Current Issue
Next Issue
Back Issues
Marxist Theory
Socialist History
Left Politics
Left Groups
New Interventions
Islamophobia Watch

Docks: Breakaway and Unofficial Movements

Bob Pennington

This article was published in International Socialism No.2, 1961. The editors added the following biographical note: "Bob Pennington was employed by the NASD in Liverpool from December 1954 until March 1957. He was a member of the Socialist Labour League National Committee and its London Organizer. He has recently resigned from membership of the League." Pennington was influenced by the ideas propagated by the journal Socialisme ou Barbarie at that time and helped to found the Solidarity group. He later became National Secretary of the International Marxist Group.

IN AUGUST and September 1954 over 2000 Hull dockworkers quit the Transport and General Workers Union and joined the National Amalgamated Stevedores and Dockers Union.1 During the course of the next nine months, many portworkers in Liverpool. Birkenhead and Manchester followed the example of the Hull men and also joined the NASD.2

What caused some 16,000 men to leave the TGWU and go over to the NASD? More important, was their action correct? And if so does this chart the course for other workers trapped in the bureaucratic machines which are the main feature of contemporary unionism? To answer such questions it is necessary to understand the deep cleavage that exists on the docks between the leaders of the TGWU and its rank-and-file members.

Even before World War II the rank-and-file of the TGWU had been in conflict with its official leadership, particularly in docks and buses. In 1923, as a result of the newly formed TGWU accepting a decrease in wages, some 20,000 dockers left the union and joined the Stevedores’ Protection Society, the forerunner of the present NASD.3 In 1932 dockers in Glasgow and Campbeltown broke from the TGWU and formed the Scottish TGWU, a quite independent union, the issue being their right to elect their own officials. Following the defeat of the "Coronation Strike" in 1937 an important section of London busmen walked out of the TGWU to form a breakaway union headed by W.J. Brown.

The 1945 Strike
The "Wages Strike" of 1945 renewed the dockers’ opposition to the TGWU leaders and quickly convinced them that no more could be expected of the right-wing leaders than before the war. The 1945 strike was an entirely spontaneous movement for an increase in the basic pay. At one period or other of its six weeks’ duration the strike embraced every port of any consequence. Ignoring the anti-strike arguments of the bourgeois press, of the Labour Government, of Deakin, then TGWU General Secretary and of his supporters of the right and in the Communist Party (that the strike was "unpatriotic" ... or aimed against the newly elected Labour Government) the dockers simply concentrated on closing down the ports. Mass meetings of dockers elected rank-and-file committees, creating their own organizations to wage the strike. These committees were eventually linked to one another through a national committee with Bert Aylward acting as organizer. From Liverpool and London, men such as Campbell and Callaghan, Constable and Timothy travelled the ports exhorting the dockers to ignore the appeals for a return and appealing to them to stand firm. After six weeks of struggle the men eventually accepted an assurance from the union leaders that they would secure a wage increase. A return to work then took place. The "Dockers’ Charter", a program drawn up by the rank-and-file committees demanding an end to casual labour, one call per day, pensions for old dockers and a fall-back guarantee equal to the basic wage was actually adopted by the TGWU as official union policy. (Since then it has remained in the archives at Transport House.) The wage increase negotiated by the official unions fell far short of the amount demanded by the men.

Nevertheless the 1945 strike established certain patterns of organization that have remained in existence since. It also brought home in a practical way certain political lessons to portworkers, particularly to the more militant ones, lessons that have affected the thinking and attitude of these men in all the struggles of the last decade and a half.

