1995-1997: Mersey docks dispute - Dave Graham

Dave Graham's detailed and fascinating history of the eventually unsuccessful Liverpool dockers dispute.

Submitted by libcom on July 29, 2005

For two years in the middle of the 1990s, 500 dockworkers were locked out by the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company of Liverpool.

In the course of those long months, their inspiring fight against the casualisation of working conditions has raised a wide range of questions about the changing balance of forces between workers and capital, the nature of unionism, and the practical meaning of internationalism.

Dave Graham was active in Liverpool supporting the dockers throughout their dispute. More than this, he has provided a blow-by-blow assessment of both the conflict itself, and its broader significance.


Significance of the Dockworkers Dispute - Part One [9 November 1995]

Submitted by libcom on July 29, 2005

Significance of the Dockworkers Dispute - Part One [November 1995]

Dockers and especially those on Merseyside, have a history of tight, well organised 'sectional' strength, just the same as that formerly enjoyed by for instance miners, printers and so on. So any dispute which involves them is bound to have an importance and a resonance beyond the actual number involved. In this case approximately 500 dockers have been sacked [including both clerical and manual - the distinction between mental and manual labour was dissolved as a result of the last docks dispute.] This represents about half the current workforce employed by the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company or its various 'front' organisations - one of which is 'Drake International' of Regent Street in London - more about this later.This being said is there anything about this dispute which is more noteworthy and to which we should pay attention ? - I think there is.

Firstly in terms of the past, the strike [as a result of dismissal or lock out for so called 'secondary action'] is already successful. Although the docks are not stopped completely - given the multiplicity of entrances this would take a veritable army - most shipowners and agents have preferred to divert ships and their cargo away from the port rather than risk having boats and all the expensive fixed capital they represent 'locked in'.Also there is no doubt that amongst the Merseyside working class there is growing and significant amount of support for the dockers - factory gate collections and expressions of support and solidarity - even from local Labour MPs although they are quick to cover their backs - are forthcoming. The dockers have had expressions of support from local political leaders, church leaders, even the notoriously pro-boss Liverpool Echo called on the MDHC to reinstate the sacked workers. With all this, does this mean that the dispute will be resolved soon ?

I don't think so - and this is what is new about this dispute. The MDHC needs at least as many dockers as it has dismissed and preferably trained ones for dock work is still dangerous. But it needs them on its terms. It must have a workforce that costs less, despite the undoubted productivity gains which have been notched up since the early 80s. Hence the main issue which the dockers have quite rightly identified in this dispute - casualisation.Now in my opinion it is important to realise [and perhaps the mass of dockers and their supporters does not fully realise it yet] that casualisation will not take the form of the notorious 'pen' of the post war period. This system which the dockers fought so hard to get rid of, with its ritual humiliation and degradation will not come back. And we should note how this attempt to discipline a workforce instead helped to organise them - we call this a process of recomposition. Today a new attempt is being made to 'recompose' us in the interests of capital - we shall see if it can lead to new forms of resistance.

So modern technology will be used to discipline a workforce isolated and individualised in their own homes, waiting for a telephone call for maybe 3 or 4 hours work - all of which will be 'freely negotiated' into an annual hours contract, so no premium for weekend or night work. And even then this will still not be enough - for the port must stay 'competitive'. Effectively dockers just like thousands of other workers, will be competing with one another and dockers in other ports here and abroad for the privilege of unloading or loading a boat - whilst it is still en route.

This is what is new about casualisation - dock work is now as mobile as almost any other activity. So the move to temporary contracts and so on which is affecting millions of workers - no less than 5 million people have 'suffered' a period of unemployment in the last 2 years, is the ongoing reality facing us today. Although total numbers employed are not falling or not falling as fast as in the 'recession', this is concealing a tremendous churning of the workforce - and it is this which lies at the heart of most people's insecurity, stress, depression and alienation today. This is what makes this dispute truly modern and not a throwback to the sectional militancy of the 1970s.

