TOPICS OF THE DAY.
THE PROBLEMS OF DOCK LABOUR. THE Report of the Court of Inquiry, presided over by Lord Shaw, which examined the demands of the dockers and dock labour generally was published on Wednesday week. It is an extremely important document which raises many questions of vital concern to everybody. It by no means deals with matters which affect the dockers alone. It touches issues of economic principle which are bound to influence the movement of wages throughout the country and the cost of almost every article for which the consumer pays. We would therefore beg our readers not to put this subject aside as one which is necessarily tedious, • and in which they need not interest themselves. It is impossible to consider the work of the Court of Inquiry without at once comparing it with the Coal Com- mission. In the Coal Commission Mr. Justice Sankey, the Chairman, gave a casting vote which created the Majority Report of that Commission. Otherwise the members would have been equally divided. The dockers' Court of Inquiry consisted of nine members, and the Majority Report was signed by seven of them, including the Chair- man, Lord Shaw, and two of these seven were representatives of the employers. It must be added, however, that one of these two employers made a large reservation—he did not accept the principle of the minimum daily wage. The minority of two who refused to sign the Majority Report dissented on several matters, but primarily of course on this same question of the minimum wage. In many respects the proceedings of the Court were an enormous improve. ment on the Sankey Commission. The Sankey Commission made recommendations which, in spite of unending misunderstandings on the subject, were popularly supposed to be accepted in advance by the Government. The very fact that such enormous weight attached to the findings of the Commission should have caused it to be managed on particularly relevant and dignified lines. Yet, as we said at the time, the Commission was a scandal because it was a break with the whole British tradition—an extremely good tradition—as to the methodical, scientific, and judicial spirit of Commission work. Wild appeals were made to the gallery, and members of the Commission entered the arena and exchanged the Tele of the examiner for that of the advocate. The dockers' inquiry, on the other hand, was thoroughly judicial and methodical. Both sides were apparently trying to arrive at the truth, not to make a score on points ; and the mutual spirit of tolerance and respect was as noticeable as it was agreeable. The recom- mendations of the Dockers' Report, of course, bind nobody. The purpose of the Court was to discover facts, and to give them publicity. It is at this point that the public must take up its duty of making itself acquainted with those facts and of coming to a decision.
The chief recommendations of the Court are that a national minimum wage shall be established of 16s. a day for a forty-four-hours week ; that there shall be a system of registration for dock labour in all ports, docks, and harbours of the kingdom ; that the principle of the maintenance of unemployed casual labour be approved ; that dock wages shall be paid weekly and that Whitley principles be everywhere introduced for dock labour. The Report, in fact, grants all that Mr. Bevin, the dockers' very capable and eloquent representative, demanded. Mr. Bevin is certainly to be congratulated on his tremendous success. In many ways ho deserved it. He frequently conciliated his opponents by his fairness, his good temper, and by what may be called his sporting view of the whole problem. He was guilty of one or two lapses, notably when he said that when he was a boy he was driven by poverty to steal and that he was not ashamed to say so ; but on the whole it is only fair to say that Labour has never had a better champion in a Court of Inquiry. We ought to add here that the Court postponed its inquiry into the complicated question of overtime. A certain amount of evidence on the subject was given, but, the Court made no recommendations on Mr. Bevin'a demand that a minimum payment for overtime of four hours should be made at the rate of 3s. an hour, regardless of the length of time worked. If this proposal should ever be accepted, there would be a minimum payment for overtime of 12s., even if. the docker worked for only half -an-hour. It must be remembered, moreover, that in a great deal of dock work overtime is indispensable. In this respect dock labour resembles agricultural labour in that it is quite impossible to work on a fixed time-table. Think of the temptation there would be to dawdle over the last half-hour of the normal time-table, and earn the 12s. by prolonging the unloading of an already almost empty ship. To pro vide this temptation would be almost to put a premium on dishonesty. We cannot think that it is a sound principle at all to assess overtime at a very high rate in an industry in which overtime is generally unavoidable. Now let us try to look at the whole matter from the national point of view, which is virtually identical with the point of view of the consumer. It is true of all industries that an industry cannot pay more wages than the industry is worth. If wages are raised by statute, and the private firms or public institutions concerned are not making enough profits to pay these new wages in addition to all their customary obligations, the additional cost must fall in the case of a private firm on the consumer, or in the case of a public institution on the taxpayer or ratepayer. The real puzzle at the docks is how to increase efficiency—to persuade men to be better timekeepers, not to take so many days off, and to work harder when they are at work. At present there is a serious deterioration in efficiency. The evidence leaves no doubt about that. All that Mr. Bevin could say in gratitude for having his proposals accepted was that he would do his best to speed things up, but neither he nor the Court produced any definite scheme. We must hope that all will be well, but the basis on which we build hope is