Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 6 No. 4
Hull and the Blue Union
Tom Cowan’s review of my How the Blue Union Came to Hull Docks (Revolutionary History, Volume 6, nos. 2/3, pp. 280–2) manages to combine praise for the pamphlet for being ‘interesting and factual’ with an attempt to disprove those ‘facts’ that do not fit into Cowan’s theory that the move to the Blue Union on the Hull Docks in August 1954 was ‘initiated by Gerry Healy’s Club’. The two disputed areas in the review are the date of the Hull decision to move to the Blue Union, and the rôle of J.W. Murphy.
I wrote that the Hull dockers voted on Wednesday, 18 August 1954 to join the NASD or ‘Blue Union’ prior to the arrival of Gerry Healy, Bob Pennington, Bill Johnson and Danny Brandon on the morning of Sunday, 22 August 1954. Tom Cowan writes that ‘the proceedings of the Wednesday meeting do not appear to have been known to any of the participants at the time’. This statement can easily be disproved, thus showing that the decision was indeed taken on Wednesday, 18 August 1954, and that J.W. Murphy was a key player in the events. Some of these sources were unknown to me when I wrote the pamphlet.
Former Birkenhead docker Danny Brandon was one of those who travelled to Hull with Gerry Healy. In an interview with Dave Baines in June 1982, he explained:
‘It was in July [it was actually August – KS] 1954, I read three lines in one of the national newspapers that Hull had sent two men to see the London Executive of the NASD with an application to join the Blue Union, and so I set off hot-foot for Hull. One Saturday night in the company of Bill Johnson and people from the Socialist Outlook group, we took a train to Leeds and stayed overnight. We got the van there and carried on to Hull, arriving on the Sunday. We had contacted the people there and told them we were coming. Jim Murphy was the principal contact and principal leader, yet he didn’t work on the docks then. He had, but he was then running a small kennels and pig farm. It was a peculiar place, Hull. That sort of thing would not be tolerated on Merseyside. Once off the dock, you’re not a docker, and that’s it, no matter how wrong it was for them to put you off.’
How could Danny Brandon have known about the decision to move to the Blue Union if the decision was not taken until after his arrival in Hull on the Sunday morning?
Cowan questions the importance of the Hull Daily Mail report showing that the decision to move to the Blue Union was taken on the Wednesday, several days before the visit of Gerry Healy et al.
If no decision had been taken to move to the Blue, then what is the explanation of the headline in the Hull Daily Mail on Saturday, 21 August saying ‘New Union Forms Rushed to Hull’, with the sub-heading ‘Definitely going ahead with our breakaway – Albert Hart’? In the same edition, we read that the strike leader Albert Hart told the Friday evening mass meeting that ‘a representative of the NASD – which the Hull men want to join instead of the Transport and General Workers Union – will be present’ at Sunday’s meeting.
Additionally, if the decision to move to the Blue was taken on the Sunday morning, is it not just a little surprising that the following day’s Mail article reporting that meeting does not mention the ‘momentous decision’ to leave the TGWU, that Tom Cowan believes was taken on that day? The Hull Daily Mail on the Monday has a detailed report of the Sunday meeting without any suggestion that the initial decision to move to the Blue was taken there. It’s not even as if they had a stunning alternative headline – ‘Hull Dock Strike Goes On’.
Tom Cowan’s attempt to use Bob Pennington’s article in International Socialism (no. 2, Autumn 1960) to support his position is completely unjustified. This is what Pennington wrote:
‘On 16 August 1954 4000 Hull dockers struck work against the dangerous method of unloading grain referred to as “hand-scuttling”. Automatically the local TGWU officials, led by Parnell the area officer, opposed the strike. Just as automatically the men formed their own rank-and-file committee. This committee, consisting of four men (Hart, Oakes, Eastwood and Brady), next day raised before the mass meeting on Corporation Field the attitude of the TGWU officials. Hart, acting as the committee’s spokesman, made the call for going over to the NASD, and a telegram was sent to Barrett, the Blue Union General Secretary, applying for membership.’
Regarding J.W. Murphy, Pennington stated in an interview with Dave Baines in 1982:
‘Hull had never been a port notorious then for its advanced leadership, either at a trade union or a political level. It was considered a bit of a backwater. When these workers came into struggle and strike, having no established leadership, they looked elsewhere for leadership – to Murphy. We went to see Murphy, who introduced us firstly to the strike leader, a young bloke called Albert Hart, and another bloke called Eastwood.’
In his thesis The Unofficial Movement on the Docks and the Rivalry Between the Blue and the White (Warwick University, 1982) Baines writes:
‘Unlike London or Liverpool, Hull dockers didn’t have a permanent Port Workers Committee or an acknowledged unofficial leadership. There was no organised political group active amongst the dockers, or even a group of dockers with any experience of industrial militancy. A strike committee was elected from the floor of the mass meeting, consisting of raw industrial workers with no experience of organising strikes, and consequently they turned to the only person they knew who had experience of organising a dispute, a certain James Wilcox Murphy. During the 1945 strike, Murphy was the acknowledged leader of the Hull dockers, and though he had resigned from the docks in 1946, he kept in regular contact with the docks, as well as with some of the unofficial leaders in London and Liverpool.
‘Immediately after consulting with the strike committee, Murphy sent a telegram to Dick Barrett, General Secretary of the NASD, asking him to accept the Hull dockers into the Blue. On 20 August the Hull strike committee announced that the NASD had decided to consider their request.’
The Birkenhead dockers’ leader, Bill Johnson, was interviewed by Fred Lindop in the early 1980s. Speaking of his visit to Hull, Johnson states:
‘I went across to Hull during that dispute when the talk was in the air – how fed up they were with the T&G! Their mind had already been made up, they were going to seek membership, arrangements had been made for Albert Hart and somebody else to go to London.’
This is in addition to the letter, quoted in my pamphlet, to Murphy from Jimmy Ginley, the Hull NASD official, stating that it was ‘largely due to your endeavour that the NAS&D was formed in Hull’. Baines also writes that ‘Murphy’s position was frequently commented on in scathing reports from TGWU Docks officers. He had regular contact with a number of Blue militants from 1945 onwards, especially Bert Aylward, and was in regular contact with the Birkenhead Committee from 1950.’ Letters from Murphy to Harry Constable have also survived. Its also interesting to note that John McIlroy refers to Murphy, in passing, in his article on the 1945 dock strike in the same issue of Revolutionary History.
Hart, Pennington, Johnson, Brandon and Baines all therefore emphasise the importance of Murphy’s rôle, and support the view expressed in my pamphlet that the decision to move to the NASD was made by the Hull dockers on Wednesday, 18 August 1954.
Updated by ETOL: 29.9.2011