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The Liverpool dockers dispute, a summing up (or how not to conduct a strike)
The background to the dispute
The initial dispute
The initial campaign for support
An «international» turn
Dockers Support Groups
The quiet collapse of the dispute
Enter and exit the «eco-warriors»
A TGWU inspired deal

The Liverpool dockers dispute, a summing up (or how not to conduct a strike)
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«Those who work hard and do their best
go down the road like all the rest
(an old workers' saying)

The dispute by Liverpool dockers went on for well over two years. It involved incredible determination and sacrifices, by not only the dockers themselves, but their families and supporters. They suffered vilification in the press, arrests on the picket line, and some were injured by being run down by vehicles entering the Port. In doing this summing up of the dispute, and criticising the tactics pursued, and the inability to break with the union stranglehold, we do not intend to personalise (as some have done), nor to denigrate the dockers. But on the other hand, those who have just followed the dockers, without having offered any other ways forward, have done an equally destructive disservice to the dockers; as the denigrators did, by simply applauding, and justifying, the hopelessly false notions of convincing the bosses and their state that it was in their interests to have the strikers back.

The dockers were set up long ago to be «sorted out», and that was done through the mechanisation, applauded by the supporters of the Devlin «decasualisation». The introduction of containerisation was never intended to give dockers a secure future - the working class has never really had a secure future under capitalism. The constant drive for profit means insecurity, sweat, illness, and sometimes death. It is the lot of the proletariat until capitalism itself is «made redundant», by a genuine production for need not profit, when balance sheets, and capitalist concepts, become fit for only the gruesome wings of museums.

The background to the dispute
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The strike by almost 500 Liverpool dockers (including Torside workers) which started on 28th September 1995 finally collapsed in January 1998. The terms for the settlement? A few getting employment, with the majority given severance payments - not a lot though considering most will never work again. It looks remarkably similar to the deal rejected a year before.

The dockers had been employed by the Mersey Docks & Harbour Company [MDHC], or subsidiaries/contract companies, and Liverpool was reputed to be the last unionised port after the strike against the abolition of the National Dock Labour Scheme [NDLS] in 1989. All the other ports went over to the use of casual labour. The MDHC had made a promise that casual labour would not be introduced into what was left of the Liverpool docks, mainly the complex around the Seaforth Container terminal. With this «guarantee», and total union collaboration by the Transport & General Workers Union [TGWU], the work-force was more than halved, from 1,100 to about 500 between 1989 and 1991. Some work was already being contracted out to other companies. It was during a dispute over the loss of jobs on the Irish Traffic Berth that the Shop Stewards (minor union officials amongst the work-force) were derecognised.

The Company and the Union entered into a new deal on totally changing working practices, which included annualised bonuses, a twelve hour shift which could start at any hour of the day (instead of the old fixed eight hours shifts) the end of over-time payments for week-end work, and workers to be on permanent stand-by at home just in case they were telephoned to go into work. Along with these changes went a reduction of average pay by 25%.

The issue of the recognition of the Shop Stewards became an essential part of the implementation of new working practices. The MDHC agreed to have Shop Stewards recognised providing that a Union/Management Accreditation form was signed by those elected, and that postal ballots for the positions were held, replacing the traditional show of hands at a shop-floor meeting. This accredited shop steward system was obviously what the TGWU wanted, and they pressed that it be implemented, despite the fact that a third of the dockers objected to having the election at all. Meanwhile, the real attacks were about to begin.

The threat of mass sackings, with jobs being advertised in the local papers, forced through: acceptance of the measures by only five votes. The distraction of keeping the officially backed shop stewards obviously helped to tip the balance in favour of accepting the reorganisation. The dockers. would pay a fatal price for voting for the deal. Not only did it prepare the way for the final sackings three years later, but it also meant they threw away the chance of combining with casual workers and waging a fight to protect the interests of all the workers in the dock industry, and beyond.

