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Mr. Arnold : Would not the hon. Gentleman agree that I was right on both counts? The proposal was previewed in the Queen's Speech in the words, "Other measures will be laid before you". It has now been well presented, and bang on time.
Mr. Meacher : The hon. Gentleman has let the cat out of the bag. He was exactly right. He is one of those who were in the know about it. He knew about the long-term contingency planning taking place in the past 18 months. A Channel 4 programme six months ago blew the Government's cover on the introduction of this Bill as revealingly as the Ridley plan did for the miners' strike. Both documents exposed the Government's long-term plan to use industrial provocation for political ends.
Mr. Sayeed : The hon. Gentleman seems to be suggesting that the Government have introduced the Bill to improve their electoral chances. That must mean that the proposals are popular with the electorate. If people like the Bill, why does the Labour party act against their wishes?
Mr. Meacher : If the matter is so politically popular, why did not the Government include it in their manifesto in 1987? I use the words "gratuitous industrial provocation" because it is instructive to compare the ways in which the Government seek to bring about radical
Column 54changes in three different areas. In the case of the legal profession, we had three Green Papers and a gentlemanly debate in the other place. [ Hon. Members :-- "Gentlemanly?"] It may not have been so gentlemanly, but at least it was a debate. The Lord Chancellor has been taking notes and listening attentively to all his critics and we now read in the press that the Government are having second thoughts about such matters as the licensing of advocates and possibly on contingency fees. When 100 High Court judges are so incensed by the Government's proposals that they threaten to take industrial action to disrupt the courts, they are given a ticking-off behind the scenes but publicly they are politely offered a four-month extension to the consultation period.
What a contrast we have with the dockers. In their case, there is no consultation whatever. They are abruptly handed down a White Paper and-- this is without precedent in my experience--a Bill is introduced the very next day. No doubt the proceedings on this Bill will be more telescoped than the proceedings on any major Bill this Session. Under the present Government, there is one law for the professions and another for working people. For the lawyers, we have change by consent--for the dockers, change by compulsion.
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle) : Does the hon. Gentleman think that a dock strike should be called, and if one is called, will the Labour party support it? Would a future Labour Government bring in legislation to reintroduce the scheme? Would they activate the scheme as it would have been activated under the Dock Work Regulation Act 1976?
Mr. Meacher : The only people who want a dock strike are the Government. I do not believe that the employers want a dock strike and we know that the dock workers do not want a dock strike. If there is a strike, it will have been caused wholly by the Government's gratuitous provocation. I unreservedly condemn that provocation which places responsibility for whatever transpires squarely on the shoulders of the Government.
Mr. Fowler : Does the hon. Gentleman propose to return to the point about industrial action, or is that all that he has to say about it? That is an important point for the House--[ Hon. Members :-- "Does the Minister want a dock strike?"] The whole House will want to hear the hon. Member for Oldham, West condemn industrial action. I condemn industrial action. Does he?
Mr. Meacher : For one who made no attempt whatever to discuss the matter with those directly involved, the Secretary of State is suddenly becoming remarkably interested in consultation. He should have consulted the right people at the right time--that is to say, earlier.
Let us consider the Government's current struggle with the doctors about the National Health Service proposals. A week ago at Question Time we heard the Prime Minister say of the proposals :
"They are not meant to be a specific blueprint and we will, of course, consider representations."--[ Official Report, 11 April 1989 ; Vol. 150, c. 737.]
How different that is from her treatment of the dockers. I noted that the Secretary of State said that the role of this House should not be disrupted and that this was a matter for Parliament. He said that he did not want to prejudice the talks which are to take place tomorrow. If the dockers and their leaders make representations to the
Column 55Government on enforceable guarantees to prevent a return to casualisation and on other matters, will the Government consider those representations?
Mr. Fowler : The whole of the dock labour scheme should be debated. The proposition is before the House, and the decision is for both Houses of Parliament. There will be a Committee stage, during which we can go through the Bill in detail. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Oldham, West asked me a question. Precisely the same parliamentary procedure has been adopted as was adopted when the scheme was first implemented. The House still wants to know whether the hon. Gentleman backs industrial action.
