liverpool and Manchester, and in less than a week 12,000 had joined (including 450 sympathisers in London). On the 6th a representative of the Manchester Canal Company stated that all work was at a standstill, despite 23 ships being in port. This shows how effective the wildcat strike was; however, it failed to spread nationally.
On February 9th, Special Branch disrupted a PWC meeting in East London and arrested seven men (4 from London, 2 from Birkenhead and 1 from Liverpool) stating that “under Order 1305, strikes and lockouts are illegal”. This law had been introduced during WWII under the promise that it would be removed afterwards, something which the Labour Party never did. That evening over 6,000 dockers in London, alongside 11,000 in Merseyside, walked out in protest. Later the workers decided to return to work but to do 24-hour solidarity strikes every time the seven appeared at court.
At the Old Bailey, Labour MP Hartley Shawcross of St Helens led the prosecution. The TGWU gave evidence against the strikers, with the Liverpool District Secretary being a chief witness. Evidence also came from police officers, one plainclothes detective stated he hadn’t missed a portworkers’ meeting since 1945! However, the dockers weren’t prepared to sit by while their fellow workers were victimised. Seven solidarity strikes took place under the slogan: “When they’re in the Dock, we’re out of the Dock”. Thousands, such as the anarcho-syndicalist Albert Grace, demonstrated loudly outside of the court during proceedings. The London PWC also raised money for their legal defence, which argued that there was not a “trade dispute” since the dockers were in a dispute with their union not management.
On April 17th as 8,000 dockers waited outside to hear the verdict, the jury announced it could not agree on whether there was a “trade dispute” and so the Labour Party, facing the threat of further strikes, dropped their charges and let the seven free. The crowd carried them triumphantly on their shoulders, only to be charged by mounted police. The three from Merseyside were met with a similarly warm welcome from dockers at Lime Street station. In the end the Labour government and TGWU were made to look cruel, stupid and unprincipled, and on August 14th Order 1305 was withdrawn.
One docker, John Magginnis, recounted how the TGWU treated its members in Liverpool at the time: “All strikes, large or small, and there were some very large ones at the end of the war and after, were unofficial. They were led by port workers’ committees, members elected at the dock gates. Trade union officials, from the highest to the lowest, were hated. We worked in dirty, unhealthy, dangerous conditions. But, if the men had a grievance and sent for the delegate (trade union official) he would walk round the sheds, straight into the office, come out, walk past the men without saying a word and you would find out later from the employer’s representative that nothing had changed. The favourite phrase of delegates was: “My hands are tied, what can I do?’”’
The TGWU had no shop stewards, its paid officials were appointed not elected and it sought a partnership with management; in the words of another Liverpool docker they had “become our masters instead of our servants.”
In contrast local PWCs were elected from mass meetings, and subject to immediate recall. Their role was to regularly report back to and organise mass meetings, which would then decide the next course of action. Some went further, Birkenhead PWC had its own paper, The Portworkers’ Clarion, with a circulation of 1,500 and even affiliated to a Trotskyist international!
Birkenhead PWC, hoping to escape the issues found in the TGWU, helped to organise a mass defection to another union in the mid-1950s. However, this union acted in a similar manner, with paid officials, regardless of their past militancy, being more interested in legalities and a cosy relationship with the bosses than direct action. Others attempted to reform the TGWU from within, but Unite suffers from many similar issues to this day. Rank-and-file organising continued but was hindered by constant conflict with officials and an inability to access strike funds. If the PWCs were capable of causing mass defections, then they could have consolidated their own system of mass meetings and recallable delegates into a union. If they avoided structural issues such as developing a paid bureaucracy, then they might have maintained a members led union based on direct action (what we would call syndicalism).