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Newport Docks Dispute 1910

The centenary of the Tonypandy riots, the most famous explosion of class conflict during the Great Unrest, has rightly been the cause of much commemoration. However it was far from the only event of that year worth remembering.

Though little remarked upon, the dispute at Newport Docks in 1910 was hugely significant in the development of industrial relations and policing. The calculations a government makes when 'refereeing' between employers and employees changed dramatically, and the state has been on a collision course with workers' rights ever since.

The strike has been overshadowed by the disaster of 1909, and largely ignored in the history of working class struggle, possibly because workers were fighting for almost the opposite of the demands of the Cambrian Combine Strike. In the short term, the dockers were successful, but the lasting effects were far from positive.

On Wednesday 18th May 1910 Houlder Brothers and Company brought a Canadian steamer called 'Indian Transport' into Newport Docks to load 5,000 tons of goods. It was the largest cargo at the port at that point and destined for South America. Before the steamer arrived, Houlder Brothers informed workers that rather than the usual tonnage payment system, they would be paid a daily rate to load.

Unlike other major ports, stevedores in Newport were payed on a tonnage basis that gave regular gangs of dockers guaranteed work loading any cargo they started. On being told of the change in the payment system, members of the Dockers Union refused to load the ship.

When the ship arrived in Newport it was carrying so-called 'free labourers' from London. All 5000 dock workers in Newport stopped work to crowd the vessel. A delegation of dockers entered the ship and informed the imported workers that they were scabbing and offered to pay for them to go back home; this offer was refused.

When the blackleg labourers attempted to start work the crowd rushed the police line that had formed, threw the police into the dock and stopped work. The strike breakers were escorted by the massed ranks of dockers under the Union banner to Newport train station where their fares were paid and they returned to London.

Work did not resume on the docks the following day and all work had already been halted for King Edward VII's funeral on the Friday. Over the weekend the dispute was sent for arbitration, allowing work on other ships to resume. A rally was held in Cathays Park, Cardiff. Which was attended by thousands of workers from both towns, coming by train, foot and in a mass bicycle ride of over 80 dockers.

The workers were able to secure the solidarity of dock labourers in other ports in the Bristol Channel. As far as most exporters in the Newport Board of Trade were concerned, the tonnage system suited them perfectly well. The main criticism of rushed work leading to minor damage was hardly relevant to the loading of coal. The dockers themselves had their own reasons for opposing day wages, which was a system workers in other industries were clamouring for. In the words of one member of the Newport branch of the Dockers Union:
"The conditions of the dock workers at Newport are in no way ideal; they are capable of improvement. The tonnage system gives a greater security and regularity of employment than is obtainable under the day wage system. Under the tonnage system a man works a job from start to finish, but under the other system he is taken on from day to day and can only claim to be employed four or five hours, for which he received an average of 6d an hour... Judging by the effect of the day wage system on other ports the results will be disastrous for the workers and to householders and to tradesmen, because it will diminish the purchasing power of the labouring classes. The men fully realise, from report and practical experience that the conditions under the day rate will be worse than the tonnage basis." (South Wales Argus 18/5/1910)
It was acknowledged by all sides that the only result of blacklegs coming into Newport Docks would be serious violence. A large number of police were imported into the town and soldiers were held in reserve. Arbitration was agreed, somewhat contentiously. On the day work was set to resume the Shipping Federation informed the Home Office that Houlder Brothers would be bringing in un-unionised labour.

Newport's Watch Committee (in charge of policing) deciding it would be better to keep the peace than enforce the law, prevented a ship containing strike breakers from entering the dock:
"...the Newport Dock labourers are prepared to load the Indian Transport, this Committee are not prepared to provide the additional police protection which would be necessary if labour is imported, until commanded to do so by the Home office, and that any labourers proposing to come to Newport be warned that it is unsafe to do so in the existing circumstances" (South Wales Argus 25/5/1910)
The Home Office, in a desire to avoid an explosive confrontation, took responsibility for the local authorities actions and informed Houlder Brothers they would be held responsible for the 'grave consequences' of importing scab labour. In effect, the Newport Dockers had intimidated the government into backing them.

Houlder Brothers responded by demanding compensation from the local authority, as they were entitled to the protection of the state. The expensive consequences of this successful claim confirmed the legal right of employers to bring in strike breakers. Though the Newport Dockers were unbowed by a bullying employer, the lasting effect of their struggle was the commitment of the state to defend scabs.

Further Reading: "The Newport Dock Dispute" by T.C. Tobias in Law Quarterly Review 1910