Between the 1920s and 1950s, Bevin was a central figure in the British labour movement and best known for his time as Minister of Labour in the war-time coalition government, and as Foreign Secretary in the post-war Labour Government.
In 1922 Bevin was one of the founding leaders of the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU), which soon became Britain’s largest trade union. Upon his election as the union’s general secretary, he became one of country’s leading labour leaders, and their strongest advocate within the Labour Party. Bevin was a pragmatic trade unionist who believed in getting material benefits for his members through direct negotiations, with strike action to be used as a last resort.(wikipedia)
Bevin went to Bristol in order to make his own way in the world. He was thirteen and unskilled and friendless but in the school of hard knocks all that would change. He was a kitchen boy , a grocer’s errand boy, a conductor on the city trams. He was twenty something when socialism held out promise and his involvement in it led him to the trade union movement.
Graduation from the school of hard knocks made him take a practical approach to the problems and his rock hard integrity won him support from rank and file. He became the assistant general secretary of the union.
In the 20s the union on behalf of the dockworkers placed before the ship owners a claim for 16 shillings a day towards wages and was rejected. The majority of Transport Workers Federation was for strike action. Bevin knew that the union was not ready or financially sound for a prolonged struggle. He advised the union to place the matter before the Court of Enquiry under a High Court judge.
Sir Lyndon McCassey K.C an authority on Industrial Law represented the shipowners while Bevin appeared for the dock workers.
Bevin’s argument was that the ship owners had in the war years done well and profits were still high after the war. Whereas the lot of the workers had worsened. The wage increase since 1905 had double and it meant nothing since the cost of living gone up four times. Bevin argued, “What did this mean? Simply this, that the dock worker’s wife ‘the greatest Chancellor of the Exchequer that ever lived’ had to keep her man and her family on half of what she had been given in 1905. The present demand was for a wage of 16s. a day. Was that too much to pay a man who might be required to work sixty hours a week, lumping great loads about in dirty and dangerous conditions, and at the end of it no guarantee of employment beyond today?What was the alternative? If you don’t meet the docker’s demand then go to the Prime Minister, the minister of Education and the rest, and tell them to close the schools and all that is made for a better life and get the men down to a simple ‘fodder basis.’ ”
Then the ship owner’s counsel presented his budget (drawn by an eminent Cambridge economist Professor A.L Bowley) and averred a weekly wage of 77 s. was sufficient to feed and clothe a a docker’s family.
That evening after the hearing for the day was closed Bevin went with his secretary to street market in Canning Town and spent that amount as per the budget of the Cambridge professor. Then they cooked the purchases back to the Union’s office, cooked their dinner and divided into five portions since this was taken to be the size of an average docker’s family. Each portion they then placed on two plates, one containing a tiny piece of meat with similarly tiny portions of potatoes and greens, and the other a bit of cheese and a slice of bread.
The next morning when the Court was in session Bevin asked permission to produce what dinner the family could have according to the budget. Producing the plates he turned to the judge, “I ask you my Lord to examine the dinner which counsel for the employers considers sufficient to sustain the strength of a dock worker who has to haul, say seventy ton’s of wheat on his back in the course of the day.” The demonstration struck home and Bevin won the case. (ack: 100 Great Modern Lives-ed. John Canning Odhams Books Ltd.,)