Part Four (February 1996)

DOCKERS 4

It is now almost four months since around 500 dockers were dismissed for refusing to cross a picket line [or for 'illegal secondary action' in the jargon of modern industrial relations] in support of almost 80 men in dispute with an 'independent' stevedoring firm called Torside. The dockers are now at a crucial stage in their struggle - the MDHC is offering some, about 70, a lump sum to abandon the struggle and any other claims outstanding, for example for 'unfair dismissal'. Similar deals will presumably be forthcoming from other 'companies on the dock, although for most of the dockers these companies independence is illusory - they know that they are all dealing with MDHC. The other key undertaking the dockers must give is to cease attempting to disrupt or interfere with the trade of MDHC all over the world - sure sign that the dockers' campaign is effective.

At a mass meeting [which are regular Friday morning features of this dispute, held in the TGWU headquarters in Islington - more about this later], this latest 'offer' was overwhelmingly rejected, despite a vicar and a priest arguing that 'it was the best that could be obtained in the circumstances'. A postal ballot will now follow fairly quickly - obviously MDHC, the Liverpool Echo, the Government and the Labour party locally and nationally, the national and local union officails, all want the pressure to fall on the men and their families in the suffocating isolation of their own homes.

What has brought this about ? Undoubtedly the dockers international campaign asking for solidarity - in reality getting Liverpool boats 'blacked' or the threat of it - has been the cause. Rather like attacking the tentacles of an octopus, the dockers have systematically set about cutting one by one every shipping line that works into Liverpool. So delegations have gone to the the East Coast of the USA and Canada, also to Italy, Spain, Israel, Australia and New Zealand. It is worth looking in some detail at how this has been done, since once again the dockers have come in for some criticism. It has been alleged, by a grouping calling itself the ICP in yet another of their attempts to 'parachute' themselves into this dispute that,

'the stewards were not building an international movement of the working class, but touting the labour of the Liverpool dockers around the boardrooms of the world, while building links with other union bureaucrats equally eager to establish such relations with big business on a global scale. Their banner expresses this corporatist perspective very succinctly. It carries the slogan, Liverpool dockers the best in Europe'. '
[from 'Liverpool dock dispute in danger' - a leaflet given out by the ICP 19 January 1996]

Now I have no particular reason to 'have a go' at the ICP, but since the rest of the 'Left' has utterly failed to have anything to say at all beyond the usual stupidities about 'mass pickets' and so on, the ICP have been the only grouping with a coherent 'line' - which is that the existing trade union movement and especially the shop stewards must immediately be replaced if the dockers are to win. This is an interesting and, for Trotskyists, unorthodox view. In many ways the ICP are symptomatic of the crisis that is working its way through contemporary 'Left' politics, which is why I am using the example.

In the 1970s I and several others came to be similarly critical of the unions and shop stewards, BUT however radical this critique might seem, it means nothing without a fundamental rethinking of the process through which a new movement might emerge, and the vitally changed content of such a movement.

Let us deal with process first, the ICP go on in their leaflet to say,

'the fundamental lesson of this experience is that genuine internationalism cannot be organised by the existing trade unions. the role of the stewards throughout has been to direct that action into bureaucratic channels, effectively stifling it and using it not to strengthen the working class, but to build relations with transnational companies.'
[op. cit.]

Now if this last sentence is true it is a serious allegation indeed - however the dockers who have seen this leaflet have dismissed it as laughable nonsense. What then, can have caused the ICP to risk what little credibility they have by repeating it ?

Firstly in the concrete situation the dockers and the stewards found themselves in, they had no option but to go through the existing union channels, such as they were, to get the solidarity they needed. No-one who knows anything of the history of this particular section of workers can be in any doubt that they fully expect the TGWU and its officials of trying to sabotage the dispute - but since the union fears sequestration of its funds and assets above all else, the union has 'taken a back seat' until this present stage of negotiations.

