Issue 204 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 1997 Copyright Socialist Review

Feature article: Solidarity on the waterfront, the Liverpool Dock strike - interview with one of the authors

Helen Shooter

What is the book about and why did you write it?

The book is not just a blow by blow account of the Liverpool dock strike. It puts the strike in the context of a history of struggle against the effects of casual labour on dockers and their families. `Flexible labour', the term commonly used in sociology, is a particularly exploitative and dehumanising form of working practice and isn't exclusive to the old heavy industries. In the Lucas Engineering plant near me in Burnley, casual labour practices are being promoted. So the dockers' strike has wide significance, and in the book's conclusion, we analyse the strategy adopted for winning the strike.

How does the current strike compare to the struggles in the past against casual labour?

Dock work has always been associated with appalling working conditions. In the last century you were hired by the half day from hiring pens with only a minority chosen for work. Dockers received no pay if they weren't picked so competition was savage. The Mersey Docks and Harbour Company (MDHC) has been trying to reintroduce this system with the younger dockers employed by Torside on nearly half the wage of the older employees, with no sickness and holiday pay. New contracts for the older dockers meant sometimes working 12 hour days, six days in a row, and waiting by the telephone to be called in to work on a day off. But the flipside to this is a tremendous feeling of solidarity, a tradition of sticking together against the boss. When dockers used to be hired in gangs from the pens they used their collective strength to `spot bargain' refuse to work until they were paid more than the agreed rate. Despite the decline in the workforce since these days, rank and file dockers still have a strong position to force concessions from the bosses when they take united action.

What do you think of the media pundits who argue that this dock strike was doomed to fail from the start, one of the old trade union dinosaurs roaring its last?

This is nonsense. The docks are still economically vital to the British economy. After all, Britain is still an island and airlifting goods is not a viable option. Technological changes like containerisation may have led to a reduction in the number of dockers but not of their strategic importance. When sociologists talk about `service workers' not being part of the working class, you just have to point to the chaos the French truck drivers caused when they blockaded the ports. MDHC make millions of pounds worth of profit which they don't want to lose from Liverpool and they have redevelopment plans for the area to increase their profits. That makes them as vulnerable as any boss to strike action. In 1989 they were forced to continue to recognise the union in Liverpool when the dockers, who stayed out longer than anywhere else, marched back into work six weeks later behind their union banner. Having failed to break the union, MDHC tried to incorporate it, using the local fulltimers to police the rank and file in return for that recognition in the port. However, the continued resilience of the dockers and their stewards meant that MDHC was going to try confrontation again. In that sense they did plan and provoke the strike but they have been taken aback at the dockers' determination. Repeated attempts to buy them off with `final offers' of money have not worked in 15 months. The `dinosaur' has bitten back.

You referred to the contradictory role that the union has played on the docks. Has there always been that tension between the rank and file and the bureaucracy since the dock union was set up in the period of the New Unionism in the 1880s?

Yes. The dockers' union was born out of the struggles in 1889 led by socialists like Ben Tillet and Tom Mann, when 30,000 dockers paralysed the heart of the British Empire. They won union representation in strikes and a closed shop but the power of the union was always in the rank and file and spot bargaining.

There was no shop steward organisation until 1967 and the gap between the ordinary docker and the union bureaucrats was a constant source of conflict. For instance, in 1947 the National Dock Labour Scheme was negotiated between the government, the employers and the TGWU, the biggest union on the docks, over the head of the rank and file. It created much hostility to the TGWU leaders and years of conflict followed on the docks against the worst effects of the scheme.

The development in 1967 of the shop stewards' recognition with the National Port Shop Stewards Committee was a step forward some of the leading stewards of the Liverpool dockers today were recruited as young militants at that time. But the influence of the politics of the Communist Party led towards a Broad Left strategy. This meant building alliances with Labour left wingers in the trade unions, organising resolutions and electing left officials, which was increasingly counterposed against building independent rank and file organisation which is where the power to fight back really lies.

In the years since Wapping and the miners' strike do you think there are lessons to be learnt, for instance, about not disarming our side by waiting for a Labour government to change things or trying to play by the Tories' rules over the anti-union laws?

There are valuable lessons to be learnt. The idea that the dockers should have waited for an official ballot rings hollow when you consider their experience in 1989 after the announcement of the abolition of the National Dock Labour Scheme.

The legal to-ing and fro-ing through the courts took months of valuable time which allowed the bosses to take the initiative. Wapping and the miners' strike should have taught us all to strike hard and fast with every weapon on our side because that's what the bosses do. Equally the dockers' own experience of what Labour governments do for the workers was a lesson. The `Golden Age' government of 1945-51 saw the Dock Labour Scheme introduced in the interests of `efficiency', not out of kindness to the workers.

The continuity rule in 1947 did mean fallback pay, so workers got a wage for turning up to the hiring pen, but it was really about the bosses being able to control the labour force better. Gangs were tied to particular ships to try and stop the dockers taking advantantage of the labour shortage to force ships into paying different rates. In 1967, too, it was a trade off a higher flat rate of pay and end to casual labour as a sweetener to force through `modernisation', accepting container working with related loss of jobs and tonnage

bonus pay. Both pieces of legislation were met with strikes to protect what gains workers had made.

Today the Tories are divided and weak and there is a greater feeling of solidarity amongst workers. The dockers get support up and down the country, not out of sentiment but because everyone feels they are in the same boat. A victory for the dockers would be one for workers everywhere.

In the conclusion to your book you refer to the strategies adopted for winning the strike. What are your criticisms and what do you think is the way to win?

We talk in the book about the political differences amongst the stewards which inform their debates on how to take the strike forward. This is important. The politics of the senior stewards, who are well respected and have won their spurs in hard times, carry a lot of weight. There are disagreements, but these are suppressed in a display of unity, not expressed in real debate to dockers and supporters. So the strategy that has emerged is coloured by the experiences of the 1980s and `new realism' that Tory anti-union laws can't be broken for fear of funds being sequestrated, and that the wider trade union movement cannot be seriously called on for solidarity because workers have been too beaten down by the Tories.

The stewards believe that, even if it were possible to win solidarity action, it would not be desirable if it put the TGWU in an awkward legal position. A strategy to circumvent a direct appeal to workers is manifested in the approach to community and church leaders to intercede on the dockers' behalf which did not work and the international appeals to dockers outside Britain. The latter achieved impressive but limited action, which has not guaranteed the quick victory that was promised. It has shown the inbuilt weakness of approaching the equivalents of Bill Morris in other countries, through the International Trade Federation, to deliver what Morris will not do in this country.

We believe that rank and file workers remain the key to winning this strike. The experience of stopping Mexican non-union truck drivers in Los Angeles, the lowest paid of the workforce, from crossing the picket line has wide lessons. As a result of this, those workers are involved in a union drive campaign. Could this not be realised in the ports of Britain? The calls of solidarity have to be backed with direct appeals to rank and file workers to have any teeth. The numbers on the demonstrations, the willingness by ordinary Unison members in Sefton and Liverpool councils to take illegal strike action for the dockers on May Day, the weekly levy at AC Delco from day one of the strike all these show the dockers have continued support and, if need be, they should go over the heads of the union officials to mobilise these workers.

#Solidarity on the Waterfront by Jane Kennedy and Michael Lavalette is published by Liver Press 5.95

Return to Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page