Taking place as it did shortly after the war, the 1945 dock strike encountered the hostility of the Communist Party. Harry Pollitt, then its general secretary, had just stated: "They [‘the more far-sighted elements of the capitalist class’] have supported co-operation between Britain, America and the Soviet Union because they know that only in this way can there be a solution of the new problems that the post-war period will bring."4 This was the official party line. Anxious to ensure a permanent agreement between the imperialist West and the USSR the Stalinists gave 100 percent support to the Labour Government. This policy quite naturally brought them into opposition with the dockers’ strike. After a short period of hesitation during which they gave token support to the strike, the Communist Party members on the National Portworkers’ Committee walked out (among them was Dick Barrett, General secretary of the NASD).5 This bit of strike breaking made a considerable impression on the dockers, more so with the advanced workers many of whom had been sympathetic to Communist Party. A number, including Aylward, resigned from the party. It would be untrue to say that many militants understood how this treachery flowed logically from the relation between the policies of the British Communist Party and the diplomatic needs of the Soviet leaders. But the party’s attitude did undermine the confidence of the portworkers in it as a militant class organization. After Churchill’s Fulton speech in 1948 the Stalinists made another left turn. They recovered some of the ground they had lost in the 1945 strike but they have never to this day been able to break down the healthy suspicion with which most dockworkers view them. Stalinist policies and actions since then have strengthened these suspicions, but 1945 provided the dockers with a first hand experience of the Communist Party and gave them a means of judging Stalinism in later disputes.

The Rank-and-File Committees
Most important, the 1945 strike brought into being once again the rank-and-file committees. It established quite clearly the real objectives of such committees: to organize the fight for the dockers’ demands in a way that would actively involve in the struggle as many workers as possible, irrespective of sectional divisions. Elected by mass meetings often attended by over 90 percent of the men of a particular control or dock, the committees represent the most progressive and advanced form of organization yet developed by the dockers. All committee members are subject to immediate recall. During a dispute new members will often be added to the committee, having proved themselves useful to the running of the strike. In between strikes, the committee will often dwindle to a hard core of five to seven members. Immediately a new struggle erupts the committee will call a mass meeting, place itself before the men for re-election and seek an immediate broadening of its base, asking for other men to be elected to it. This ensures a genuine responsiveness to the needs of the ranks and a responsibility towards them no other form of organization is capable of providing.

In the course of the strikes the committees are charged with holding frequent report back meetings. Decisions on whether or not to continue the strike, on whether to extend it or not or whether to return to work on certain conditions, have to be ratified by mass meetings of the men, convened by the committees. The committee members are unpaid, all are working dockers and each individual is known to the men who have to decide whether to vote for him or not. This latter point is very important and contrasts with union elections where men are called upon to vote for people they may never have heard of and seldom know really well.

Another progressive feature of the rank-and-file committee is that they transcend the artificial divisions imposed on the workers by the various unions operating on the docks. The colour of a man’s union card in no way prejudices his right to speak, vote or participate on the various rank-and-file committees. This allows the full power of the entire labour force to be mobilized in struggle and helps to ensure that sectional interests are subordinated to those of the majority of the men.

The presence of a man on an unofficial committee marks him out for special hostility from both the employers and the union bureaucrats. In 1952, Constable, Dickens and Saunders6 were all expelled from the TGWU because of their unofficial activity. Others such as Brandon (one time secretary of the Birkenhead Portworkers’ Committee and former editor of the Portworkers’ Clarion)7 were victimized by the employers and their allies in the unions and lost their jobs. True enough some such as Campbell, the Liverpool strike leader and Van Loo, the ex-Stalinist from St Katherine’s Dock, London, eventually became paid officials but their influence among the men declined to zero once they had taken that step.

The rank-and-file committee is not a specifically post-war feature. Such movements existed even prior to World War I. During the 1911 Dock and Railway Strikes and the 1912 Miners’ Strike, unofficial movements took the lead in opposition to the union executives. The integration of the trade unions with the capitalist state which took place at an accelerated rate, during the 1914-18 war led to the growth of the unofficial Shop Stewards’ movement. Between 1918 and 1939 rank-and-file organization became very much a feature of the industrial scene. More often than not such movements were led by members of the Communist Party. However, in the late thirties, as the Stalinists developed their Popular Front policy to its logical conclusions, these unofficial movements were turned in the direction of "pressurising" the trade-union bureaucracy into "action". The Communist Party Congress of 1937 went on record "for the calling of a conference of trade union executives" and recorded the fact that "a growing number of comrades are being elected to trade union executives and to paid positions".8 This meant that instead of aiming at the development of an independent movement of the workers from below, opposed to the trade union bureaucracy, the unofficial movements were transformed into adjuncts of Stalinist policy, concerned with obtaining the election of "better" officials.

