No more docker "jobs for life"

On April 6th, 1989, 40 years ago, the Employment Secretary, Norman Fowler, stood up in the House of Commons and announced that the government would introduce a bill to abolish the National Dock Labour Scheme (NDLS) which guaranteed jobs for life for over 9,000 dockworkers.

The National Dock Labour Board, which administered the scheme, had been established by the Atlee government in 1947. The local boards under it were made up of 50% dockworkers and 50% employers of same. Registered dockers laid off by any of the 150 firms bound by the scheme had to be taken on by another or be paid £25,000. The scheme was financed by a levy on employers. The government had promised dockers to introduce it if they ended an earlier strike.

Astonishingly it guaranteed them jobs for life. They could not be sacked, were paid way above the rates for non-scheme dockworkers, and their jobs went to their sons when they retired. Not surprisingly, 42 years later Norman Fowler described the scheme as “a total anachronism.” The 60 ports in the scheme had been losing trade to non-scheme and foreign ports because of the high costs the scheme imposed. Despite the eye-watering generosity of the scheme, its dockworkers were led by militants such as Communist Jack Dash, and were notoriously strike-prone.

Margaret Thatcher had already seen off a challenge from the miners, and the dockers were not confident of success. They went in strike in July, after the NDLS had been abolished, but returned to work in August. The strike was ineffective because the employers were now free to hire casual labour to replace the strikers. Liverpool dockers held out, but 500 of them were simply sacked.

The abolition of the NDLS should perhaps be seen against the background of increased container use, including refrigerated containers, dramatically reducing the dockers’ industrial muscle. The fact that compensation of up to £35,000 was offered to men laid off by the scheme’s abolition probably also weakened their resolve.

The NDLS illustrates the producer capture that takes place in centrally planned and directed industries. The ports were in effect run for the benefit of dockworkers, rather than for their contribution to the economy, and government had both enabled and connived in this. It was indeed an anachronism, but it took a bold government, sure of its authority, to end it.