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Liverpool Dockers’ Strike

Classic case of solidarity struggle

They were just 500 dock workers of Mersey Docks and Harbour Company (MDHC) in Liverpool. But they launched the longest ever militant struggle in the recent history of Britain against their shipping company, international shipping conglomerates and the government. In September 1995, they refused to cross a picketline of casual workers, whom they saw as their colleagues and they were thus sacked. Then they set up their own picketline and simply asked, "no return to casual labour", "real jobs in a profitable and expanding port, for the unemployed of Merseyside", "no victimisation, all sacked workers to be reinstated", and "recognise elected ship stewards". Their struggle aroused unprecedented united actions all over the world through international labour solidarity.

But on January 26, 1998, when Jim Nolan, chairman, Merseyside Port Shop Stewards notified the end of the dispute, it was quite a clamp down: a collective settlement providing a $42,000 buyout and continuity of pensions for those employed by MDHC, no guaran-tee for job reinstatement for the 500 dockers and no terms of agreement for about 80 casual dockers employed at Torside.

As for the strike, it is all over. But the campaign of Liver-pool dockers continues.

Two Liverpool dockers, Bobby Morton and Tony Nelson, are making tours in solidarity to international ports, from where the support came.

Looking back, we see that after the privatisation of the docks in Britain in 1989, dockworkers’ unions have been butted in port after port. There is now not one port in Britain with a collec-tive bargaining agreement solidly in place. Liverpool was the last. The Liverpool dockers who had a record of refusing to handle toxic wastes, uranium and nuclear cargo, made a shining contribution to international workers’ struggle. They came every day, every morning on the picketline at the Seaforth Dock. Effec-tively surrounded by civil police, port police and private secur-ity guards, they sat, shout slogans, hurled abuses at adversaries and thus defied the company’s strategy to wait until the pickets go away. Their determination has even driven playwrights like Jimmy McGovern, artists and musicians like Oasis, Billy Bragg, Lee Hurst and Jo Brand, footballers Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman to come openly for them.

The pickets continued not only in Britain. Simultaneously, they were supported by international actions, against ships and lines using the port of Liverpool, in Europe, North America, Australia and beyond. On September 8, 1997, dockworkers world-wide- almost 50,000 in 16 countries - acted in solidarity; In Sweden, it was a 24 hour stoppage of the Swedish Dockworkers Union against all ships which had any connections with MDHC, Similarly, a 24 hour action by Danish dockworkers affected 11 big ships and several small coasters. On the US west coast, it was an eight-hour shutdown by 19,000 longshoremen. A national waterfront workers’ day of action marked the day in South Africa and the South African dockers in the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) announced a continuous boycott of the loading and unload-ing of any vessels directly or indirectly linked to Liverpool. The Centre for Indian Trade Unions called on all unions in the sector to observe the day by wearing badges, holding meetings and passing resolutions.

These actions continued in the way dockers in US and Canada everyday refused to unload the ship Neptune Jade, which carried containers loaded at MDHC-owned port.

In course of the strike, the dockworkers refused to accept anything less then reinstatement, and also declined to be bought off with cash payments, even in the face of several hardships. Twice the company offered some financial packages - first in December 1996. The terms of the package included a Labour Supply Unit to employ 28 men, 28,000 pound severance to sacked workers, an interview for around 40 unspecified jobs plus a register for future vacancies, but nothing for the 80 casual workers, whose sacking precipitated the dispute. "Our demand is quite clear. We want dockworkers’ jobs back. Only on that basis will there be a settlement of the dispute. Dockworkers in Liverpool will not accept anything less," this was the resolve of Merseyside Port Shop Stewards.

It was the second time on October 22, 1997, when the workers, through their secret ballot, rejected the package proposed by their management. In a meeting held two days earlier to debate the offer, men rose to tell each other that "a yes vote is a vote to dishonour the past, but a no vote is a vote to reclaim the future." One docker held up his dead father’s union cards and told, "I believe in an afterlife, and when I meet my dad, I will tell him, ‘I never let you down’." Other men stressed that they must consider their children’ future and the international sup-porters who had put their jobs on line for Liverpool. A 61-year old docker said, "Although I would like to retire from the indus-try and enjoy some of my life, I will be voting ‘no’ because you have got to consider the future of the young Torside workers".

The dockworkers and their families appealed time and again to their central union TGWU and the Labour government, for their support. But the actions of TGWU had been limited in all these days by their view that the dispute is in fact an unofficial/illegal strike, that leaves the union open to finan-cial litigation under the UK labour laws. The dockworkers main-tained, as the company did, that it was not a strike; they have been dismissed.

The decision of MDHC workers at Seaforth not to cross the picket line of other dockers is legally counted as a ‘secondary action’, which is illegal under a series of draconian labour laws passed under the Conservative government in the 1980s and 1990s. First, the Employment Act 1980 made secondary action unlawful except in certain limited circumstances. Further, under the Em-ployment Act 1990 even these exceptions were made unlawful. And the union, if it organises secondary actions, can be taken to the court, which leads to heavy fines and all its assets sequestered. Thus, the TGWU did not support the dockers officially, because if it is seen to support it, the union’s fund could be sequestrated.

John David, dockworkers’ leader, reacted bitterly on this aspect of the dispute, "We dared to fight against the anti-trade union laws of the Conservative government. But now there was a Labour government. For years these leaders have been telling the workers that we cannot act against the Tory anti-trade union laws. Wait for a Labour government and then we will get represen-tative democracy. With this cry ringing in their ears, thousands of workers were left to fight alone and were victimised." He questioned this and asked. "Is it really true that the Labour government would have sequestrated the funds of our union for supporting the rights of 500 dockers to reinstatement?"

According to Bill Morris, general secretary TGWU, "The union’s policy in this dispute had rested upon three principles. First, to achieve a negotiated settlement. That is why, some offers came from the company. Second, to support the struggle within the framework of the draconian employment laws. Third, to alleviate hardships among the families of the dismissed men. To that end, the TGWU executive had given nearly one million pounds to the family hardship fund, established at Merseyside." Thus the hard reality was that TGWU did not consider the dispute official and legal and did not go beyond some unofficial negotiations, cash and sympathy. The TGWU biennial delegate conference in July 1997 called upon the "Labour government to intervene in order to return the sacked dockworkers to their rightful place in the port of Liverpool". But the government never came.

The Liverpool dockworkers’ work and workplace is their life. On October 23, 1997, the day when the results of the workers’ secret ballot against the company’s package came out, the funeral cortege of a retired dockworker John Lee passed their picketline. It was one of his last wishes that his cortege should revisit the port that he had lived on and worked at so dearly. The struggling workers, standing in silence when the hearse bearing the body of their former colleague was passing, could really feel it. A worker commented, "We love the job because it is our blood, it is our heritage. We all are always like a family.

Liverpool dockers stood for long against all odds. They were standing for the unity of casual, contract and permanent workers; they were standing for international solidarity for workers; they were standing for a better life for future generations. In their concluding address on January 1998, they said in the words of great Irish trade unionist James Larkin, "Who is it speaks of defeat? I tell you a cause like ours is greater than defeat can know it. It is the power of powers."

(Abridged from a commentary by Mukul titled Liverpool Dockers; Making and UN-Making of a Struggle published in Economic and Political Weakly, June 27,1998.)

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