1955 Singapore Harbour Board Staff Association Strike


On 30 April 1955, about 1,300 port workers employed by the Singapore Harbour Board Staff Association (SHBSA) went on strike for better wages and working conditions. The strikers included tally clerks, stenographers, storekeepers and accountants.1 The strike ended after an agreement was reached on 6 July 1955 between the association and the Singapore Harbour Board (SHB) management on improved wages and conditions of service.2

Causes, negotiations and strike
The primary reasons for the SHBSA orchestrating the strike were low wages and adverse working conditions. By March 1955, the association had submitted 18 claims to the management to open negotiations on the said issues, with some of these submissions dating back two years. The SHB refused to enter negotiations without the SHBSA first acquiescing on an earlier dispute, namely a restriction on political activities by port employees.3 The SHBSA rejected this and met in mid-March to discuss strike action. But, a strike then was averted when the Ministry of Labour brokered a deal to open negotiations between the SHB and the SHBSA, and talks between the two parties began on 18 March.4 The negotiations stalled, however, and the SHBSA served a strike notice.5 The workers carried out a one-day strike at the docks on 15 April, and the action brought about a re-opening of negotiations.6

The talks failed again and the SHBSA’s subsequent strike began on 30 April. With clerks, storekeepers, stenographers and accountants participating in the strike, the SHB was left with around 5,000 daily-rated workers loading and unloading cargo from 22 ships along the wharves at the time. The strikers picketed the gates all the way to the docks, and were visited by some 500 students and sympathisers.7 The SHBSA strike also came amidst negotiations between the SHB and three other unions, which were eventually resolved without a strike.8 Port facilities continued to function as the SHB arranged for non-SHBSA workers to fill the roles of the strikers, who had hoped to bring port operations to a halt.9

Attempts by the Singapore Trades Union Congress, Chief Minister David Marshall and Minister for Labour and Social Welfare Lim Yew Hock to mediate in the dispute over the next month were unsuccessful. At the end of May, talks between the SHB management and the SHBSA held at the Ministry of Labour broke down over the issues of back-dating pay increases and pensions for workers.10

By June, the strike had gone on for more than a month, and unions representing more than 40,000 workers threatened to stage a sympathy strike if the dispute was not resolved.11 These unions included nine waterfront unions as well as the Singapore Factory and Shop Workers Union.12 This sympathy strike was averted by the opening of another round of negotiations between the SHB and the SHBSA,13 but five union leaders, including Fong Swee Suan of the Singapore Bus Workers’ Union, were arrested in mid-June under Emergency Regulations for instigating the sympathy strike.14 SHBSA strikers then held pickets outside the Legislative Assembly while it was in session on 29 June, at the arrival of new Governor Sir Robert Black at Kallang Airport on 30 June and at his installation ceremony at Victoria Theatre two days later.15

Outcome
Marshall then arranged a final meeting between the SHB and the SHBSA on 5 July, after which the dispute would be escalated for arbitration if both parties could not come to a resolution.16 The two sides emerged from the meeting with an agreement over the final three points of dispute – the effective dates of new salary scales for clerks and non-clerical workers, and pensions for non-clerical staff.17 The negotiations, which had lasted nearly 100 hours in total over three months, resulted in a 15-point agreement that ended the strike on 6 July, after which the SHBSA strikers resumed work the next morning.18


The agreement was signed by representatives from both SHB and SHBSA: P. A. T Chrimes (chairman, SHB), S. Johnson (assistant general manager, SHB), K. Davis (secretary, SHB), Siak Chun Leng (president, SHBSA), Jamit Singh (secretary, SHBSA), Harry Goh Kay Choon (vice-president, SHBSA), C. Sathasivam (vice-president, SHBSA), and SHBSA members Ong Beng Chooi, Abdul Mutalib and A. Panday. Lim Yew Hock signed as witness.19