Mr. Meacher : Can the right hon. Gentleman give one other instance in which the Government have brought forward legislation affecting an entire industry and not consulted the people in that industry or their representatives?
Mr. Fowler : Can the hon. Gentleman give one instance when the Transport and General Workers Union has not made it absolutely clear that it is not prepared to negotiate in any way, shape or form? That has been its attitude.
Mr. Meacher : If the right hon. Gentleman believes that, he is quite wrong. I am sure that the leaders of the TGWU would be perfectly prepared to enter discussions with him about the future of the industry and the dock labour scheme. Am I to understand from the right hon. Gentleman's previous answer that he is agreeing to that?
Mr. Fowler : I am most certainly not agreeing to that. The provisions have been on the statute book for 40 years. There has been one opportunity after another for the TGWU to seek reform and change, but on every occasion it has refused.
Mr. Meacher : The right hon. Gentleman has made crystal clear his unwillingness to enter into discussions because the Government are hell bent on a strike. The right hon. Gentleman has the opportunity to prevent a strike by entering into negotiations with leaders of the dock workers and the TGWU. I am convinced that the strike could then be avoided and we could have a negotiated settlement on the future of the industry. Will the right hon. Gentleman do that?
Mr. Fowler : The hon. Gentleman keeps accusing me of being hell bent on a strike. That is totally untrue. The hon. Gentleman continues to wriggle and refuses to denounce industrial action. The time has come for him to stand up and denounce industrial action.
Mr. Meacher : I have said that we certainly do not want a strike. We want a negotiated settlement. The right hon. Gentleman can deliver a negotiated settlement. All that he has to do is to say at the Dispatch Box today that he is prepared to enter into negotiations. The fact that he is not prepared to make that statement will make it absolutely clear to everyone in Britain that if there is a strike, he and his Government will be the cause of it. [Interruption.] I am well aware of the Government's claim, which the Secretary of State repeated, that there has been ample negotiations by the employers about the scheme. I realise how the Government reached that conclusion, because the
Column 56Government's view of negotiations is, "I talk to you about an issue, and you agree with the decision that I have already made." That is their view, but the relevant national joint council minutes stretching back over the past seven years do not bear out the claims made by the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister.
The NJC minutes of March 1982 spell out the agreed proposal to set up a joint seminar on the future of the industry. Crucially, the minutes state :
"it was noted the the Working Party did not intend that the Dock Labour Scheme should dominate the discussions".
In other words, the joint discussion between the two sides over the next three years was not, and was not intended to be, primarily about the dock labour scheme.
Mr. Meacher : No, I will finish this point and then give way. It is also perfectly clear from the minutes that the trade union side repeatedly stressed that it was ready to enter joint discussions on the future of the industry. It made that clear in March 1982, August 1982, December 1983, February 1984 and March 1986. I will give the House just one example. The minutes of December 1983 state : "the workpeople indicated that they were prepared to enter into a joint discussion on the future of the industry within the NJC Executive Committee".
They continue :
"they also considered that at the same time as any joint industry discussions, there should be contact with Government Departments to establish the Government's view of the ports Industry's future as part of a total transport policy."
In March 1986, after the conclusion of the seminar on the future of the industry, the minutes state that "Mr. Connolly", the joint secretary on the trade union side,
"recalled that when the Workpeople's Side had wanted to start a dialogue on the future of the industry with a view to a joint approach to the Government, the Employers' Side had declined to do so".
It is perfectly clear that the trade union side has at no stage been unwilling to enter into discussions, and the employers' side has blocked a joint submission to the Government. As it is a matter of critical importance for the next few days, in view of what I have read out, I repeat my question to the Secretary of State. Will he consider representations made to him by the trade union side which in the past it has been prevented from making jointly? Will he consider those representations?
"The policy of the Docks and Waterways group has not changed. There will be opposition to the amendment or revision of the scheme, and that opposition will take the form of a national dock strike". That is what Mr. Connolly said. He has never denied that he said it and he set out the position most clearly.
Mr. Meacher : There is a very simple way of resolving the dispute. Mr. Connolly and the docks section of the TGWU are ready to discuss the matter with the Government, but the Secretary of State will not do so. The simple way to resolve the matter is to ask Mr. Connolly. Will the Secretary of State ask Mr. Connolly to negotiate?
