From International Socialism, No.54, January 1973, pp.5-7.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
(Part II: The Fight for Reform, will appear in IS 55, February 1973).
Although rarely in the headlines and even less frequently involved in strikes, the National Union of Seamen nevertheless remains an important union and one in which the history and experience of rank and file struggle has valuable lessons for other trade unionists.
It is a union that has had a Right wing leadership for more than fifty years, a rank and file movement that nevertheless several times came close to reforming it, and which was involved in perhaps the most crucial dispute in the whole six years of the last Labour Government.
First formed in 1887 as the National Amalgamated Sailors and Firemen’s Union, the National Union of Seamen (NUS) fought a number of tremendous battles in its early years.
From the start, the shipowners were determined to destroy it and when they established their own Federation in 1890 – described by their biographer as ‘a fighting machine to counter the strike weapon’  – took the word Nemesis (the goddess of revenge) as their telegraphic address. They retained three ships that housed blackleg labour and were rushed to any strike situation. These remained until the strikes of 1911 and 1912 and in that year at Cardiff: ‘the seamen claimed one of their major successes against the Federation when their organiser, the redoubtable Captain Tupper, infiltrated a union sympathiser on board the Lady Jocelyn as cook and did not forget to arm him with “certain substances” from a chemist’s shop; the crew and blacklegs were duly laid low!’ 
In 1917, however, three years after the start of the first World War, the conditions of that time produced agreement between the union and shipowners; recognition was conceded and a national conciliation Maritime Board established. Thereafter Havelock Wilson – the union’s first president – abandoned any trade union militancy and began a long history of collaboration, the methods of which still influence the union today. In 1925, for instance, against a background of general trade union resistance to wage cuts that finally culminated in the General Strike, Wilson met the employers and voluntarily offered a wage cut. According to a verbatim report of the meeting, Wilson said:
‘... we have come to say to you this morning we will give up the one pound at once ... without any argument, without any alarming statements about what is going to happen and so on ... we are doing the manly thing ... It is better for us to suggest a reduction (and when I say this is what we suggest, I want you to understand that this is our offer) and we advise you strongly to accept it. Well, that is the position. So we offer you the one pound.’
And then he went on:
‘I am safely fixed up in a place called St. George’s Hall (the union office – RR). What does it matter to me if a fellow on a ship is cursing me and saying that I ought to be shot?’ 
During the unofficial strike that followed this betrayal Wilson openly urged the victimisation of militants and followed this up by refusing to support the 1926 General Strike.
In 1927 he dissaffiliated his union from the Labour Party and financed the setting up of breakaway ‘Company Unions’ in the coalfields in competition with the Miners’ Union. Eventually the NUS was expelled from the TUC and only re-admitted after Wilson’s death in 1929.
Yet still the union maintained most of its worst traditions and when unofficial strikes broke out in 1947 and 1955 they were again smashed. This seemed the inevitable fate for any strike, but in 1960 the situation was dramatically changed.
Beginning in Liverpool two massive unofficial strikes swept the country and spread to most of the major ports. The shipowners were horrified and, at the initiative of Cunard, one of the strike leaders was jailed for six months. A number of other militants were also given prison sentences.
In one case the presiding magistrate was a local NUS official. The strikers main demands were for an eight hour day, decent wages and the right to have shipboard representatives. Although none of these was achieved the strikes had a powerful effect on the rank and file. So much so that even when they ended without success thousands of seamen decided to carry on the struggle.
They did so through the National Seamen’s Reform Movement (NSRM). This had first been set up during the strikes but was later developed to demand additionally the democratic reform of the union and the abolition of the notorious 1894 Merchant Shipping Acts. These laws curbed the right to strike and gave almost unlimited powers to ship captains.
The NSRM enrolled thousands of rank and file seamen in membership and regularly produced its own paper, The Foc’sle. This featured articles on the union rule book, the history of seamen’s struggles, news from the ports, letters and how the fight for NSRM demands should continue. Meetings were held round the country and NSRM organisers elected on over a 100 ships. It also ran schools for militants and even had its own education officer. When the then NUS general secretary retired in 1960, the NSRM threw itself into the election for a new one.
The post of secretary is the only elected full-time position in the union and the successful candidate is installed for life. All other officials are appointed.
