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The 1966 seamen’s strike and the making of modern maritime trade unionism

Cover photo: Seafarers protest outside Downing Street on 13 May in the build-up to the strike. MARX MEMORIAL LIBRARY

TURNING THE TIDE The 1966 seamen’s strike and the making of modern maritime trade unionism A 50th anniversary publication

Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London NW1 1JD

A dispute worth remembering Foreword by RMT general secretary Mick Cash The 1966 seamen’s strike was an important chapter in Britain’s labour and political history. It was the first of a series of major disputes in the second half of last century that pitched trade unions into conflict both with employers and the government. These strikes catapulted unions onto newspaper front pages, brought down governments and ultimately ushered in an era of suffocating statutory restrictions on union activity. For the National Union of Seamen, however, the 1966 strike marked the rebirth of the union. Discarding its decades-long institutional dependency on the goodwill of shipowners, the NUS became a fundamentally more open, democratic and responsive organisation. These and other themes raised by the 1966 strike are still relevant today. The legal framework covering industrial action remains highly contentious. It’s no coincidence that the shackling of union rights, above all by the Thatcher Conservative government in the 1980s, has been accompanied ever since then by systematic attacks on the pay, conditions and rights of workers in Britain. That is why RMT campaigns for the scrapping of all anti-union laws. Looking at the causes, course and consequences of the strike in 1966, there are perhaps two key lessons: that unions must never become distanced from their members and, secondly, that legitimate trade union activity must never be criminalised. Otherwise grievances accumulate, only to cause even worse longer-term problems. In the RMT we know only too well that, to be effective in today’s hostile political and Turning The Tide  1

industrial environment, unions must be well organised and member-led. The 1966 strike saw the NUS shift decisively in that direction, a move that was consolidated by the 1990 merger that established RMT. Fifty years on from that historic dispute, it’s worth reminding ourselves of these crucial lessons – as well as celebrating the courage, solidarity and steadfastness of all those who took part in the strike. May 2016

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The NUS before 1966: Growing discontent as the union drifts away from its members The National Union of Seamen had a stormy history before the momentous strike in 1966 that shook Britain’s political and industrial foundations. There had already been several short-lived attempts to form a union for merchant seafarers before the National Amalgamated Sailors’ & Firemen’s Union was founded in 1887. The instigator was 28-year-old Sunderland-born seafarer Havelock Wilson, who went on to lead the union until his death in 1929. Wilson is a controversial figure in the annals of the labour movement.

Havelock Wilson (seated third from left) at London’s West India Docks with fellow union leaders following the 1911 seamen’s strike. WIKICOMMONS Turning The Tide  3

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Strikers in Liverpool in 1911.  TUC LIBRARY COLLECTIONS

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He had the vision to see the clear need for a trade union for seafarers. As well as harsh employment practices, they faced extremely dangerous working conditions. Samuel Plimsoll, the reforming Liberal MP and campaigner for safety at sea, was therefore an obvious choice to be the union’s president. But the task of creating a union for seafarers – dispersed and isolated around the world – remained a difficult one. The Daily Telegraph was not alone in gleefully predicting the project ‘must come to nothing’. The fledgling union achieved political successes in securing amendments to some safety legislation. But the shipowners were determined to break the union. They set up the Shipping Federation in an attempt to impose a non-union closed shop in the industry. There was a rash of strikes, and Wilson himself was jailed for six weeks in 1891 for ‘unlawful assembly and riot’. The showdown came in 1911, when a six-week national seamen’s strike won recognition from the shipowners and forced them to drop the Shipping Federation’s anti-union pledge. Within a few years national wage rates were secured and a union closed shop – requiring union membership to get a job at sea – was enforced. But with these victories achieved, Havelock Wilson changed. Gone was the former agitator and strike-leader. In came a man who saw his role as prioritising the shipowners’ commercial interests. Any opposition was vilified and silenced. But unrest grew among seafarers and there were strikes in 1925 when Wilson agreed a pay cut. In the following year the NUS fell out with the rest of the trade union movement when, alone among unions, it refused to back the General Strike in support of striking miners. Worse still, the NUS backed a breakaway ‘scab’ union in Nottinghamshire – and was duly expelled from the Trades Union Congress for doing so. The union returned to the TUC fold in 1930, a year after Wilson’s death. But the world economic slump hit the shipping industry hard and there were several unofficial stoppages after wages were slashed by a quarter in 1932. Wilson’s legacy lived on in the NUS, especially in its ‘top-down’ attitude to members and union democracy. Following the Second World War – which cost the lives of 29,000 merchant 6  Turning The Tide