Many workers, this one included, heartily sick of their day to day reality, will be watching to see if at last somewhere there will be a breakthrough. All the hopes, fears and illusions of millions are now piled onto the shoulders of the shop stewards committee running this dispute. In the past we have had our criticisms of both shop stewards and the trade union mentality which they typically represent, and we still stand by our views. But it is more important to understand how an existing workers organisation is reacting to the changed circumstances it finds itself in.Firstly the union involved, the TGWU, cannot officially take part in the dispute because this would leave it liable to be sued for authorising 'secondary action'. Although for the moment the dockers are using union offices, telephones etc., to work from, effectively the strike is being run by the stewards themselves. This has had several consequences. It has for instance cut the feet from under most of the Trot inspired Left - 'Make the Union fight' and so on is hardly practicable in the circumstances. And is non issue so far as the stewards themselves are concerned. So we now have Trots, Anarchists and various others lining up to organise solidarity activity - meetings, rallies and so on. For the moment at least it seems as though the docker can ignore the anti- trade union laws.

The issue has come up however at the demonstrations the dockers organise on a Saturday morning in Liverpool city centre. Speakers such as Ford's and Vauxhall's shops stewards have argued for the repeal of anti-trade union legislation, obviously linking this to an anticipated return of a Blair led Labour government. How realistic this strategy is given Blair's explicit statement that NONE of the so-called Tory anti-union legislation will be repealed, we will leave to readers to decide. Certainly it is this writers impression that the dockers stewards do not share this particular hope.Now we must turn to these stewards and see how the pressure of the new circumstances we have outlined has had the effect of changing their traditional response - if we recognise this, we can perhaps see in what direction this dispute might go.

In the five weeks since the dispute began they have organised their own meetings, delegations to other ports, speaking tours and so on. They are now stepping up and internationalising this activity as they realise that this dispute is not going to be swiftly resolved. In addition they have quite openly and candidly said that they are open to any suggestion and will explore any avenue open to them. As long as this is the case it seems to me that revolutionaries should take them at their word - for quite obviously these workers are on a steep learning curve, - and one that as one of their number said, they have found exciting and stimulating.

So far therefore we have been extremely sympathetic to this movement, delicately poised as it is between the old and the new. We ourselves are not unaffected by the hopes and optimism that this dispute is generating. However if we have already said that this dispute is delicately balanced then we have also to warn against the possibility of it lapsing back into an old style sectional dispute. Many of those attending the support meetings quite obviously long for a return of the 1970s and the days of the 'massed battalions', mass pickets and so on. It is obviously easier to hark back to a movement you know and were part of, than to accept the perhaps harsher reality of today - but we have to insist on facing today's reality if we are not to lose our way.The dockers are looking for sympathy strike action from workers on Merseyside and principally from the self same 'big battalions' of labour such as Fords in Halewood and Vauxhalls at Ellesmere Port. They may be successful in this but Fords have just shut down for a week because of falling car sales, so the prospects are not auspicious.

That aside however certain realities must be faced:

1. the big battalions are not as big as they once were. Modern capital now has the ability to disperse production so as to avoid creating the kind of concentrated working class that was such a problem in the 1970s.

2. any new movement today must be, as one of the stewards said, as much based in the community as the work place - that is it must reflect the increasingly social nature of capital. It is one thing to recognise this however and it is a profound comment, but quite another to bring such a movement about.

We do have some kind of precedent to work off in the miners strikes of the late 1970s and middle 80s. Miners and their partners and wives and supporters created a network of support groups around the country and abroad, which showed in practice new ways of working and new forms of organisation. In addition other struggles such as the anti-roads movement have developed new tactics. The stewards have declared themselves willing to study any way forward, and are seeking advice from 'community' based campaigns such as 'Stop the City', and just as vitally important, a women's support group is in the process of being formed. New situations call for new tactics; new tactics call into being new strategies and ways of looking at struggle.