The Dock Labour Scheme
In 1947, Parliament introduced the "Dock Workers’ (Regulation of Employment) Scheme". Administered by a National Dock Labour Board and local boards made up of equal numbers of "persons representing dock workers in the port and of persons representing the employers of such dockworkers", the Scheme is financed by a levy on the employers. Each local board is responsible for keeping a register of employers and workers, pays wages and attendance money, controls the hiring of labour and is responsible for discipline. Theoretically, it can evoke disciplinary action against employers as well as workers!

Before the war the dockworkers had smarted under the scourge of casual labour. Every day men joined the undignified scramble at the "stands" for a job. In this "Paddy’s Market" representing an employers’ millennium, militants and "trouble-makers" were left on the "stones"; safety regulations went unheeded and for those who refused to overload a sling there was no work next day. During the war under the control of the Ministry of War Transport "casual" labour was suspended. Naturally enough at the end of the war dockers pressed for a decasualisation scheme.

It is often claimed that it was the dockers’ militancy that compelled the Government and the employers to introduce the Scheme. This is only part of the truth – and a small part at that. The prospect of obtaining regular employment outside the industry had already begun to affect the dock labour force. Between 1945 and 1947 there was a labour turnover seven percent higher than that normally accounted for by retirements and deaths. For the employers this was a serious situation. Dockwork requires considerable skill and experience. The industry, to function efficiently, cannot tolerate a constant labour turnover. The Scheme was therefore introduced to regularize the labour force. By its very structure, it was designed to increase the "discipline" exerted over the worker. This was accomplished by involving the union representatives in the administration of the Scheme. The seal was thus set for the integration of union leadership and management. The Scheme completed the process of separation that had been taking place between the union officialdom and the ordinary working docker.

By their participation on the local Boards which are made up of six representatives from the employers and six from the "workpeople’s" side, the unions become involved in the sacking and suspending of workers. As a result men who are sacked by the local Boards have absolutely no chance of being supported by official strike action to obtain their reinstatement. Union officials have often utilized their positions on the Boards to get rid of men they consider troublesome. This type of victimization reached its peak in Liverpool in January 1955 when Johnson, McShane and Harrison were sacked from the Scheme, because they took positions as paid organizers in the NASD. Cooper and Allen, two members of the area executive of the "blue" union were sacked for the most trivial offence in October 1955. Alderman Harry Livermore, the Liverpool solicitor who represented them at their appeal said in a press statement published in the Liverpool Echo that it was "a case of blatant victimization".

An added inducement to the union representatives to behave "responsibly", i.e. place the interests of management first, is that the employers are always looking for "suitable" men to fill vacancies as Welfare Officers or Dock Labour Board officials.

No paid TGWU officials are elected. They are all subject to appointment by local union district committees whose choice in turn is subject to the approval of the executive council. As a result the jobs of union officials are not dependent on the services they render their members but on whether or not they please or displease the hierarchy. The officials see their main task as one of peacefully negotiating with the employers such improvements in conditions as the system can afford. Disputes over dirty cargo, wages and compulsory overtime have no effect on the position or income of the trade union bureaucracy. In fact strikes and disputes tend to interrupt the routine of the officials and threaten to disrupt the pleasant relations they have established with the Dock Labour Board officials and the employers.