seamen – there were more ‘wildcat’ strikes by disaffected union members. A national walk-out in 1947 saw three leading members of the strike committee jailed under the draconian 1894 Merchant Shipping Act. Trouble flared again in 1955 when striking crews demanded, among other things, the right to elect their own shipboard reps. The strike came to nothing. But it was an omen of things to come.

Memorial to Samuel Plimsoll, the union’s first president, on London’s Embankment. It was erected by the National Union of Seamen in 1929.  WIKICOMMONS Turning The Tide  7

An NUS handbill makes the case for 40 hours.  COLLECTIONS TUC LIBRARY 8  Turning The Tide

Build-up to the strike: ‘We want a 40-hour week’ The 1966 strike was in many ways an explosion of pent-up grievances that seafarers had with shipowners, with the strict laws they had to work under – and to some extent with their own union. Simmering discontent had been mounting over many years, especially with the Merchant Shipping Act, which effectively outlawed union representation at sea and made union activists the targets of criminal prosecution and blacklisting by shipowners. There was anger too at what was viewed as the NUS’s acquiescence with this state of affairs. The spark that lit the fuse was a walk-out by 200 crew members of the passenger liner Carinthia in Liverpool in July 1960 following the dismissal of a steward. The action spread to other ports and rumbled on throughout the summer. As in 1947 the strike leaders were jailed. This only stoked more fury against the way the Merchant Shipping Act allowed seafarers to be imprisoned for ‘desertion’ or ‘disobeying a lawful command’ if they went on strike. This time, however, the strikers organised themselves. They set up an internal pressure group in the NUS, the National Seamen’s Reform Movement. Many of its leading activists would later play a prominent role in the 1966 strike. The NSRM demanded changes to the shipboard disciplinary regime, as well as better pay, a shorter basic working week and the right to elect shipboard union reps. A 44-hour week came into force in 1961, but the clamour for 40 hours – which had become the norm for most workers ashore – became louder. Then in 1965 the NUS negotiated a new National Maritime Board agreement that gave seafarers a ‘consolidated’ 56-hour week, in which 16 hours of overtime at weekends were built into wages. Most members saw this as a step backward. There were also complaints over how masters Turning The Tide  9

A protest outside the 1960 TUC congress in Douglas by supporters of the National Seamen’s Reform Movement. MARX MEMORIAL LIBRARY were enforcing the new agreement and making crew members work even longer hours. In January 1966 the NUS executive council, which now contained members of the NSRM, agreed to instruct negotiators to secure a cut in the working week from 56 to 40 hours and a pay rate of £60 a month for an able seaman. The demands were put to shipowners on the National Maritime Board, along with a strike ultimatum. The owners flatly rejected the claim and an official national strike – the first since 1911 – began on 16 May.

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Forty-seven days in 1966 that shook the country 16 May The NUS strike begins despite warnings from the Labour government that the union’s demands would breach its prices and incomes policy. This only allows movements in wages and prices of up to 3.5 per cent, and the union’s pay claim – centred on a 40-hour week and £60 a month for an able seaman – is valued at up to five times that amount. Prime minister Harold Wilson appears on television to warn that the strike decision ‘can only have grave consequences for our country’.

19 May Within a few days there are 410 ships idle and 11,885 NUS members on strike. Crews are walking off as soon as they reach a British port, and the union says the strike is solid. The pound has come under severe pressure and is being propped up by the sale of dollars from the Exchequer’s reserves.

23 May The government declares a State of Emergency, giving it powers to clear ports and cargoes and to use troops to do dock work. Not since the 1955 railwaymen’s strike has a state of emergency been called in an industrial dispute.

25 May The government sets up a Court of Inquiry under Lord Pearson, a former Lord Justice of Appeal. The inquiry is asked to come forward with proposals to end the dispute as quickly as possible. The number of ships tied up now stands at 558, with 16,132 members on the stones.

