Dockers take share in business success: Martin Whitfield meets once militant dockers who are now entrepreneurs occasionally employing casual labour

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Indy Politics
TOMMY DOHERTY is embarrassed about his job title. A third generation docker, former shop steward and member of the national docks committee, Mr Doherty, 52, is now managing director of Newport Stevedores. He has difficulty in coming to terms with the transition.

Less than three years ago he was on a 'final, final' warning over his union activism and came within an inch of being sacked by Associated British Ports, his former employer. He now plays golf with the port director.

Mr Doherty heads a company employing 72 people with a turnover of more than pounds 1m a year.

The transformation of his work highlights the problems facing the TUC.

The dockers' history is one of the most colourful and militant of the trade union movement. Heroic struggles were waged against casual labour until the post-war Labour government created the National Dock Labour Scheme and gave the Transport and General Workers' Union an equal say in the running of the ports.

Strong discipline, a closed shop and a willingness to strike pushed dockers to the top of the wages league. Newport dockers could easily earn more than pounds 22,000 a year, well above the majority of manual workers in South Wales.

But new legislation to repeal the dock labour scheme in 1989, restrictions on the ability to strike and generous redundancy terms have taken their toll. More than 800 dockers and union members worked in Newport in the 1960s. Before the end of the scheme there were 180.

The final insult came last month. Associated British Ports withdrew recognition from all its unions, including the Transport and General Workers' Union. There was no opposition, no protests, no strikes.

For Newport Stevedores, a dispute would be pointless. All 72 employees are worker- shareholders in a co-operative venture of former dockers who refused to accept new terms and conditions imposed by Associated British Ports.

The men pooled their redundancy payments and now hire themselves back as freelance labour to their previous employer under a three-year contract. They also tout for other business in the best traditions of small companies.

'We are dependent on ABP to bring work into the port. Any of the benefits that come out of it, we can get something, whereas before we did not,' Mr Doherty said.

The co-operative guarantees a wage of pounds 156 a week, a fraction of the old pay rates. Even average pay, including bonus, profit related pay and dividends, is believed to be about pounds 7,000 a year less than before.

Mr Doherty said: 'Most of us would rather be employees working on the same conditions we had before 1989. But this is better than what we were offered and better than the dole.'

The co-operative has shown that it is prepared to take difficult decisions and defy tradition. On several occasions of peak demand, it has recruited casual labour - former dockers from a list of those willing to be hired for a day or two.

Mr Doherty's brother Albert, 57, who is the company secretary, said: 'Our father would be turning in his grave.'

The dockers were the last of the three traditionally highly-paid workers in South Wales to feel the impact of the Government's new industrial strategy.

Tommy Doherty said: 'We saw what happened to the steel workers and the miners. Having a history of militancy definitely ups the chances of getting a payoff from the Government. They have bought off the confrontation, without a doubt.'

All members of the co-operative remain in the union, but mainly through loyalty rather than the likelihood of immediate benefit. A dispute with ABP is impossible. A disagreement with clients would merely result in lost business.

Other stevedores would be happy to step in and move Newport's cargoes of timber, steel and tropical fruit.

Mr Doherty believes the TUC must change to recognise what has altered in the docks and other industries.

'The TUC should be ramming home the failures of the past 10 years. Where has all the manufacturing gone, where is the training and where are the skilled people of the future going to come from?' he said.

(Photograph omitted)

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