Back to Labour Values index
Back to Dock Strike index
Back to article index


Before dealing with the trade union leaders' response to this challenge, we should look at the NIRC's judgements in the two episodes in the economic struggle where the Industrial Relations Act has been enforced - the railways pay claim and the container dispute in the docks. 

In the railways pay claim the Secretary of State for Employment exercised his right under the Act to apply to the NIRC first for a cooling-off period and then for a ballot of all railway workers over the pay offer. In both cases, the NIRC granted the Secretary of State's request. Indeed the Court argued that the Act did not give it the right to examine whether the Secretary's reasons for applying were valid or invalid. Their job was to carry out the law which Parliament had passed, not to extend or interpret that law by putting conditions on the Secretary of State not present in the Act. The Court of Appeal upheld the NIRC's judgement in granting Macmillan's request for a ballot. 

The container dispute was brought to the NIRC by haulage companies whose containers were being blacked by dockers at Liverpool and then Hull. The companies asked the NIRC for injunctions restraining the dockers because the blacking constituted an Unfair Industrial Practice under the Act - the companies were not party to the industrial dispute between the dockers and their employers over who should stuff and strip the containers, but their trade was being disrupted by it. The NIRC granted the injunctions and also gave the TGWU three weeks in Liverpool to get its shop stewards to obey the injunction (it looks as if a similar procedure will be adopted for Hull).

The NIRC's ruling on the rail ballot: (from Financial Times, 15.5.72)

"The unions have said that there can be no possible objection to working in accordance with the Rule Book. That is what it is for. Indeed they have submitted that directly or indirectly their members are contractually bound to do so ... Work to rule has a perfectly well-known meaning, namely give the rules a meaning which no reasonable man could give them and work to that ... Furthermore, underlying and implicit in the instructions of all three unions is a request to their members so to behave as to render the railways in large part unworkable. This is a breach of the fundamental obligation of every employee to behave fairly to his employer and to do a fair day's work."

The Appeal Court's judgment on the Rail Ballot: (from FT, 20.5.72)

Lord Denning: "The courts of this country are not subservient to anyone, save as to the law enacted by Parliament and laid down by the judges. If parliament gives great powers to a Minister this court must allow them to him ... It is only after action has been taken that the matter may be raised in parliament ... It was agreed that a man was not bound to do more for his employer than his contract required. He could withdraw his goodwill, but what he must not do was wilfully obstruct his employer in going about his business ... It is no answer for anyone to say 'I am only obeying the rule book' or 'I am not bound to do more than a 40-hour week.' That would be all very well if done in good faith without disruption of services. What makes it wrong is the object with which it is done. So here is wilful disruption which is a breach. I ask - is a man entitled to wages for his work when he, with others, is doing his best to make it useless? Surely not. Wages are to be paid for services rendered, not for producing deliberate chaos ... The issue is simply on a ballot ... To order a ballot does no harm to anyone. It is paid for by the taxpayer, and so far as infringing the rights of any person or property is concerned, the whole object of the ballot is to ensure the freedom of each man to express his own will. It puts the brake, of course, on the instructions by the union leaders ... But so far as the individual man is concerned, it ensures his freedom ... Here we are concerned with a ballot to ascertain the wishes of 170,000 men. The executive of the unions consist of 60 men ... The leaders were and are quite sure that the men are wholly in support of this industrial action. If so, there would seem to be no good reason why they should object to a ballot being held. I do not say the reasons [of the Secretary of State for applying for a ballot] are right, but they are such as a reasonable Minister might entertain ..."

NIRC on the blacking by dockers of container lorries (from FT, 19.5.72):

The attitude of the TGWU to the Hull docks dispute had been 'the negation of leadership'. Sir John Donaldson (President of the NIRC) said the union's argument had been that if it disciplined its shop stewards for not following union policy it would lose members to the rival "blue union". "In giving effect to these considerations they not only confuse the short with the long term, they also confuse popularity with leadership. Firm leadership will seldom achieve popularity, but it will achieve respect ... Every union has dissenters and they have a real contribution to make. But members who act in defiance of the union policy of obeying Court orders are a liability which the union could well be without." 

'Sir John then turned to the position of North Sea Ferries, the employers of the dockers who have been operating the blacking. Why, he asked, had the company taken no action? "The short answer is that, like the union, they are afraid to do so. In this they are not alone, for we know of no employer in a similar position who has taken any action ... The Industrial Relations Act did not only call for representative, responsible and effective trade unions. It called for the same qualities among employers ... Good, industrial relations does not mean a free-for- all in which the prizes go to the strong and the community goes to the wall. It means a relationship based on the observance of the law, respect for the rights of others and due regard for the general interests of the community." And the community, said Sir John, was not limited to employers and unions - still less to registered dock workers. "The community means us all."

(on blacking in Liverpool, from FT of 13.5.72):

"The nub of the union's case was that the union was not responsible for disobedience of court orders by its shop stewards if they were acting outside their authority from the union and despite its advice. The essence of the shop stewards position was that although chosen by the shop floor, he was the union's representative. 'Certainly their importance in union organisation cannot be doubted. Mr. Jones in fact stated on television that "we do not call on shop stewards to obey the union - they are the union"' ... The union's argument was that the Court's order was directed to the union and not the shop stewards; that the 'blacking' was not being undertaken on the union's behalf and did not therefore constitute a breach of the order - and that in any event the union was not accountable. 'If this was the law, the law would indeed be an ass. But it is not,' declared Sir John ... The action had been taken for the union's benefit ... It was significant that although various union officers had advised that court's orders should be obeyed and the 'blacking' discontinued, at no time had anyone said that it must cease - that action in such circumstances was contrary to union policy and unauthorised ... The president continued that Mr. Pain (Union's QC) had submitted that the union could do nothing to prevent the shop stewards continuing theIndustrial Relations Action ... and that any action to withdraw their credentials would only aggravate a worsening industrial situation ... 'But the voluntary principle and active participation by the membership are not an excuse for irresponsibility and lawlessness ... It is not for this court to tell the leaders of the union how to do their duty. But it is for us to point out where that duty lies.' ... It might well be right that withdrawal of the shop stewards' credentials would be damaging to industrial relations, and could lead to a strike and great damage to the economy. These dangers were obvious, but were short-term dangers and must be faced so that in the longer term we might have an orderly system of industrial relations of which we could ail be proud. 'This will take leadership and courage in full measure. Surely the union has both.'"