words. Mr. Bevin argued that the whole of the new wages could be paid out of the " profits of the shipowners," but, as Sir Lynden Macassey pointed out, the proportion of dock work done by dockers employed by shipowners is not more than 25 per cent. of the total. Nor was Mr. Bevin able to say anything in contradiction of the fact that for many years before the war shipowners made very small profits, and that it is only out of the reserves of profit made during the war that the losses in material can now be made good at the present high cost of construction. It is an absurd mistake to suppose that only shipowners employ dockers. Dockers are also employed by public port authorities, and by all kinds of wharfingers, warehousemen, and merchants. How would such institutions and persons as these pay the new bill ? They would of course simply pass it on to the consumer. A general rise in the cost of commodities would set us all once more trotting round the vicious circle. More wages would be demanded in every trade to meet the new cost of living, and nothing would have been gained by anybody. As Sir Alfred Booth very wisely and pertinently said : " I want the dockers to get better wages. They can only get them by more output and by raising the value of the pound." Evidence before the Court showed that in some docks the men will not work more than three or four days a week. Another practice is to linger over the work in order that overtime at a higher rate of pay may become necessary. Mr. Bevin made what was, so far as words go, quite a moving appeal on behalf of the dockers for more of the amenities of life. We regret to say, but we feel honestly bound to say, that the existence of a widespread demand for the amenities and arts of life among the dockers cannot be reconciled with the evidence given. The facts show that the average docker is content to earn a certain amount of money, and to knock off work when he has made that amount. He has no idea of earning the necessary margin for spending on books, or pictures, or music, or sight-seeing, or such things. Of course we are speaking only of the average man, not of the exceptions which are to be found in every occupation. It also ought in fairness to be said that the Dockers' Unions and the Transport Workers' Federation have not supported the practice of shirking or of bad timekeeping. he proposal of a national minimum daily wage of 16s. reminds one of the 121 per cent. increase which Mr. Churchill introduced in the munition factories. He originally granted that increase to the instructors of women in the factories, but, as we all know,' the increase rapidly extended through every trade. Mr. Churchill had thrown a stone into the pond :and the ring of water spread till it could go no further. If the proposed minimum wage of 16s. took effect, the dockers would rank not only above semi-skilled workers but above a great many skilled workers. Is it to be supposed that the semi-skilled and the skilled would quietly consent to be shoved back to a more rearward position in the great industrial order of precedence '? Human nature would not stand such a thing. If the Report were adopted, a docker would receive 2s. an hour ; but that is more than is now earned by a skilled joiner or a skilled fitter. Nor is it easy to see how a national minimum wage could justly be applied. Dock work is done not only in the great harbours and, ports but in nearly a thousand small ports, estuaries, and creeks. It was shown in evidence that if the 16s. a day minimum were granted, the increase would be only 3s. 9d. a week at Swansea, but would be £1 19s. 1004. a week at Troon. The coastal trade was very badly hit by the war, and a revival of this trade is one of the obvious means of reducing transport congestion. Imagine how little dock work would be increased at Troon—rather how much it would be decreased l—if this enormous increase were required by law. We have in our mind's eye a vision of the wharf and jetty labourers who are characteristic figures in certain East Anglian and Southern estuaries. They emerge from the inn when the sailing vessel comes in on the top of the tide. They are dressed in blue jumpers, " fear- nought " trousers, and sea boots. They have been waiting for the job, and when it is over. they will wait again. If any of these men were told that he would get 16s. a day by law he would be staggered. We have not been able to find a suitable word for the feelings of the employers, and yet it is on the enterprise of employers in this kind of work that the relief of transport congestion partly depends.
Finally we must say a few words about the maintenance of the unemployed labourers. Unemployed casual labour in the docks is a long-standing and a great evil. There are times when, owing to the conditions of the work, men simply cannot find work. Employers of dock labour have generally been able to draw in busy times upon reserves of the intermittently unemployed. But no self- respecting industry ought to be content with such a state of things. Unfortunately, though the Court of Inquiry asserted the principle of maintenance, it suggested no scheme for paying the unemployed docker. All schemes of decasualizing labour necessarily mean a certain restriction upon the liberty of the docker to choose his job. A system of registration—and of course maintenance of the unem- ployed docker cannot be conducted without registration— means that the man must go to the work wherever it is, for the work cannot be brought to the man. Sir Alfred Booth has worked for years at registration schemes. But the dockers themselves have frequently refused to accept these schemes just because they object to the necessary re- striction of their liberty of choice. In spite of this, we sincerely hope that it may be possible to work out a plan of maintenance.
Much praise has been bestowed upon this Report, but we cannot help expressing our own disappointment that, although the inquiry was admirably conducted, it seems to have ended in proposals which would set us once more running round the uneconomic circle like a squirrel in its cage.