Mr. Fowler : I shall not. There is now legislation before the House. I remind the hon. Gentleman that in 1986 the Secretary of State for Transport asked Mr. Connolly to negotiate but he totally refused.
Mr. Meacher : The right hon. Gentleman is making terribly heavy weather of this. Instead of relying on Lloyd's List for a telegraphic service, why does he not have the guts to invite Mr. Connolly to meet him face to face and to ask him?
"the Employers' side had declined to do so.".
Why did the hon. Gentleman not read out the rest of what Mr. Connolly said? The minutes continued :
"He doubted however whether the employers wanted that kind of discussion, and suggested that they wished instead to talk about abolition of the Dock Labour Scheme. He said that the trade union were not prepared to discuss abolition of the Scheme."
Mr. Meacher : Absolutely. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Bennett) might like to listen to my answer instead of laughing like a hyena. It has always been the union's position that it would not discuss abolition independently of a discussion about the future of an integral ports policy. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman should understand that there are two genuinely different views between the employers and-- [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman merely giggles aimlessly because he does not have the slightest interest in the argument.
The employers simply want to bring about the end of the dock labour scheme. The union's position has always been that it will discuss changes, modifications and improvements in the scheme within the context of a total ports policy. There is nothing remarkable about what Mr. Connolly said. One might have expected that a Secretary of State in a constructive Government not hellbent on confrontation-- [Interruption.]
Mr. Harry Ewing (Falkirk, East) : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend. We are talking about the future of families throughout the country, but the conduct of Conservative Members is worse than anything I have ever seen in the House. If only out of respect for those who will be affected by the legislation, can you make them show some decency towards those families throughout the country?
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker) : I regret that there is an excessive amount of sedentary noise from both sides of the House. I hope that we can continue our business in a more orderly fashion.
Mr. Meacher : One might have expected that a Government faced with genuinely incompatible views between employers and trade unions with regard to the future of an industry would set up a committee of inquiry or some similar body in order to assess objectively the submissions from both sides and to make recommendations. It is deeply deplorable that the Government have done the exact opposite and sought to establish a fait accompli in the most partisan possible manner.
I can understand why the Secretary of State is so reluctant to set up an objective committee of inquiry. The last time he did so, it backfired in his face. Spurred on by
Column 58the Prime Minister's denunciation of the film and television industry as the last bastion of restrictive practices, he set up an inquiry which reported last week. The right hon. Gentleman must be desperately embarrassed about this, or he ought to be if he is not completely brass-necked. The Government's committee concluded that the labour practices in the industry were not against the public interest. Indeed, it went further and defended the closed shop on the grounds that it helped to regulate a casual labour market and provided a badge of skills competence.
The docks industry is not a closed shop, but both those arguments apply strongly to it, so it is no surprise that the Secretary of State and his Cabinet colleagues are unwilling to set up an independent public inquiry into the future regulation of the docks industry. They are afraid of what the conclusions might be. I should make it clear that Parliament ought not to pass the Bill unless and until five central issues concerning the operation of the dock labour scheme are satisfactorily resolved. The Secretary of State in his speech today was so busy knocking the scheme that he scarcely bothered to acknowledge these issues, let alone resolve them. I beg him to believe that there is genuine and deep anxiety that the abolition of the scheme will lead to the return of casualisation in the industry. Naturally, the employers have put out a press release to say that that will not be so, but lest anyone is taken in by that press release-- clearly the Secretary of State has swallowed it hook, line and sinker--I remind the House that that was exactly what the employers said in 1970 at the time of Devlin II. They stated that they had no intention of returning to casual labour and that every man would be allocated permanent employment, but within 18 months, following the collapse of two companies-- Southern Stevedores and Thames 65--they tried to reintroduce the casual system by returning the men to the temporary unattached register. The Secretary of State may screw up his face, but that is what happened. The employers' assurances on previous occasions were clearly groundless and there is no reason to doubt that history is about to repeat itself. Anyone who doubts that need only consider the words of one major port employer-- Mr. Peter de Savary--who has just announced plans to bring back casual labour on his new terminal on the Isle of Grain.
