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National Union of Seamen

National Union of Seamen

Overview
The National Union of Seamen was the principal trade union
Trade union
A trade union, trades union or labor union is an organization of workers that have banded together to achieve common goals such as better working conditions. The trade union, through its leadership, bargains with the employer on behalf of union members and negotiates labour contracts with...

 of merchant seafarers in the United Kingdom
United Kingdom
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern IrelandIn the United Kingdom and Dependencies, other languages have been officially recognised as legitimate autochthonous languages under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages...

 from the late 1880s to 1990. In 1990, the union amalgamated with the National Union of Railwaymen
National Union of Railwaymen
The National Union of Railwaymen was a trade union of railway workers in the United Kingdom. It an industrial union founded in 1913 by the merger of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants , the United Pointsmen and Signalmen's Society and the General Railway Workers' Union .The NUR...

 to form the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers
National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers
The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers is a trade union in the United Kingdom which unionises transport workers. It has more than 80,000 members, and its current general secretary is Bob Crow...

 (RMT).

The Seamen's 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
Glasgow
Glasgow is the largest city in Scotland and third most populous in the United Kingdom. The city is situated on the River Clyde in the country's west central lowlands...

, Seaham
Seaham
Seaham, formerly Seaham Harbour, is a small town in County Durham, situated south of Sunderland and east of Durham. It has a small parish church, St Mary the Virgin, with a late 7th century Anglo Saxon nave resembling the church at Escomb in many respects. St Mary the Virgin is regarded as one of...

, Liverpool
Liverpool
Liverpool is a city and metropolitan borough of Merseyside, England, along the eastern side of the Mersey Estuary. It was founded as a borough in 1207 and was granted city status in 1880...

 and other major ports.
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Encyclopedia
The National Union of Seamen was the principal trade union
Trade union
A trade union, trades union or labor union is an organization of workers that have banded together to achieve common goals such as better working conditions. The trade union, through its leadership, bargains with the employer on behalf of union members and negotiates labour contracts with...

 of merchant seafarers in the United Kingdom
United Kingdom
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern IrelandIn the United Kingdom and Dependencies, other languages have been officially recognised as legitimate autochthonous languages under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages...

 from the late 1880s to 1990. In 1990, the union amalgamated with the National Union of Railwaymen
National Union of Railwaymen
The National Union of Railwaymen was a trade union of railway workers in the United Kingdom. It an industrial union founded in 1913 by the merger of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants , the United Pointsmen and Signalmen's Society and the General Railway Workers' Union .The NUR...

 to form the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers
National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers
The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers is a trade union in the United Kingdom which unionises transport workers. It has more than 80,000 members, and its current general secretary is Bob Crow...

 (RMT).

The National Amalgamated Sailors' and Firemen's Union, 1887-1893


The Seamen's 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
Glasgow
Glasgow is the largest city in Scotland and third most populous in the United Kingdom. The city is situated on the River Clyde in the country's west central lowlands...

, Seaham
Seaham
Seaham, formerly Seaham Harbour, is a small town in County Durham, situated south of Sunderland and east of Durham. It has a small parish church, St Mary the Virgin, with a late 7th century Anglo Saxon nave resembling the church at Escomb in many respects. St Mary the Virgin is regarded as one of...

, Liverpool
Liverpool
Liverpool is a city and metropolitan borough of Merseyside, England, along the eastern side of the Mersey Estuary. It was founded as a borough in 1207 and was granted city status in 1880...

 and other major ports. By 1889 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
Shipping Federation
For the Shipping Federation of British Columbia, see British Columbia Maritime Employers' Association.The Shipping Federation was an association of employers in the shipping industry. It was formed in 1890 in response to the London Dock Strike of 1889 and the successes of the National Union of...

, to co-ordinate their strike-breaking and anti-union activity. The union fought and lost defensive actions in Hull
Kingston upon Hull
Kingston upon Hull , usually referred to as Hull, is a city and unitary authority area in the ceremonial county of the East Riding of Yorkshire, England. It stands on the River Hull at its junction with the Humber estuary, 25 miles inland from the North Sea. Hull has a resident population of...

, Bristol
Bristol
Bristol is a city, unitary authority area and ceremonial county in South West England, with an estimated population of 433,100 for the unitary authority in 2009, and a surrounding Larger Urban Zone with an estimated 1,070,000 residents in 2007...

