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National Docks Dispute

Volume 803: debated on Friday 10 July 1970

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11.5 a.m.

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement about the national docks dispute. First, I should like to apologise to the Opposition for the fact that it was not possible to give them a copy of the text of my statement as far in advance as I would have wished or as is normal. I apologise to the right hon. Lady for that.

The dockers' unions, led by the Transport and General Workers' Union, has called for a national dock strike from Tuesday, 14th July. This is in support of its claim, rejected by the employers, that the dockers' national weekly time rate should be increased from £11 1s. 8d. to £20. The present rate was fixed in January, 1966 and, in the unions' view, revision is overdue.

The issues are complicated by the peculiarities of the present structure of dockers' pay and by the fact that negotiations are in progress for a completely new structure under which in all major ports it is proposed that the national time rate would disappear. The rate which the unions claim should be increased is not what anyone actually earns. The great majority of dockers are on piecework. Average earnings for the first quarter of this year were £35 13s. 6d. a week, including, on average, just under eight hours' overtime.

There is a minimum earnings guarantee, at present in weekly terms £17 in London and £16 in other ports. This is paid on a daily basis; that is to say, every docker is guaranteed at least £3 4s. a day, or £3 8s. in London.

The employers have offered to increase this guarantee to £4 a day in all ports. That would mean not only a guaranteed minimum of £20 a week but also that anyone whose earnings fell below £4 on any day would benefit to some extent. The employers estimate it would increase their total wage bill by up to 4 per cent. This offer has been rejected by the unions.

The employers have refused any increase in the national time rate, as claimed by the unions. This rate is the basis for calculating payments such as overtime, standby time and, ultimately, piece rates. The employers say that any significant increase in this rate would mean a very substantial increase in earnings for dockers generally, with no offsetting improvement in productivity.

Most dockers are, however, being offered substantial increases, coupled with measures to improve productivity, in the negotiations now going on in individual ports. These local productivity negotiations from the second stage of the Devlin modernisation programme. The first stage, decasualisation, was introduced in September, 1967. In all the major ports, these Devlin Stage II negotiations include proposals for a completely new pay structure, consolidating present piecework payments into a high fixed weekly wage.

The objective of modernisation of the docks pay structure is supported by both sides. In the employers' view, a further general increase in dockers' earnings under the existing system at this juncture would be a serious setback to the chances of achieving this agreed objective. They have offered to submit the dispute to independent arbitration, but this has so far been rejected by the unions.

The breakdown in negotiations creates a serious situation. On the one hand, there is the threat of a national dock strike and, on the other hand, possible failure to modernise the pay structure and working practices of the docks, on which the future efficiency of the industry and the future prosperity of the dockers themselves must depend.

I have, therefore, arranged for officers of my Department to see representatives of the unions and of the employers separately this afternoon. Their aim will be to ensure that every possible basis for resolving this dispute is thoroughly explored with a view to the ultimate interests of both sides and of the nation.

I should like, first, to thank the right hon. Gentleman for his apology for the delay in letting us see the statement. I am sure he would be the first to realise that it is difficult to comment responsibly on a statement of such complexity when one is given only two or three minutes' warning. I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman's undertaking that there will be longer time in future.

Secondly, may I say how anxious everyone in this House is to avoid a national docks strike. While welcoming the intervention of his Department, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman that this intervention should be more than purely exploratory, that he himself will intervene personally if necessary, and that every conciliation effort be made to find a solution which will avoid the strike while at the same time not jeopardising the modernisation scheme which has the support of every one of us?

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for the spirit as well as the content of what she has said. I can assure her and the House that what I said in the closing words of my statement is right. We shall thoroughly explore all the possibilities of reaching a settlement and avoiding this disaster. As far as I am personally concerned, I shall of course be in the closest touch with all that is going on and shall be available if at any time it looks as if my personal intervention would be helpful.

On the issue of modernising working practices, while this is not the appropriate moment to make any party political point, could I refer the right hon. Gentleman to the report of the committee under my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar (Mr. Mikardo), on which I served, and simply say that to all those who went round with that working party, and ever since, it really has seemed that the issue of worker participation is extremely important to any meaningful increase in modernising practices, and would he undertake to keep a very open ear and really listen to what Mr. Jack Jones, who also worked with that committee, may say on this particular issue?

