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Railway Strike, North Eastern Region

Volume 465: debated on Monday 30 May 1949

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(by Private Notice) asked the Minister of Labour whether he has any statement to make about the strike on the British Railways in the North-Eastern Region.

I regret to say that long-distance traffic was again seriously dislocated as a result of this strike yesterday, despite the fact that the strike is condemned by the two unions concerned. I understand that the Railway Executive are proposing to discuss the matter again with the trade unions.

I make no comment upon the merits or demerits of the point in dispute, but I must comment on the method adopted to deal with it. In their highly responsible and normal daily service a danger signal is an indication that there is trouble ahead, and railway men wisely proceed with caution and stop if the signal remains at danger. The present method of attempting to solve a difference is a danger signal. The dangers ahead are: inconvenience to the public, damage to industrial collective bargaining, repudiation of trade union responsibility, and disservice to the nation at a time when co-operation from all engaged in industry and distribution is vital to national economic recovery.

I urge those who have been led into this irresponsible action to abandon this method, to let reason and argument take the place of coercion and force, and to follow the advice of their chosen representatives and thus restore the confidence the public have in railway workers, and avoid lasting damage to trade union responsibility.

While thanking the right hon. Gentleman for his reply, may I ask him if he would ask those concerned to bear in mind their duty to the public, especially in view of the approaching Whitsun holiday?

I hope that the words I have used do convey the responsibility which the railway workers have to the public, and I trust that those words—which I think will have the support of the House—will carry some weight with them.

As one who was inconvenienced last night in travelling from my constituency to London in order to be here today, may I ask my right hon. Friend to strengthen that appeal and do everything he can to ensure that negotiations take place speedily so that everyone can get away at Whitsun for a well-deserved holiday, even if it means that the railway men go back to their strike afterwards?

I hope that the railway workers will take some notice of the advice of their own officials, but I think it only fair to say that at least one-third of the men engaged in this work obeyed the advice of their leaders and remained at work, although about two-thirds disobeyed that advice.

Would the right hon. Gentleman tell the House and the country something about the state of the negotiations and what the position is in regard to the problem under dispute, namely, the sleeping quarters of the men concerned, and other issues?

I do not think I could usefully add anything on the point to the statement issued by the Railway Executive, which was published on Saturday—a little belated, I think, but they did publish it—and which was given good prominence in the Press. I do not think I could add more to that.

Has any further progress been made in this matter since the statement was published, and has not the Minister's own Department got into touch with the parties concerned and received any later information on the matter?

There is no information later than the statement published by the Railway Executive. We are keeping in touch, but we cannot step in and negotiate on behalf of unofficial strikers. We must act through the unions, who are doing their best to restore normality.

Will not my right hon. Friend take some action in this matter with a view to bringing the parties together and thus avoiding what will otherwise be a very unfortunate position? Why wait until a national disaster takes place before the Minister takes a hand?

The parties are meeting together; they met last week, and they are meeting, again. If my hon. Friend means that the Ministry of Labour should disregard the unions and call in the people engaged in an unofficial strike, we could not think of doing that.

Would the right hon. Gentleman give some advice to the British Railways Executive to the effect that unless some agreement is reached on the question of lodging-out before next weekend the strike is apt to spread considerably? This condition of lodging-out has only just been re-imposed, and it seems rather too bad that we cannot get an agreement much faster than this.

But agreement was reached. The agreement was negotiated between the unions and the Railway Executive and the grievance which the men have—if they have any at all—is against their own unions for making an agreement which they do not support. That is their grievance, and it would be unwise for me to suggest that the Railway Executive have been at fault. I cannot put the blame on one side or the other without knowing the facts.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the dispute is due not to the conditions of the lodging-out, but to the principle of lodging-out itself? The men want to be home every night; that is the grievance.

Is the Minister aware that in 1915 the late Lloyd George, when he was coming to Glasgow, said that in no circumstances would he meet the unofficial committee, but that when he came he did meet them, and that the meeting did quite a lot of good? Would not the Minister think over that?

I did not know that the hon. Gentleman was a follower of the late Lloyd George, but, so far as this present movement is concerned, we cannot meet unofficial strikers, because there is a deliberate, concerted, organised movement in the trade unions to disregard their leaders.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that one of the unions involved in this matter is meeting today to consider the question; is he also aware that the point put by the hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Kendall) is quite erroneous and would he leave the matter for the moment to the parties concerned to meet together and settle it in their own way?

I think that what I have said has indicated that that is our earnest hope. The enginemen and firemen are meeting this week, and we are also in touch with the other unions.