Tuesday, 4 March 2014

The Book: Excerpts...Abdulwahid Sykes and Dar es Salaam Dockworkers’ Union, 1948 Part One

Abdulwahid Sykes and Dar es Salaam Dockworkers’ Union, 1948 
Part One  

Abdulwahid Sykes
King's African Rifles (KAR) Burma Infantry
6th Battalion 1942
Second World War 1938 - 1945

In 1948 the colonial government brought into the country a professional trade unionist, G. Hamilton, from Britain who was seconded to the Labour Department to advise the union on the principles of collective bargaining. Hamilton shared the same office with Barakat and fully engaged him as his assistant in the establishment and setting up of the union. Hamilton had been a docker with the Port of London and had wide experience in port unrest. The offices of the Dockworkers’ Union were in a wooden shack with corrugated iron roofing situated in front of the Avalon Cinema where now stands the Regional Immigration Office. All meetings were held there and were attended by Hamilton and Barakat from the Labour Department and Abdulwahid and his executive committee representing the Union. Hamilton was living at Gerezani European Quarter where there are now the Railway Quarters. Abdulwahid was living at Stanley (called Aggrey Street after independence in honour of Dr Aggrey and later to be renamed Makisi Mbwana Street after one of the founding fathers of TANU) not far from Hamilton’s house. During the early days of the setting up of the union, Hamilton worked very closely with Abdulwahid, at times visiting him at his house to thrash out problems. It was quite a spectacle to see Abdulwahid and a white man sitting on the veranda talking or bending over a mass of papers. In those days Africans perceived Europeans to be superior beings and could only watch Abdulwahid rubbing shoulders with a white man with awe.   
The creation of the union and the bureaucracy that subsequently developed with it, typical of any formal organisation, created a new problem for Abdulwahid. Collective bargaining demands participation of all interested parties to a labour dispute. Dockworkers’ demands had first to be discussed by the executive committee of the union and then Abdulwahid had to submit them to their representatives. Then at a later stage the demands had to be discussed by all parties including Hamilton and Barakat from the Labour Department. Abdulwahid’s writing flair, his knowledge of shorthand and his good command of the English language helped greatly in pushing forward quickly most of the union’s paperwork.

Unfortunately, very few decisions were made and most of the time negotiations seemed to be stalling. No meaningful decisions or agreements were ever concluded. To the dockworkers, the new system was tedious, cumbersome and time-consuming. Negotiating was a new experience to them and something they had not bargained for. This created industrial unrest within the Dockworkers’ Union itself.  Abdulwahid now faced an entirely new problem, a precarious situation which threatened to break the Union and destabilise his leadership. He could not negotiate directly with shipping companies, nor could he negotiate at his own speed and style. He informed union members of his predicament. He made it clear to them that the labour conditions obtaining at the moment did not favour militant action against the shipping companies or their agents.

Seeing no quick progress in their grievances the dockworkers began to exert pressure on Abdulwahid to speed up negotiations; otherwise they threatened to call a strike of their own without official backing of the Union. The method of negotiation for solutions to industrial conflict therefore became a source of friction. Union members continued to put pressure on Abdulwahid to refuse negotiating and to call for immediate strike action. An internal crisis within the leadership of the union ensued and the dockworkers once again resorted to marches in processions between the union office and Abdulwahid’s house, pressurising him to call for strike action against the stevedoring companies. During the period of internal crisis which was threatened to split the union, Abdulwahid, Barakat and Hamilton were in constant contact using their personal capacities as well as their official positions and government authority to avert a split in the union leadership.

Abdulwahid wanted to settle the simmering dispute amicably and in the most orderly manner possible. But the dockworkers were in no mood for niceties. They demanded strike action to solve their labour dispute once and for all. While Abdulwahid was trying to solve the dispute and diffuse tension between his leadership and union members, a go-slow strike was effected by dissidents against the companies without his authority or consent. After realising that dockworkers were not ready for any compromise short of strike action, Kleist advised Abdulwahid to resign his post so as to avert a collision with the government. It was obvious to him that the port labour movement was getting out of control and his son was unable to contain it. Kleist had experience in labour politics and between 1939-1947 he had witnessed three strikes. As trade unionist and TAA Secretary he was summoned to appear before a tribunal appointed by the government to investigate industrial unrests.[1]

[1]         Iliffe, ‘A History of Dockworkers...’
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