The NSRM decided to support Jim Scott, the Assistant General Secretary. Scott realised the need to try to improve the relationship between the bureaucracy and its members, but he had no intention of making any real concessions to the NSRM. Indeed, despite the fact that they had supported him, he was determined to destroy the NSRM. Once he became General Secretary, he denounced it and then supported the victimisation of some of its leading members. When one of them was blacklisted by the employers, Scott refused to intervene and said: ‘It would be quite a simple matter for me to pick up the ‘phone and say, “Here, let this fellow back”, but I have to look after this union.’  But suddenly, after only a year in office and with the NSRM still in existence, Scott died and another General Secretary was needed. The NSRM learned from its previous mistake and nominated Jim Slater, a rank and file seaman, instead of some false-progressive full-time official.
The subsequent election was a disgrace. Increasingly worried by the growing strength of the NSRM, the right wing stopped at nothing in a desperate bid to retain power.
For six months before the election they smeared their opponents. Bill Hogarth, the right wing nominee and acting General Secretary, took over the union journal and used it to condemn Slater.
Hogarth finally won the election but only because of a rule that allowed some 2,000 retired members to have each four votes. The Foc’sle felt compelled to say:
‘It was possible that more seamen voted for Slater than voted for Hogarth.’ 
Despite this, however, the election had serious repercussions on the future of the NSRM.
Disappointed at the failure of its own candidate and hit by financial difficulties, the movement dissolved itself in the autumn of 1962. By this time some of its leading members had been elected to the Union’s Executive Council and the earlier militancy of the rank and file had begun to subside. But still the right wing was worried. The deep rift that existed between themselves and the membership remained and the dangers of yet another mass rank and file revolt were ever present. Anxious to avoid this and recognising the need for change, Hogarth decided to make a series of tactical concessions. In the years that followed the union’s wages and conditions policy became verbally more militant, the long history of opposition to shipboard representatives was reversed and the expelled leaders of the now defunct NSRM re-admitted back into the union.
Throughout this period those left wingers elected to the Executive attempted to reform the union from above without also developing the active pressure of a rank and file movement from below.
As a result they themselves became partially out of touch.
In 1965 a new wave of unofficial strikes broke out after the union had negotiated an extension to the hours of the working week. It was the struggle to change this agreement and the accompanying re-birth of rank and file militancy that was responsible for the claim that led to the 1966 strike.
Although Hogarth was opposed to a strike he was reluctantly forced to support it by the anger of the rank and file and the threats of a possible breakaway union or loss of membership. An unsuccessful attempt to form a new union had been tried in 1947, and in 1962 the Glasgow tugmen had all resigned and joined the Transport and General Worker’s Union. Hogarth [Part of the text is missing here] internal pressure to call a strike, and confident that it could quickly be resolved.
In February 1966 the union met the shipping companies and demanded an immediate 40 hour week at sea (as compared to the existing 56 hours) without loss of pay and a 62½ pence a month pay increase. Despite their enormous wealth the employers refusal and only offered a three year agreement with a staged reduction to the 40 hours by 1968 and no pay rise at all. On top of this they demanded that the union agree not to submit another claim until 1969 and accept a cut in the number of paid leave days from 51 a year to only 36.
The offer was rejected and the strike started on May 16th. It lasted six weeks but, because of the way in which it was conducted by the union leadership, only involved about a third of the membership at its maximum.
After ten days of dispute the Labour Government established a Court of Inquiry under the Chairmanship of Lord Pearson, which decided that
‘... the (Union) Executive Council were not justified in using the strike weapon ...’ 
‘The owners’ side stood firm on their last offer. In our view this was ... not an unreasonable attitude, because they had already made and offered so much, and also they had to bear in mind the national interest.’ 
However, the Court did decide that the 40 hour week should not be reduced as proposed by the employers.
The decision to accept these marginal improvements and end the strike was taken 2½ weeks later and carried by 29-16. The 29 included all 12 of the full-time officials who sat on the Executive. The 16 consisted entirely of sea-going Executive members, most of them from deep sea ports. 
The role of the Labour Government in this dispute was crucial and it is clear that Hogarth completely underestimated this as well as the determination of his own membership to fight. The Labour Government saw the strike, in Harold Wilsons’ words, as ‘a test of Government determination to preserve the criteria we had laid down for incomes policy.’ 