On a Channel 4 programme--I quote from the transcript--he said : "There will be a combination of permanent dockworkers and casual dockworkers. That's a necessity of the industry."
There can be no clearer signal that the employers expect and intend, in an industry where traffic constantly fluctuates, to reduce to a core labour force and employ the remainder on a casual basis. In Liverpool and south Wales, there have been recent attempts to do exactly that.
Dame Peggy Fenner (Medway) : I had hoped to speak later and to remind the hon. Gentleman that he referred to this matter in a speech after my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced that we intended to abolish the scheme. The managing director of Highland Participants, the company which will run Mr. de Savary's project, said that it would not be possible to run a container port of the type it has in mind using casual labour. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is trying to frighten dockers.
Mr. Meacher : I can see the problem facing Conservative Members. However, the person in control of the project is the employer, Mr. Peter de Savary. I am afraid that I accept his view of what is likely to happen rather than that of a manager.
Mr. Fowler : Geoffrey Parker, the managing director to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Medway (Dame P. Fenner) referred, has given a clear assurance that that is not the case. As the hon. Member for Oldham, West understands, Mr. Geoffrey Parker is an experienced ports figure and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept his assurance.
Mr. Meacher : If that is so, why did Mr. de Savary make those remarks and why has he not withdrawn them on the advice of his manager? If I can be told the reasons for that, I may give a little more credence to the hope and a prayer being offered by the Secretary of State.
Dr. Godman : Casual dock work has already returned to the lower Clyde. I received a communication from the chairman of the docks branch in Greenock which said, among other things, that a shipping company which has recently moved to Port Glasgow has
"hired a third party to take on dock labourers on what ranges from a casual to a buckshee basis."
By the words "buckshee basis" Mr. Cannie, the chairman of the docks committee, means that the so-called shipping company is paying backhanders to men on the dole who are desperate for work of any sort. Therefore, we on the lower Clyde have experienced the return of casual dock work.
Mr. Meacher : My hon. Friend has made a relevant reference. We know that there is already in the non-scheme ports casualisation at a level of about 5 per cent. or 6 per cent. The key point is that it will gradually seep in because of the fluctuations and oscillations in docks traffic. That is precisely the problem. Because of the forces of competition, on which the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues are always so keen, we shall be told by other employers, "We would like to provide full work but it is not possible because we are being undercut by other employers." That is precisely what we expect to happen. The press releases issued by 93 per cent. of the employers in the National Association of Port Employers are worthless compared with those economic forces.
I want to say something about the genuine disputes over hiring and firing. The employers complain that it is a "jobs for life" scheme. We have heard that so many times. That can hardly be the case when there has been a cut of 47,000 in the number of registered dock workers in the past 15 years--a reduction of 80 per cent. Dockers can be sacked and are sacked for justifiable reasons such as misconduct. Registered dockers have a right not to be dismissed without cause and when most of them have worked in the industry for 15 years or more, they have a right not to be made redundant without entitlement to severance payment.
Bearing in mind--the Secretary of State referred to this--the oscillations and the peaks and troughs in traffic, there is a small measure of surplus labour which in 1987
Column 60was 9.5 per cent. However, the point to be remembered is that, under the system of casualisation before the scheme there was an average labour surplus per year of 31 per cent. That shows the improvement that has been made under the scheme.
Employers have made the surplus bigger than it should be. In the past few weeks, Associated British Ports sought to employ 50 casual, non-registered dock workers at the port of Barry, while it reported a surplus of 40 in Cardiff, which is only six miles away and has a facility for daily transfers. If employers behave in such a way, of course there will be a surplus of labour.
There has been a huge propaganda barrage against the scheme and allegations of restrictive practices. We do not condone cases which have no industrial logic and which are often the result of slack management. That is why we stated in our transport policy document in early 1987, before the last election,
"We shall review the operation of the Dock Labour Scheme."
Sir Peter Hordern (Horsham) : The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Labour party's election manifesto. Let us suppose that the Labour party forms the next Government. Would a Labour Government review this legislation?