The Break with the "White" Union
In 1945, the Labour Government had used troops in an attempt to break the strike. The failure of this "socialist measure" did not deter the stalwarts of social democracy. Troops were again used against the dockers in 1949, during the solidarity strike with the Canadian Seamen’s Union. Even these actions did not prod the TGWU officials into action. In fact they justified and supported military strikebreaking against their own members.

The complete refusal of the TGWU to support the dockworkers’ struggles and the collaboration of the union in the management of the industry (through the Dock Labour Boards) encouraged within the ranks of the men the idea of forming or joining an alternative union. This tendency received added impetus when, in 1951, TGWU officials appeared in Court to give evidence against seven dockers. These men had been arrested under Regulation 13059 and were charged at the Old Bailey with leading an unofficial wages dispute which had started on Merseyside earlier that year and had eventually spread to London. The seven indicted leaders (Constable, Cowley, Crosby, Harrison, Timothy, Johnson, and Dickens) were acquitted at this famous trial, in which thousands of rank-and-file dockers decided to take a hand in the course of justice, stopping work daily "in deference to the brothers in court", and organizing large and noisy meetings outside the court room every day the trial lasted.10 By the summer of 1945 conditions had matured to the point where the demands for a breakaway began to find a ready response. The men’s attitude to the TGWU officials had hardened to the point of hostility. The presence of unofficial leadership in the main northern ports ensured that any breakaway would immediately be given an organized form.

On August 16, 1954, 4000 Hull dockers struck work against the dangerous method of unloading grain referred to as "hand-scuttling". Automatically the local TGWU officials, led by Parnell the area officer, opposed the strike. Just as automatically the men formed their own rank-and-file committee. This committee consisting of four men (Hart, Doakes, Eastwood and Brady) next day raised before the mass meeting held on the Corporation Field, the attitude of the TGWU officials. Hart, acting as the committee’s spokesman, made the call for going over to the NASD. His suggestion met with immediate acclaim from the men and a telegram was sent to Barrett, the "blue" union general secretary, applying for membership.

The NASD was a union confined to the London docks, where it had a membership of about 4500 stevedores and 2500 dockers. At this time it was engaged in a dispute with the Dock Labour Board against compulsory overtime. Confronted by an unyielding group of employers acting in conjunction with the TGWU (who saw the situation as affording them an ideal opportunity to squeeze the tiny "blue" union off the London docks) Barrett, a man long schooled in the politics of manoeuvre, seized on the request of the Hull men. There is little doubt he saw this demand as a powerful counter to the threat to his union. Nor is there much doubt that illusions of grandeur flourished that day in the offices at 653 Commercial Road, headquarters of the NASD.

The action of the Hull men met quick sympathy in Birkenhead. In this small but vitally important port, with its labour force of 2200 men, there existed one of the most stable of the rank-and-file committees. The committee not only met regularly between disputes but ran the monthly paper The Portworkers’ Clarion, which in Birkenhead had a monthly sale of some 1500 copies. Through collections at the pay control the committee had also purchased its own van equipped with loudspeaker which it used for holding dock meetings in the Port of Liverpool, across the River Mersey. Most of the Birkenhead committee were sympathetic to Trotskyism or strongly influenced by its paper the Socialist Outlook. The Trotskyists11 were supporters of a breakaway from the TGWU and were convinced that such a movement would afford them an opportunity to win a substantial influence amongst dockers and weaken the influence of the right-wing. Between the aims of the dockers and those of the Trotskyists however there was an insoluble conflict. The dockers had become sickened by the way the union bureaucracy had subordinated their interests to the politics of the Labour Party. To them, one of the most appealing features of the NASD was its persistent refusal to affiliate to the Labour Party. The dockers were looking for an organization that would improve their working conditions and in which they, the rank-and-file, would be the decisive factor in moulding policy. Whilst this had led them to draw certain syndicalist conclusions their reaction against social democratic politics, and in particular social democratic "docks" politics, was basically healthy. It was certainly more realistic than the perspective of the Trotskyists who dreamed of one day affiliating a Trotskyist-controlled NASD to the Labour Party, thereby strengthening the "Left" ... presumably with the agreement of the Labour leaders!