The initial dispute
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The 1995 dispute began as a strike/refusal to cross a picket line, composed of 80 younger dockers dismissed by a separate contracting company (Torside). It then became a lock-out, when the MDHC dismissed all the workers involved. Torside Ltd had dismissed 20 workers in the previous month (August 1995), intending to replace them: with casual or part-time workers. The Torside workers refused to accept this and began picketting the docks. The initial dismissals were withdrawn, then all of the Torside workers were «finished up» on the 26th September. Confronted by this situation other dockers, who were then permanent employees of MDHC, refused to cross the picket line and were then sacked in turn. The union, the TGWU, moved in to convince the workers to return to work for 9th October - the employers refused to allow this to happen, so a lock-out began.

It was a strike as far as the workers were concerned, a lock-out for the union. The workers demanded all of them being reinstated, and the union held some meetings to try to get a deal where some workers would be taken back, and the others paid-off. The derisory amounts initially offered were heavily voted down by the strikers.

On the 23rd October MDHC announced that they intended to replace the entire workforce with contract labour brought in from other ports and locally recruited strike-breakers. After that the strike was an uneasy combination of activities to widen the strike and a public campaign to influence the shipping companies which used the port. Using as their slogan a quotation from the shipping, industry's publication, «Lloyds List», «Liverpool Dockers, the best in Europe» the Shop Stewards committee insisted that they were for maintaining a profitable port on the Mersey. In fact they were continuing the policies enforced by the Union in 1993, which they had failed to oppose as they thought their existence as a body was more important than the fight against this new deal.

The union had collaborated in halving the work-force. Jobs disappear through «natural wastage», so workers have not officially been made redundant - some workers leave for other jobs, are retired or become permanently unfit for work. It is a typical trade unionist way of seeing the issue. Those who leave a particular industry by taking redundancy payments are castigated as «having sold their jobs» as if they were depriving other generations of «birthrights». The scorn and insults directed at those who have left have only helped to isolate further those who remain.

The many thousands of dock workers, who in the past had been made redundant -had taken the money - had seen what was coming and voted with their feet by leaving the industry. Amongst those who left the docks were most of the more militant workers who constituted the hard core of unofficial strikes, in fact most of those who had opposed decasualisation.

Decasualisation, through the Devlin scheme implemented from the late 1960s onwards, did not, as the TGWU and the stalinists around Jack Dash claimed, bring dignity and security. As far as the term «decasualisation» is concerned, it is a distraction. The old system when dockers could be hired for a few hours, or half-a-day, had ended during the Second World War (an intensive war couldn't be fought by the bosses with such a system) and was replaced by the «pool system» operated by the NDLS, the supplier of labour for the shipping bosses. It was this «pool system» that allowed the dockers to organise themselves, and through a long-term economic offensive, to raise their pay, and dignity, to such a level that it became a threat not only to the interests of the port industry, but also at times to the national economy itself. In a very real sense, the «pool system» tended towards the unification of the workers, which is one reason it was abolished, while the assigning of workers to different employers, led to their division, and fragmentation.

The desire for permanent bosses meant the workers being handed over directly to be employed by companies that were determined to exploit the docks, and dockers, in order to obtain the biggest possible profits. This brought mechanisation, massive reduction of the work-force and wage rates, and prepared for the final «sorting out» of the dockers.

The initial campaign for support
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The first leaflet calling for a Community March and Rally had as one its slogans «Liverpool is our port and should be maintained in the best interests of our community». The leaflet asked taxpayers to consider how public money had been spent, and pointed out that the Government still had a 20% stake in the MDHC. At that time there was a Tory Government, which controlled the shares. Labour under Blair held out until the strike was over, and the share price went up, and like any other bunch of capitalists, sold the stake for a considerable profit.

The same leaflet went on to say that the shipowners «are rightly, publicly critical» of the MDHC. And seeking allies amongst shipowners rather than amongst other sections of workers very much catches the tone of the leaflet. It does not appeal mainly to workers, or confront the issues that relates to masses of workers, but appeals to regional and civic pride, i.e. «Our Port [being] the historic lifeblood of our community symbolises the regeneration of our great city» which predominate. It is exactly the same stalinist debacle being prepared as that of the miners in 1984-5, with the defence of the mining industry as an industry, rather than putting the fate of the workers first, foremost and solely.

