Britain's port employers are stepping up their campaign against the 40-year- old Dock Labor Scheme that protects the jobs of dockworkers employed at some of the country's older ports.
But as cracks start to appear in the scheme, so dockers are preparing to fight back with action that could bring British ports to a standstill.A conference in London on Tuesday is expected to give a clearer indication of the intentions of both sides.
The Center for Policy Studies, the ruling Conservative Party's think tank, is organizing the conference on the future of the Dock Labor Scheme at which speakers are certain to call for its abolition.
But in the audience will be John Connolly, national secretary of the docks and waterways' group of the Transport and General Workers Union.
The TGWU is considering holding a ballot on whether or not to take industrial action and Mr. Connolly already has said he expects virtually 100 percent support for a national dock strike.
A mass meeting of dockworkers at the Port of Tilbury near London Thursday also suggested strong backing for strike action should any attempt be made to abolish the Dock Labor Scheme, according to a trade union spokesman. If a vote is held, dockers working at non-scheme ports such as Felixstowe and Dover would probably would asked to back colleagues employed at scheme ports, either through a stoppage or at least by not handling diverted cargoes.
The Dock Labor Scheme covers around 9,500 dockworkers employed at ports such as London, Liverpool and Southampton. A further 4,000 non-registered dockworkers are employed at ports that are not covered by the scheme.
The port authority is obliged to find jobs for registered dockers, whether or not there is sufficient work.
Port authorities claim that the cost of employing a larger than necessary work force prevents them from competing effectively with non-scheme ports in Britain and also with continental European ports that are mostly subsidized.
A booklet entitled "Clear the Decks" published by Member of Parliament David Davis late last year calculated that the average cost per metric ton of cargo handled at a British port was between $12 and $27, compared with $4.50 to $6.50 at Rotterdam or Antwerp.
Since the scheme has statutory backing, the law would have to be changed before the scheme could be scrapped. The prime minister, however, has been very quiet on this matter. Although the government has given tacit support to port employers, no mention of plans to repeal the scheme was made in the Queen's speech last November in which the government outlined its legislative program for the coming year.
The National Association of Port Employers, which claims the scheme has cost British industry more than $800 million, has been actively lobbying Members of Parliament, and NAPE chairman Ken Cooper revealed recently that at least 228 Conservative MPs are in favor of repealing the scheme.
Late last year one employer on the River Clyde in Glasgow refused to accept its allocation of registered dockworkers, while last week there were signs that employers in Liverpool were also unwilling to take on unwanted labor.
Since the Dock Labor Scheme is statutory, the port employers may be in breach of the law and both sides are waiting for the outcome of court action.
Port employers have been calling for a repeal of the scheme for many years and hope that speakers at next week's conference will finally persuade the government to change the law.