Trade Union and Industry Forum: Related Events

The rise and fall of British shipbuilding from the 1870s

There were two main speakers at this meeting at the University of Westminster Marylebone Road campus: Dr Alastair J. Reid of Girton College, Cambridge, and Dr Stephen Mustchin of the Manchester Business School, University of Manchester.

Alastair Reid based his remarks on his book The Tide of Democracy. Shipyard Workers and Social Relations in Britain, 1870 to 1950, focussing in particular on the issue of the resilience of the skilled crafts throughout that period. Indeed, looking at a number of quantitative indicators suggested not just continuity but actual improvement in the position of skilled craftsmen in the British shipbuilding industry in this period.

For example, census data showed their share of the total sectoral workforce was around 62% in 1891, rising to 64% in 1921 and 65% in 1951. The same source also gave a rough idea of the number of adults to each juvenile which moved sharply in the skilled men’s favour, from four or five to one in the late nineteenth century to 12:1 in the case of the boilermakers and 7:1 in the case of the engineers by the second half of the twentieth century. Looking at their institutional position gave a similar picture. For example, the boilermakers’ society retained its dominant position in collective bargaining right up to and even through the introduction of welding and pre-fabrication in the 1950s; and the engineers were not far behind them. Meanwhile other weaker groups got stronger, most notably the ironfounders who eventually merged with the engineers in 1967, and the painters who eventually merged with the joiners in 1970 and the rest of the building trades the following year. This was reflected in the data for standard wage rates, which suggested that the other crafts were gradually catching up with the initially privileged position of the platers: the joiners by the 1880s, the engineers by the 1900s, and the painters by the 1920s.

Alastair suggested that this continuity and improvement in the position of skilled craftsmen was contrary to the expectation of most schools of thought in the field which tended to assume some sort of degrading through deskilling or rationalisation. But the skilled men in shipbuilding retained their technical knowledge, their manual dexterity and their control over their work despite the large scale of the typical firm and the increasing sophistication of its products. As the leader of the boilermakers, John Hill, put it in 1932 on the basis of his own experience:

Squad leaders are not only highly skilled craftsmen, but they have that other qualification of being capable organisers of squads. They take the whole care and responsibility from the management and staff very largely. It is simply a matter, when the job comes along, of the foreman saying to Mr So-and-So, ‘ Here you are; these are the plans of the job; get along with it’, and there is no need to look after them and watch them and see if they are doing it right, or to hurry them on with the job. The whole work is taken and managed so successfully that it is not so much the price as the skill and organisation of the squad that tells in the long run.

This high level of autonomy was closely linked to the industry’s surprisingly low levels of fixed capital investment in turn a result of its vulnerability, as a producer of large-scale capital goods, to the intensity of cyclical fluctuations in demand. There was therefore a general preference for low overheads and the flexibility of a highly-skilled labour force, sustained by regional labour markets external to the firm. Indeed, training and welfare were largely left in the hands of the craft unions themselves, while supervision at work was in the hands of the foremen and squad leaders, who knew the jobs and the men from their own experience and personal connections. Managements basically restricted themselves to winning contracts, designing vessels and building walls around their yards, but even then were not able to prevent large scale absenteeism and pilfering. On top of this, the scale and complexity of the typical product made such supervision as there was very difficult to carry out in practice. Outfitting work was sophisticated, highly varied, carried out in obscure locations and often sub-contracted out to other smaller firms. Even the initial hull-building work tended to radiate out from gaps in the half-completed structures rather than from plans in the offices. And the attempt to influence work-effort through payment by results was surprisingly ineffective: the outfitters largely resisted the introduction of piece rates; the hull workers swamped their initial piece rates with a plethora of bonuses and allowances for obstructed work; and as late as the 1960s two-thirds of shipyard workers interviewed on Tyneside said their job times were not even measured anyway.

