Tilbury dockers walked off the job this week in their first official strike action nearly 25 years
The 45 dockers, employed at the Enterprise Distribution Centre, were faced with the imposition of new contracts by their employer, the Port of London Authority (PLA) which would wipe out overtime earnings, cutting their pay by up to £2,500 a year.
At the moment, the dockers are employed on fixed shifts, and work overtime when required to deal with boats on arrival. The company want to alter their shifts, and only call them in when a boat arrives and requires unloading or loading.
This is the kind of hiring practice that dockers thought had ended with the 19th century, with dockers being available for hire, but only being paid at the bosses’ whim. It was precisely this kind of treatment that led to the massive dockers’ struggles that eventually led to the Dock Registered Labour Scheme, and led dockers from being at the bottom of the precarious labour pile at the end of the 19th century to being amongst the best-paid (and best-organised) groups of workers by the 1970s.
The employers hated the idea of paying dockers a reasonable wage. Tilbury and Felixstowe, now two of the biggest ports were deliberately developed to try and remove port work from the London Docks, seen as a centre of organised labour, to exploit cheap labour and undermine the terms and conditions won by registered dockers. This, fundamentally, was what the battles over containerisation were about in the 1970s, and was the issue that led to the jailing of the ‘Pentonville 5’.
The port owners have never come to terms with ‘their’ labour having minds of their own, and – despite shutting the Royal Group of Docks – have had to use every dirty trick going to try and maintain their rate of exploitation. The development of docks further and further down the Thames has in every case been marked by deterioration of standards. Purfleet and Dartford are eminent examples: where 25 years ago there used to be showers, canteens, and toilet facilities for dockers and lorry drivers, now we face pissing behind trailers, and a burger bar outside the dock gates.
In 1989, with the blessing of the Tory government, Tilbury sacked the leading shop stewards and went for an ‘open shop’ port. The names of some of those victimised stewards will be familiar to older readers of Counterfire – Micky Fenn, Eddie Prevost and Bob Light among them. Despite winning their cases at tribunals, most of them never again worked as dockers.
So it is wonderful to see, 23 years later, that same body of workers sticking their fingers up to the employer and saying, ‘Enough is enough’.
So far, they have only taken one day’s strike action, but they have received offers of support from their fellow dockers in Gothenburg and Zeebrugge, and if the employer does not see sense, the whole operation out of Enterprise could come grinding to a halt. Good on you!!
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