The earliest platforms creaked under the weight of MPs and other bourgeois rabble, with a few honorary workers. As the strike dragged on, and «respectable» speakers melted away, a «turn» was made to other trade unionist leaders, especially senior shop stewards and convenors from local factories. These arch-collaborators of productivity deals and other attacks upon the workers in the factories they «represented», basked in the glow of solidarity, meanwhile propagating alleged comments of shopfloor workers of the «what have the dockers ever done for us» variety. This allowed the speakers to give their own version of Monty Python's «what have the Romans ever done for us» sketch. The support given by dockers in the past in supporting other workers' unofficial actions was stated. Some money was collected, but not the slightest hint of strikes in support was given.

It is certainly correct though that there was support given frequently by dockers to assist and support other workers in struggle. This of ten amounted to «blacking» of goods being imported/exported from specific factories, to more political strikes, such as against the Vietnam War. But the dockers who gave this support were the old unofficial movements, outside the control of the TGWU, and later their shop stewards.

The leaders of the strike had no connection to, indeed were fierce opponents of the old unofficial movements, and their organised expressions. We will deal with all this at length in another study, but in brief: the unofficial movement, the independent port workers committees, along with the breaking of the closed shop by the existence of the «Blue Union» (the National Amalgamated & Stevedores Union) was an obstacle to the modernisation of the docks. This modernisation could only be accomplished by destroying the unofficial movements, and asserting the authority of the TGWU. This was done through the Devlin Report, and decasualisation. The shop stewards - (supporters of the Devlin Plan) and minor officials in the TGWU, assisted in the modernisation of the docks - and they themselves became eventually casualties in due course. Unfortunately, they never drew any conclusions from all this.

An «international» turn
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The initial approaches to the MDHC shareholders having failed to have the dockers reinstated, and as demonstrations outside the Stock Market and other venerable bourgeois institutions failed to bring forth solidarity from big business, a shift of tactics took place. Unwilling to confront the union bureaucracies, or engage in actions which would threaten the union's assets, an «international» turn took place. This «international» direction became a substitute for addressing the rest of the working class in Britain. We never criticise any internationalising of disputes, indeed we always look for ways of broadening out the class struggle wherever possible, but a proper balance between «national» and «international «tactics always needs to be struck. Also, in a very real sense, as Marx pointed out with regards to the Polish question, internationalism begins at home.

Part of this «internationalising» of the dispute was an attempt to convince one of the MDHC's most important US customers, American Containers Ltd [ACL], to revoke its contract unless the original workforce was reinstated. A picket of three Liverpool dockers flew to New York, caused temporary stoppages to ships sailing to Liverpool, leading to support from American dockers. Other ports were contacted and promises of support from around the world, including some strike action, and desperately needed money was sent, to sustain the strike. Strikes and blacking took place from time to time in many ports, as far away as Australia.

A Dockworkers' International Conference was held in Liverpool on 17-23. February 1996, with delegates and well-wishers from many ports throughout the world. Good relations were forged between sections of dockworkers, and also the women who had determinedly supported the strike from the beginning, came to the fore under the title of WOW! [Women of the waterfront]. The widening of action to affect other ports within Britain was declined. This fact was admitted in the front page statement in the «Dockers Charter» No 5, March 1996:
The Mersey Port shop Stewards' Committee knowing that their action was unofficial and illegal and that they could not get physical support from dockers in any of the other british ports, turned to their brothers in countries around the world».

Reverence and respect for the anti-union [in reality anti-strike] laws is what prevents the linking up of different sections of workers. The very fact that MDHC also owns the Medway port, near London, seemed to have been forgotten, and no real attempt was made to spread the strike there. If the strikers had, they would have come into immediate conflict with the TGWU.

Nor was a turn towards other workers under attack, whether nationally or locally, addressed. Indeed it was highly unlikely that such an approach could he made. Liverpool City Council let the dockers use the Council Chambers in the Town Hall for the Conference. Fulsome praise for such help was given to Council leaders, but this ensured that any linking of the dockers dispute with the attacks being made upon the Council workers in Liverpool (children's residential care workers conditions were under attack, workers under temporary contracts were being dismissed, use of sessional work rather than «proper contracts of employment» - exactly the type of attacks being practised by the Dock Company) would never take place.