3. Only lately as the dockers admit, have they thought to get wives and partners involved, the experience of the miners support groups is a vital catalyst here. But we might ask what does 'support' mean ?

In the past it has often simply meant simply raising money in order to keep a dispute going. Sooner or later the fact that the dockers are up against a problem which faces all of us - casualisation, is going to raise this issue in other work places. We are bound to ask the question if in such circumstances a network of support groups could become fully functioning for itself, discover and articulate its own needs and desires.

4. Lastly we have had a long period now where politicians and other arseholes have thrown words around like 'community' - all the while the old forms of community, based on the old concentrations of industry such as mining, heavy engineering, textiles and so on were being dismantled or destroyed as capital reorganised the productive process. In the past dock communities were similarly close knit and near the port.

Today all this is gone and we should not mourn its passing. In their place however, have come lifestyles and forms of 'community' that combine intense social isolation and atomisation with much private 'prosperity' as capital has made consumers of us all. Generations are split - in many areas a young generation has grown up which knows nothing of steady employment or the social cohesion and acceptance of the status quo. Anti social forms of behaviour have rushed in to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of the old movement. Is it possible for a new one to arise based on solidarity, mutual aid and a common struggle, which could overcome this legacy ?

For the moment we cannot answer this. However there are a number of practical issues which the dockers would like some help with.

1. MDHC operates through a number of 'front' companies and agencies. this is yet another means of casualising and fragmenting the workforce. 'Drake International is at present 'recruiting' scab labour in an attempt to break the strike. Obviously information about this firm and its activities is urgently required. In addition the dockers would like to be able to exert direct pressure on this firm. Whether this takes the form of pickets by women or others 'not party to the dispute', demonstrations or whatever is up to the people on the spot to decide.

2. The dockers desperately need to internationalise this dispute - this means taking advantage of modern communications to publicise it. They have already made use of the Internet to gain information, but much more could be done via bulletin boards and the like.

3. following on from this they hope to organise visits themselves to foreign ports especially in Europe to make appeals for solidarity - if anyone who has contacts who think they could help should get in touch. Help is also needed with translating their material into foreign languages eg Flemish.

4. Lastly as has already been made clear the dockers will consider any proposals that people may care to make for putting pressure on MDHC, its front organisations, shareholders - who include the government - and backers. For the moment the Strike Committee can be contacted via the TGWU, Islington, Liverpool.


9 November 1995


Dockers July 1997

Submitted by libcom on July 29, 2005

Dear All

This is the latest in a long series of reports and commentaries I have produced on the Liverpool dockers dispute since November 1995 which was about six weeks after the dispute first started. I have lived with this dispute 'on my doorstep' for nearly two years now. I have longed to be able to get these reports circulated to a wider audience but at the same time have always been inhibited by my non membership of any particular grouping or organisation. After all, according to tradition such reports are supposed to serve the 'party line' and be part of a fully worked out 'world outlook'.

Well, I regret to say I have no such world outlook other than to tell the truth as I see it and to do all in my power to aid the struggle of a group of workers, their partners and supporters whom I have gradually come to know over all these months. This may seem like heresy to some but I can't help that. I have decided to post them to 'LabourNet' in the hope that those on this list will appreciate what it is I am trying to express and because also I know how the dockers appreciate the work that Greg Dropkin and Chris Bailey have done for them using this technology. And also, now, because I know the dockers themselves are now able to use the Internet and we may at last be able to subvert this technology and to turn it to our account.

Those of you who have not seen my earlier reports nor the stuff printed in the Dockers Charter can find it all on websites at



I should like to express my thanks to three people whom I have never met but who have been instrumental in encouraging me and in helping me to ensure the wider circulation of these reports for which I alone, of course, bear all responsibility.