The truth is that many of the restrictive practices that were criticised in the White Paper result from the long-term and acute skill shortages that have been caused by employers' reluctance to train registered dock workers. Standby arrangements--so-called "ghosting"--have rightly been widely condemned, but employers preferred those arrangements to training dock workers. Those same employers are using the arrangements to blame the union for costly restrictive practices.
The Government and employers have cited--the Secretary of State mentioned this when he announced the White Paper--welting or bobbing, which means being paid when one is not at work. The incidence of this is relatively rare, but where it occurs it can and should be dealt with under the dock labour scheme disciplinary procedures. [Laughter.] Conservative Members may laugh, but perhaps the problem is the weak and feeble management of ports. There is no need to get rid of the dock labour scheme to get rid of such practices. Objection is made to dockers' guaranteed minimum daily pay, but many people receive such pay. Doctors do not lose their pay if patients do not turn up. Duty solicitors who are on standby over the weekend are paid even if their services are not needed. High Court judges are paid for the 10 or 12 weeks outside term when they are not trying cases. If dockers do not have the same right, we shall return to casualisation, which perhaps is what many objectors want. Despite all the talk about restrictive practices, productivity in scheme ports has been exceptionally high.
There has been a 730 per cent. increase in productivity in terms of added volume per worker in 20 years. Few industries can match that record.
Column 61A further complaint made by employers against the scheme--the Secretary of State made special reference to this--is that it has driven port investment and jobs elsewhere. Major investments have been announced for scheme ports such as Immingham, Southampton, Bristol and London. I note from the annual report of Associated British Ports that there is major current or planned investment at King's Lynn, Goole, Hull, Ayr and Swansea. Investment is being made at Newport and Tilbury in new berths and terminals to the value of £8 million to £10 million. Of course there has been rapid growth in the non-scheme east coast ports, but that primarily reflects major changes in cargo handling techniques and the shift in trade to Europe. For exactly those reasons, other schemes on the east coast, such as Ipswich, have grown fast.
Mr. Townend rose--
The White Paper--the most propagandist and partisan that I have read for many a year--claims that 50,000 jobs could be created if the scheme were abolished. That is simply repeating the conclusion of a paper prepared for port employers by an organisation called WEFA. The quality of work in the paper is laughable. The estimate of 4,200 new jobs for dockers is based on nothing more than an assertion by employers. Not surprisingly, the report has been described as "an exposition of the prejudices of the port employers with a bit of maths thrown in"
to give it scientific validity. [ Hon. Members :-- "Who by?"] It is an excellent description, is it not? [ Hon. Members :-- "Who by?"] I describe it like that, and I am happy to do so because that is exactly what it is. It is not my description, but that of another body. [Interruption.] It may be Lloyd's List. It is disreputable for a tendentious and virtually worthless report to have its conclusions reproduced without qualification in a White Paper. Another charge made against the scheme is that it increases costs, but employers do not say that its administrative costs are negligible. Of the £7 to £15 per tonne charged in scheme ports for cargo handling, precisely 1.5p can be attributed to the scheme's administration. The levy pays for the medical and welfare amenities that most decent employers should provide. The biggest cost is voluntary severance arrangements, which are recouped later in higher productivity, and the Government meet half the redundancy costs. More important, employers do not say--because of their obsession with vilifying the scheme--that a much bigger part of the extra costs that they have to bear compared with their European counterparts arises from charges levied by the Government, including lighthouse dues, pilotage and Customs charges. Employers recently estimated that lighthouse dues alone could amount to £20,000 per call for a large vessel and well over £1 million per year for a single line. The Department of Transport estimated that they accounted for one seventh of the adverse cost differential between British and continental ports. As if that were not bad enough, in 1987 the Government announced a 14 per cent. increase in light dues and sought to raise a further £1 million a year by levying light dues on fishing vessels of a certain size.
