Monday, July 06, 2009

Walking Through a Dockers' Picket Line

Two months ago I wrote about my part in the abolition of the Dock Labour Scheme. Tonight, it was if the clock had been turned back 20 years, as I had to walk through a dockers' picket line to attend a dinner at the National Liberal Club marking the 20th anniversary of the Scheme's abolition. Members of UNITE had read about the dinner in my New Statesman diary last week and decided to turn out to give the 60 or so port employers and politicians the benefit of their views about what we did all those years ago.

To be fair, they were much better behaved than they were in 1989, when I received all sorts of threats from them - both verbal and physical. These were the very people who brought the Port of London to its knees in the 1960s and 1970s. Their love of restrictive practices such as 'ghosting'*, 'spelling' and 'welting', their adherence to a jobs for the boys culture, and their addiction to going on strike, often for no apparent reason, was the reason why great old ports like London, Liverpool, Tees, Southampton, Clyde, Forth and Bristol were all struggling to survive.

Since the repeal of the DLS all those ports have thrived and created tens of thousands of new jobs. As I have said, if I never achieve anything else in my life I am proud to have played a small part in helping this iniquitous piece of legislation to a well overdue and sorry end.

It was strange seeing a lot of people I hadn't seen in 20 years. My role was to host the evening's proceedings and introduce Norman Fowler, who had been Secretary of State for Employment at the time of the Scheme's repeal. It was also good to welcome three ex MPs to the dinner - Jacques Arnold, Nicholas Bennett and Patrick Nicholls - who had all played key roles in the campaign to end the Scheme.

British ports are thriving centres of enterprise and entrepreneurship. None of this would have happened if the Dock Labour Scheme had remained in place. And one mark of the repeal's success is that no one in Britain outside the remnants of the T&G would argue for its reinstatement. Even John Prescott, who was once the Scheme's greatest defender, must recognise that its abolition has transformed his local port of Hull. At least, I hope he would.

* Ghosting: allocating and paying dockers to do a job which couldn’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. 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 on full pay. There was nothing an employer could do about it. "Spelling" is the practice where gang members alternate,working for two hours then resting for two hours. So the employer was paying for double the labour force actually needed.

36 comments:

Anonymous said...

Out of interest could you give a bit of detail about what 'ghosting', 'spelling' and 'welting' are / were?

The Grim Reaper said...

I second the anonymous poster. Definitions please, Sir Iain!

The Grim Reaper said...

That's cleared that one up. Thanks, Mr D. ;-)

Yak40 said...

Port of London survived ? Dockland is condos and offices nowadays.

I had a smidgen of sympathy for the dockers of old, the labour system made them all day labourers in effect with no feeling of security and the like. Very antiquated.

Funniest thing I remember was a strike because the new fangled shipping containers made pilfering cargo near impossible so they demanded a pay rise in compensation - and kept a straight face while doing it!!

Lord King said...

Now all you have to do is sort out the similar problems at Heathrow!

PSJ said...

When not even wikipedia has "whelting" I agree that a definition is required. Like other posters, I'm also not sure where you got the idea that the Port of London is thriving.

But overall, I agree. Getting rid of this statutory racket, as Nigel Lawson described it in his memoirs, was great and I hope the next Conservative government has the cojones to tackle many similiar rackets and restrictive practices which still exist, from the BBC licence fee to restrictions on supermarkets' opening hours on Sunday.

labour for the few said...

we called our local council at 12 noon on friday regarding a very important matter the council are dealing with,and everybody had 'bobbed' off home.

the whole of the public sector need to know we will not pay for them any more.

to find a director(not md) of offcom on £450,000 is a true scandal.

Armchair said...

You have to wonder how the scheme ever came into being. Who approved it or did it just develop?

No doubt the deluded unions and the idiots that run them, would sing the schemes praises.

I remember the dockers striking/picketing at Poole over abolition.

