Friday, 23 November 2012

When Ardrossan was 'the key to the Clyde'

Exactly one-hundred years ago, Ardrossan was the centre of an action that was to impact not only on Scotland but the entire UK.

I’ve written before of my anger that the once-thriving port of Ardrossan was allowed to die, replaced by a yachting marina. My father was an Ardrossan Docker, so I declare an interest and readily admit my bias. In my opinion the ending of commercial operations at Ardrossan harbour – save for the Arran ferry – ripped the beating heart from the town.

I was the Councillor for Ardrossan North in the early 1990s, when a yachting marina was first proposed. I was the only Councillor who objected to the plan. At the time, I was told by those behind the marina that commercial shipping operations were a dying trade and that the transformation into a yachting facility would bring hundreds of jobs. I didn’t believe them.

Some 20 years later the essential equipment of a commercial port has been removed – meaning a return to such work is impossible – and only a handful of workers are employed to service the needs of the weekend sailors who moor their yachts at Ardrossan.

In 1912 the port of Ardrossan was growing – the previous 12 months had seen over 1-million tonnes of cargo shipped through the dock, with between 200 and 250 men employed to load and unload ships from all over the world. Exports from Ardrossan mainly consisted of coal, much of it mined at Stevenston. In addition, the coming of the railway brought more coal from Lanarkshire mines and passengers for steamers to Arran, Belfast, Dublin and Liverpool.

The early years of the 20th Century saw a rapid rise in membership of trade unions as workers sought to improve their wages and conditions. Initially, the Ardrossan Harbour Company had refused to even speak with representatives of the Scottish Union of Dock Labourers (SUDL), far less were they prepared to enter into negotiations.

However, in October 1912 the SUDL informed the Harbour Company that 20 coal-trimmers employed at Ardrossan were seeking an increase of one-quarter of a penny (a farthing) per shift. Coal-trimmers were Dock Labourers who entered the hold of a ship and, using shovels, evenly distributed the cargo of coal. A farthing extra a shift would have brought their pay into line with other coal-trimmers at ports on the Clyde.

Ardrossan Harbour Company refused to pay the extra money and the union indicated strike action would begin on October 29 1912. The very same night ‘scab’ labour from Glasgow was brought to Ardrossan to break the strike, suggesting the Harbour Company had been well prepared and was ‘up for a fight’. Documents from the time show that port owners saw the Ardrossan dispute as an opportunity to break the growing power of trade unions and once-again establish ‘free-labour ports’ where the bosses could hire and fire as they pleased, and could drive-down wages and conditions.

It quickly became clear that Ardrossan was to be the battle ground in the fight between capital and labour. Joseph Houghton, Secretary of the Scottish Union of Dock Labourers, coined the phrase that was to describe the dispute – he said Ardrossan was “the key to the Clyde”.

Although the initial issue involved just 20 coal-trimmers, all Dock Labourers and other workers at the port of Ardrossan took strike action from October 29. The strike was also strongly supported by the people of the town. One story, reported in the local and national press at the time, told of Ardrossan Dock workers and local people meeting a train bringing ‘scab’ labour from Glasgow. When the strike-breakers emerged from the Town Station onto Princes Street, they were attacked, beaten-up and put onto the next train back to Glasgow.

Eventually, as still happens in disputes between capital and labour, the police were brought-in on the side of the bosses. Officers were deployed along the railway line into Ardrossan to prevent local people from stoning ‘scab’ trains, while others protected strike-breakers at the Town Station and guarded the dock where the Glasgow men were billeted.

Despite these efforts, the total support of all Dock Labourers and Cranemen at Ardrossan, with sympathetic action by the Seaman’s Union, meant the port owners struggled to continue operations. The Scottish Union of Dock Labourers met the cost of strike pay for those who withdrew their labour, and also paid the fines of Dockers convicted of ‘breach of the peace’ and other offences in relation to the treatment meted-out to the imported ‘scab’ labour.

After ten-weeks of strike action, representatives of the Ardrossan Harbour Company agreed to meet with officials from the SUDL. After negotiations, a compromise was reached that saw coal-trimmers receive a farthing extra, but only when working night-shift. The concession on the side of the bosses was that they agreed to re-employ all workers who had taken strike action.

However, the real winners of the battle that became known as ‘the key to the Clyde’ was organised labour. Ardrossan Dockers, with the total support of their trade union, defeated the strength of port owners in their attempt to ‘de-unionise’ the Clyde.

Such was the national significance of the Ardrossan strike that leaders of organised labour in Britain, including trade unionists such as Ben Tillet and Tom Mann, travelled from London to address strikers and local people. Had the Dockers been defeated at Ardrossan, port owners around the coast of Great Britain would almost certainly have seized the opportunity to take on and defeat the unions.

In contrast, the successful strike at Ardrossan played a significant part in bringing together into one trade union Dock Labourers at all British ports. In 1922 the Transport & General Workers Union (TGWU) was formed, with Ardrossan strike-leader Joseph Houghton one of the original executive members.

Twenty-five years later, in 1947, the post-war Labour Government acceded to proposals from the TGWU and introduced the National Dock Labour Scheme, which ended ‘casual’ labour in the docks and, for the first time, introduced a guaranteed minimum weekly wage for Dockers.

The Scheme survived until 1989 when it was scrapped by the Tory Government led by Margaret Thatcher. Within ten years the commercial dock at Ardrossan was dead.

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A full account of the 1912/1913 Ardrossan dock strike is told in the booklet ‘Ardrossan – The Key to the Clyde’ (ISBN 1 897998 00 7), written by Saltcoats-man Billy Kenefick. Dr Kenefick is now Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Dundee.

1 comment:

  1. Well said Sir....I am in my late 60s and remember Ardrossan in its prime...in the mid 1869s i had to leave to seek employment and have never looked back...but its so sad to see the old place as a marina....what a joke indeed.....KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK!!
    Regards Jock.Bagnall.

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