, Cardiff
Cardiff
Cardiff is the capital, largest city and most populous county of Wales and the 10th largest city in the United Kingdom. The city is Wales' chief commercial centre, the base for most national cultural and sporting institutions, the Welsh national media, and the seat of the National Assembly for...

 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
Bankruptcy
Bankruptcy is a legal status of an insolvent person or an organisation, that is, one that cannot repay the debts owed to creditors. In most jurisdictions bankruptcy is imposed by a court order, often initiated by the debtor....

.

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 activists played a more important organisational role than the union itself, and the union's long-standing programme was 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. Following the strike-wave, the union gained official recognition from many shipowners.

In 1911/1912 the growth of the NSFU was checked by a breakaway movement in Southampton
Southampton
Southampton is the largest city in the county of Hampshire on the south coast of England, and is situated south-west of London and north-west of Portsmouth. Southampton is a major port and the closest city to the New Forest...

 and Glasgow which led to the formation of the rival British Seafarers' Union
British Seafarers' Union
The British Seafarers' Union was a trade union which organised sailors and firemen in the British ports of Southampton and Glasgow between 1911/1912 and 1922...

. 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. The leadership of the union was not greatly influenced by 'socialism
Socialism
Socialism is an economic system characterized by social ownership of the means of production and cooperative management of the economy; or a political philosophy advocating such a system. "Social ownership" may refer to any one of, or a combination of, the following: cooperative enterprises,...

'. Its founder and president, J. Havelock Wilson, served several terms as a Liberal Party
Liberal Party (UK)
The Liberal Party was one of the two major political parties of the United Kingdom during the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was a third party of negligible importance throughout the latter half of the 20th Century, before merging with the Social Democratic Party in 1988 to form the present day...

 MP, and the union itself did not affiliate to the Labour Party
Labour Party (UK)
The Labour Party is a centre-left democratic socialist party in the United Kingdom. It surpassed the Liberal Party in general elections during the early 1920s, forming minority governments under Ramsay MacDonald in 1924 and 1929-1931. The party was in a wartime coalition from 1940 to 1945, after...

 until 1919.

World War I and After


After the outbreak of World War I
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...

 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
Germany
Germany , officially the Federal Republic of Germany , is a federal parliamentary republic in Europe. The country consists of 16 states while the capital and largest city is Berlin. Germany covers an area of 357,021 km2 and has a largely temperate seasonal climate...

's conduct of the war at sea, especially the alleged targeting of non-combattant vessels. In 1917 the Union provoked controversy by refusing to convey Arthur Henderson
Arthur Henderson
Arthur Henderson was a British iron moulder and Labour politician. He was the 1934 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and he served three short terms as the Leader of the Labour Party from 1908–1910, 1914–1917 and 1931-1932....

 and Ramsay MacDonald
Ramsay MacDonald
James Ramsay MacDonald, PC, FRS was a British politician who was the first ever Labour Prime Minister, leading a minority government for two terms....

 to a conference of socialist parties in Stockholm
Stockholm
Stockholm is the capital and the largest city of Sweden and constitutes the most populated urban area in Scandinavia. Stockholm is the most populous city in Sweden, with a population of 851,155 in the municipality , 1.37 million in the urban area , and around 2.1 million in the metropolitan area...

, which had been convened in the wake of the Russian Revolution
Russian Revolution of 1917
The Russian Revolution is the collective term for a series of revolutions in Russia in 1917, which destroyed the Tsarist autocracy and led to the creation of the Soviet Union. The Tsar was deposed and replaced by a provisional government in the first revolution of February 1917...

 to discuss the possibility of a peace policy.

A further development in 1917 was the formation of the National Maritime Board
National Maritime Board
The National Maritime Board was a bilateral board governing wages and working practices in the British shipping industry.It was founded in November 1917 against a backdrop of strike action amongst seafarers and was originally intended as a purely wartime measure to facilitate wage negotiations in a...

 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
National Union of Ship's Stewards
The National Union of Ship's Stewards, Cooks, Butchers and Bakers was the principal trade union for service personnel serving aboard British merchant ships between 1909 and 1921....

. Other sections of the trade union and labour movement were also strongly critical of the NSFU's actions, especially the National Transport Workers' Federation
National Transport Workers' Federation
The National Transport Workers' Federation was an association of British trade unions. It was formed in 1910 to co-ordinate the activities of various organisations catering for dockers, seamen, tramwaymen and road transport workers...

, which helped to merge the rival organisations referred to above into a new organisation, the Amalgamated Marine Workers' Union
Amalgamated Marine Workers' Union
The Amalgamated Marine Workers' Union was a trade union of sailors, firemen and ship-board service personnel which existed in the United Kingdom between 1922 and 1926....

