Friday, 23 November 2012

When Ardrossan was 'the key to the Clyde'

Exactly one-hundred years ago, Ardrossan was the centre of an action that was to impact not only on Scotland but the entire UK.

I’ve written before of my anger that the once-thriving port of Ardrossan was allowed to die, replaced by a yachting marina. My father was an Ardrossan Docker, so I declare an interest and readily admit my bias. In my opinion the ending of commercial operations at Ardrossan harbour – save for the Arran ferry – ripped the beating heart from the town.

I was the Councillor for Ardrossan North in the early 1990s, when a yachting marina was first proposed. I was the only Councillor who objected to the plan. At the time, I was told by those behind the marina that commercial shipping operations were a dying trade and that the transformation into a yachting facility would bring hundreds of jobs. I didn’t believe them.

Some 20 years later the essential equipment of a commercial port has been removed – meaning a return to such work is impossible – and only a handful of workers are employed to service the needs of the weekend sailors who moor their yachts at Ardrossan.

In 1912 the port of Ardrossan was growing – the previous 12 months had seen over 1-million tonnes of cargo shipped through the dock, with between 200 and 250 men employed to load and unload ships from all over the world. Exports from Ardrossan mainly consisted of coal, much of it mined at Stevenston. In addition, the coming of the railway brought more coal from Lanarkshire mines and passengers for steamers to Arran, Belfast, Dublin and Liverpool.

The early years of the 20th Century saw a rapid rise in membership of trade unions as workers sought to improve their wages and conditions. Initially, the Ardrossan Harbour Company had refused to even speak with representatives of the Scottish Union of Dock Labourers (SUDL), far less were they prepared to enter into negotiations.

However, in October 1912 the SUDL informed the Harbour Company that 20 coal-trimmers employed at Ardrossan were seeking an increase of one-quarter of a penny (a farthing) per shift. Coal-trimmers were Dock Labourers who entered the hold of a ship and, using shovels, evenly distributed the cargo of coal. A farthing extra a shift would have brought their pay into line with other coal-trimmers at ports on the Clyde.

Ardrossan Harbour Company refused to pay the extra money and the union indicated strike action would begin on October 29 1912. The very same night ‘scab’ labour from Glasgow was brought to Ardrossan to break the strike, suggesting the Harbour Company had been well prepared and was ‘up for a fight’. Documents from the time show that port owners saw the Ardrossan dispute as an opportunity to break the growing power of trade unions and once-again establish ‘free-labour ports’ where the bosses could hire and fire as they pleased, and could drive-down wages and conditions.

It quickly became clear that Ardrossan was to be the battle ground in the fight between capital and labour. Joseph Houghton, Secretary of the Scottish Union of Dock Labourers, coined the phrase that was to describe the dispute – he said Ardrossan was “the key to the Clyde”.

Although the initial issue involved just 20 coal-trimmers, all Dock Labourers and other workers at the port of Ardrossan took strike action from October 29. The strike was also strongly supported by the people of the town. One story, reported in the local and national press at the time, told of Ardrossan Dock workers and local people meeting a train bringing ‘scab’ labour from Glasgow. When the strike-breakers emerged from the Town Station onto Princes Street, they were attacked, beaten-up and put onto the next train back to Glasgow.

Eventually, as still happens in disputes between capital and labour, the police were brought-in on the side of the bosses. Officers were deployed along the railway line into Ardrossan to prevent local people from stoning ‘scab’ trains, while others protected strike-breakers at the Town Station and guarded the dock where the Glasgow men were billeted.

Despite these efforts, the total support of all Dock Labourers and Cranemen at Ardrossan, with sympathetic action by the Seaman’s Union, meant the port owners struggled to continue operations. The Scottish Union of Dock Labourers met the cost of strike pay for those who withdrew their labour, and also paid the fines of Dockers convicted of ‘breach of the peace’ and other offences in relation to the treatment meted-out to the imported ‘scab’ labour.

After ten-weeks of strike action, representatives of the Ardrossan Harbour Company agreed to meet with officials from the SUDL. After negotiations, a compromise was reached that saw coal-trimmers receive a farthing extra, but only when working night-shift. The concession on the side of the bosses was that they agreed to re-employ all workers who had taken strike action.

However, the real winners of the battle that became known as ‘the key to the Clyde’ was organised labour. Ardrossan Dockers, with the total support of their trade union, defeated the strength of port owners in their attempt to ‘de-unionise’ the Clyde.

