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23rd January 1970
Page 56
Page 56, 23rd January 1970 — topic
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Which of the following most accurately describes the problem?

What the dockers' claim means

by Janus

MOST alarming among many disquieting points in the report on

dock work in London by the Bristow joint committee was the unanimous early decision not to hear opinions and objections from the many other interests concerned. To have done this, says the report with a frankness in itself suspicious, "would make it impossible for us to put forward any agreed recommendations whatever within the foreseeable future".

Some need for haste there may have been. The interpretation of "dock work" has caused several disputes, many of them serious. The report does not help the situation. It merely extends the area within which wrangling can take place, and impels towards a greater militancy those interests other than port workers and employers which would suffer damage if the report is implemented.

The joint committee was asked to improve the present definition of dock work so as to provide a clearer guide to the phrase "in the vicinity of the port". This may seem an innocuous task which representatives of employers and workers in the port could be left to carry out on their own under an impartial chairman nominated by the Department of Employment and Productivity.

But the committee has gone far beyond its terms of reference. It has produced what is in effect an entirely new rather than improved definition, and has suggested that the dock workers' territory should extend for five miles each side of the Thames.

Only by a violent twisting of the language can this vast area be considered as "in the vicinity of the port". It was a month ago that the Industrial Tribunal ruled unanimously that the description did not apply to the premises of Jess B. Woodcock and Son Ltd., barely a mile by road and a little over half a mile in a direct line from the nearest dock entrance.

IF accepted the new definition will affect a large number of hauliers and other port users. They had a right to play some part in the discussions of the committee if only as witnesses. The need for their opinions to be felt is reinforced rather than answered by the argument that they would have made agreement more difficult. One has always understood that this difficulty is of the very essence of the democratic process.

In justification the committee points out that the procedure for making the necessary change in the dock labour scheme would give the unrepresented interests "ample opportunity" to make their views heard. This is literally true. The Secretary of State, Mrs. Barbara Castle, has asked for those views. There are statutory rights of objection to whatever draft Order she subsequently publishes.

But on matters of this kind the first blow is usually the most significant. The five-mile limit is represented as a compromise between a suggestion of three miles from the port employers and from the workers 10 miles at any rate for container and roll-on/roll-off traffic. In fact the committee's report is likely to have given the workers as much as they can really have wanted. Their resistance to any modification will be even stronger than the current unrest which led to the appointment of the committee in the first place. At a later stage the right of Parliament to amend the draft Order is unlikely to be used except possibly on minor points.

T0 have any chance of success, opposition must be substantial and continuous. The issues are important. Certainly a better and more precise definition of dock work in London is required. There may be a case for extending it beyond what the present definition is generally taken to mean. Whether the present dock employers and dock labour representatives have the major or sole right to carry out the task is another matter.

The growing use of containers has brought the problem to a head. Traffic which once had to be handled at the dockside can now be transhipped in one package. The work of filling or emptying a container can take place at an inland depot anywhere within half a mile or 200 miles of the port.

The call on what would come within any sane definition of "dock work" is correspondingly diminished almost to vanishing point. The fortunate few dock workers who actually handle the containers are reputed to earn fantastically high salaries. The less fortunate majority see their livelihood taken from them.

By one of industry's numerous little ironies growth in the use of containers has run parallel with the process of decasualization. The unsatisfactory system has now disappeared under which the chance of work for a docker varied from day to day according to the fluctuations of trade in the port and many other factors including the whim of an employer.

The registered dock worker is assured of payment. This has come to mean in practice that he has a job for life. The port employers have to meet the cost of the scheme. If an employer goes out of business or moves from the dock area his registered workers are re-allocated to other employers. The total number of employers has been substantially reduced, partly as deliberate policy under the scheme but also for other reasons, including a change of premises to avoid the frequent labour difficulties arising within the port.

In various ways the volume of dock work has fallen while the dock labour force has increased or at any rate has not diminished. Something must be done to deal with this situation. From the point of view of hauliers and others the Government seem to be promoting the easy way out, which is to compel more employers than before to use the services of dock workers.

THIS is to tackle the problem from the wrong end. A multiplicity of employers was one of the things the dock labour scheme was designed to prevent. The main industrial aim should be to use all the resources available, including containers and the labour force, to the best possible advantage. This aim should include the deployment of men and vehicles and the siting of premises in such a way as to cause the minimum of congestion and inconvenience.

Within such a framework the rights of the dock workers and the problems of the port employers must have their proper place. It must be wrong that an injudicious definition of dock work should influence an operator's decision, for example, on where to build a depot or warehouse.

That this influence will have an effect is more than likely. Hauliers with premises within what now threatens to be dock labour territory have stayed there in the knowledge among other things that they can choose their own staff. If they become officially port employers their staff will come within the dock labour scheme which in various ways may limit the choice. New problems of security and redundancy will arise.

MANY operators will be tempted to move beyond the five-mile limit. It would be regrettable for decisions of this kind to be taken on grounds other than those of efficiency. For generations

operators specializing in dock work have performed a valuable service which is still needed.

The idea of a substantial band each side of a navigable river to mark the territory where the writ of the longshoreman runs is apparently borrowed from the US where the area claimed is as much as 50 miles wide. Whatever the disadvantages this may bring in the US they must be increased many times over in so small a country as the UK.

The 20-mile-wide stretch claimed by the workers would take them to the confines of the Greater London area and in some cases beyond. It would come as a surprise to the people of Epsom or of Hendon to learn that they come within the scope of the docks. The issues have become too wide for the main decisions to be left to the amphibians.


People: Barbara Castle
Locations: London

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