Me and my friend told them to get stuffed when we crossed their picket line and ended up having a fight with them. Oh happy days

Son of Belial said...

Ghosting, welting and bobbing ... happy days! I'm reminded of the Old Spanish Practices in the hot metal days of Fleet St. Like Big Story Money: if an unusually big story broke the printers wouldn't let the paper carry it until an extra charge (say 50 pc) had been negotiated for all involved (or not involved, as the case may be).

Anonymous said...

As someone who was subject to the more than questionable attitute of `Dockers` who where in some cases ably assisted by members of the NDLB, the end of the Act was a blessing for all.Unless you have been present at a meeting with dockers representatives it is impossible to comprehend the arrogance ,abuse and blatantly obvious lies they would spout and knowingly having to accept it for the sake of keeping the port working.

Not all the dockers can be `tarred` with the same brush but their stewards where, in the main,
no more than little `Stalins` and inevitably the ` skivers`of the workforce

Unsworth said...

Grunwick anyone?

And what about 'British Leyland'?

Windsor Tripehound said...

Lord King said...
Now all you have to do is sort out the similar problems at Heathrow!


You have reminded me of a couple of new definitions of words that Jack Dee came up with on "Sorry I Haven't a Clue!" a few series ago.

Heathrow: a short definition of what an airport baggage handler does.

Luton Airport: a slightly longer definition of what an airport baggage handler does.

Uncle Albert said...

Yak40:
"Funniest thing I remember was a strike because the new fangled shipping containers made pilfering cargo near impossible so they demanded a pay rise in compensation - and kept a straight face while doing it!!"

Hmmm - can anybody think of any other circumstances recently in which the ending of a pilfering culture has led to demands of a large pay rise to compensate (and with a straight face)?

Windsor Tripehound said...

Another word redefinition that Jeremy Hardy (of all people) came up with yesterday.

Interred: The position in which Gordon Brown finds himself!

Chris Paul said...

Welting?

How about the boss class abuses like Ash Crofting?

Where you promise to come home and pay tax in exchange for ennoblement ... but you just don't bother ... though you passport through much of the money you save to Tory candidates and causes using UK interests that are, well, interesting; and non-UK entities that are essentially Lying Flying?

Salmondnet said...

Be fair though. It did give us the phrase "fell of the back of a lorry".

Windsor Tripehound said...

If you can hear a low rumbling sound, don't worry. It's just Chris Paul scraping the bottom of the barrel.

Bunny Smedley said...

Isn't it fascinating how the language of industrial action is now fading from general understanding?

My four-year old son is a great 'Thomas the Tank Engine' fan - meaning that, over the past few years, we've had to have talks about what an 'indignation meeting' means, and what a 'blackleg' is (was?) - just as well he's got an oldish mum with a fondness for Billy Bragg recordings!

J.Pugwash said...

"Since the repeal of the DLS all those ports have thrived and created tens of thousands of new jobs."

What planet are you on?

Go to any port nowadays, (Bootle) Liverpool - Im sure they would agree with you - NOT!

Any other ports that are operating, are full of Chinese containers, full of chinese crap. Take a trip to crew, and see the frienghtliner trains carrying "wank-Lee" containers (or other similar ethno-cheapo-crap). No so many 'Maersk' nowadays. Just sub-standard chinese toys for our kids to choke on.

Demetrius said...

In the Autumn of 1954, the Conservative Government had the chance to take on the dockers, I recall being on standby as a soldier to go the docks. It seems that the reason they chickened out was because disruption to tobacco imports would affect voters and curtail tax revenues.

trevorsden said...

Pugwash - dock management and containerisation has got nothing to do with cheap Chinese labour.

The East India Docks closed in 1967. The 'Port of London' still exists. I think these days the PLA manages the Thames - the 'ports' being run independently. There are many many, I hope thriving, 'ports of London' along the Thames - from Poplar to Canvey Island. It used to own and run Tilbury and turned it in to one of the first container ports. I believe it is now independent. The dock labour scheme nearly meant that Felixstowe (not in the scheme) tool ALL its business.