Dockers Support Groups
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Dockers Support Groups, composed of trade union activists, had been formed in some areas, notably in London and Clydeside, but an effective one was never formed in the Merseyside area.

These Support Groups were brought together at a National Labour Movement Conference held on 27th April 1996 at Transport House, Liverpool - the Regional premises of the TGWU. There were 195 delegates, representing either workers' groups, union branches, political groups, or just themselves. It was a crosssection of all the political confusion that still dominates the workers in Britain.

One of the purposes of the Conference was to discuss solidarity action for May 1st. In the course of the discussions, criticisms were made of the role of the leadership of the TGWU. Also it was obvious that amendments to the prepared resolutions were being suggested. The chair of the meeting, a dockers shop steward, made the position clear to the meeting - as far as the dockers shop stewards were concerned.
Behind the scenes the TGWU is supporting the dockers and getting the dockers «unofficial» representation».
He further went on to say that they
will not put up with criticism of the TGWU - they are 100% behind themselves and 100% behind the leadership».
It was made obvious that that should be kept in mind regarding resolutions being moved.

With this «firm stance» being taken - not surprising seeing that the TGWU premises were being used by the strikers, along with the phones, faxes, etc. -the main reason for this subservience is because the TGWU was paying hardship funds to the strike committee. Get too far out of line and the financial help will be stopped!

The main Trotskyist groups, in particular the «Socialist Workers Party», the «Workers Revolutionary Party» («Workers Press») and «Militant Labour», quickly came into line, not wanting to fall out with the strikers leaders. There was much talk about influencing the union, rebuilding the leadership, etc, but the existing leaders shouldn't be upset too much! There was only minority vocal support for an amendment criticising the TGWU, but this sort of amendment was ruled out of order by the Chairman.

Support was expressed for the May Day solidarity demonstration, and one such occasion will be given as an object lesson about a certain type of trade unionist support that is worthy of examination. A representative of the Liverpool UNISON branch was making a clear declaration that their branch, and in particular the social workers, would all be out on May Day and giving support to the dockers. This did not take place, for the following instructive reason. It is our information that all the social workers in Liverpool, just before May Day, were handed two letters, one from Liverpool City Council and the other from the leadership of UNISON. Both were identical in content, if not exactly identical in wording - the proposed strike is unofficial, unlawful, and could put the workers concerned in breach of their contract of employment. Except for some individual absences, there was no mass walk-out, no solidarity action. More significantly, no lesson was drawn. The same union branch, depleted over the years by people leaving or defecting to other unions, still passes resolutions, calls Conferences, expresses support for issues, but if it can't confront and defy its union leadership, what is the point of all this paper talk.

A significant demonstration on May 1st 1996 did take place, but the real issues confronting the dockers, never mind the workers as a whole, were never addressed. The veranda of Liverpool Town hall was used by speakers to address the demonstrators. The irony of the situation, that this was the same City Council who threatened its own staff if they dared to go out on strike, should be noted. Solidarity was proclaimed, but towards what end was never stated. There was even a Media Star on the platform, declaring that dockers are sexy! A Bosnian Miners' Trade Union representative expressed support for the dockers and made appeals as «our mining company needs money to operate properly». A company - which if it had the resources would presumably do to their workers what the MDHC were doing to the dockers!

The quiet collapse of the dispute
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Soon after the May Day solidarity march had taken place the shop stewards announced that the dispute was going to arbitration, through the services of ACAS. (Such conciliation is to arrange a deal in which the employers interests are maintained - and some crumbs thrown to the workers). The main discussions would in fact eventually involve discussions between the MDHC and the TGWU, the shop stewards being tucked away in a side room. This must be what the leaders of the striking dockers saw as getting representation through the TGWU and having real talks with the port bosses.