31 May By the end of the month 651 ships and 18,947 seafarers are now idle. £38 million have been wiped off Britain’s gold and foreign currency reserves in May – double the amount in April. Turning The Tide  11

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The NUS published a special weekly bulletin during the strike.

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Our case has not been treated on its merits. Social justice has been overridden by political expediency. The Pearson Court of Inquiry interim report has been used to give government blessing to the ship­owners’ case and save a highly discredited so‑called incomes policy. By a most controversial use of percentages, the public has been led to believe that the Court of Inquiry split the difference for the seaman, by giving him more than the shipowners offered. Extract from ‘Not Wanted on Voyage: The Seaman’s Reply’ 14  Turning The Tide

3 June In one of many signs that the strike is biting, the General Post Office appeals to the public not to post parcels to Ireland for the time being. There are also reports of food shortages and price increases.

5 June Led by the original banner of the National Amalgamated Sailors’ & Firemen’s Union, thousands of seafarers, families and supporters march through central London for a rally in Trafalgar Square. Second World War veterans proudly wear their medals. Strike leaders address the throng from the plinth of Nelson’s Column. Behind them are Red Ensigns of the merchant navy and a banner proclaiming ‘NUS 40! 40! 40!’.

7 June The NUS raises the stakes by appealing to the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) to embargo all British-flag ships around the world. At the same time the TUC is asked to order a boycott of foreign vessels trading on the British coast. More than 800 ships are now affected by the strike and 23,377 members are taking action.

Picketing outside London’s Royal Albert Docks on 4 June.


8 June The NUS executive council rejects the Pearson’s proposal to phase-in a 40-hour week over two years – rather than the three years on the table from the shipowners. The union’s case is set out in a 24-page pamphlet, ‘Not wanted on Voyage: The Seaman’s Reply’. Paid for out of national union funds, it was produced by the NUS disputes committee in Hull and co-authored by a member of staff at Hull University and ex-ship’s steward and future Labour deputy prime minister John Prescott, then a student at the university. Thirty thousand copies are printed and sold, with proceeds going to the strike fund.

9 June The TUC rebuffs NUS approaches for other unions to give official support to the strike. Its leaders instead want the union to accept the Pearson Inquiry proposals. However, rank and file trade unionists all over Britain are giving industrial and financial help to the strikers.

13 June Three thousand dockers in Hull stop work in a dispute over cargo being boycotted by the strike. Dockers in London and Liverpool are also refusing to handle any ‘blacked’ cargo. The famous TT motorcycle races on the Isle of Man, which are due to take place over the next five days, have been postponed until the end of August.

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Strikers from the union’s Victoria & Albert Docks Branch lobby the NUS executive on 7 June.  MORNING STAR / PEOPLE’S PRESS PRINTING SOCIETY

Protesters on 5 June in London.  MARX MEMORIAL LIBRARY

TUC general secretary George Woodcock is lobbied by strikers outside TUC headquarters in London on 9 June.  MORNING STAR / PEOPLE’S PRESS PRINTING SOCIETY Turning The Tide  17

From issues of The Seaman in 1966.  RMT

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20 June In the House of Commons Harold Wilson denounces the union’s rejection of the Pearson recommendations, saying they are ‘realistic and responsible’. He goes on to accuse a ‘tightly knit group of politically motivated men’ of exercising too much influence on the NUS executive council. Meanwhile the ITF requests affiliated unions around the world to boycott British ships diverted to foreign ports. It also sets up a solidarity fund.

22 June It is difficult for us to appreciate the pressures which are being put on men [of the NUS Executive Council] I know to be realistic and responsible, not only in their executive capacity but in the highly organised strike committees in the ports by this tightly knit group of politically motivated men. Prime minister Harold Wilson, 20 June 1966

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In a blow to the NUS, the TUC, disappointed by the union’s rejection of the Pearson offer, formally decides not to extend the strike to sympathy action against non-British vessels in home ports. In London, striking seafarers descend on Parliament with banners and placards for a lobby of MPs to denounce the government’s wage restraint policy.

23 June The NUS executive council agrees a separate deal with ferry company Townsends that grants a 40-hour week. Union general secretary Bill Hogarth warns, however, that public sympathy for the strike might be wavering following the prime minister’s dramatic ‘politically motivated men’ allegation.