The Birkenhead men visited Hull, established relations with the Hull committee and arranged for a delegation of Hull men to visit Birkenhead. Soon NASD recruiting meetings were being held in Birkenhead Town Hall and a recruiting office was opened in Price Street. Within two weeks 2000 out of 2200 Birkenhead men were members of the NASD.

In London, over the issue of compulsory overtime, things had been moving steadily towards a showdown. NASD militants refused to work overtime, which the National Board claimed was compulsory. Finally the NASD leadership was left with no alternative and called an official strike against compulsory overtime. In October 1954 the NASD members in London, Hull and Birkenhead, supported by over 85 percent of the TGWU members in London, Hull, Birkenhead, Manchester and Liverpool, stopped work for three weeks. This strike enormously enhanced the prestige of the NASD. As the TGWU played its usual role of opposing the dispute, its prestige among dockers sank even further. The Birkenhead Portworkers’ Committee acted as the main spearhead of the movement and in liaison with a number of Liverpool militants they helped to establish an organizing committee for the "blue" union in Liverpool and Garston – a port at the extreme south end of the Liverpool docks. On December 3, 1954, William Newman, secretary of the Stevedores’ section of the NASD, arrived in Liverpool with five other leading members of the union and opened recruiting offices.

In February 1955 Joe Harrison opened offices on Trafford Road, Manchester, again after the Birkenhead men had made contact with Walsh and Butters, the leading rank-and-file militants in Manchester, and arranged for a campaign committee in Manchester.

The "Recognition" Strike
By May 1955 some 16,000 men in Hull, Birkenhead, Liverpool and Manchester had joined the NASD. The attempt by the Dock Labour Board in April 1955 to refuse non-TGWU members their books had been defeated by a two-day strike.12 Formal recognition was the next obvious step. Up to then the employers and the Dock Labour Board had refused to discuss with the "blue" union’s officials in the northern ports.

On Monday May 28, 1955 the "blue" union began an official strike for recognition. Within a few hours of the dispute starting, the apparent unity of the NASD began to crumble. Outside the Surrev Dock. Ron Pollard, a member of the Stevedores’ executive, made an appeal to the men to return to work. No action was taken against Pollard by the union executive. No statement appeared from that body disowning this open call for "scabbing". Barrett, the NASD general secretary, suddenly developed an illness and disappeared from the precincts of 653 Commercial Road. On Thursday, May 31, the "blue" union executive met the Liaison Committee13 and the Stalinist-influenced executive of the Lightermen’s Union14 to discuss the dispute. Marney15 and Watson (another Communist Party member) of the Lightermen’s Union, supported by Bill Lindley, Lightermen’s secretary, moved a resolution to call off the strike. The stevedores on the NASD executive supported by Dickens (also a Communist Party member) and Freeman, then chairman of the NASD, voted for this motion. On Friday, June 1st, "back to work" resolutions were being put to meetings in every port. In each port they were overwhelmingly rejected by mass meetings of the men.16 The strike went on.

The ranks were not solid, however. Most of the TGWU dockers in the northern ports had come out in solidarity with the "blue" union men. Once it became apparent to them that serious divisions of opinion existed within the Stevedores’ union on whether to carry on or not, the support of the "white" union men diminished. In London only a very small number of TGWU men supported the strike. This further influenced the TGWU men in northern ports. Even in the first two weeks of this strike it is doubtful whether more than 10,000 London dockers (out of a total labour force of 36,000) were out on strike.

