Wednesday, July 05, 2006

John Prescott and the 1966 seafarers' strike

Forty years ago, British seafarers – then numbering 65,000 - mounted a six-week strike for better pay and a cut in working hours from 56 to 40 a week.

The political and economic impact was enormous. The UK’s already precarious balance of payments took a big hit, provoking a run on the pound.

The Labour government of the day declared a state of emergency, giving it the powers to cap food prices and to allow the Royal Navy to over ports. In the event, the powers were never used.

But prime Minister Harold Wilson attacked the strike leaders as "politically motivated men", implying that they were communists determined bring down his administration.

Nevertheless, the strikers’ cause was immensely popular in the labour movement. That was in no small part due to a pamphlet eloquently making the seafarers’ case, entitled ‘Not Wanted on Voyage’.

Today Britain’s ever-shrinking numbers of ratings – the non-officer grades – are represented by RMT, which has marked the anniversary of the stoppage by republishing this historic document.

It’s interesting to see the foreword. Militant stuff, blasting shipowners, a Labour government and ‘the timid official trade union leadership’ alike:

‘In this report, we hope and believe that you will find the weapons of struggle, of counterattack, which will bring the owners and the government before the court of social justice.

‘We fight a good fight, and we are proud to ask for the solidarity and support of the labour movement at this critical time.’

It is signed by two men, one of them a young union activist by the name of J. Prescott. Wonder what ever became of him?

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