Such was the national significance of the Ardrossan strike that leaders of organised labour in Britain, including trade unionists such as Ben Tillet and Tom Mann, travelled from London to address strikers and local people. Had the Dockers been defeated at Ardrossan, port owners around the coast of Great Britain would almost certainly have seized the opportunity to take on and defeat the unions.

In contrast, the successful strike at Ardrossan played a significant part in bringing together into one trade union Dock Labourers at all British ports. In 1922 the Transport & General Workers Union (TGWU) was formed, with Ardrossan strike-leader Joseph Houghton one of the original executive members.

Twenty-five years later, in 1947, the post-war Labour Government acceded to proposals from the TGWU and introduced the National Dock Labour Scheme, which ended ‘casual’ labour in the docks and, for the first time, introduced a guaranteed minimum weekly wage for Dockers.

The Scheme survived until 1989 when it was scrapped by the Tory Government led by Margaret Thatcher. Within ten years the commercial dock at Ardrossan was dead.

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A full account of the 1912/1913 Ardrossan dock strike is told in the booklet ‘Ardrossan – The Key to the Clyde’ (ISBN 1 897998 00 7), written by Saltcoats-man Billy Kenefick. Dr Kenefick is now Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Dundee.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Who are the terrorists?

At the time of writing, Israel is calling-up thousands of military reservists to augment its full-time army. Soldiers and tanks are being sent to the border with Gaza. The signs point to another possible Israeli invasion of the small Palestinian enclave.

The last major Israeli offensive, over the 2008/2009 new year period, resulted in the deaths of around 1,500 Palestinians, including women and children. That invasion saw Gaza bombarded from the air by Israeli military jets and on the ground by missiles fired from tanks. Gaza is one of the most heavily-populated places in the world – 1.7 million Palestinians live in the area just 25 miles long and between 3.5 and 7.5 miles wide. Israel knew then – and knows now – that its aggression would result in the deaths of civilians.

A majority of Gaza residents are refugees, forced from their homes and their lands to make way for the State of Israel and for Jewish settlers. Although electing its own government, Gaza is under the control of Israel, which enforces a blockade – air, land and sea – and polices the border.

Against such oppression – both historic and current – some sections of the Palestinian population in Gaza attempt to ‘tweak the nose of the giant’ by firing rudimentary rockets into Israel. Against the state-of-the-art military hardware of Israel, the Palestinian rockets are more like a Blue Peter version – home-made using washing-up bottles and sticky-back plastic. Most of the rockets have no guidance system and fall harmlessly onto Israeli countryside (land stolen from Palestinians).

That is the reality of the situation, but western media, including the BBC, regurgitate Israeli propaganda by reporting that the Jewish state is simply ‘protecting’ its population and ‘retaliating’ to ‘Palestinian attacks’.

The current Israeli military build-up on the border of Gaza comes after some rockets were fired from within the territory – again the Israeli spin-machine has portrayed this as Palestinian aggression, and western media reports the story from that perspective: the headline on the BBC News web site read – “Gaza rocket fire kills Israelis”. However, the untold story is that more Palestinians were killed by Israeli rockets in Gaza on one day last week than Israelis killed by Palestinian attacks in the past three years.

Palestinian rockets were targeted at Israel last week after the Jewish state killed Ahmed al-Jabari, described as a ‘military leader’ of Hamas, the political party that forms the democratically-elected government of Gaza. al-Jabari had actually been involved in talks with Israel to broker a peace deal. He was travelling in his car with others when an Israeli air-strike wiped him out, along with his companions and civilians who just happened to be nearby. The attack was filmed by the Israeli military and was posted by them on YouTube.

In this action, Israel is following the lead of its staunchest ally, supporter and funder – the United States of America. Since the supposedly liberal Democrat Barak Obama was first elected President in 2008, America has embarked on a policy of extra-judicial killings. No longer does the USA seek to bring ‘the bad guys’ to justice: now it simply ‘takes them out’, often by blowing them up with missiles launched from unmanned drones. Somewhere in the Pentagon an unidentified military officer sits with a joystick, guiding his drone to its kill, in much the same way as adolescents sit in their bedrooms playing computer games – but the Americans, and the Israelis, kill for real.

When countries like America and Israel abandon the rule of law, when they set-aside due process and small things like accumulating evidence of wrong-doing, presenting it to a court and securing convictions, then there is little to differentiate them from those they brand as ‘terrorists’.