To Steve Wright - moderator of the 'Autopsy' list in Melbourne, Australia
To Curtis Price in Baltimore, USA editor of 'Collective Action Notes', and tireless correspondent
To Dave of Local 13 of the ILWU in Los Angeles

Lastly, I would like to thank Brian Ashton, Chair of the Liverpool Supporters Group for the opportunity to endlessly 'pick his brains' and for being able to share much of his thinking on all the issues this dispute has raised.

Dockers Report July 1997

Half way through July I attended a meeting of Dockers Support Groups here in Liverpool, where delegates reported on activities in their area. There were speakers from other disputes that are ongoing round the country, and some discussion was begun on future activities. Mostly though, the meeting took the format of the 'top table' doing the talking with a passive audience. It seems to be impossible to shake off old ways and methods of doing things. This is the fourth such meeting / conference I have attended and I really begin to wonder as to what their purpose is. Other than to 'rally the troops', they only seem to serve as the perfect opportunity for the likes of the SWP to indulge themselves on the microphone at our expense, when to my knowledge they take no part in any of the various support groups round the country.

If we need to coordinate our activities, and several speakers said they thought this would be a good development, then there are other and better ways of doing this than these occasions. These support groups are autonomous to the extent that they appear to have attracted people from many organisations and none, appear to be able to work together on practical questions and have avoided being 'captured' by any political tendency. This is a major achievement which it seems to me has gone unrecognised, but ought to be celebrated. As a result a practical network is in the process of formation. But this process cannot be hurried nor directed from the centre. Certainly the dockers themselves have made it perfectly clear from the beginning that they are not in position to impose conditions on any such movement. Yet it was odd that speaker after speaker seemed anxious to demonstrate that they were willing and indeed eager, to submit to the non existent direction of the dockers. Perhaps this is an indication of the weight of bourgeois society on people, an indication of how far we still have to go.

There are two main aspects that I want to report on.

Firstly, a note of controversy was introduced when Chris Knight of the London Group, which is quite large and diverse, asked why the dockers committee was not supporting a further 'action' around the Labour Party's Brighton Conference on September 28th. His argument was that the dockers should build on the success of the 'March for Social Justice ' in April in London. He said this represented the coming together of all those in struggle - a 'rainbow' coalition he called it, of dockers and other workers, 'Reclaim the Streets' and others.

Now, I have had only a very slight contact with some of the RTS people when they came to Liverpool and as part of a long weekend of struggle, occupied the former Customs House in the north end of the city. My impression was that these were not politically naive people. Most of those that I had a chance to talk with had been through a variety of the Left's groups and were highly critical of the way the Left operates. I rather suspect, although I do not of course know, that by and large they would be very dubious about such a campaign. Neither, I believe, would they see themselves as in any way bound by the dangerously limiting notion of obtaining any kind of 'justice' from the state. And this would be even more true now that we have a 'New' Labour government. So the first part of his argument that this movement is some kind of delicate flower that needs to be nurtured is wide of the mark - many of these people are very clear in what it is they wish to achieve and are unlikely to be deflected if the dockers choose not to take part in some lobby of the Labour Party.

Aside from the fact that the stewards are already committed to organising a demonstration of their own in Liverpool on the second anniversary of their dispute, which happens to be at the same time, and that the last time the dockers went to London en masse it cost over £4000 of money which should be going to relieve hardship, ALL this decision really rests on is whether you believe in two propositions:

1 that the Labour Party [Government, state, whatever] can in fact be 'pressurised' by such tactics

2 also whether there is in fact inside this party a core of activists who can be 'won' [or are worth winning] to the dockers/ RTS etc etc cause.

You will gather that for me this is a non discussion, but the fact that many of those present at this conference could still take such questions seriously shows to my mind the 'reality gap' that still has to be bridged.

Essentially we are dealing here with the residual impact of the kind of ideology that was around in this country in the 70s. Another one of the London supporters group made what was for me one of the most interesting contributions, when he said that he was tired of listening to the same old ideas and conceptions from that period. The experience of previous Labour governments and the fact that successive attempts by the 'Left' to create or find left wing fractions inside the Labour Party or to break off minority movements all having failed, it still does not seem to shake the belief of some people in the effectiveness of such a strategy.

