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Handling Cargo

Industrial relations

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.

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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.


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