Labour relations in road haulage
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by John Darker, AMB1
ONE OF the knottiest problems on the desk of Mr Michael Foot, Secretary for Employment, is what to do about defining dockwork. If he extends the National Dock Labour Scheme as widely as was hinted in the Government's consultative document, to please dockers' leaders, he may create endless labour relations problems with road haulage workers (and their employers in many sectors, both professional haulage and awn account).
Though numerically a small part of the Transport and General Workers' Union, the dockers have shown on many occasions that they have the power to gravely hinder the country's exports, and this, in present circumstances, poses a graver threat to national recovery than at any time since the war.
If the TGWU membership as a whole were agreed that an extension of the Dock Labour scheme, with all its implications, was justified, there might be a case for doing so. But, since many of the jobs which dockers lay claim to at inland depots— cold stores and warehouses— already employ TGWU members, a fratricidal struggle would seem to be an inevitable outcome of an extended scheme.
The problem for the Government would be much less difficult if funds were available to provide alternative factory jobs near to the homes of dockers whose jobs have been eroded by containerisation and unit loading techniques. The money to provide suitable alternative work, or even to develop the vast area of riverside dereliction in East London which is already a national disgrace, is unlikely to be forthcoming.
The Confederation of British Industry have pointed out that the proposed extension of dock work cannot be separated out from the major re-organisation of the ports already planned by the Government. The CI31 remind us that the National Ports Council "Survey of NonScheme Ports" of 1973 accepted that their employees' pay and conditions were reasonably comparable with those prevailing at the five main ports in the country. "To cover more workers under the Scheme," said the CBI, "would mean the extension of an elitist section of the labour force uniquely sheltered under statutory regulations with a consequential deterioration of the relative position of other workers not included."
The CBI fear that if the dock work definition is extended to cover container stuffing and stowing of goods on ro-ro vehicles it would often become impracticable to separate this work from the loading of domestic freight vehicles. Hence, the probability is that the already high costs of freight distribution inland would be inflated by the wages of dock workers ostensibly employed for import or export work.
No one yet knows whether the extension of the definitions of "dock work" and "dock worker" will apply to businesses outside the ports but the loading of long distance lorries at inland clearance depots could become the province of registered dockers, with incalculable effects on the drivers collecting and delivery traffic to the ICDs.
One of the most searching criticisms of any extension of dock work was published a few weeks ago by the National Cold Storage Federation. It argues that the fundamental justification for the Scheme ended when decasualisation was achieved and that there is no reason why dock workers should not rely upon a basis of employment comparable to that of every other industrial worker in the UK. To insist on a special status for dock workers for purely psychological reasons is hard to justify when there are proposals before Parliament for the protection of employment and the extension of industrial democracy. What is more, these general improvements are likely to be enacted before any new legislation affecting the docks.
Compensation In recent years, no less than £55 million has been expended in attempting to adjust the size of the work force to the work available. A further £5 million is soon to be paid out to 1,176 dockers, mainly in London, who want to take voluntary redundancy and leave the National Dock Labour Scheme. Yet there have been cases of tax free lump sum payments of up to £2,500 per man on closure of a wharf or warehouse, to compensate—as the Cold Store Federation say—" for the rigour of moving on the following morning to the payroll of a different employer— irrespective of whether that employer has a vacancy or not—and to ensure that by the agreed closure date no goods remain imprisoned in store untouchable by any but registered dock workers whom the employer has then ceased to be entitled to employ." It is surely asking trouble for compensation up to £5,000 to be paid dockers and up to £15,000 docks white collar work! receiving severance pay, ai time when many hundreds thousands of workers in parts of the country face lo term unemployment. Wl lorry drivers in consideral numbers are losing their jc any extension of the dc workers' monopoly to p mises within five miles of t waterfront, or further inlat confers on the dock( involved what many of th fellow trade unionists regard as gold-plated pri lege.
Although cold stores Wf founded upon the importati of frozen meat, the indust has substantially changed character in the past decat Today, by far the greater pi portion of goods now handl have their origin in the UF
Though the dockers m lay claim to handling wor the basic function of a cc store is not handling b storage, and preservation perishable goods (often temperatures as low 30`C) for periods rangi] up to a year or more. Mai quite large stores opera with a mere handful employees each undertaki] whatever job needs doit during times of peak demai and slack periods. Cleanii and maintenance work is doi when the store is quiet. Ti labour flexibility resembl the system accepted in ti oil industry, and othei where a too-rigid job demar ation system would pro' prohibitively expensive.
The cold store workers a anised by at least three or trade unions (Transport General Workers Union, keral and Municipal rkers Union, and the on of Shop Distributive Allied Workers). The Drd of good labour relais is enviable—which can dly be said of dock work. acreasingly, cold stores 'orientated to the distribu1 chain and to the servicing retail outlets. There is a tty constant flow of icle movements, to and n the cold stores; indeed, ie cold stores operate their fleet of refrigerated idles for delivery pur es. Often, specialist ser :s—cutting and packing, cessing, and freezing—are vided, technical services r and above simple stor. At peak periods, such at harvest time, any intertion of services would be musly costly to customer is as well as to the cold re operators.
he cold store industry has shroomed in recent years there are now over 100 apanies in membership of Federation. Collectively premises can hold over million tons of food. The ustry Is competitive not y between member firms the Federation but often in npetition with their own ;tomers. There is also the reasing threat of competifrom cold stores within EEC.
Aost of the goods stored processed arrive and are )atched by road, even those ids which are imported to tam n by sea, for very few d stores are now water or L connected.
:yen goods arriving in the . on board sea-going vessels not always sent to cold res from local ports. A idon cold store may handle xis which arrived at Southpton or Bristol; a Midlands d store may deal with xis arriving at the Port of -Won. It makes no differ :e to the cold store whether goods arrive in an insued or refrigerated vehicle in an insulated or refrig!id container upon a flat ry: the work of unloading I 'taking into store is the ne.
-fence, though it may conn port workers whether a consignment is removed from the hold of a ship and put into a vehicle or whether a container is lifted from a ship and put on to a lorry, the change has not transferred the dock work to the cold store. " It is a technological change which has eliminated part of the dock work. Sooner or later, this fact must be faced by contracting rather than extending the scheme."
No one yet knows whether dockers would be prepared to move their homes to work anywhere in the country but the probability is that very few really want work which is more than a few miles from their traditional workplace. The consultative document hinted that the definition of port transport work and the geographical limits within which such work will be subject to the National Dock Labour Board and will permit a variation as the demand arises.
The National Cold Store Federation fear that a variation of the scheme from time to time " so as to pursue particular traffic or activities which in the minds of a group of dock workers have become their proprietary right" would soon lead to demands for the scheme having to extend throughout the length and breadth of the United Kingdom. "Alternatively, if such demands are resisted then the very strife which the changes in the scheme seek to avoid will be generated by them."
With a nationwide scheme, the " leverage " which could be imposed by dockers In the ports would be enormously increased. Even a minor extension of the scheme, on the lines of the Bristow Report some years ago, would encourage traffic to move away from any cold store or other transport premises employing registered dock workers. A likely outcome would be that customers of Federation cold stores would construct or extend their own stores and—in the case of goods from European countries—such goods would remain in continental stores to be delivered direct to consumers in the UK by the refrigerated transport of foreign operators.