The dangerous nature of port work, combined with low pay, poor working conditions and widespread social deprivation ensured that the workforce looked to their trade unions for protection. As a result, industrial relations were strained throughout the history of the port.
The first major eruption of unrest came with the Great Dock Strike of 1889. It took place against the background of growing trade unionism among unskilled workers and discontent at the wretched living conditions of dockers and their families. At the root of this was the casual nature of dock labour, organised via the 'call-on' and the contract system.