Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
National Union of Seamen
The National Union of Seamen was the principal trade union of merchant seafarers in Great Britain from 1888/1889 to 1990. It operated under a number of distinct titles during its 103 year-long existence, but the above was its final and longest-held official title. In 1990, the NUS amalgamated with the National Union of Railwaymen to form the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT).
The National Amalgamated Sailors' and Firemen's Union, 1887-1893
The union was founded in Sunderland in 1887 as the National Amalgamated Sailors' and Firemen's Union. Its founder, J. Havelock Wilson became its president. It quickly spread to other ports and had become genuinely national by the end of 1888.
In 1888 and 1889 the union fought a number of successful strikes in Glasgow, Seaham, Liverpool and other major ports. By the latter year it had 45 branches and a nominal membership of 80,000. But from 1890, it began to face determined resistance from shipowners, who formed an association, the Shipping Federation , to co-ordinate their actions. The union fought and lost defensive actions in Hull, Bristol, Cardiff and other important centres in 1891-1893. These episodes depleted its funds and led to a large fall in membership. The union also became involved in a large number of expensive legal cases. Although partly due to the actions of shipowners, the difficulties experienced by the union in this period have also been attributed to its officials' taste for litigation and their inadequate handling of union finances. In 1893, the NASFU went into voluntary liquidation to avoid bankruptcy.
The National Sailors' and Firemen's Union, 1894-1926
Relaunched in 1894 as the National Sailors' and Firemen's Union (having dropped the word Amalgamated) the union continued to experience financial difficulties and low membership. From the summer of 1910 the union worked to promote a national seamen's strike to combat the Shipping Federation. This finally took place in the summer of 1911. The union's control over the movement was incomplete. In many ports rank and file strike committees and left-wing activists played a more important organisational role than the union itself, and its long-standing programme came to be over-shadowed by demands for wage increases. Nonetheless, the strike greatly increased both the funds and the membership of the union, allowing it to emerge once again as a significant force.
In 1911/1912 the growth of the NSFU was checked by a breakaway movement in Southampton and Glasgow which led to the formation of the rival British Seafarers' Union. At a national level, however, the NSFU was able to maintain and increase its supremacy.
Contemporaries often regarded the NSFU as a militant organisation because of the strikes in which it had involved itself in the late 1880s and in 1911. Yet from its inception the union expressed a belief in the possibility of industrial harmony, and announced itself in favour of establishing conciliation procedures. Nor was the leadership of the union greatly influenced by 'socialism'. Its founder and president, J. Havelock Wilson, served several terms as a Liberal Party MP, and the union itself did not affiliate to the Labour Party until 1919.
World War I and After
After the outbreak of World War I the union began collaborating closely with the Admiralty and shipowners in support of the war effort. From 1916, Havelock Wilson emerged as one of the most vehement supporters of the war in the labour movement, ostensibly because of Germany's conduct of the war at sea, especially the alleged targetting of non-combattant vessels. In 1917 the Union provoked controversy by refusing to convey Arthur Henderson and Ramsay MacDonald to a conference of socialist parties in Stockholm, which had been convened in the wake of the Russian Revolution to discuss the possibility of a peace policy.
A further development in 1917 was the formation of the National Maritime Board as a governing body for the merchant marine. The union's involvement in this body allowed it to negotiate directly with shipowners over wages and conditions. In 1922 these arrangements were extended by the establishment of the 'PC5 system' which was intended to allow the Shipping Federation and the union to exercise joint control over access to employment in the shipping industry.
In 1921, the National Maritime Board imposed wage reductions which were supported by the NSFU. This reduction provoked considerable resistance from ordinary seafarers and from the rival organisations the British Seafarers' Union, the National Union of Ship's Stewards. Other sections of the trade union and labour movement were also strongly critical of the NSFU's actions, especially the National Transport Workers' Federation, which helped to merge the rival organisations referred to above into a new organisation, the Amalgamated Marine Workers' Union, intended as a viable alternative to the NSFU. Further wage reductions were made in 1923, and 1925 provoking further resistance.
Criticism of the NSFU became increasingly widespread with its failure to observe the General Strike in 1926 and its support of a 'non-political' Miners' Union in Nottinghamshire. In September 1928, the Union was officially expelled from the Trades Union Congress. However, after the death of Havelock Wilson in 1929 the NUS quickly began to pursue a more mainstream policy and became reconciled with the rest of the trade union movement. It adopted the title 'National Union of Seamen' in 1926.
The Growth of Dissent and the Seamen's Strike of 1966
After the Second World War there were widespread calls for reform of the union. Many members felt that the union was too closely associated with the employers and that it had failed to defend its members interests. Rank and File Committees were established in many ports, and unnofficial strikes took place in 1947, 1955 and 1960. A National Seamen's Reform Movement was established in the latter year.
A degree of reform was was conceded in 1962, with the decision to allow a system of workplace representation by shop stewards . This brought the NUS belatedly into line with the general practices of the trade union movement.
On 16 May 1966, the NUS launched its first national strike since 1911. The strike aimed to secure higher wages and to reduce the working week from 56 to 40 hours. It was widely supported by union members and caused great disruption to shipping, especially in London, Liverpool and Southampton.
The political importance of the strike was enormous: the disruption of trade had an adverse effect on Britain's (precarious) balance of payments, provoked a run on the pound and threatened to undermine the Government's attempts to keep wage increases below 3.5%. The Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, was strongly critical of the strike, alleging that it had been taken over by Communists whose aim was to bring down his administration. On 23 May, a week after the outbreak of the strike, the Government declared a state of emergency. The strike finally came to an end on 1 July.
The last major strike launched by the NUS took place in January-February 1988.
Prominent figures who have held positions in the NUS include:
- Arthur Marsh & Victoria Ryan, The Seamen - a history of the National Union of Seamen, (Oxford, 1989).
- Arthur Marsh & Victoria Ryan, Historical Directory of Trade Unions:Vol 3, (Aldershot, 1987).
- Ken Coates & Tony Topham, The Making of the Labour Movement, (Nottingham, 1994) ISBN 085124565X
The contents of this article is licensed from www.wikipedia.org under the GNU Free Documentation License. Click here to see the transparent copy and copyright details