February 2014        

Lessons of history

The 1966 seamen’s strike

Following the success of the ESB workers in their recent threatened industrial action, it is likely that workers in other industries will seek the restoration or improvement of their pay and conditions, having become aware that the campaign of “austerity” is being used to drive down pay rates for workers when employers and the cosy circle at the top continue to enrich themselves.
      Following years of “partnership,” the trade union leadership is made up of officials with a servile attitude towards employers and the state. An example from recent trade union history has many similarities to the situation today.
      In May 1966 the National Union of Seamen in England voted to go on strike for a forty-hour week at sea. This was the first official strike by the NUS since 1911. It threatened to break the Labour government’s incomes policy, and Harold Wilson alleged that the strike was led by “a tightly knit group of politically motivated men.” For NUS members it demonstrated that the union was now a proper, active union working for the members and not the ship-owners.
      The NUS was controlled by a general secretary, who was elected for life and who appointed all union officials. Despite the union’s strength, it had a history of compromise with owners. The laws governing merchant seamen were draconian. The Merchant Shipping Act gave total power to the owners. Refusal to obey a command could mean imprisonment, whether the ship was at sea or in port. Deserting a ship was a criminal offence. Consequently, striking was also a crime.
      Seamen had been excluded from the Trade Disputes Act (1906). They had to sign on ships and at the end of a voyage sign off. The captain made a report in the seaman’s discharge book on behaviour during the voyage: this could be VG (very good) or DR (decline to report). The discharge book had to be shown at the time of signing on the next ship, so a DR mark could severely restrict, or end, a career as a seafarer.
      The NUS had eighty thousand members in Britain and Ireland. By 1960 wages for seamen had fallen behind the average rate for land-based workers. Seamen were working a basic week of fifty-six hours at sea before becoming entitled to overtime.
      NUS members had been passing resolutions since the 1950s trying to get the basic week down to forty-four hours at sea. The union conference in May 1960 had agreed on a working week of forty-four hours and a pay increase.
      Early in July four seamen were logged for insolence for playing guitars on board the Carinthian, a ship in the Cunard line, while in port in Liverpool. On 6 July two hundred seamen walked off in protest.
      By 11 July the Times reported that the unofficial strike was six days old, was costing £100,000 a day, had fifteen ships tied up and 1,500 men out. The strikers sent delegates to other ports to spread the strike and to London to lobby Merseyside MPs.
      The strike now spread beyond Liverpool to ports throughout Britain and Ireland. The Liverpool Strike Committee was replaced by the National Seamen’s Reform Movement, with Patrick Neary from Waterford as chairman.
      On the 13th the Cunard company took out injunctions against Neary and William Edward Williams, another strike leader, restraining them from “inciting or persuading and from conspiring with one another or with others, and from doing any act or taking any steps to incite or persuade seamen in the employ of the Cunard Steamship Company Ltd to break their contracts of employment with them or to commit breaches of the Merchant Shipping Act (1894) whereby the company’s ships cannot proceed to sea or otherwise fulfil the contracts and purposes of the company.”
      In effect the company was using its property rights to block the strikers, in exactly the same way that property rights are used in Ireland to protect capital and restrict trade unions.
      Neary was sent to prison for breaking the injunction on 23 August. He was expelled from the NUS in 1961 and blacklisted, along with his sixteen-year-old son.
      This strike exposed the sham of bourgeois democracy. The ship-owners, with the assistance of the state, were able to deprive a trade unionist of his liberty, his livelihood and his right to free speech while they protected their property rights. The employers, with the assistance of the courts, attempted to crush this trade unionist and reduce him to a state of poverty for trying to improve working conditions.
      The position today for workers has not changed a great deal.

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