All I can say is that my belief is that the Labour Party was set up as, and has always been a party of the State. So, exactly in the same way that the Police who oversee the dockers pickets, are part of the State, we should adopt the same strategy as the dockers. When the dockers deal with the police they are always careful to present a united front, to deal very carefully in any negotiations and to offer no excuse for any unnecessary provocation. They make sure that the necessart permits and so on are obtained in good time to enable street collections and so on to be organised. In other words they exercise prudence and commonsense. They do not believe that inside the police there are any 'dissident' groupings who secretly 'sympathise' with them.

The further complicating issue is of course that the Labour government is now the single biggest shareholder in Mersey Docks and Harbour Company - so it is now literally a case of State Boss. If there are any MPs who say they support the dockers then of course they should be held to account, but only a MASS movement can shift people who have already assumed all the arrogance of power. We have already seen that we cannot mobilise such a movement, as happened in the 70s, by pushing all the old buttons or pulling all the old levers that we used to.

The reason why, today, it is not like the 70s, has formed one of the major themes which have run through all these reports - and that is the recomposition of the working class as a result of the process of globalisation of the economy. A new movement of the working class - and it will HAVE to be a new movement - has yet to find itself, and articulate its needs in a conscious manner. One of the reasons why we have argued that the dockers dispute is important, is that it has attempted to look forward to this new movement, to help bring it into existence. We only have to look at how seriously the state takes the dockers' relationship with RTS and others to see that they recognise this a a real threat.

The role of the Left has been to continuously attempt to pull the dockers away from this course, rather than help in pushing out. As for the Labour Party, well as we say round here, 'I wouldn't piss on it if it was on fire'. Breaking with the Labour Party and the outlook that it represents has to be one of the first tasks that any new movement has to undertake.

* * *

The second issue I want to take up is the one raised by Terry Teague for the dockers in his international report. He said that after 22 months now they needed just 'one more push' for the dockers to get back inside the dock gates. He was referring to the international campaign which the dockers have mounted to get an international blockade of shipping companies using the Port of Liverpool underway. This has been the main focus of the dockers' strategy, almost to the exclusion of any attempt to mount a campaign amongst dock and transport workers in this country. I want to try to show why I believe this is a misreading of the situation, and why I believe it is time that the dockers seriously considered organising in other ports in this country. I realise that after all this time, this is asking rather a lot, but it is precisely because we have come so far that I want to make this argument. Too much sacrifice has already been made for this dispute to become yet another 'magnificient failure'.

First of all in the short term it seems to be taking quite a long time for this international boycott to get underway. The idea, as I understood it from the Montreal conference, was for a rolling programme of action aimed at ACL, Cast and CanMar, the major shipping lines using the port. Since these companies have a limited [although enormous] amount of fixed capital in the industry ie. ships and containers, it was believed that fairly short and limited actions involving small sections of workers for short periods, perhaps causing a ship to miss a tide or 'feeder' connections, would have a cumulative effect. It seemed to me that this strategy was based on a quite correct understanding of the nature of modern 'logistics', where 'Just in Time' working combined with huge capital investment not just in transport, but also in information technology, had created a transport chain which was extremely vulnerable to disruption. We only have to look at the French lorry drivers disputes to see how vulnerable capital is to such a challenge, but we can also see what contingency plans are being laid for such an eventuality. We see how the 'state form' is being altered to enable goods to be 'seamlessly' transferred from one transport mode to another. We will be commenting further on this as our researches into this area bear fruit.

