The dockers are not going away

Article from January 1997 in Subversion

It is now January 1997 as I write and the dockers are sixteen months into their dispute with the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company over that company's summary dismissal of 429 workers and their consequent campaign for reinstatement. Concretely the latest development to report is the dockers proposal to the company to set up a 'labour only' cooperative [to be 45% owned by the dockers themselves] which would control labour conditions - wage rates, hours, overtime etc. So far the company has rejected the proposal, which was to be expected.

I believe the dockers reasons for making such a proposal [and it did come from the docks stewards and not the union] were largely tactical and did not stem from any commitment to the ideal of 'cooperativism' itself whatever that means today. We have enough experience in this country of such forms of organisations to understand that they do not imply any real change of the workers' position in the scheme of things. It was tactical, in my opinion, for several reasons.

Among them, firstly, it got the pressure of the union's demand for a 'secret ballot' over the company's latest 'final' [that is in fact the fourth 'final'] offer off the dockers backs. The dockers policy is as far as possible to keep control of their dispute in their own hands - the union's demand for a secret ballot [and only of former employees of MDHC] would have left around 100 of them disenfranchised and could therefore have split the united front the dockers have shown so far. One of the principles they constantly reiterate is that there will be NO settlement until ALL settle. Undoubtedly the TGWU will come back to insist on a demand for a 'secret ballot'. The dockers ability to resist this is outwith their control for the moment, since there exists no movement independent of the union to which they could turn.

Secondly by introducing a seemingly possible basis for a settlement, it was hoped to isolate the MDHC from the major shipping lines, who were affected by the latest world wide week of action in areas not directly trading with Liverpool, and especially in the Pacific rim where the majority of world trade is now concentrated. Shipping lines are used to dealing with cooperatively or municipally owned ports, so the MDHC could be shown to be an extremely obdurate employer - which no doubt it is. Any dock company that bites the hand of the union that is desperate to extract itself from the situation by handing the dockers bound and gagged over to the tender mercies of the employer is guilty of lack of imagination at best and more probably in MDHC's case, outright stupidity.

Thirdly and I think this is the most revealing, the proposed 'co-op' would have allowed those militants back 'onto the dock' after those dockers near retiring age could have accepted the redundancy and pension terms which are their legal due. How realistic this is given the past sixteen months I leave you to judge, but it does show that for some of the militants there is a major problem in understanding the changed nature of their struggle and the consequences of these changes for their own movement.

Many of the stewards and other activists long to get back to the kind of class struggle they were used to - that of sectional disputes 'on the job'. Alongside others in this dispute, including it must be said some dockers and some stewards, I have argued that things have changed and it is impossible to go back to that kind of movement. I argued in my last report that perhaps one of the reasons preventing the appreciation of this reality lay in the very form of organisation adopted by the dockers. All the major questions are debated in private [and these debates have been heated and at times violent] so that a common policy can be laid before the dockers mass meetings.

I am more and more convinced that this way of proceeding is a dead end. It is all very well for individual militants and activists to accept that reality has changed, but such a realisation, such 'consciousness' [how I hate that word] must become the property of the movement itself and not the private property of the 'leadership'. This whole question opens up so many issues that I shall simply have to assert my conclusion for the moment. Even in the supporter's group in Liverpool [I cannot speak for other groups round the country] it is extremely difficult to get individual activists to accept the need to think and consider wider issues - any contemplation for instance, of the possibility of the dockers being defeated is met simply with outright refusal to discuss it.

This brings me on to a consideration of more strategic issues. No-one who has been around this dispute for any length of time can fail to be struck by one thing. And that is the tremendous sense of collectivity, loyalty and practical concern that these people show to one another. Secondly compared with the prevailing 'morality' [I can't think of any other word], what these people have done is perverse. On at least four occasions now they have rejected, what are to many working class people, major sums of money in order simply to continue their struggle. Even in this city with its long history of working class struggle, many people shake their head in disbelief at the dockers continued rejection of the MDHC's cash offer to abandon the campaign.

It is this aspect of the dispute that is so utterly new in my opinion. Right at the beginning of the dispute the stewards were quite frank in saying that they did not have a clear idea of the way forward. They asked people to come forward and make a contribution - some have, many have not. What is quite clear is that no-one has a blueprint or a manual as to how they should proceed. As one of the stewards said 'if there is a manual that shows us how to do things then give us a copy. We'll make another 500 and then distribute them.'

The dockers know that they must make it up as they go along. Some of us here have been involved in that process. If our ideas and suggestions have not been taken up we know it is not because they have not been considered and discussed, but because, for whatever reason they have not seemed practical at the time. Times change, circumstances change, and it may be that the dockers will return to reconsider many of the options which they had previously rejected. One thing is for sure, I do not believe that this dispute will be 'resolved' in the near future, whichever way it turns out. And the dockers for their part are not going away.

DG

Subversion footnote

Some dockers and their supporters have questioned the usefulness of the proposal for a workersí co-op or company in solving their current problems and have recognised the potentially diversionary nature of the proposal even as a supposed ìtacticî (see the article ëBollocks to Clause Fourí in Subversion 16). There has also been some discussion of the need for dockers to use their collective organisation and experience to both protect themselves against the attacks of the state on their social benefits (including the effects of the JSA etc) and act as a potential catalyst for action by other unemployed workers.