This is after all what unions are for - to negotiate the sale of wage labour, so that the process of producing surplus value can go on as before. This is why the dockers have organised so much themselves, without relying on full time officials and so on.

So far as international contacts are concerned, all the political groupings have proved singularly ineffective. Anyone with direct contacts in any of the cities visited by the dockers would have been of more practical use than all the 'international organisation' that have gathered round this dispute. In reality the various dockers delegations have had to 'find their own way'. Sometimes this has meant dealing with union officials in union offices miles away from a dock, sometimes it has meant mounting their own picket on a dock as in the USA. [This incidentally gives the lie to much of the impression in this country that American workers are not class conscious - picket lines are respected more there than perhaps they are in this country.]

On other occasions as in Italy, they have had to negotiate with 'worker bosses', since with the Eurocommunism of the CPI [now PDS] docks in Italy are now 'cooperatively owned', but on other occasions they were face to face with other dockers in the hold of a ship. This is hardly the picture painted by the ICP, and in all this the dockers managed to obtain most of their objectives. This shows a skill and political maturity in action way beyond the 'corporatist' label that has been applied. But of course nothing comes about in a 'pure' fashion, at least not pure enough for the ICP. They are of course quite correct the criticise the slogan, 'Liverpool dockers the best in Europe' but such a slogan is only a reflection of the dockers own view of themselves and their struggle - not a slogan that a group of stewards has forced on them. If it is to be criticised, and it should be, it should be done in such a way that the majority of workers understand it and as an aid to help them break from it.

As I have said in earlier reports, the contradiction of going all over the world asking for solidarity action from other dockers and port workers, whilst at the same time proclaiming yourself 'the best in Europe' has not been lost on some of the more astute dockers - but they are the only ones who can overcome it - and they can only do that in practice. As to the longer term question of the trade unions, the fact is that 500 dockers do not have the social weight to fight the trade unions locally or nationally. Unions will not be overcome and ultimately destroyed by sections of workers struggling in isolation from one another. For the docks dispute, dockers have gone outside union channels and by preferring to rely on their own efforts, have provided a model and an inspiration for the future.

But as they will tell you, to have gone all out against the union would have isolated them even more than at present. One of the features of this dispute, which will be denied by the 'Left', but is nevertheless a fact and must be accounted for, has been the inability of the dockers to persuade the existing 'movement' - of shop stewards, combine committees and so on, to mount any kind of effective solidarity action. Now we have argued that this is merely a reflection of how securely tied the shop stewards and other 'rank and file' type organisations are to the existing union apparatus. Tied that is because they lack any independent basis other than the union apparatus itself. Until a movement independent of the unions arises and in the process either transforms or destroys this form of organisation, then it makes no sense to talk of the shop stewards 'betraying' the workers.

We are coming close now to the content of any new movement, and to show that we are not talking of some far off distant future, I want to illustrate the above with a story. Around Christmas time, a strong rumour went round that the TGWU was planning to evict the dispute committee from the TGWU building in Islington. Now the dockers are in almost permanent session in this building, and it has proved a valuable resource as an organising centre for all their activity. It has a conference room capable of seating over 500, a canteen and several offices equipped with phones, faxes and so on. To lose it would have been a severe blow, but plans were being made to find an alternative. However, it was argued by some that should an attempt be made to shift them, then the building should be occupied and held against the union. In this writers opinion this might have totally transformed the situation - locally it would have polarised opinion amongs workers, something which up to now the dockers have been unwilling to do [by for instance inciting violence against scabs, or attempting more than a token occupation of the dock]. It is clear that most dockers see the building as 'theirs', a view I would guess shared by most workers and union members on Merseyside.

The stage might have been set for just the kind of confrontation which might have shaken the union to its foundations - and probably this is why the union chose not to move against the dockers. The point of the foregoing is to show that it is often the dynamics of the situation itself which determines the content of any movement, and not any preconceived plan of action by a 'leadership' however wise or omnipotent.