But ABP's core activity was still fettered by the DLS, which remained essentially the same as when it had been founded in 1947. In the interim manual dock labour had been replaced by increasing degrees of mechanisation, but staffing levels still could not be adjusted. The DLS, according to Sir Keith, left the company on "an unlevel playing field".
"Our continental competitors and some other British ports were outside the DLS (for historical reasons)," he explains. "We were very keen on competition, but it had to be fair. It wasn't just a matter of not being able to dismiss people, but of not being able to determine how many people were employed in the first place."
Not surprisingly, many ex-registered dockers feel slightly differently. In Southampton, for example, where 125 of the former 185 registered stevedores formed their own company, Southampton Cargo Handling, the men regret the scheme's demise. While docker and TGWU representative Jack Williams concedes that it was flawed, he feels that it provided protection in a difficult and dangerous industry: "Guys went to work not knowing when the hell they were going home; they were paid a pittance, and work was very seasonal," he argues.
And Williams should know about the failings of the former scheme. His father was killed in a wharfside accident when he was 17, leaving him, the eldest of nine, to help his mother raise the family. According to Williams, the DLS at least attempted to iron out some of the blatant former abuses: "I used to go out for jobs on the 'stones'," he explains. "A guy would come out with half a dozen jobs and there might be 60 men there. He'd throw the tallies in the air, just to watch guys scrabble for the tally that would give 'em the job."
His views are certainly not shared by management. "The major inhibitors were large manning scales," explains ABP's Hull docks manager, Mike Fell. "There was poor productivity, demarcation, anachronistic work practices - no working in the rain, for example - long breaks and management was not in charge of discipline." Some of the work practices were even more anachronistic than this. They include: "ghosting", where a registered docker had to partner any non-registered worker (but in practice would often go home); "dirty money" (an additional £20 payment for working with rusty ships or dusty cargoes); and "bobbing", where half of the workers assigned to a job did the work while the others "bobbed" off.
To demonstrate the importance of the demise of the scheme, Fell points to the statistics: a 30% increase in tonnage from 1989 to 6.8 million tonnes in 1990 (a figure last achieved in 1970). As a result of the sudden boom, ABP has decided to reopen Alexandra Docks, closed since 1982, and is investing heavily in new lock gates, shed facilities and riverside berths. A port that had been in decline for 20 years is now, says Fell, set for a new era of prosperity.
Given the rigid structure of the DLS and the powers that it gave the TGWU, its abolition seems to have come very late in the day. When abolition was finally announced in 1989 it was long after the end of the closed shop, compulsory secret ballots and secondary picketing, but the news came as a surprise to everyone. Only a month before, Margaret Thatcher had said that it would continue, and the news caught the TGWU napping. Sir Keith believes that the reasons for the delay were probably worries about the industrial clout of the dockers, but when it came, the end was surprisingly smooth.
Stuart Bradley, managing director of ABP, is more blunt in his appraisal of the end of the scheme, rating its significance alongside the 1983 privatisation of the company: "Privatisation enabled us to control our destiny and the scheme's abolition allowed us to control the business."
And certainly, judging from the activity on No 4 dock in Southampton, management's determination seems to have been justified. The vast fruit shed bears an uncanny resemblance to the inside of a wasps' nest. Everyone is in a hurry, striding quickly across the shed floor, yelling above the din or checking clipboards. Forklift trucks career across the concrete, drivers craning their necks as they hurtle backwards with their seven-foot high loads of tomatoes. To the outsider it seems total anarchy, but productivity has rocketed and the 2,000 pallets that arrived this morning from the Canary Islands will have been sold and dispatched by the evening, ready for the next ship to berth.
Margaret Jenkinson, fruit shipping agent for Yeoward Brothers, feels that there is no comparison between attitudes before and since. She now feels obliged to rein in the men, citing the example of a clerk who has just offered to finish a cargo by 6 o'clock. "I look at it realistically and think why not make it 7.30?" she explains. "He'll feel terrible if he gets it wrong." And business bears out Jenkinson's views, with a rapid take-off in the Canary Islands' fruit trade since the DLS's demise.
"ABP employees are much more content now than under the scheme," says Bradley, explaining that although there are fewer of them, they earn more and benefit from the end of the elitist culture that rigid demarcation brought with it. The former ABP dockers on No 4 dock do not agree about the money (Williams says that the basic weekly wage is £195, but can be boosted to about £300 by working seven 10 to 12-hour shifts), but do think that morale is better.