So far it might have seemed as if the resilience of the skilled crafts in British shipbuilding was the result of barriers to ‘normal deskilling’ presented by exceptional circumstances, such as the intensity of cyclical fluctuations in demand or the increasing sophistication of the product. However, Alastair argued that his closer examination of key episodes of mechanisation had consistently revealed limits to the effectiveness of technological replacements for human skills. In the sphere of hull construction work, the hydraulic riveting machines introduced in the 1880s were too heavy to move around the building berth and also too powerful in their closing action for safe work on lighter plates: in the end their use was restricted to no more than 2.5% of the total riveting in the industry. Their successors, the pneumatic riveting machines introduced in the 1900s, were lighter and more mobile, so promised much, but were found to be too light in their closing action to ensure watertight hull plates: even their use was ultimately restricted to only about 25% of total riveting. In the sphere of outfitting work, the introduction of genuinely automated machinery into marine engineering was severely limited as it was only usable on really long runs of standardised products, mainly bicycle and munitions in the midlands and the south. In northern heavy engineering in general, highly skilled labour continued to account for over 60% of the workforce and the engineers’ union was repeatedly able to fight back at the local level against the apparent success of major employer lockouts (1897, 1922). In cases where new technology was able to raise productivity more significantly it still did not displace human skills, because both the firms and their customers constantly pursued ever higher quality in the end product. Thus, by displacing many hours of sheer physical labour, the new sawing and paint-mixing machines introduced into joinery and painting led, not to a displacement of skilled men, but to an increasingly elaborate and sophisticated finish inside British vessels. Even if it were still thought that there might have been any remaining potential of technology to displace skill, it was important to bear in mind that the expansion of the industry up to the First World War had been accompanied by a steady increase in the demand for skilled labour.

So at the very least we would need to be careful about making any assumption that technology was intrinsically deskilling: indeed in this study of British shipbuilding no such cases were found. Nor was it at all clear that the impact of the increasing division of labour had been as clear cut as is usually assumed. Considering what we might call the ‘vertical’ division of labour, which sliced the workforce from top to bottom, Alastair observed that his closer study had revealed that while this created new crafts with narrower ranges of activity, they still had the same levels of skill as before, especially as the products were getting more complex. Some interesting examples could be found in the separation of patternmakers from the other foundry workers, creating a new technical, almost white-collar occupation. Equally, out on the building berth, the platers were specialising themselves into template makers, beam benders and plate hangers, but found that this only enhanced their indispensability and high levels of piece-rate earnings. Meanwhile, what we might call the ‘horizontal’ division of labour, which sliced the workforce from side to side, did separate out higher and lower levels of skill, but was usually only attractive when an industry and its workforce were expanding rapidly, with the result that all of those previously regarded as skilled were moved up to the higher levels and new semi-skilled workers were recruited into the industry to deal with the less-skilled work. One key example of this was the shipwrights themselves, who had done a much wider range of work in the wooden industry of the early-nineteenth century, but a hundred years later were still found as a highly organised and highly technical group of workers involved in translating the paper plans into usable templates, keeping a highly expert eye on the process of shaping the hull, and finally undertaking the ultimately responsible task of launching the ship. Similarly, as mechanised woodworking equipment increased the ease of producing most of the necessary components, the joiners began to specialise in the more complex tasks of final assembly and finish.

Alastair concluded by arguing that our usual starting assumptions needed to be turned around. For his study of British shipbuilding showed that the progress of modern industry was not automatically accompanied by deskilling. It also suggested that the resilience of the skilled crafts, while demonstrating a marked continuity with the past and therefore properly speaking traditional, was not archaic: it was in fact a distinctive form of modernity. This could raise interesting questions to pursue in thinking about industrial efficiency and competitiveness today. On top of this, the peculiarities of management in shipbuilding, and possibly in the British craft sectors more widely, led to unusually independent organisations and attitudes among its skilled workers. In his book, The Tide of Democracy, he followed through some of the connections between this and the internal democratic arrangements of the industry’s main skilled union, as well as the attitudes of its leaders towards wider issues in labour politics. For a better understanding of the nature of its members’ workplace experience would surely throw considerable light on the well-known peculiarities of British craft unionism.

Stephen Mustchin based his remarks on a paper he had recently published in Historical Studies in Industrial Relations (2011) on a strike at Cammell Laird shipbuilders in 1984. This dispute resulted in the imprisonment of 37 union members and was the most significant to have taken place during the decline of shipbuilding in Britain in the 1980s. However, it had received relatively little attention from researchers, in part due to it coinciding with the 1984/5 miners’ strike. The action was a response to heavy redundancies across the shipbuilding industry and particularly at Cammell Laird, where the workforce had roughly halved in the previous year. It began in June 1984, escalated into occupations of work in progress in July, and was broken in the first week of October 1984, by which stage the remaining strikers were barricaded on board a gas accommodation rig under construction surrounded by barbed wire and police lines. A court injunction ordering them to leave was repeatedly ignored; consequently they were found in contempt of court, evicted from the site and imprisoned on one-month sentences.

