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London Docks Strike

Volume 452: debated on Wednesday 23 June 1948

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(by Private Notice) asked the Prime Minister whether he has any further statement to make about the position in the strike at the London docks.

As work had not been resumed in the London docks this morning and perishable food needed by the people was in danger of deterioration and waste, His Majesty's Government decided that they had no alternative in the public interest but to utilise Service personnel to safeguard the people's food supplies, particularly those of a perishable nature. The work has already started.

In the meanwhile I am informed that in the Tooley Street Section, 2,500 men have gone back to work, and that smaller numbers have also returned to work in six other docks.

The main facts which have led up to the present situation may be known to the House, but I will recapitulate them. The agreed rules of the Port require that when any dispute arises as to the application of any of the piece work rates and conditions, work is to continue at piece work, or alternatively, at day work, pending adjustment on the question in dispute by the Joint Labour Board.

In this case a dispute arose on the loading of 100 tons of zinc oxide. Eleven men on several occasions between 27th May and 8th June refused to complete the loading of this cargo. As provided in the Dock Labour Scheme, the matter was reported in writing to the local Board, who duly considered it and decided, in accordance with the disciplinary provisions, to impose a penalty of suspension for one week and disentitlement to attendance money for 13 weeks. The workers concerned felt aggrieved by these decisions and exercised their right of appeal, but, before their appeal could be heard, the strike commenced.

The appeal tribunal, composed of equal numbers of both sides, met but failed to agree, and a further appeal tribunal was constituted with an independent chairman jointly selected. This tribunal, after full consideration of the circumstances, decided to retain suspension for seven days but to reduce the disentitlement to attendance money to the period of 30th May to 5th June and a further period of two weeks.

There the matter stands and I think it is important that the House should be fully aware of the broad outlines of the Dock Labour Scheme and of the machinery under which these cases have been heard.

The Dock Labour Scheme was made under the Dock Labour Regulation of Employment Act, 1946, which, as the House will remember, was designed to end the evil of casual employment in this important industry by giving every worker a guaranteed weekly wage. Before making the Scheme, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour was at pains to ensure that it represented the largest possible measure of agreement between the employers and workers in the industry. The Scheme provides for a National Dock Labour Board on which there is equal representation of employers and workers, and in the ports the Scheme is managed locally by Local Boards consisting also of equal numbers of representatives of employers and workers in the port.

The Scheme, of course, whilst bringing great benefits to the workers carries with it obligations and there are disciplinary provisions for dealing with cases of alleged failure to comply with the terms of the Scheme. The penalties that may be imposed by the Local Board are set out in the Scheme but against any penalty the worker has a right to appeal to an appeal tribunal, the members of which are appointed from persons nominated by the local representatives of employers and workers.

As the House will thus see, the Scheme is essentially and designedly under the control of the employers and workers in the industry. The situation as the Government see it is that after the fullest possible consideration of the men's case, the properly constituted tribunal has come to its decision. If there is any feeling that this case has shown a need for examination of the disciplinary provisions of the Scheme, the remedy lies in the hands of the workers through their trade union representatives on the National Dock Labour Board. As I indicated in my statement yesterday, the trade union has decided to consult its members in London and other ports and later call a National Delegate Conference to consider the possible modification of the disciplinary clauses of the Scheme based on experience gained of the Scheme's working since its inception. There is thus ample opportunity for dealing with the present issue in a constitutional manner.

Unless the members of trade unions use the machinery which has been set up with their agreement, the whole Scheme, which is of immense value to the worker, may be jeopardised. Further, the position won for the trade unions by so much sacrifice in the past is endangered by action of this kind.

In the circumstances it is much to be regretted that the men have not as yet responded generally to the call to return to work. A hold up of the food supplies of London will inevitably cause hardship and grave inconvenience to millions of householders; but this is by no means the end of the damage. The handling of the country's overseas trade normally stretches to the limit the capacity of our available shipping. A hold up of any length delays the turn-round of ships and cannot be made up subsequently. The stoppage cuts millions of dollars and other needed foreign currency off our earnings—and cuts them off finally. Already the prospect of attaining this month's export target is affected, the gap in the balance of our payments is widened and the pace of national recovery slowed down. I cannot believe that the general body of strikers have hitherto realised the true consequences of their action. They should return to work and allow any grievances they may feel to be dealt with by the proper machinery.

Could the Prime Minister tell us anything about the food situation as it now stands?

The perishable foods are being moved now. Should the stoppage continue, all arrangements have been made for moving other foods.

Could the Prime Minister say whether any food has actually gone bad or is in danger of going bad?

May I ask the Prime Minister if arrangements could not have been made, or could not yet be made, to withdraw the order suspending the men for a week with the disallowance of attendance money, pending the appeal to the tribunal? Everyone recognises that, when an appeal is put in, sentence is suspended, and, in this case, could it not have been possible to get this sentence suspended, pending the discussion by the tribunal and the decision of the tribunal whether the sentence was just or unjust for that type of offence?

The hon. Member has not followed my statement, or he would have seen that this matter came before the properly-constituted tribunal of representatives of both sides. They disagreed, and it subsequently came before another tribunal under an independent chairman, also agreed to by both sides, and a decision was taken. The matter has been dealt with entirely in accordance with the machinery set up. If there is any question of dealing with the disciplinary code, that again can be raised with the trade union representatives on the Board.

When the Prime Minister speaks of Service personnel does he mean soldiers, or are the other two Services involved?

Any appropriate personnel of any of the three Services will be used.

Is the Prime Minister aware that the suspension of attendance money for weeks would have involved no financial hardship on the men in question provided that they had been willing to work during that time? May I ask if the Prime Minister is aware that his statement will give the utmost satisfaction to the responsible elements in the stevedores and dock labouring industry, and that there is a strong feeling among the dockers that there has been a lamentable failure by the Dock Labour Board to put over the case in the same clear fashion as the Prime Minister has done to-day?

May I say this to the Prime Minister? We are very reluctant on this side of the House to seek any discussion of this matter which might result in exacerbating the situation further, but we reserve our right to refer to the matter later should the necessity arise.