I made my maiden speech in this House over 20 years ago on the subject of joint consultation in industry. I will not say more than that, except that I hope it underlines the concern I have for participation in general.

May I ask my right hon. Friend whether he is aware that the 1,700 dockers at Southampton have just negotiated a £37 10s. a week agreement, that they are very happy with their conditions and are positively not wishing to join this national strike and feel that the effects of a strike on various sections of the city, such as the Southampton Taxi Drivers' Association, will sweep throughout the city and cause a great deal of unemployment?

This is one of the serious difficulties—I was going to say, really, tragedies—of the present dispute, that it has become mixed up with these very hopeful port by port negotiations under Devlin Stage 2 where some agreements have been made which are highly satisfactory to all sides. Certainly we must try to see that nothing that happens in these next few days stops that hopeful progress for the future of the docks.

Would my right hon. Friend realise that nobody wishes to do anything which would not assist in bringing about a settlement, but would he make certain that people do understand that if there should be a strike there would be a crippling blow to British exports of a loss of about £140 million a week and that it would do immense damage to our economy? Could he tell the House approximately what sort of average increase over the last few years the dockers have obtained? Has this been reasonable? How does it compare with that of other manual workers in this country?

The earnings of dockers have risen very considerably over the past four years. I think the level of increase is of the order of 50 per cent., which I think is about twice as fast as the rate of increase for manual workers generally. It is in fact true that dockers now have the second highest earnings of any industry, which does mean a considerable advance up the ladder compared with a few years ago.

Would the right hon. Gentleman agree that the position of the ports and docks in our economy is so vital that they should not be allowed to continue to be a private battleground between employers and employees? Would he now accept the urgency of the Government coming forward with proposals for the reorganisation of the ports and docks, although at this particular time they have failed to do so? There is a long-term problem here, and we at this time are entitled to know what the Government's proposals are for the long term.

The hon. Gentleman will know that that is not a question for me at any time and certainly not over this weekend, but I think it should be realised—and this really must be faced by hon. Gentlemen opposite—that serious issues leading to strikes do occur in industries regardless of their ownership. I doubt whether this is at the root of this particular problem.

Is not my right hon. Friend aware that most people in this country feel that sooner or later a firm stand has got to be taken against totally unreasonable and unjustified demands of this kind? Would it not help the industrial relations climate of this country for that stand to be taken sooner rather than later?

My concern over this weekend is to try to save this country from the very serious loss which would be caused by a national dock strike, but it is my duty and that of the Government, and, I think, of all people in this country, to emphasise that, unless we do relate total increases of earnings to national production, there is no future increase of prosperity for this country on the scale which otherwise we could have, and all of us, whether we be politicians, employers or union leaders, must keep in mind this basic key to prosperity.

Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that when the newspaper strike occurred a month ago my right hon. Friend who was then Prime Minister got the parties together and worked throughout the night to the early hours of the morning to promote a settlement? That contrasts very strangely with the situation today, with the very much more serious national threat of a dock strike, when the present Prime Minister chooses to fly off to watch a golf match—the most outrageous irresponsibility on the part of the Prime Minister.

I am asking the parties to come to meet me. I believe that this is my duty in Government to do, and I hope that the Prime Minister trusts me to do it.

None the less, could I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether, if over the weekend he has not succeeded in breaking the deadlock, he will make another statement to the House on Monday?

While endorsing all that my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Mr. Emery) said about the calamitous effects of a strike of this kind on the nation's economy, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether he would quantify what is the nature of the demand by the dockers? He gave us a figure of £35 per week in average earnings. If the demands of the unions were met, what would be the increase in the £35 per week? As far as he can assess it at this time, what is the extent of this demand?

It is difficult to calculate it in view of the particularly complicated pay structure of the dockers. The employers estimate that if the basic rate were increased to the £20 claimed by the unions, and taking into account the effect on overtime and piece rates and all those things, the total cost would be of the order of £38 million, which would be an increase in earnings of not far short of 50 per cent.

On a point of order. Is it in order for an hon. Member to have a meal in the Chamber? Since the proceedings started the hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi) has been eating steadily.