The agreement, which was said to cost the SHB at least $500,000 a year, gave clerks wage increases ranging from $27 to $80 a month and also assured shorter working hours, higher overtime rates, more annual leave and other benefits. Workers were also no longer forced to work overtime, and overtime shifts were made optional. In return, the SHBSA agreed not to submit any further claims for a year. The SHB also agreed to give advances of seven weeks’ pay to the strikers – an assurance that was listed under a secret “gentleman’s agreement” which was later leaked to the media.20

Significance
The SHBSA was the first labour union to be registered under the 1940 Trade Unions Ordinance on 18 October 1946.21 The administration of the strike transformed the status of the SHBSA from a mere recreational club into a vigorous trade union that successfully opposed the SHB, one of the largest employers in Singapore at the time. The strike also saw Jamit Singh grow in prominence as a union leader and by April 1956, he had successfully persuaded five unions, including the SHBSA, to merge and form a single union, the Singapore Harbour Board Workers' Union (SHBWU), comprising about 10,000 members.22 The SHBWU was registered on 20 October 1956.23




Author

Tettyana Jasli




References
1. Docks – pickets all day. (1955, May 1). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. Strike is over – and the men cheer the news. (1955, July 7). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG
3. Union threatens strike: Decision in four days. (1955, March 14). The Singapore Free Press, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. Talks – so harbour strike is off. (1955, March 18). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. Lim moves to avert strike. (1955, April 14). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. One-day strike by 1,300 at docks. (1955, April 15). The Straits Times, p. 1; Harbour Board dispute. (1955, April 16). The Straits Times, p. 6; ‘Very cordial’ talks by S.H.B. men. (1955, April 17). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Docks – pickets all day. (1955, May 1). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Harbour unions’ split ends. (1955, May 26). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. Singapore Port Workers Union. (1986). The port worker and his union: The first 40 years of the Singapore Port Workers Union. Singapore: Times Books International, p. 30. (Call no.: RSING 331.88113871095957 POR)
10. Dock strike talks break down. (1955, June 1). The Straits Times, p. 4; Marshall in a bid to end strike. (1955, June 4). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. 40,000 threaten new strike. (1955, June 9). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. A day of talks in bid to end port strike. (1955, June 10). The Singapore Free Press, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. ‘Sympathy’ strike by 60,000 called off. (1955, June 12). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. 5 held under crisis laws. (1955, June 13). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. The assembly pickets. (1955, June 30). The Straits Times, p. 7; Welcome, Sir Robert – by pickets. (1955, July 1). The Straits Times, p. 1; Morgan, P. (1955, July 3). Hardly an orthodox welcome! The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. Dock deadlock broken. (1955, July 5). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. 66-day harbour strike is over. (1955, July 6). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. Strike is over – and the men cheer the news. (1955, July 7). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. Strike is over – and the men cheer the news. (1955, July 7). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20. Strike is over – and the men cheer the news. (1955, July 7). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. Singapore Port Workers Union. (1986). The port worker and his union: The first 40 years of the Singapore Port Workers Union. Singapore: Times Books International, pp. viii, 22. (Call no.: RSING 331.88113871095957 POR)
22. Liew, K. K. (2004, October). The anchor and the voice of 10,000 waterfront workers: Jamit Singh in the Singapore Story (1954–63). Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 35(3), p. 467. Retrieved from Proquest via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
23. Singapore Harbour Board Staff Association. (1967). Souvenir magazine: Anniversary. Singapore: Author, p. 83. (Call no.: RCLOS 387.1095957 SHBSAS)



The information in this article is valid as at 2012 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

 

Subject
Harbor personnel--Labor unions--Singapore
Organisations>>Trade Unions
Stevedores--Labor unions--Singapore
Business, finance and industry>>Economics>>Labour economics>>Labour unions
Strikes and lockouts--Harbor personnel--Singapore
Labour and employment
Port Workers' Strike, Singapore, 1955