Most London TGWU members were, and still are, bitter opponents of the union bureaucracy. But on the other hand they had all had first hand experience of the NASD leadership. They had come to recognize that it differed in no fundamental respect from the official docks leadership of the TGWU. The stevedores (who comprise some 70 percent of the NASD membership) are probably the most conservative section of the dockworkers They are granted privileges in relation to hiring which are denied to men classified as dockers and a high proportion of them are foremen. They had never established a reputation for militancy and solidarity action in past disputes. This deep mistrust which London rank-and-file TGWU members felt for the NASD officials made them lukewarm to the idea of striking for the rights of the northern men to join the "blue" union. They were convinced that Barrett and his colleagues had only taken the northern dockers into the "blue" union in order to defend and extend their own bureaucracy. They felt that as far as the stevedores were concerned, this step had little to do with constructing a militant portworkers’ union. The Recognition Strike lasted six weeks. The northern dockers, denied strike pay, repeatedly stabbed in the back by their official leaderships, unsupported by the London TGWU members and rapidly losing the support of the "white" union men in the northern ports, were eventually compelled to return to work. The actual decision was foisted upon them by a combined vote of the London Stevedores’ and Dockers’ executives. At this meeting, the representatives from the northern ports were even denied the right to vote!

All important decisions, such as a return to work, had previously required the endorsement of mass meetings. In this instance the union leaders ignored their members. They accepted a demand from the TUC that all northern men be excluded from the union and returned to the TGWU.17

The Stalinists played an important role in the betrayal of the Recognition Strike but it would be wrong to ascribe the defeat of that strike to their influence alone, or even to credit them with playing a decisive role. What defeated the strike was the NASD leadership itself. Like the TGWU, the NASD is very much a product of capitalist development. Its objectives are limited to securing minor reforms within the framework of the present social system. Its more immediate and constant aim is to defend its small caste of officials and the archaic privileges of its stevedore members. The very fact that in the NASD stevedores and dockers have separate branches and separate executive committees creates harmful divisions between the members of the "blue" union and perpetuates the myth about the "different interests" of workers engaged in the same industry. Like the TGWU, the NASD has become inextricably entwined in the whole apparatus of class collaboration erected in the docks since the end of the war.

Five years have passed since the strike. The northern dockers have established in the Courts their right to remain in the NASD. The "blue" union officially returned to the northern ports in March 1956. There is still no recognition, however, of the union in the outer-London ports. No official figures are available but it is doubtful whether more than 2500 members remain of the 16,000 who joined the "blue" union in 1954-55.

Back to the Rank-and-File Committees
Since 1955 two extremely important strikes have taken place on the docks. In 1957 the London dockers, in a great gesture of solidarity, stopped work in support of the Covent Garden porters. In 1958 another strike took place against the use of "black" labour to unload meat. In neither case did the NASD give official support to the disputes nor has it officially recognized any strikes in the northern ports. In January 1958 dockers, both "blue" and "white", stopped work in Liverpool in protest against the refusal of a control officer to hire NASD men. No support whatsoever came from the London executive for this strike ... despite the fact that their own members were in this case defending their very right to work. What greater indictment of a union leadership could there be?

The former militants who now sit on the NASD committees in the north have gradually become afflicted with constitutional arthritis. Because of their isolation and lack of a mass basis they have been compelled to oppose sackings ... by employing solicitors! NASD area committee members, in the north, can all explain the meaning of terms such as "ultra vires", "ex parte" and "sub judice", but unfortunately they have forgotten what "rank-and-file committees" mean. "Unofficial" has become a disreputable word in union vocabulary. In some of the northern ports a number of "blue" union members do occasionally participate in rank-and-file committees, but official recognition is not given to these bodies any longer by the NASD, at either national or local level. In fact they are frowned upon.