Those Government-imposed charges, which employers have described as a "real and dominant deterrent" to ship-owners, have caused the substantial loss of trade in British
Column 62ports. If the Government are genuinely concerned about freeing our ports for 1992 and the Channel tunnel link, why do they not remove that major cause of excessive handling costs? In European ports such as Rotterdam and Antwerp, such services are provided free. The central point is not that other European countries do not have a dock labour scheme and we do, but that they have a national plan for the development of their port industry and we do not. Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium have a dock labour scheme which provides for the direct involvement of a trade union and dock workers in recruitment, training, welfare, medical services and redundancy. The difference arises in two vital respects. First, competitor countries value their ports as part of their basic national infrastructure and therefore give them heavy Government support. Every coastal EC state on the continent--with the single exception of Denmark--provides either 100 per cent. or near--100 per cent. subsidies for port investment in and maintenance of maritime access channels, lights, buoys, navigational aids, sea locks, exterior breakwaters, docks, quays and reclaimed land. Britain is the only country which provides none of those aids. A spokesman for Associated British Ports recently confirmed that that, and not the labour scheme, is the reason for the considerable cost disadvantage faced by British ports.
Secondly, unlike Governments in countries across the North sea and the Channel, the British Government have no national plan for port development. For example, on the Humber there are dozens of small ports. The area can already handle 20 per cent. more trade than it has ever had, yet new ports are being built and there are plans to build many more. A similar story of duplication, confusion and petty proliferation exists in other parts of the country. By comparison, the European ports, which the Government cite in the White Paper as being efficient, are massive because their Governments have a deliberate policy of concentrating on major ports to gain the maximum benefits from economies of scale. For that reason, Rotterdam handles nearly 40 million tonnes--50 per cent. more than London and three times more than our next three largest ports, including Felixstowe. The Government's view was set out by Lord Brabazon, the Minister for shipping, on a Channel 4 programme. His remarks are worth quoting verbatim. He said :
"We have a free market policy. Market forces prevail. We believe the market is best to decide where new investment should go and which ports should be used by the ship-owners."
He then added the immortal words :
"The policy is, as such, there is no policy."
That just about sums up the Government policy. That is why, in the run-up to 1992, we have been overtaken by so many European ports. The Bill involves just one proposal--the abolition of the scheme--but abolition is no panacea. Far more fundamental problems, on which the Government are completely empty-handed, need to be resolved, including the lack of a national ports policy, planned investment or positive industrial relations. The Bill is the product of confrontation ideology and political opportunism. That is why it offers no answers for the future of the docks industry.
Several hon. Members rose--
Mr. Deputy Speaker : I remind the House that Mr. Speaker has already said that speeches delivered between 7 and 9 o'clock will be limited by the 10-minute rule. I hope that those who speak between now and 7 o'clock will bear in mind the constraints upon their colleagues.
Mr. Churchill (Davyhulme) : The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) seeks to defend the indefensible. He has not done a very good job of it today. It is intriguing that he has backtracked on the statement which he made only one week ago, that the Labour party would support a national dock strike, as my hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke (Mr. Bennett) pointed out--and the hon. Member for Oldham, West was unable to deny. On BBC Radio Lancashire news, a week ago this evening, the interviewer, Mike West, said :
"The Labour party have made it clear it would support dockers if they decided to take strike action over the Government's decision. Shadow Employment spokesman Michael Meacher says the Government were taking a reckless gamble, and the Labour party would have to stand by the dockers."
The right hon. Member for Oldham, West replied :
"frankly we have no alternative but to support, if there were a strike."
Clearly, the right hon. Member for Oldham, West has attempted to backtrack on that statement. So, too, has his leader.
On the same evening of 10 April, the Leader of the Opposition, interviewed by David Walter on BBC television's "Newsnight" programme, said :
"If it is necessary for us to declare our solidarity for dock workers in their efforts to sustain operations and to maintain the continuity of dock working, then the Labour party won't be found wanting."
Will the Secretary of State tell us whether the Labour party will be found wanting yes or no? Will the Labour party back such a strike, as the right hon. Gentleman said just a week ago? [Interruption.] I give way to him-- [Interruption.] My apologies--I meant the shadow Secretary of State. I see that he does not wish to intervene--instead I give way to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galloway).
Mr. George Galloway (Glasgow, Hillhead) : Does not the hon. Gentleman understand the simple point that, if there is a dock strike, the Opposition will feel it necessary to support the workers? However, we do not want a strike. Given his famous name, would not the hon. Member for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill) accept that it would be better to get round a table and have some jaw-jaw, rather than war-war with the dockers?