Over the previous thirty years, the UK’s share of world shipbuilding had dropped from 23.1% to 2.6%, the highest fall in market share of any western European country, resulting in heavy job losses in most established shipbuilding centres. The Labour government’s Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Act 1977 saw the nationalization of all major British shipbuilding companies in the British Shipbuilders corporation. The nationalized shipbuilders were then re-privatized by the Conservative government under the British Shipbuilders Act 1983. British Shipbuilders announced, in July 1984, a £161 million loss for the previous year, mainly concentrated in the offshore-rig business, and between 1984 and 1986 twenty-eight shipbuilding facilities were privatized. Strike action against redundancies was relatively rare in this period; Govan and John Brown shipbuilders, both on the Clyde, underwent major job losses in the period without strikes. Other than Cammell Laird, the Robb Caledon, Scott-Lithgow, Swan Hunter and Yarrow shipyards witnessed the most prominent instances of strike action in this period. However, these strikes were largely unsuccessful and, in many cases, voluntary redundancy schemes were oversubscribed, undermining campaigns against job losses. The increasingly weak and divided Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions (CSEU) was unable to co-ordinate action on a broader scale as sectionalism, both within and between shipyards, made any sustained campaign against the government’s policies increasingly difficult. More broadly, the Cammell Laird strike took place against a background of declining levels of industrial action in the UK as a whole, and the virtual disappearance of workplace occupations. At the same time, mass policing, as at the Stockport Messenger plant at Warrington and throughout the miners’ strike, faced pickets in the most high-profile disputes. Employers were learning how to use the Employment Acts of 1980 and 1982; injunctions were becoming more common. But of the 93 injunctions granted during industrial disputes between January 1983 and April 1987, only 14 were cases where injunctions were ignored and the plaintiffs found to be in contempt of court, with fines and sequestration the punishment in all cases other than at Cammell Laird.

On 30 November 1983, negotiators from the Shipbuilding Negotiating Committee of the CSEU recorded a failure to agree with British Shipbuilders over proposals for privatization and widespread redundancies. A national strike was scheduled to begin on 6 January 1984, but the threat was withdrawn after talks in December 1983 between the CSEU and British Shipbuilders. This led to a decision to continue negotiations on plans to rationalize the industry and reform working practices. The January 1984 deal reiterated a CSEU commitment to support individuals or yard workforces who took action against job losses. By October 1983 the Cammell Laird workforce had been reduced to 3,300, with a further 640 ‘surplus’ jobs identified by management at this point. 280 of these workers took voluntary redundancy, and in January 1984, 1,000 additional workers became surplus to requirements, given the yard’s lack of orders, but by May 850 of these jobs remained to be shed through voluntary redundancy. It was announced that a further 450 jobs would need to go by the autumn. If all of these mooted cuts were to go through, the yard would retain a workforce of around 1,200 by the end of 1984, but even this was contingent on winning new orders from the Royal Navy or the commercial sector. On 1 June, compulsory redundancy notices were sent to all those notified as surplus, leading to a hostile response from the workforce, exacerbated by a lack of consultation, and concerns over how workers (including a number of key shop stewards) had been selected for redundancy. The strike began on 28 June. No agreement had been made over reducing the number of compulsory redundancies, a meeting of the Boilermakers’ section in the yard was held and a decision made to strike, using as their mandate the earlier national commitment from the CSEU to support yards and individual workers who took action against redundancy and closure. This led to 130 GMBATU members setting up pickets on the gangways of a destroyer and an off-shore oil rig. Although basic maintenance was allowed in the yard during the strike, the majority of the hourly-paid workers not on strike had been laid off in the first week of July, bringing the yard to a halt. Approximately three weeks into July, the strikers occupied the rig, while a picket was maintained on the gangway of the destroyer as Royal Navy personnel were still permitted to carry out maintenance work. It was felt that the firm had exploited this access and that far more work than agreed was being carried out. This was the catalyst for the strike escalating from picketing inside the yard to an occupation, where those involved were eventually barricaded on board the rig. The workers directly involved in the occupation were mainly stagers, with some platers, labourers, and a smaller numbers of shipwrights.

Divisions within the yard over the strike were apparent, with some opposition emerging to the strike and the prevention of work continuing in the rest of the yard. In the first two weeks of August, a back-to-work campaign emerged, organised by former and current stewards and a number of GMBATU members, mainly drawn from skilled trades and salaried technical staff. By the middle of August, it was noted within the CSEU that there were ‘serious differences of opinion’ between the strikers and those not directly involved but laid off. In a letter to the Financial Times, a TASS representative advocated, using politically loaded language, police action to remove the strikers – described as the ‘enemy within’ – so that the ‘silent majority’ who did not support the strike could return to work: ‘the majority does not intend to commit suicide for these few’. Support from the company for this campaign was apparent, as those attending back-to work meetings had been paid. Although divisions were apparent within the yard, considerable support came from trade unionists in other shipyards, striking miners, car workers from Merseyside, local government workers and significant elements of the Labour Party in the region, who regularly attended the picket and a series of mass demonstrations outside the gates of the yard.