If Israel embarks on another military offensive in Gaza, firing American-made missiles into residential streets where Palestinian children cower in fear, then that will be nothing more than another act of state-sponsored terrorism.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Britain's obscene killing machines

In 1996, the International Court of Justice declared that to use - or threaten to use - nuclear weapons is illegal in almost all conceivable circumstances. The one exception would be in retaliation to a nuclear attack.

However, where two countries embark on a nuclear war, the outcome is known as ‘MAD’, which stands for Mutually Assured Destruction. The two countries which used nuclear weapons against each other would see millions of their citizens killed and their national infrastructure would be blown back to the stone-age. To all intents and purposes those countries would cease to exist.

The most heavily-armed nuclear country is the United States of America, closely followed by Russia. In fact, the two nations possess 95% of all the nuclear weapons on the face of the planet. Their arsenals are mainly a legacy of the Cold War, which ended around 20 years ago. Both America and Russia (and the United Kingdom) claim their nuclear weapons of mass destruction act as a deterrent, preventing other nations from launching attacks against them. However, terrorist groups have not been deterred. Nuclear weapons, which kill indiscriminately and on a mass scale, could not have been used against those who carried out murderous attacks against New York, Moscow and London.

Nuclear weapons cannot be used, yet nine countries – including the United Kingdom – continue to spend billions-of pounds creating and maintaining them.

Last week, Philip Hammond MP, the UK Defence Secretary, came to Scotland and used his visit to announce the British Government will spend £350m on designing new nuclear-armed submarines to replace the current Trident boats. This spending commitment is in addition to £350m previously announced for the same purpose. In total, therefore, the Tory-Lib Dem Coalition Government will spend £700m of our money designing new submarines to carry nuclear missiles that can never be used. This money will be spent despite the fact no decision on replacing the four Trident subs will be taken by the UK Parliament until 2016, a year after the next scheduled Westminster Election.

During his visit, Mr Hammond also made clear that the UK Government does not intend to make any plans to move Britain’s nuclear base from Faslane on the Clyde. Despite a majority of Scots consistently indicating their opposition to nuclear weapons being located on Scottish soil or in our waters, and despite the very real possibility that Scots will retake our national independence in 2014, the London-based British Government arrogantly presumes their costly weapons of mass destruction will be staying where they are.

All of the main pro-independence political parties – the Scottish National Party, Scottish Socialist Party and the Green Party – are committed to removing nuclear weapons from Scotland, including our territorial waters. The SNP’s recent conversion to supporting membership of the nuclear-armed North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) has perhaps clouded the issue, but the presumption still has to be that the government of an independent Scotland will take action to permanently remove Trident submarines and their missiles, whether or not that suits the agenda of a pro-nuclear government in London.

The Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (SCND) has produced a detailed document explaining the timescale for making-safe Britain’s nuclear missiles and ultimately removing them from Scotland. The document, widely acknowledged as being accurate, states that Trident (the missiles on all four subs) could be deactivated within seven-days, with most of the time taken up by waiting for the return to base of the subs out on patrol.

The next step would be to remove warheads from the missiles, which SCND has calculated could be done in about eight to ten weeks.

Overall, SCND states the safe removal, storage and verification of warheads, missiles and submarines could take around two-years, meaning Britain’s nuclear arsenal could cease to exist by 2018 (two-years after the first election to Scotland’s independent parliament created as a result of the 2014 referendum).

If Westminster politicians want to retain their hugely expensive weapons of mass destruction, then perhaps the arrogant Mr Hammond and his Tory-led Government should start showing some respect for the will of the Scottish people.

In addition to the already-committed design costs of £700m, it is projected that to build and maintain a new missile system to replace Trident will cost UK taxpayers between £72bn and £120bn. One bonus of Scots re-taking our political independence, therefore, would be a financial saving of up to £12bn from not creating more weapons of mass destruction.

However, the greater benefit would be in making the world a safer place. Currently, with the existing Trident system, the UK has four nuclear-powered submarines, three of which are always operational. There are 14 nuclear missiles with forty-eight 100kiloton warheads on each submarine. This can be increased to 96 warheads, giving a potential total of 384. One Trident warhead is eight-times more powerful than the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Therefore, the existing UK nuclear arsenal is capable of producing 3,072 Hiroshimas. There were around 140,000 people killed by the Hiroshima bomb (not including those who died much later as a result of the nuclear fall-out). Right now, the United Kingdom has the capacity and the capability to kill in the region of 43,000,000 people using missiles on Trident submarines based in Scotland.

Scots don’t want these obscene killing machines.

Just one more reason to vote for independence.