All the manoeuvring through the TGWU to convince the bosses to give them their jobs back came to nothing. There was a spate of campaigns to convince specific shipping companies, such as ACL, to pull out of Liverpool, but this came to nothing either. There seemed to be some sort of belief that if economic pressure was brought to bear, then the share-holders of the company would tell the Directors to give the workers their jobs back! This is a case of an illusion in democracy gone mad. Share-holders, mainly big institutions, are only interested in the profitability of the enterprise, and profits can only be increased by attacks on the workers. Just before the final collapse of the strike an interesting demand was made to «destock the Dock»; for any Trade Union pension fund, etc, who had shares in the MDHC, to pull out in protest at the way that the dockers had been treated.

Further deals about «settling the strike» were voted down by the strikers. Activities gradually subsided until it amounted to a few international contacts and the running of an internet WebSite, demonstrations of supporters, and the publication of the «Dockers Charter», which had the following demands:
1. No return to casual labour.
2. Real jobs in a profitable and expanding port for the unemployed of Merseyside.
3. No victimisation. All sacked workers to be reinstated.
4. Reinstate trade union recognition, and recognise elected shop stewards.

The very «reasonable» demands were not only to appeal to «reasonably-minded» people everywhere, but also to keep well in with the TGWU leaders, especially considering that the strikers continued to use the Liverpool offices of the union for meetings and as an organising centre. Whenever matters started getting difficult the national leadership strongly hinted that they would be ejected, the strike committee would make half-hearted plans too operate outside, and then came back into line. The very fact that one of the strike leaders was also on the National Executive of the TGWU did not count for much in the end. The TGWU pursued its own interests, that of considering the wider interests of the docks industry, which obviously did not include the strikers. The leadership of the TGWU was never criticised by the strikers' leaders - Bill Morris was after all elected as the candidate of the «left». He was their man, their preferred choice as leader, and they were stuck with him.

Whilst all the negotiations were taking place to «settle the dispute» through official negotiations by the TGWU, picketting at the dock gates was taking a heavy toll on the strikers. Violence, intimidation and frequent arrests were what the dockers faced. The supposed intervention of the International Longshoreman's Association of the East Coast to block loading and unloading of ships calling at Liverpool came to nothing.

The situation was crying out for a change of strategy and tactics, because the «international turn», «the world is our picket-line» approach, was obviously not working. The families of the strikers faced an increasingly difficult financial situations as the first anniversary of the strike approached. A change did take place, but a change for the worst. That change was towards populism of the most bankrupt kind. It was to remove what proletarian content the strike still had, and drown it in a morass of single issue politics, such as environmentalsim, etc. The political cover for this change was provided by Trotskyists of the «Workers Press» and «Militant Labour».

Enter and exit the «eco-warriors»
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Fresh forces were to be brought onto the field of battle, so it was claimed, under the title of «Reclaim the Future». That is what was claimed in the anniversary issue of the «Dockers Charter». The «Workers Press» of 24th August had prepared for this change by turning the whole issue of the solidarity demonstration into an anti-pollution jamboree: Polluters threaten Merseyside. The dockers had been turned from fighters in defence of their jobs, to friends of the environment!

The term Eco-warrior is the name adopted by environmental activists who see themselves as valiant defenders «of the planet». No doubt personally brave, they often wage fights to prevent by-passes, air ports, and the like, being built. They are often portrayed in the media as digging tunnels, living in trees, all to prevent sections of land being converted into roads, etc, runways, car parks, etc.

The connection between the line taken in the two journals was not an accident. Leading Trotskyists of the «Workers Press» were taking over the editorial production of the «Dockers Charter». Trotskyists were going back home to stalinism. Soon afterwards, the «Workers Press» was abandoned as a journal and the WRP slid further into a moribund crisis. They were not the only casualties of this «left cover» for the dockers shop stewards. Those of «Militant Labour» (afterwards renamed the «Socialist Party»), who were desperate to get well in with the shop stewards, have recently abandoned Trostkyism and moved towards libertarianism. The list of political casualties, those who abandoned principles because they wanted to be close to «workers» is actually quite extensive. What characterises all of them is that they have learnt nothing from the whole debacle.

