Murmurs of discontent were rumbling round the Liverpool Docks during the stormy summer of 1960.
Frustrated dockers went out on strike in early July demanding a cut in hours and an increase in wages – and the city’s seafarers soon followed suit.
The seamen wanted their working week reduced from 56 hours to 44 and a pay increase of £4 a month.
Many thought their union, the National Union of Seaman (NUS), had been dragging its feet. So they set up their own body, the Seamen’s Reform Movement (SRM), to fight their cause.
The NUS was stung into action when the strike spread to other areas. It negotiated a reduction to 52 hours at sea and 44 hours in port.
But discontent still brewed and the NUS branded the leaders of the SRM as ‘Communists dedicated to disruption.’
Arrest warrants were issued against Liverpool SRM officials for intimidation on August 13. Three days later, 5,000 dockers came out on a day-long strike and marched in silent protest to Pier Head.
SRM chairman Paddy Neary was charged under the antiquated 1894 Merchant Shipping Act for conspiring to incite Cunard seamen to break their contract of employment. He was later jailed for contempt of court.
The backlash in the city was enormous. The workers’ protest march through Liverpool on Tuesday August 30 was the biggest the city had ever seen.
Neary served seven weeks in Brixton jail before mediation finally won the day. He was released to a hero’s welcome back in Liverpool with placards even calling for him to receive a knighthood!
Six years later, on May 16, 1966, the NUS called its first national strike since 1911 over working conditions. This time the union wanted the working week reduced to 40 hours.
By the end of May the dispute was really biting. More than 20,000 seamen were out on strike and exports worth £40 million were jammed up in British ports.
Minister for Labour Ray Gunter admitted that working conditions needed modernising. But he was worried that the reduction in hours, combined with overtime payments, would breach the government’s 3.5 per cent limit on wage rises.
Prime Minister Harold Wilson was less sympathetic. He said the union had been taken over by Communists bent on bringing down his administration.
A run on the pound followed and a cap on food prices was introduced to stop profiteering. The Royal Navy was ordered to move ships to free up space in ports.
There were no less than 891 ships immobilised around the UK when mass meetings finally voted to end the strike on July 1.