On 5 September, Cammell Laird applied to the High Court to obtain an order of repossession to end the sit-in and prevent those involved from entering the yard, resulting in an eight-day order that forty named strikers abandon the occupation, which they ignored. On 13 September, a further order to leave was issued; on receiving this ultimatum, twelve of the remaining forty-nine occupiers left the yard. On the evening of 17 September, with the strike having already lasted twelve weeks, the leaders of the occupation committee were served writs warning them that they had ten minutes to leave the area, although no immediate action followed this threat. The firm applied to the High Court on 21 September for the named strikers to be committed for contempt of court. The judge ordered that the firm’s motion to commit the men should be heard on 26 September; none of the strikers appeared at the 26 September hearing and the judge ordered that they all be committed to prison for one month for contempt. This order was suspended until midnight on 30 September to give the strikers one final chance to leave the yard and avoid the execution of the warrant. He noted: ‘If I was the First Lord of the Admiralty or the First Secretary for Defence I would be very concerned about the security of the [HMS] Edinburgh … Presumably, it contains equipment of utmost importance, some of which might be so secret that no unauthorised person should have access to it’. Around the time of this hearing, Michael Heseltine, the Defence Secretary, had stated that the occupiers were disrupting British defence strategy by restricting access to the destroyer. On 1 October 1984, the first arrests took place, with the ten pickets on the gangway of the destroyer removed. The remaining twenty-seven were barricaded on the rig’s main deck, a fifty-foot climb from the base, with the bridge of the vessel above this planned as the last stronghold should the main deck be boarded. The occupation finally ended on 3 October 1984, with the last twenty-seven arrested and taken to jail. In its entirety, the strike led to the loss of 85,400 working days from a recorded 1,620 workers, according to the Employment Gazette.

Committal orders have rarely been used in industrial disputes, and the imprisonment of the strikers was therefore highly unusual. Only a few days after the Cammell Laird workers went to prison, and seven months into the miners’ strike, Scargill and the NUM were found guilty of contempt as the courts had determined that the miners’ strike was unlawful. The punishment in this case was a £1,000 fine against Scargill personally and a £200,000 fine for the NUM, with the threat of sequestration of union assets to follow if it was not paid. A Guardian editorial compared the cases: ‘The 37 Cammell Laird shipyard workers now doing time for not abandoning the occupation of their Birkenhead shipyard as fast as the courts had insisted, might be forgiven today for feeling that Mr Scargill ... has been let off very lightly indeed.’ The imprisoned strikers appealed against their punishments, with the Official Solicitor sending a staff member to visit the strikers in Walton Gaol before the commencement of the appeal on 8 October. Lord Justice Lawton stated, at the opening of proceedings, that ‘you cannot really expect any leniency to be shown unless and until each and every one of these men signs a piece of paper apologising for what happened, and expresses some regret’. He also commented that the task facing ‘police and bailiffs’ had been ‘almost like storming a medieval castle’. The men had been advised that they would have to apologize to expect any leniency, and their refusal had been reported to the court within the opening arguments to dismiss the appeal. The first eleven jailed strikers were released early – on 19 October – with the remainder released on 23 October. By 22 October, many of the yard’s 1,500 manual and office staff had returned to work, crossing the picket lines that included some of the now free occupiers. Since the strike, the men have campaigned to clear their names. They were seemingly blacklisted and could not get work in other shipyards or even as casual labour on the docks.

Much of the language used by the strikers at the time, including quotes given to newspapers and in television coverage, made reference to the wider situation in Merseyside and government hostility towards the labour movement in the region, indicating that they saw their action as a wider act of protest against the government rather than just simply a localized struggle. Condemnation from government ministers and management seemed to have galvanized the strikers’ determination not to back down, and the way in which they were removed from the yard and the penalty that followed destroyed any chance that they might apologize or disown the strike. The yard was privatised and merged with VSEL in Barrow, and closed in 1993 (the yard has been partially reopened by different owners using the Cammell Laird name at various points since) with the loss of 900 jobs. The shipbuilding industry across Europe had been in decline for many years prior to this, due to overcapacity, uncertain levels of state investment, unsuccessful attempts at technical and workforce modernization, and the comparative advantage held by manufacturers in Japan and South Korea. These wider structural factors were central to the decline of the industry in the UK, and the 1984 strike was, ultimately, insignificant in the closure of Cammell Laird. However, the strike serves as a microcosm of the wider dynamics of the period including privatisation, mass job losses and a forceful response from the state to industrial action and militant trade unionism.

James Moher and Alastair Reid


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