In February 1960 an unofficial committee in Hull called a strike against the unloading of bulk cargoes by basket-filling. Ironically it was a similar method of working which in August 1954, again in Hull, had triggered off the whole movement into the NASD. The TGWU officials, as usual, unsuccessfully attempted to get their members to return to work. The strike was only settled when two leading officials of the NASD rushed up from London and persuaded their members to return to work and to accept the "timing" of various methods of unloading. The conditions of the "timing" were set by the employers and the men finished up being forced to use shovel and basket to unload a cargo of cotton seed from SS Yelkenci!18 The wheel had turned full circle. The NASD leadership was now acting in a manner indistinguishable from that of any other union bureaucracy. The whole activity of the NASD now centres around winning back its place on the National Joint Industrial Council,19 a place it lost when it first recruited the northern men to its ranks in 1954. This means, in practice, that it must prove to the employers how much more responsible a union it is than the TGWU. The NASD leaders hope thereby to wheedle their way back into the "councils of influence". The northern men are a source of embarrassment to the London leaders of the NASD, who still retain the constitution which denies any northern representation on the union’s policy deciding committees. Outside London, the NASD leaders deliberately avoid direct conflict with the employers. They restrict their activity to propaganda for admittance onto the Dock Labour Boards.

Bluntly put, the attempt to extend the NASD into the northern ports has proved a fiasco. The result has been a tragic splitting of the unofficial movement, the transformation of many former militants into timid constitutionalists and the demoralisation of many fine dock fighters. By 1954 thousands of dockers had understood that no amount of pressurising, no amount of resolution-passing and no amount of mass attendance at branch meetings was ever going to "democratize" the TGWU. This basic understanding had deeply permeated their consciousness. At this stage two alternatives posed themselves before the dockers: either to strengthen and develop the unofficial movement, broadening the basis of the rank-and-file committees to include harbour men, dredger men and dock gate men or to join another union. The feeling for an alternative union was widespread, especially among certain unofficial leaders on the docks. This feeling represented a tendency to seek a way out of their problems by finding a ready made organization which would do the job only the dockers themselves are able to do. By their decision to join the NASD they chose to delegate the authority and power of the men to other leaders, to "better" trade union officials. As events were tragically to demonstrate, the NASD could no more be converted into a fighting instrument, expressing the direct interests and objectives of the mass of the dockers, than could the TGWU.

The Trotskyists had played an important role in shaping the breakaway. It was their influence in the Birkenhead committee which ensured that the movement spread, after it had started in Hull. There is a very strong possibility that, had the visit of the Birkenhead delegates to Hull, in August 1954, not taken place, the Hull men would never have joined the NASD. They bear a responsibility for encouraging the chimera that the reformist NASD could somehow or other became a revolutionary union.

The Stalinists opposed the breakaway because they wished to "influence" the TGWU from within. They hoped by their "responsible" attitude to convince the TGWU bureaucracy to lift the "Black Circular" which bans Communist Party members from holding office in that union. The Trotskyists, whilst correctly rejecting the notion that the TGWU could be reformed, hoped to reform the NASD. They hoped to do this by taking into that union thousands of northern dockers whose leaders were under their influence. Both these policies conflicted with reality and were doomed to failure.

One must struggle today against all reformist illusions that union bureaucracies, whether "right" or "left", whether "white" or "blue", can somehow be reformed or removed by infiltration, even be it on a mass scale. The need on the docks is to assist the building or rank-and-file committees, a type of organization which the portworkers have already found the most suitable to their requirements. Every post-war dock struggle has confirmed these committees to be the most direct reflection of the dockers’ class interests. It would be wrong however to deny the need to participate in the life of the unions. Every day there are a thousand and one minor problems confronting individual dockers. As king as capitalism and the present bureaucratic framework exist, the only chance the docker has of solving these problems is through the demands he places on the official machinery. The job of revolutionary socialists in the unions however is to explain what is needed for the success of future struggles and to propagate the need for independent class action and for the forms of organization that such action requires.

In the recent disputes that have taken place in the northern ports the dockers have once again turned towards the rank-and-file committees. They have correctly turned their backs on the arid arguments of those who wrangle on the respective merits of the two unions. Instinctively they are feeling again that they alone can solve the problems confronting them and that reliance on various interested saviours will only confront them with further problems at a later date. Their experience with every variety of trade union bureaucracy is again forcing the dockers to recognize the need to establish rank-and-file unity of all portworkers in the struggle against the employers and all others who stand in their way.