25 June The shipowners table new, more generous proposals and by 26 votes to 17 the NUS executive council agrees to return to the National Maritime Board for negotiations. These resume three days later – on the same day that there is another incendiary intervention by the prime minister …

28 June Harold Wilson goes further with his ‘red scare’ attacks on the NUS. Addressing the House of Commons he puts names to the ‘tightly knit group of politically motivated men’. The 10 are Communist Party organisers Bert Ramelson and Dennis Goodwin, the chairs of two key NUS disputes committees, Jack Coward (Liverpool) and Roger Woods (London), a prominent member of the union’s negotiating committee, Gordon Norris, and executive council members Jim Slater and Joe Kenny – neither of whom, Wilson concedes, is a Communist Party member; but they have been in ‘continual contact’ with the others. Also named are Harry Watson, president of the Lightermen’s Union, and London dockers’ leaders Jack Dash and Danny Lyons. The speech stirs controversy and outrage across the labour movement, not least because it shows that the police and security services have been prying into the lawful activities of trade unionists.

The prime minister’s accusations are quite unprovable and unfounded … Mr Kenny and Mr Slater leave this debate with absolutely clear sheets. Not a thing against them – not a thing. Not one accusation, except that they pressed their arguments with power and force. Michael Foot, Labour MP (and future party leader) speaking in the House of Commons on 28 June after Harold Wilson named the ‘politically motivated men’

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Seafarers marching on the Wales Miners’ Gala in Cardiff on 11 June.  MARX MEMORIAL LIBRARY Turning The Tide  23


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Strike-bound ships in London’s Royal Albert Dock.


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The rally in London’s Trafalgar Square on 5 June. 26  Turning The Tide


29 June The NUS executive agrees by 29 votes to 16 to accept a new offer from the shipowners. Along with a modest pay increase, the agreement will phase in the 40-hour week by July 1967 and give nine extra days of leave a year in exchange for manning concessions. The government insists its prices and incomes policy has not been breached, as the additional cost of the settlement will be paid for out of productivity gains.

30 June Despite a vocal group of members saying the union should have held out for its demands in full, the strike ends in orderly fashion at midnight, 47 days after its start and with 891 ships immobilised – 373 of them ocean-going, the rest coastal vessels and ferries. Some 26,000 NUS members are taking action – out of a total of 62,000. The cost to the union has been £500,000. The costs to the shipowners are incalculable. It is estimated that the country’s gold and currency reserves have been depleted by one-fifth as a result of the stoppage and the resulting run on the pound.

No-one took us seriously because no-one thought that this union meant what it said and was determined to get what it wanted. Now we have a new National Union of Seamen.

Jim Worthington, delegate at the 1967 NUS annual conference

The seamen’s struggle wiped out the despicable record of 55 years of their union’s collaboration with the shipping bosses, and laid a sound foundation for remoulding the NUS into a militant, progressive and democratic union. Liverpool seafarer and strike leader Jack Coward, one of Harold Wilson’s ‘politically motivated men’, in his pamphlet ‘We Want 40: the case for the seamen’ published by the Communist Party in 1966 Turning The Tide  27

Two of the ‘politically motivated men’ named by Harold Wilson were prominent executive council members of the NUS … JOE KENNY (1931-1982) first came to prominence in 1960 when he was jailed for leading 345 men off the Cunard liner Sylvania in Liverpool in the unofficial strike of that year. Blacklisted by the shipowners, he was elected to the NUS executive council in 1966. Though not a member of the Communist Party in 1966, he joined in 1968 and stood against Harold Wilson in his Huyton constituency in the 1970 general election. In 1979 he became an assistant national secretary of the NUS, but returned to his native Liverpool two years later as the full-time branch secretary.

Joe Kenny is lobbied by rank and file seafarers at Maritime House, the NUS’s headquarters in Clapham, south London.  MARX MEMORIAL LIBRARY

JIM SLATER (1923-1993), from South Shields, went to sea in 1940 and served throughout the Second World War. In 1960 he led the crew off the Corbrae when it docked at Blyth in the unofficial strike of that year. He was a founder member of the National Seamen’s Reform Movement and its leading figure in the North-East. The shipowners blacklisted him, but he rose through the ranks of the union as district secretary and executive council member. He became assistant national Jim Slater at an NUS executive council meeting. MARX MEMORIAL LIBRARY 28  Turning The Tide

secretary in 1970 and in 1974 was elected general secretary, serving until 1986, when he became the president of the union.