I presume that containerisation (which is - as I am sure Brown would emphasis - a global phenomenon) has meant fewer dock jobs than of old. But docks all over Britain have expanded their businesses.

Peter Thomas said...

Yes, in general abolition of the Dock Labour Scheme was a good thing; but perhaps now, you and your Conservative colleagues can concentrate on getting rid of the restrictive practices of the political class and also find ways to stop them pilfering and bobbing etc.

Stevo Bevo said...

Silly post there, Labour For The Few.

So you're so outraged by finding an OffCom director on £450K that you're proposing sacking all the nurses, teachers, policemen, soldiers, etc?

davidc said...

it is fashionable amongst 'right thinking' people to slag off (sorry) rupert murdoch but he took on the newspaper print unions when every other proprietor walked in fear of the 'father of the chapel'

anyone remember eddie shah who was subjected to all kinds of frankly raciest abuse for trying to open up the print?

Josh said...

"Any other ports that are operating, are full of Chinese containers, full of chinese crap."

If they're full of these containers, doesn't that mean the port is doing a good business?

Henry Wood said...

I agree with your article but having grown up in a North East shipping port there was another side to being a docker before they got themselves organised. They were all classed as casual labour and would wait in an outside area for the employers and their foremen to arrive, if any shipping had arrived overnight for loading/unloading. The foremen all seemed to have their favourites and a 'tally' would be handed to each of these men meaning they had a day's work. Very often the foreman would find himself with a few tallies remaining after he had picked his chosen ones. With a look of disdain he would toss these up in the air to the waiting crowd and smile at the ensuing scramble for work. I saw this with my own eyes and it was not an edifying sight.
Thank goodness those days are also long gone.

Steve said...

I guess all of those ghosters, welters and spellers (together with the 'sickie' brigade) would have been outraged about MP's expenses.

Lord King said...

Windsor Tripehound said...

"...Heathrow: a short definition of what an airport baggage handler does.

Luton Airport: a slightly longer definition of what an airport baggage handler does."

Not to mention Gatnick of course:-)

Yak40 said...

Like Big Story Money: if an unusually big story broke the printers wouldn't let the paper carry it until an extra charge (say 50 pc) had been negotiated for all involved

Or going on strike so there were no pictures at all, like they did right before the Soviets rolled into Prague in August 1968.

Coincidence ?

Davdi Walsh said...

As someone from Teesside and knowing the work going through the ports of Tees and Hartleppol, what evidence can you produce that this port was 'on its knees' ? That is uter tosh. I suspect the same could be said of Immigham and Southampton too.

Dick Emery's Cock said...

Bulls**t - this is as bad as Zanulab spin!

If you honestly believe this crap, then you have rose tinted specs.
(which the average reader of this gay-blog blog probably do wear!)

Baggins said...

Josh said...
"If they're full of these containers, doesn't that mean the port is doing a good business?"

Not necessarily so.. they maybe
full of illegal migrants.

Anonymous said...

Go up to Liverpool, see the docks these days, hardly any traffic and fancy fly-by-noght businesses keen to show off the new waterfront.

Lets not have this ZANUCON walk down memory lane. The "good ole days" of Thatch. Smash the workers.
Bad as this shite in Govt now.. anti-working class the lot of 'em.

Tom said...

The sad fact is that the abolition went too far - and the docks now are a cesspit of minimum wages and poor practice - as any mariner will tell you.

Not an improvement ....

It just seems to go from one extreme to another - with one set of halwits changing the rules to be diametrically opposed to those put in place by the previous lot.... regardless of the evidence of their own eyes and the balance sheets...

morons

Paul Halsall said...

Scabs remain scabs. Either the term upsets you or it doesn't.

Iain Dale said...

It doesn't.