Part Five - (08 March 1996)

Yet more in the Dockers Dispute !

It is now the first week in March and there are signs that some kind of settlement may be on the cards. The docks stewards have been told that if they call off their international boycott of ACL ships using Liverpool, then there will be direct negotiations between MDHC and the stewards. So far Bill Morris, General Secretary of the TGWU and the MDHC bosses have kept the stewards out of any negotiations - even though this is an unofficial dispute, and the union is strictly speaking not involved. Incidentally this was an aspect to the dispute which perplexed many of the foreign delegates to the international conference. For the moment therefore the international boycott is only being partially applied. ACL boats between Liverpool and North American ports are being worked for the moment on the American shore, but will be blacked if negotiation at present under way in Warrington do not yield a solution. Faxes have gone all over the world to put things 'on hold' and explaining the situation - it now remains to be seen if the MDHC and ACL are simply playing for time and jerking the dockers around, or not.

There is an element of danger it seems to me in allowing this situation to drag on for too long, since the strategic momentum for an all out boycott may be lost in pursuit of a tactical manoeuvre. The situation is also complicated by the fact that some North American portworkers also have similar problems dealing with their employers. There is a possibility that the now much weakened North American unions [as well as the T & G, ITF etc.] may be using the Liverpool dispute as leverage in their own battle for a position in the global market. This is something the dockers should watch out for.

So far as events on Merseyside are concerned undoubtedly most of the dockers will settle for the 'status quo ante' - that is the union, and so far as the majority is concerned that means the stewards, will still have a veto over hiring of new labour, there will be permanent contracts, no 12 hour shifts, no call outs and of course the previous redundancy and pension terms that they enjoyed.

Publicly the stewards have said that they will settle for nothing less. If they can maintain this they would therefore preserve their 'collectivity' and remain the only port in Britain where a 'union' - that is collective organisation on the job remains a day to day reality. This is in contrast to the majority of workers who although in unions, cannot be said, by any stretch of the imagination, to be organised collectively in a similar manner to the dockers. What should we make of this ?

Firstly, and it is a first for some considerable time in this country, workers will have 'won' [for the moment we will not consider how temporary this might prove]. A section of workers have shown through struggle that employers can be made to back down. This is no mean feat and its importance should not be underestimated. Moreover the manner of their victory is all important as well. The dockers pursued an internationalist policy right from the beginning - even if at first they did not know quite how - and they proved that INTERNATIONALISM WORKS. It does not matter that, from our point of view as revolutionaries, we might quibble over this or that aspect of the the dockers campaign - the point is that they have shown that with internationalism workers can win - and that is how it should be and will be interpreted amongst vast layers of the population.

The question we should now turn to analyse is why the MDHC having dragged this dispute on for five months, would they now cave in without having secured their objectives ?

We have argued all along that this dispute was organised or provoked with the express purpose of rooting out and extirpating any remaining influence of collective organisation amongst workers on the Mersey. All the other major ports in this country have effectively destroyed 'collectivity' in the sense that we have used it above. This after all was the thrust of the modern form of casualisation that bosses have sought to introduce not just in the docks but in all areas of work. To understand it we have called this process one of re-composition of the working class. A process that is still underway for huge numbers of workers, as capital tries to bend us to its will. So why now will the MDHC give in and go back to the kind of labour relations that it was so anxious to get rid of post 1989 ?

The only plausible explanation that can be found is that the MDHC were simply not ready for such a world wide confrontation as the dockers organised. It is quite plain for example that no effort had been made to gain the backing of the major shipping lines such as the ACL [who are by far the biggest and most prestigious user at the port] for such a move. The dock company obviously reckoned that it could solve 'its little local difficulty' relatively easily, by isolating a few militants in one port whom it could paint as 'dinosaurs' from a bygone era. And yet it did not take a genius to realise that when the dockers resolved to fight and their immediate response was to internationalise their struggle, the only answer had to be an international lock out. Quite obviously the shipowners had no stomach for that - for the moment.

We can be quite certain that such an international response to this dispute is already being planned. Although it is by no means certain that this dispute will be resolved along the lines indicated above, we must now turn to look at the longer term. The dockers have established international contacts and have an international campaign which is temporarily partly 'on hold' pending the outcome of negotiations. Almost certainly, since in reality nothing has changed, and the dock company must still bring 'labour relations' under its control, there will be another attempt at a showdown. In future the dockers will not be able to so easily use the threat of an international boycott to force one company into line. They will find themselves obliged to organise and maintain a full scale international fighting campaign for a considerable length of time.

What could be the strategy of the employers ? Obviously in this country at least they will attempt to divert traffic to other ports where for the moment no collective organisation exists. So far as MDHC is concerned they already own Medway ports [Sheerness] which the dockers were already targeting as part of their campaign. But Tilbury and Felixstowe/Harwich would equally suit the type of trade [high volume throughput of containers] even if they are on the 'wrong' side of the country.

One of the major problems of the dispute which the dockers have recognised but no-one seems willing to admit is the lack of concrete support in this country for the dockers struggle. Dockers in other ports have been unwilling or unable to act, and lorry drivers [85% of freight in this country is road borne] have not respected by and large, the dockers mostly token pickets. Given the greater role that transport or 'logistics' as we must now call it, now plays in the production process [with Just In Time production, time sensitive deliveries and so on], lorry drivers are now a vital group of workers. The recent tactics of French lorry drivers have demonstrated how devastating they can be. Attention must be given to this problem now.

For the moment there is very little else to report, there are still dockers delegations going all over the world to keep up contact and maintain momentum. I would like to be able to report that the women's organisation was making the kind of 'social' criticism which was talked about at the beginning of the dispute, but it has only happened sporadically so far.

The women do have one overriding concern which pushes them forward. Many of the dockers are now middle aged, the tradition of fathers getting their sons 'on the dock' has all but died out despite the stewards attempts to keep it up. Where, the women ask, are the jobs and prospects for the younger generation ? This is a very pointed question which none of the local politicians and some national ones can answer. Obviously the women are putting their finger on the reality of the capitalist economy's continual expulsion of labour from the production process. However it is all very well to understand in abstract how a capitalist economy works, the point as somebody famous once said is to change it.

More next time

DG 08 March 1996