Another of the ‘politically motivated men’ was Hartlepool-born seafarer Gordon Norris … An activist in the National Seamen’s Reform Movement and a prominent strike leader in the London docks, Gordon Norris died in 2015, aged 87, but on the 40th anniversary of the 1966 strike he addressed RMT’s annual general meeting in Dublin in 2006. He gave delegates an interesting insight into the strike and the use of the state against the seamen during the dispute. Referring to the involvement of the secret services, he said it was evident from parts of the speech by prime minister Harold Wilson in Parliament on 28 June 1966 that the government had extensive knowledge about him and other key activists. This could only have come from government surveillance. After the dispute ended Gordon served on the NUS executive council before taking up employment on-shore, while always remaining active in the labour movement.

Gordon Norris addresses building workers on the Barbican construction site in London on 10 June.  MORNING STAR / PEOPLE’S PRESS PRINTING SOCIETY

Gordon Norris addressing the RMT AGM in 2006 and pictured at the time of the 1966 strike.  RMT

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Aftermath of the strike: Progress amid the storm clouds Set up by the government in response to the 1966 strike, the Pearson Court of Inquiry recommended major amendments to the 1894 Merchant Shipping Act, above all to its notorious disciplinary provisions. The changes come into force in 1970 and over subsequent years. Just as importantly, the strike sowed the seeds of the NUS’s own transformation. The dispute forged a new generation of activists and leaders. Indeed Jim Slater, one of the ‘politically motivated men’ accused by prime minister Harold Wilson, would be elected NUS general secretary in 1974. The centralised union built by Havelock Wilson and his successors didn’t collapse overnight. But a new culture of greater accountability and openness increasingly took hold. Important to this was the strengthening of the scheme piloted in 1965 for union ‘shipboard liaison representatives’, as well as the ending of the multiple voting system, under which members had up to four votes depending on length of membership. However, the reinvigorated NUS faced many dangers ahead. The 1970s and 1980s were turbulent years for industrial relations in Britain. Government interference in disputes and trade union activity, an issue that surfaced so explosively in the 1966 strike, became a feature of the political and industrial landscape for decades to come. Union rights, particularly the ability to take industrial action, were drastically curbed. And unions, including the NUS, became the target of legal attacks and financial sequestration for organising ‘unlawful’ strikes. 30  Turning The Tide

To make matters worse, the British shipping industry entered a period of steep decline. Successive governments sat back as shipowners switched ships to flags of convenience in order to cut costs and hire crews on lower wages. In 1975 there were 1,614 ships flying the Red Ensign. Ten years later there were just 465 – and the number continued to fall. The sad demise of the British fleet and the virtual elimination of foreign-going vessels with a British flag and crew ultimately called into question the survival of the NUS itself. In order to carry on its proud tradition of maritime trade unionism the NUS sought a merger with the National Union of Railwaymen. This took place in 1990, leading to the creation of RMT – a union that has renewed the fight to promote the interests of British seafarers and the industry they work in.

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Acknowledgements This publication has been written and compiled by Jim Jump for the RMT Communications Department, Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London NW1 1JD. Designed by Edition Periodicals. May 2016

Main sources and archives used: Seamen: a History of the National Union of Seamen by Arthur Marsh & Victoria Ryan, Malthouse Publishing, Oxford, 1989 Morning Star, 16 May–30 June 1966 RMT News, September 2006 ‘The 1966 Seamen’s Strike’ The Seaman, special editions nos. 1-7, 1966 The Seaman, September 1987, ‘100 years’ centenary supplement Marx Memorial Library & Workers’ School TUC Library Collection at London Metropolitan University

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The decline of the British and jobs sparked many disputes in the 1980s.


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Returning to work after the end of the strike. 34  Turning The Tide


“No-one took us seriously because no-one thought that this union meant what it said and was determined to get what it wanted. Now we have a new National Union of Seamen.� RMT, Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London NW1 1JD

Turning the Tide  

The 1966 seaman's strike and the making of modern maritime trade unionism.

Turning the Tide  

The 1966 seaman's strike and the making of modern maritime trade unionism.