, 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
Trades Union Congress
The Trades Union Congress is a national trade union centre, a federation of trade unions in the United Kingdom, representing the majority of trade unions...

. 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
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

 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 unofficial 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 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
London
London is the capital city of :England and the :United Kingdom, the largest metropolitan area in the United Kingdom, and the largest urban zone in the European Union by most measures. Located on the River Thames, London has been a major settlement for two millennia, its history going back to its...

, Liverpool and Southampton.

The political importance of the strike was enormous: the disruption of trade had an adverse effect on the United Kingdom's (precarious) balance of payments
Balance of payments
Balance of payments accounts are an accounting record of all monetary transactions between a country and the rest of the world.These transactions include payments for the country's exports and imports of goods, services, financial capital, and financial transfers...

, 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
Prime minister
A prime minister is the most senior minister of cabinet in the executive branch of government in a parliamentary system. In many systems, the prime minister selects and may dismiss other members of the cabinet, and allocates posts to members within the government. In most systems, the prime...

, Harold Wilson
Harold Wilson
James Harold Wilson, Baron Wilson of Rievaulx, KG, OBE, FRS, FSS, PC was a British Labour Member of Parliament, Leader of the Labour Party. He was twice Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during the 1960s and 1970s, winning four general elections, including a minority government after the...

, was strongly critical of the strike, alleging that it had been taken over by Communists
Communist Party of Great Britain
The Communist Party of Great Britain was the largest communist party in Great Britain, although it never became a mass party like those in France and Italy. It existed from 1920 to 1991.-Formation:...

 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
State of emergency
A state of emergency is a governmental declaration that may suspend some normal functions of the executive, legislative and judicial powers, alert citizens to change their normal behaviours, or order government agencies to implement emergency preparedness plans. It can also be used as a rationale...

, although emergency powers were not used. The strike finally came to an end on 1 July.

The last major strike launched by the NUS took place in January–February 1988 and concerned ferries operated by P&O.

Prominent Officials


Prominent figures who have held positions in the NUS include:
  • Samuel Plimsoll
    Samuel Plimsoll
    Samuel Plimsoll was a British politician and social reformer, now best remembered for having devised the Plimsoll line .-Early life:Plimsoll was born in Bristol and soon moved to Whiteley Wood...

  • Tom Mann
    Tom Mann
    Tom Mann was a noted British trade unionist. Largely self-educated, Mann became a successful organiser and a popular public speaker in the labour movement.-Early years:...

  • J. Havelock Wilson
  • Manny Shinwell
    Manny Shinwell
    Emanuel "Manny" Shinwell, Baron Shinwell CH, PC , familiarly known as Manny, was a British trade union official, Labour politician and one of the leading figures of Red Clydeside....

  • John Prescott
    John Prescott
    John Leslie Prescott, Baron Prescott is a British politician who was Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1997 to 2007. Born in Prestatyn, Wales, he represented Hull East as the Labour Member of Parliament from 1970 to 2010...


General Secretaries

1887: Havelock Wilson
1894: Edmund Cathery
1926: William J. Davies
1927: Edmund Cathery
1928: William R. Spence
1942: Charles Jarman
1948: Tom Yates
1961: Jim Scott
1962: Bill Hogarth
Bill Hogarth
Bill Hogarth was General Secretary of the National Union of Seamen, elected in 1962.-References:...

1974: Jim Slater
Jim Slater (trade unionist)
Jim Slater was a British trade union leader.Born in South Shields, Slater went to sea in 1941, and joined the National Union of Seamen . During World War II, he served in the Merchant Navy...

1986: Sam McCluskie
Sam McCluskie
Sam McCluskie was a British Labour Party politician and trade unionist. He came from Leith in Edinburgh. He followed Albert Booth as Treasurer of the Labour Party from 1984 to 1992. He was general secretary of the National Union of Seamen from 1986 up to the merger which formed the RMT in 1990...


Presidents

1887: Samuel Plimsoll
Samuel Plimsoll
Samuel Plimsoll was a British politician and social reformer, now best remembered for having devised the Plimsoll line .-Early life:Plimsoll was born in Bristol and soon moved to Whiteley Wood...

1894: Havelock Wilson
1929: Post abolished
1986: Jim Slater
Jim Slater (trade unionist)
Jim Slater was a British trade union leader.Born in South Shields, Slater went to sea in 1941, and joined the National Union of Seamen . During World War II, he served in the Merchant Navy...


External links