This had already been spelt out earlier in the year by The Economist:
‘The only way to achieve an incomes policy in 1966 is going to be by outfacing the trade unions on some big national wage struggle.’ 
When Labour fought the seamen, introduced the Emergency Powers laws and condemned the strike, the Financial Editor of The Guardian reported that:
‘The Central Bankers thoroughly approve the Governments stand against the seamen. They have always urged Mr Wilson to have a showdown with the unions and indeed this has been the major condition of all the various support operations.’ 
Wilson readily took the bankers’ advice and when his Court of Inquiry failed to end the strike immediately, decided to intervene personally. He did so in a way that later led his former Cabinet colleague Lord Wigg to write:
‘Wilson’s conduct reached a high water mark ... Single handed he smashed a strike.’
On the 20th of June 1966 Wilson rose to a packed House of Commons and condemned the strike as wrecking the nation. He then went on to complain that a ‘tightly knit group of politically motivated men’ were conspiring to prevent a settlement of the dispute and that this was because:
‘Some of them are saying very blatantly that they are more concerned now with harming the nation than with getting the justice that we all want to see.’ 
This witch-hunt was deliberately created to weaken the strike. To an unfortunate extent it succeeded. But the Labour Government was not the only additional enemy that the seamen had to face.
The TUC was also opposed to them. One astute appointment to the Pearson Court of Inquiry had been that of Joe O’Hagan, that year’s Chairman of the TUC’s Finance and General Purposes Committee. When the seamen rejected the Court’s proposals and went to the TUC for help, Joe O’Hagan was in the chair of the meeting. When the seamen’s delegation protested and asked for an independent chairman the TUC over-ruled them.  But worse was to come. According to Harold Wilson:
‘Mr. Woodcock flew back from his holiday for the TUC meeting, where the seamen were shortly told that their trade union colleagues would not support them. The TUC would assist in negotiations, but otherwise would dissociate from their action and give them no help. The NUS briefly withdrew and came back to report a refusal to consider any compromise. TUC and transport leaders immediately moved to inform the international trade union movement and the International Transport Workers Federation to which the NUS had appealed, that the TUC were not supporting the seamen.’ 
Eventually, of course, the strike was defeated. The combination of Hogarth’s leadership, shipowners, the Labour Government and TUC proved too much for the seamen. But even so the activity generated by the dispute and the increased involvement of members in the union’s affairs produced some important gains for the left wing. They won more seats on the union Executive and in the years that followed some of them – including Slater and some of the other early leaders of the NSRM – became full-time officials. Now, however, the right wing is firmly back in control and for the second time in its history the union has been suspended from the TUC.
At the last conference held in May 1972 a new wages agreement – which still leaves British seamen the third lowest paid in Europe – was accepted after Hogarth had attacked the suggestion of a strike. He said:
‘Do we want to bring ourselves down, as I say the miners did, to the gutter to hold the whole country to ransom. I will be the last to take that action. I would rather resign first.’ 
This conference also agreed that the union should register under the Industrial Relations Act and endorsed the actions of the Executive in making a joint request with the employers for a specially ‘approved’ closed shop from the National Industrial Relations Court.
The reasons for the consolidation of right wing power in the union, for the defeat of the left and the struggle for reform will be the concern of the second part of this article.
1. Powell, L.H., The Shipping Federation, p.5.
2. Wilson, David, The Dockers, p.39.
3. Cited in Hardy, George, Those Stormy Years, p.175.
4. National Union of Seamen, Report of the Proceedings at the Sixty Ninth Annual General Meeting, 1961, p.230.
5. The Foc’sle, Sept-Oct. 1962.
6. First Report of the Court of Enquiry into certain matters concerning the Shipping Industry, June 1966. Cmd.3025, p.16.
7. Ibid., p.l6.
8. Blackburn, Robin, and Cockburn, Alexander, The Incompatibles: Trade Union Militancy and the Consensus, Penguin Special, 1967, p.184.
9. Wilson, Harold, The Labour Government, 1964-1970, p.227.
10. The Economist, 15 Jan. 1966.
11. The Guardian, 13 Jun. 1966.
12. The Incompatibles, op. cit., p.190.
13. Prescott, J., Not Wanted On Voyage, p.3.
14. Wilson, Harold, op. cit., p.234.
15. Morning Star, 5 May 1972.
Last updated on 12.1.2008