On burning and building bridges: contradictions in the movement around the Liverpool dock strike

Leaflet handed out at a demonstration of striking Liverpool dockers, in April 1997.

Submitted by Spassmaschine on July 26, 2009

The struggle around the Liverpool docks has become a focus point for a whole range of different social groups; proletarians both in and out of work, members and non-members of trade unions, lefties, radical journalists, eco-warriors and others. (For instance, it seems that almost every week you can read in the national press some journo claiming that the strike has been ignored by the national press!)

As with any social movement, all sorts of contradictory tendencies have developed. Some tend to integrate the struggle into capitalist normality (unionism & politics), whereas others tend towards an irreconcilable opposition to existing conditions. In this situation, a simple attitude of uncritical support of all the contradictory aspects of the movement (or an attitude of outright rejection) totally fails the potential that the struggle holds within it.

Nonetheless, most of the support coming from lefties has been completely uncritical. In fact some dockers, or especially some Women of the Waterfront have a far more objective attitude than much of the left.

The struggle has been led from the outset by officials of the TGWU. Despite this, it is often claimed that the strike is unofficial (or even wildcat), when on the contrary the officials have maintained contact with the higher bureaucracy, and in any case steered the strike along traditional trade union lines of sectionalism, legalism and negotiations. As an example of this take the recent initiative of the stewards "drawn up in close collaboration with TGWU Deputy General Secretary Jack Adams" (press conference 24.1.97) to set up a "labour supply unit".

In the past, various left of Leninists (left anarchists, council communists, situationists, autonomists), have argued that unions are "brokers of labour power", capitalist businesses that sell the commodity of human labour. It's unlikely that any of them meant it as literally as unions setting up labour supply companies! In the March issue of Dockers Charter on the same page are two articles about this proposal. One, by shop steward chairman Jimmy Nolan, states that the initiative should be taken seriously. The other, making a sophisticated defense of "dockers' leaders" from extremist criticisms, says that it is merely a tactic, and that those who argue against setting up a dockers' run business (remember Torside?), have misunderstood. (It also argues that a labour supply unit would represent a dockers victory.) The divisions within the pages of Dockers Charter are responses to real, deeper divisions in the wider movement.

Amongst the contradictory tendencies in the strike are the refusal of work versus the "dignity of labour". Whilst the stewards have emphasised the high quality of Liverpool dock labour, some of those in the struggle have claimed that they are better off with the strike, as working conditions were so awful. The struggle against work (whether by workers or doleys) is totally at odds with the workerism of the trades unions and the left.

There is also an antagonism between the representative functions of the officials and the direct action of the wider movement. Direct action puts power directly in the hands of the combatants, whilst representation reduces us all to statistics to be bargained with.

This conflict is also reflected in the different attitude of the stewards as opposed to some of the other dockers, the officials being less inclined to a confrontational attitude.

Another contradiction is that between, on the one hand, a sectional struggle, a workerist struggle limited to dockers & transport workers (even if geographically dispersed) and on the other hand, the tendency for the struggle to develop in a social direction bringing in, first of all, Women of the Waterfront, then also road-warriors and to a lesser extent other workers.

One of the aspects of the movement which the lefties adore, is the democracy of the 'open' meetings. But the value of this democracy can be questioned. Where proletarians have no democratic control over 'their' representatives, class struggle often takes on the most direct forms, as seen by the long history of uprisings against the Leninist states of eastern Europe (Kronstadt '21, Hungary '56, Poland '80, to name the best known examples). Where democracy exists, the class antagonism is blurred and diminished: irreconcilable differences are made to appear as gentleman's disagreements, to be sorted out through discussion. The democratic nature of the union meetings would tend to prevent many of the contradictions outlined above from developing and coming out into the open as opposing class positions. (Indeed, the conflicting tendencies mentioned above have often been in terms of stewards versus other dockers; this is an over simplification, the blurring of contradictions has prevented such a clear line appearing.) It should also be added that at the meetings, supporters are denied the vote, and that some trots were excluded for merely calling for a new election (not an anti-trot measure, as an individual in the WRP has edited Dockers Charter).

Several of the groupings attacking the struggle from a right-wing position have attempted to portray it as being some kind of throwback. Like the miners' and steelworkers' strikes before them it's claimed, the dockers' strike is an example of an outdated trade union dispute by an outdated section of the workforce; and like the miners and steelworkers, the dockers are doomed to defeat as modern working conditions and new technology are introduced. In fact, whilst the foregoing argument does contain an element of truth, the docks have undergone a great deal of restructuring in the last 15 years or so, what with containerisation, some computerisation and introduction of new forms of casual labour. If the dockers strike is in part an expression of the old workers' movement, it also provides a bridge to the most typical forms of class composition of the 1990's: labour which is casualised, non-unionised, highly mechanised and computerised. This tendency is strengthened, or emphasised, by the involvement of sections of the proletariat far outside the traditional labour movement.

The majority of the left & ultra-left have been completely sycophantic towards the shop stewards. There are material reasons for this. Most left groups spend a good deal of their time worming their way into union positions, so as to gain political influence over trade unionists (who lefties always view as the most advanced part of the proletariat). As a result, the most that the lefties can do is criticise the policy of the leading stewards. They can't criticise their role (as leaders, representatives) as these stewards are in exactly the position that the lefties dream of being in. Also, groups on the lookout for recruits from the dockers or their supporters won't openly declare their real views as they don't want to put off potential new members. In the end, it is only individuals and groups uninterested in gathering followers, or of gaining influential positions, who can speak honestly about the movement's strengths and weaknesses.

Fairly obviously this leaflet has been produced by individuals with a 'political' background, influenced by ultra-left currents (anarchism, left communism, etc). But this, in one sense at least, is not a political leaflet: no programme, or aims and principals are presented to be grafted onto the movement, no attempt is made to opportunistically gather supporters. This text attempts merely to expose the contradictions that are already present in reality. By making them public, it is hoped that the contradictions can develop and crystallise.

Taken from the Antagonism website.