dockland unionism

The work that dockers did was dangerous, heavy and precarious. In the 1850s the average wage was about 4d per hour. As Henry Mayhew put it at the time 'Many of them, it was clear, came to the gate without the means of a day's meal, and being hired, were obliged to go on credit for the very food they worked upon'. The docks were the site of considerable unrest and became the focus for union organizers. There were strikes in 1871, 1872 and most famously in 1889 with the battle for the 'dockers' tanner'. That strike was led by John Burns and Ben Tillett. The next major dispute came in 1920. Then it was Ernest Bevin who argued the dockers' case. The unions continued to fight for decasualization. Industrial relations were tense. Through the 1960s and 1970s there was a growing gap between local organizers and national union leaders. Howie has commented:

The dockers lived in a world of their own, with their own traditions and their own loyalties, mainly local. Their sense of loyalty was similar to that of the mining communities. They would react instinctively as a body in defence of any one their fellows threatened by injustice.

The role of, and demand for, dockers was changing rapidly. The development of mechanical handling (especially through the use of pallets and forklift trucks, and of tanks for liquids) had began to be felt after the rebuilding of the docks following the damage of the Second World War. However, containerization put the final seal on the decline of London's docks. Containerization entailed deep berths, specialist quayside handling equipment and a substantial road and rail infrastructure and capacity. These were easier to install on new sites. Employers were also keen to make a break with the local militancy of docker organization. The result was the closure of docks in quick succession (St Katherine, London and the Surrey Docks for example, in 1968-1970) and the emergence of Tilbury, downriver, as one of the largest container ports in Europe. This had a devastating impact both on local life and the local economy.

Reference: Howie, Lord (1986) 'Dock labour history' in R. J. M. Carr (ed.) Docland, London: NELP/GLC.
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