New York City and London Dockworkers: A Comparative Perspective of Rank-and-File Movements in the Post-Second World War Era

Davis, Colin J.
December 2000
Labour History Review (Maney Publishing);Winter2000, Vol. 65 Issue 3, p295
Academic Journal
This article compares the structural and cultural forces lying behind the emergence of rank-and-file dockworker movements in New York City and London, England in the post-World War II era. In the New York case, the longshoremen were encouraged by outside forces such as labor lawyers, Communists and labor priests. Using legal machinery to confront their union's indifference also empowered the rank-and-file to engage in direct action. Local union leaders also used the strike as an opportunity to contest the established leadership for power. But the union leadership's stranglehold of political power, in tandem with its power to dole out work because of the shape-up, ensured that the rank-and-file and their allies remained on the periphery. Only short-term bursts of anger were available, rocking the union leadership but never fully challenging them for power. In the London case, the more institutionalized work relations were the reason for rank-and-file challenge. Bureaucratic inertia nurtured conflict, but also protected the rank-and-file from punishment. That is, their jobs were guaranteed as along as they acted in unison. This protection was afforded because the rank-and-file leaders were dockers and not outside forces. Thus, once disputes ended, the leadership did not necessarily fade away. They continued to work alongside their mates, readying themselves for the next confrontation.


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