Dock strike could bring Britain to its knees

Britain's brand new dock strike - the second this summer - necessarily puts the economy of this island nation in jeopardy. As much as 75 percent of Britain's oversees trade passes through its ports, and a nationwide dock strike could bring the country to its knees in a matter of weeks.

The current dock strike erupted when dockworkers charged that the British Steel Corporation had used nonunion labor to berth a carrier bringing imported coke to the Hunterston terminal for delivery to the Ravenscraig steel works in Scotland.

Both the British Steel Corporation, which runs Ravenscraig, and the steel workers who operate both the plant and 90 percent of the BSC Hunterston terminal say no abuse of existing labor agreements was involved.

Although the area of disagreement is much narrower this time than in the last dispute, the implications of what of what is developing into a nationwide dock strike are profound.

As an industrialist put it, ''The miners' strike is something we can cope with. The only ones really hurting are the manufacturers supplying the coal industry, but a dock strike ... that affects the whole country.''

Many a striking miner who has sacrificed his annual summer vacation and has herded his family into communal soup kitchens would question the notion that only some manufacturers are really hurt by the miners' strike.

But statistics show that while the miners' strike has reduced British output this year, its effect has been relatively marginal, certainly not sufficient to blow the British economy off course.

The same is not true of the dock strike. The effects of last month's 11-day strike are still being felt. Some (STR)250 million ($327.5 million) of export and (STR)400 million ($524 million) of imports were held up in the blocked ports.

Overseas customers could have serious doubts about the dependability of British exporters if their goods are held up again so soon after the last stoppage.

World financial markets that gyrated wildly last month to the news of high US interest rates and the dock strike could again react nervously, assaulting the pound and causing mortgage rates to rise still further.

The Confederation of British Industry has dramatized the importance of an early settlement. The CBI says prolongation of the dock strike only accelerates the economic damage. A one-week dock strike, for instance, would seriously affect about 10 percent of the nation's businesses. But should it continue for a month, the stoppage would hurt as much as 75 percent of British businesses.

Although a dock strike closing all the nation's ports seemed a foregone conclusion, its outcome is less certain. There is speculation that some dockworkers are loathe to stop work so soon aagain, and that this strike may not stick as a result. Workers in some ports have yet to decide whether they will join the strike.

An agreement between dockers and the National Association of Port Employers officially ended the July strike. The peace formula was that local unions had to be consulted before nonregistered labor was called in to unload ships. But stranded truckers who had threatened to burn down the port of Dover and forced local dockers to capitulate had virtually sealed the fate of the strike before the negotiators got to sign their agreement. The government hopes this strike will be similarly short-lived.

The July strike had a clear industrial basis - the use of nonunion dockers - but the circumstances surrounding this latest stoppage are more politically motivated. Tugmen of the Transport and General Workers Union refused on grounds of solidarity with the miners to berth the carrier Ostia, so British Steel turned to a private company to moor the ship. That precipitated the row.

The transport union makes no secret about this strike being in support of the miners. The local Scottish dockers are saying they are out on strike because ''scab labor'' was used to moor the Ostia.

So even if the strike can be resolved fairly rapidly - and there will be enormous pressure to do so because of the economic price - many left-wing trade unionists are likely to keep the dispute alive, at least for another week.

The dock strike couldn't have come at a better moment for Arthur Scargill, leader of the striking miners. Mr. Scargill is appealing over the heads of the more hesitant officials of the Trades Union Congress, the umbrella organization for British trade unions, to rank-and-file trade unionists to support the miners' cause. The TUC's annual meeting is planned for Sept. 3-7 in Brighton.

The willingness of the dockers, the railwaymen, and the seamen to side with Scargill's National Union of Mineworkers by instructing their members not to cross miners' picket lines is a setback to the government, which is eager to isolate the miners.

This dock strike has to be seen against the turbulent background of the miners' strike, with its escalation of violence in the coal fields. Because of its political links to the miners' struggle, it has developed into a major test of strength between the government and the trade unions.

The dock strike increases pressure on the National Coal Board, backed by the government, to bring the miners' strike to an end, since that strike is serving as a catalyst for wider industrial disputes.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.