Friday, April 10, 2009

It was 20 years ago!

one out, all out...

As my friend Iain Dale reports in the Daily Telegraph, twenty years ago the Dock Labour scheme was abolished. The scheme had become, as Norman Fowler said in parliament, "a total anachronism"

The Dock Labour Scheme was based on Bevin’s wartime registration scheme for dockworkers. Then in 1972, as a result of an infamous deal between Lord Aldington on behalf of Ted Heath's government of the day and the union baron Jack Jones, dockers were effectively given 'jobs for life' as registered dockers laid off by any of the 150 firms bound by the scheme have to be taken on by another or be paid £25,000.

The NDLS became responsible for the registration, allocation, payment, training and medical care of all dockworkers in ports like Southampton. The Southampton branch of the Transport and General Workers Union became masters of all they surveyed. The Unions had effective control over recruitment and dismissals. Restrictive practises were rife. As in the print industry at that time, 'ghosting' was popular'- the practise of allocating and paying dockers to do a job which couldn't’t be done by dockers and ensuring they never appeared to do the job. The trouble is they had real pay packets and the shippers, importers and exporters had to pay. The docks were losing trade to foreign ports and non- unionised facilities in places like Felixstow. Other practices such as welting and bobbing were endemic. All these practices involved establishing an inflated gang size and letting half of them "bob off" home for the day. Disappointment money, embarrassment money; all sorts of money for fictional hardships, you name it, it was all there. If you weren't related to a docker, the chances of you getting a job in the industry were minimal and if you happened to be female, it was also virtually a no no as the old Trade Union order asserted itself. It was, in every sense, 'job for the boys'.

Major strikes over wages and working arrangements threatened to bring the port to a standstiill on a regular basis. Management was effectively hand tied as it was a criminal offence for docks such as Southampton not to be part of the scheme and a criminal offence to employ non registered dockers. Essential investment into the docks such as the move to containerisation was effectively vetoed by the Unions as they existed solely to protect the interests of a narrow section of employees at the expense of all else. Even if a dock worker committed a criminal offence, it was effectively impossible to sack or discipline him without union approval. The former director of Britain’s National Association of Port Employers, Nicholas Finney OBE tells the story of how in 1982 a Southampton dockworker was dismissed for a serious criminal offence involving theft over quite a long period of time. He served the prison sentence, was returned to the labour pool and within six months on full back pay, was put back to employment in the same area from which he had come.

In short, the dock Labour scheme had to go.

When the then Secretary of State, Norman Fowler announced the Dock Labour (Abolition) Bill including generous redundancy terms of £35,000 to every docker in April, it genuinely appeared to catch the T&GWU on the hop. Wildcat strikes by militants were inevitable but a Saturday session of the High Court then ruled an all out national strike illegal.

Locally, Sir James Hill the Member of Parliament for Southampton Test welcomed the Bill in the teeth of opposition from Labour politicians. The act received Royal Assent on 6 July. By then, strike action was dying out as the court action and the return to work by many dockers, not least as they didn't wish to lose their £35,000 redundancy, coupled with the ability of shippers to find other ports meant that the unions knew that the game was up.

Within months, new jobs were created, shipping costs fell as productivity increased and morale improved. The port of Southampton was able to develop its site and in time, was privatised and a what was a drain on the public purse became a contributor to the exchequer.

And all in the teeth of Labour opposition.


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