Dock strikes brought a port to a stop. Indeed, a national dock
strike could force a whole country to a standstill, holding up
imports and preventing exports.
Dock workers gained a reputation for not keeping to rules. In
part, this can be understood from the way they worked. With casual
employment, they had no reason to be loyal to an employer. In turn,
the employers had little loyalty to the individual docker. There
were always plenty of other men available.
Another important factor was that anyone strong enough could do
dock work, although rarely as efficiently and safely as an
experienced stevedore or porter. The employees knew this. They
could always bring in unskilled workers from outside if the dock
labour force demanded better conditions or wages. To counter this,
dock workers formed strong trade unions. To improve their
bargaining powers, unions aimed to ensure that only their members
could work on the docks. Pacts with other unions strengthened their
position in the event of a strike. For instance, railwaymen would
not handle goods unloaded by non-unionised or `black` labour.
Fortunately, the era of damaging dock strikes seems to have
ended. In the 21st century, dock work is no longer
casual. Most dock workers have much the same security of employment
as other workers. Thanks to mechanisation and containerisation,
there are also many fewer working on the docks, so unions do not
have the power they once had. Changes in legislation affecting
trades unions have also made strikes less likely. A strike in one
port does not necessarily mean other dockers will come out `in
sympathy`. So ships can be diverted to other ports.