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The Docker's Problems (1944)

From the February 1944 issue of the Socialist Standard

Having witnessed the spectacle of millions of their fellows chasing the will o* the wisp of steady employment in the long years before the present war, to-day in 1944 the workers are performing miracles of constant, unremitting toil. Their numbers reduced by the calls of the armed forces, they are feeding the mammoth war machine of Britain and simultaneously providing the civilian population with at least that minimum of creature comforts necessary. Intriguing speculations are rife in the world of the industrial workers, contrasting tho pre-war scene with the present one. One vivid contrast is that which prevails in the great ports.

Before the war, in “normal” shipping circumstances, there was invariably enacted at the northern ports scenes of struggle for four to eight hours' work that had to be seen to be believed. The docker was then ironically termed a “casual” worker, and the fight for bread often became an actual physical reality. Unfortunate foremen, whose unenviable task it was to select the recipients of four hours' work were often injured, their hands bitten and their clothing torn in the wolfish scramble that took place. Favouritism and nepotism were the order of the day, and violent was the experience often of any who presumed to change the status quo. To-day “things” are changed. The Government, in the beginning of 1941, perceiving the vital need of a trained supply of dock labour, introduced various schemes that have in effect decasualised dock labour. A minority of the men, recognising dangerous anomalies in the official proposals, resisted the innovation. Albeit, the Ministry of War Transport had its way, and to-day in all great ports the Government directs the ebb and flow of labour. Viewed superficially, the weekly guarantee of sums ranging from 55s. to 82s. 6d. to dockers is an immense improvement on previous conditions. For months past, in the columns of the Glasgow dailies, officious magistrates and others have dilated oracularly on the “enormous" wages of the Glasgow dockers. Their effusions have been productive of acid comment among the men concerned. The docker's wage rate has remained unchanged since early in 1940, since when prices generally have risen. The docker to-day, in order to earn a wage that will provide him and his dependants with a working-class standard of comfort has to work many hours of overtime. And that, at a task unquestionably enervating and exhausting. The dockers imagine that most Labour magistrates—who are especially prone to criticism of the men—would quail at the prospect of one hour's work wrestling with bales and cases or pushing trucks, let alone 70 or 80 hours! For years deprived of steady employment, to-day subjected to disciplinary measures for absenting themselves from work.

For years, accustomed to scrambling for work, to-day. in some instances, scrambling in the opposite direction. Their natural industrial combativeness gelded by a combination of patriotism and bureaucratic efficiency, they have in a situation favourable to them as sellers of their commodity, labour-power, allowed their wage-rate to remain static since the first year of war. The Government selected as local administrators prominent members of the dockers' unions, some of them Communists and I.L.P.ers. As is usual, these individuals have “out-Heroded Herod”! The dockers to-day are afflicted with misgivings regarding post-war conditions. Under the plea of a "quick turn round ” of ships to expedite the war effort, they have seen the insidious "whittling away” of much of their T.U. rights and conditions. Conditions that were won after years of unceasing bloody struggle. They see, also, mechanisation taking place, speed-ups that will remain, that will displace large numbers of men in the years to come.

Mr. Bevin, with others, has reassured dockers of the continued existence of guaranteed wages in peace-time, but— they are sceptical. Like the vast majority of workers, the promises made by official spokesmen of projected changes in the post-war industrial set-up, leave dockers cold.

They have been lavishly praised for their fortitude during the period of the blitz, and mention has been made of the fact that their dockside homes have been the target of many bombs. Despite all this, they are profoundly aware of the odds against them in their day-to-day struggle. The end of hostilities will find dockers denuded of many defensive conditions, essential to them to—at best—maintain their conditions of existence. The confident prediction that can be made of general post-war industrial upheaval can be made emphatically of dock-land. Unemployment has driven men to the docks of a higher intellectual level than the old-time docker, and this factor will be felt. The remedy for the docker, like all others possessing nothing but the ability to work, is clear. Jealously guarding their existing T.U. privileges, recognising the essential limitations of their efforts to withstand the attacks of their masters, they must perceive that the private ownership of the machinery of producing wealth, including shipping, is the basic cause of their perpetual poverty and consequent struggle for miserable employment. The S.P.G.B. do not, as our opponents impugn, idly wait on the working class. The lie must be bludgeoned—that S.P.G.B.ers are dilletantes, and the efforts of the members in the actual arena of the industrial workshops is the irrefutable proof. The clerks, labourers, dockers, railwaymen, seamen, taxicabmen, waitresses, etc., that form the membership of the S.P.G.B., call upon their mates, wherever they may be, to examine our case carefully. Having done so, we are sure of their ultimate verdict. We have a great historical responsibility to carry, and we need the help of the working class of the world.

Tony Mulheron
(Mulheron was a dock worker in Glasgow.)


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