By Hugh Kay
HE LESSON of the London dock strike warns the whole of industrial Britain that the tendency to attribute all militancy to Communist subversion is concealing a number of deep seated causes of industrial unrest requiring immediate surgery.
Outstanding among these is a problem of communication. Tension between official trade union leadership and the rank and file is heightening, partly because the worker feels that a lot is being done over his head which he does not understand, while the official take the line of "he that hath ears to hear let him hear."
After days of searching enquiry, I came to the conclusion that the dock strike, despite the national press, was not Communist-inspired. Nor is Harry Wilcocks, chairman of the central strike committee, a pushover for Communists seeking a respectable front. Nor is his parish priest—who vouches for him and for many Catholic dockers who have closely supported him.
While Communist influence mounts to high danger point, for instance, in the A.E.U., it is at a low ebb in the London docks. This unofficial strike was organised by responsible shop stewards' committees, and was initiated in a sector where not one of the 22 shop stewards is a Party member or supporter.
Harry Wilcocks, a frequent Mass server, is their regular chairman. Even the central strike committee of a dozen or more counts only three Communists in its ranks, including the colourful Mr. Dash, and they are each answerable to a whole variety of other committees in which Communist influence does not predominate.
It came as a shock to the dockers when, last Friday week, they learned that the firm of Cohens' Strawboards were using unregistered labour for unloading, because for some months as many as 400 registered dockers have been lining up for fall-back pay, as there was no work for them.
The men in Wapping, for example, insist that they had never even heard of "listed" as opposed to "registered" labour until they were told that day that the Dock Labour Board had given permission to Cohens to employ their own staff on the waterway instead of registered dockers.
Shop stewards telephoned union headquarters, only to be told that the Labour Board had taken its decision, and that was that. It seems that little explanation was forthcoming. and prospects of clarification seemed remote.
The decision to strike was taken quickly. a fact which the general public finds hard to understand. Perhaps only a docker born into a variable and precarious livelihood can fully understand why in his world a threat to the registration system comes as a threat to life demanding instant counter-attack.
Harry Wilcocks did not ask me to justify the strike. He just asked for a reversal of middle class Catholic prejudice against militant trade unionists as such, and to recognise in this case the bewilderment of sincere men at the discovery of what they see as a dangerous loophole in the law, tied by the letter rather than by the spirit.
He rcfcred to the moderation and frankness of the West India Dock strike leader, Jimmy Coughlin, who openly admitted on Sunday that, after the strike was under way, it became clear beyond dispute that a section of the Dock Labour Scheme enables small users of dock labour to apply to the Board for permission to use their own staffs, even though there is unemployment among registered dockers.
How, then, could Catholics justify a continuance of the strike? Strikers put it to me in this way— and I make no comment:
1. LEGALITY: Permission under the section is not automatic. The Dock Labour Board must take the circumstances into account. How did they decide in this case? How far did Cohens' complaint that their registered labour had been "unsuitable" have a bearing? Could not this complaint have been covered by supplying alternative registered labour?
On what evidence was it decided that the registered men had worked badly? To what extent were the difficulties related to Cohens' adoption of bulk unloading and the con Continued on page 7