1. The name "blue" union is derived from the colour of the NASD membership card; the TGWU. for similar reasons, is referred to as the "white" union.

2. In Liverpool 8500 men joined the NASD, 2000 joined in Manchester, 3500 in Hull and 2200 in Birkenhead.

3. This breakaway was led by a committee referred to as the "Unknown 39". One of its leaders was Bert Aylward. Eventually some 17,500 of these men returned to the TGWU, an ominous portent for the 1954 breakaway.

4. How to Win the Peace (p.8), published by the CPGB, 1944.

5. Until then NASD representatives had attended meetings of the National Portworkers’ Committee. Barrett later left the Communist Party.

6. Saunders was eventually reinstated in the TGWU. Dickens and Constable joined the NASD.

7. This was a monthly rank-and-file paper produced by the Birkenhead Portworkers’ Committee.

8. Industrial Report to 1937 Communist Party Congress (published by the CPGB).

9. Regulation 1305 was introduced by the Labour Government and was specifically directed against unofficial strikes. Chief prosecutor for the Labour Government at the trial of the dockers was Sir Hartley Shawcross.

10. When Bevan died recently much sentimental drivel gushed forth about this so-called left. Whilst Mervyn Jones in Tribune, July 22, 1960, reported the commemoration service held for him in his native Wales and the regard with which Bevan was held by working people, he conveniently forgot to mention that it was Bevan, as Minister of Labour in the 1951 Labour Government, who was responsible for the introduction of Regulation 1305.

11. The Trotskyists referred to here are those who were organized around the Socialist Outlook and who are now in the Socialist Labour League.

12. Registration Books which permit a docker to work on the docks are issued each April and October by the Dock Labour Board. Until 1955 men had to present a fully paid-up TGWU card before receiving their new Registration book. Early in 1955, P.J. O’Hare. Merseyside area secretary of the TGWU had boasted that "only TGWU members will get their books".

13. The Liaison Committee which had been a rank-and-file committee during the 1954 Overtime Strike was, by May 1955, simply a Stalinist shell.

14. The Lightermen had at one time been members of the NASD. They had broken away before the war however to form a union of their own. Their attendance at the joint meeting of the NASD executive and of the Liaison Committee was ostensibly to discuss possible support for the dispute. In fact no sooner had they attended the meeting than they were advising the dockers to wind up the strike. Such was the nature of their "support".

15. On December 31, 1954, Tribune had carried an article by Vic Marney, a well-known Stalinist docker. This article stated that the Liaison Committee "would not be involved in any struggle for the recognition of the NASD in the outer ports". From the outset the Communist Party had opposed the breakaway and had called on the men to "democratize" the TGWU.

16. The Liverpool meeting held on the Lord Street Blitz Site was attended by over 10,000 men. Although the NASD obviously thought that all their spokesman had to do was to present the back-to-work recommendation and that the workers would then obediently vote for it, they got a rude awakening. No sooner had the meeting commenced than the platform was invaded by irate dockers. The air was blue with more than union cards. Freeman, the union chairman, was unceremoniously pushed to one side and the microphone snatched from his hand. One of the militants thereupon made a speech denouncing the union leaders, attacking the idea of a return to work and urging the men to stay out. For fully ten minutes pandemonium reigned. Then with only one dissenting vote the men decided to carry on the strike.

17. In March 1956 Francis Spring, a member of Liverpool No.5 branch of the NASD, won a court action against the decision of the NASD expelling him from the union

18. Newsletter, March 5, 1960. This report significantly fails to mention the role of the NASD in this dispute. But then these two officials were candidates supported by the Trotskyists in the union elections.

19. The NJIC is the statutory organization consisting of employers and trade union representatives which discusses wages and rates in the docks industry.