The anniversary demonstration would duly take place, with some environmentalists getting into the port to protest over toxic waste imports. A party was held, and they all went home again. The dockers were subsequently left high and dry.

Was there an alternative open to the dockers - were there other forces which could have been mobilised, and new links established? There was at the same time a very vocal campaign going on about changes to the unemployment benefits system - it was being replaced with a Job Seekers Allowance. The state was expecting those claiming benefit as being unemployed to demonstrate they were actively seeking work, and willing to accept anything offered, including work which in financial terms would amount to pay set at the usual benefit rate with a derisory «top up» - with employers enlisting on the scheme meanwhile receiving a substantial Government handout as «a training allowance»

There was, and still is, a very real prospect of an American-style Work Fare arrangement - either do some form of work, or get nothing at all. But no such link was made between the dockers and the unemployed. It was certainly a very difficult prospect organising the unemployed, and would have brought them into conflict with the so-called labour movement, in particular the bureaucrats in the trade unions and unemployment centres. Difficult it would be, but it would have given more secure prospects of winning the dispute than allying themselves with flighty environmentalists.

A TGWU inspired deal
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By December 1996 the TGWU leaders were back in discussions with MDHC in order to achieve a «settlement». Payments of up to £25,000, with an additional £3,000 for a fixed term 12 week contract (they would not be expected to turn up for work), which would allow them to claim that they had been made redundant. They would also be able to apply for 40 jobs that were available, if of course the MDHC saw fit to take them back. It was unlikely that they would get jobs back on the docks, unless in ancillary roles.

The offer was made a week before Christmas, and would be withdrawn on New Years Eve. It is a favourite tactic to push matters through at such times in the hope that the workers would be desperate enough to accept such an offer, but it is often the response of the workers at such moments that they feel that they have lost so much it is not worth accepting bad terms. The offer was rejected.

In January 1997 proposals were unveiled by the dockers shop stewards to «break the logjam» and provide a compromise deal. This deal was actually prepared by the TGWU leadership, and showed which way they would like their relationship with employers to go! The dockers would get their severance pay, form a cooperative, and provide workers to the MDHC as a labour supply contractor! The MDHC would be the majority share-holders, and other backers would have to be found to provide investments.

This proposal, stated the shop stewards, was a common sense solution, and would have to operate on a commercial basis. The very fact that they would have to undercut the already appalling wage rates paid to the strike-breakers was never mentioned. Nor was the fact that they would be implementing what the strike was fundamentally against, casualisation. In fact the MDHC was not interested in discussing this particular proposal. The real role of this «deal» was to divert the strikers from looking for other solutions - and to keep everything focused on the economic viability of the port. It also revealed the real interests of the TGWU, the securing of the economic interests of the port bosses, at the expense of their members. In this matter it is impossible to insert a feeler gauge between the interests of the bosses and the TGWU.

Nothing came of this proposal, and another year went by, with a few demonstrations of support, each more desperate and with a steady decline in supporters. Finally, in January 1998, the vote of acceptance for ending of the strike was carried by a majority of 4 to 1. At the time the shop stewards wouldn't say what had happened to force them to recommend acceptance of the MDHC's pay-off. It did come out a few days later however that the TGWU had threatened to stop paying into the strikers hardship fund.

In summing up, all the notions of seeing the existing unions as being open to being influenced by the workers, without being organised as a class, has led to disaster. The desire to find bastions of class struggle within the trade unions - which have demonstrated time and time again that they are on the side of the bosses - only helps to lead the workers to defeat. It becomes a cover for treachery and defeat. Tail-ending such manoeuvres merely leads to collaborating in workers being stitched up and defeated. Negative lessons are often the most vital - in this case it is how not to conduct a strike.

Eventually as has begun to happen in other countries, workers economic struggles will be forced to move their centres of organisation outside the official unions, tied by a thousand ties to the state, and wrest power away from so-called «workers leaders» whose main goal has long been to park their substantial posteriors in the House of Lords!

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  1. «go down the road» means to be dismissed or made redundant. [back]

Source: «Communist Left», No.12/13, Summer 1999

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