Although the decision to mount such a campaign was agreed in principle in Montreal in May, this was only the beginning. The international campaign is composed of various forces - some rank and file dockers, some local or even national officials, even whole trade union federations. In addition the actual situation in various countries is subject to continual change. Dutch dockers for instance have in the past not been able to mount a totally effective campaign, not wishing to disturb the relationship they had with the port owners who happen to be the local authority [and by extension the government]. The difference now is that they too are threatened with privatisation which has had the effect of making them more amenable to the campaign. I'm sure that concrete circumstances in ports all over the world have a bearing on this, but I do not have the space to outline these in any detail.The overall result is that it has taken some considerable time to coordinate the campaign of action so that what was agreed in May will only take effect in September.

Now, obviously the dockers are not in a position even after all their hard work, to demand acts of physical solidarity by anyone, but I am not at all sure that the international organisation they have helped to bring into existence is altogether free of the influence of the 'old' movement and its way of doing things. Time will tell.

But that still leaves the situation in the UK to be addressed.It is instructive that the dockers HAVE succeeded in disrupting port operations perhaps in a major fashion but that still has not led to a settlement. Part of the background work undertaken to this dispute is a statistical exercise to measure shipping movements through the port. We need to know actual tonnages of shipping involved, related to types of cargo. What we need to confirm is the impression of many of the pickets that shipping tonnages and lorry movements through the port ARE substantially down on pre-dispute levels. Certainly no new traffic appears to have been won. If this is substantially the case then why is the MDHC share price not more depressed than it actually is ? Why has MDHC not been forced into more meaningful negotiations than those that have taken place hitherto ? And how can we account for MDHC's latest financial results which show an INCREASE in profits and turnover ? This had a particularly depressing effect on the Friday mass meeting when it was announced.

And while we are on about negotiations - let us look at those that have actually taken place. What do they tell us ?

Firstly it was proposed that the majority of dockers would take severance under the terms already offered. This is recognised by the stewards and it is a tribute to those older dockers that they are still holding out when so many of them are near to retirement. In addition less than 50 jobs were offered but only in 'ancillary' positions, and the wage rate on offer was around the £5 per hour mark. This was the offer recommended [indeed negotiated] by the union. These wage rates are almost HALF those on offer prior to the dispute. The MDHC also refused point blank to consider the dockers other demand that Drake International and the other employment agencies be removed from the port - the dockers wanted to negotiate directly with those whom they believe actually employ them, not some scab agency firm. In other words this was not a serious negotiation at all despite the T & GWU's desperation to get the offer accepted by the dockers. Needless to say this so called 'last and final offer' was rejected at the Friday mass meeting, and we do not hear demands for it to be put to a 'secret ballot' so beloved by employers and union officials, so even they accept that when the dockers raise their hands in mass meeting, they actually mean it.

The reality is however that Drake International and the other agencies are easily able to recruit people to work on the dock and because there is now such a high turnover of labour, we know that the port is in reality almost completely casualised, something which the MDHC still continue to deny, even though it is their deliberate policy.


Almost certainly MDHC does not rely on operating the Port of Liverpool for more than a small part of its income. Instead it is intent on becoming a property company and will only stay in those traffic areas which it believes to be profitable. This explains its purchase and ownership of the port of Sheerness on the Medway. We will return to this as it is important.

From this realisation it is but a short step to recognise that we are no longer dealing with one local employer in a geographically isolated and economically depressed region of the UK. Just 'one more push' will not be sufficient to defeat the forces that this dispute has called into being. Instead, as must by now be clear, we are confronted with multi-national capital, of which MDHC is but a tiny and not very important part.The real beneficiaries of the casualisation of the ports are the shipping lines. They are in the process of merging and concentrating so that eventually only one or two conferences will dominate the trade routes. These trade routes which have remained unchanged largely since before the First World War are almost certainly going to be themselves rationalised and concentrated.

In this process, ports like Liverpool will almost certainly lose out.

MDHC knows this, so do the ITF and probably the T & GWU. All these bodies are more concerned with their own long term survival in this new and changing world of international shipping, than with the fate of a few hundred dockers.

The thing that really gets up all their noses is that instead of rolling over and accepting this new reality, a group of around 500 Liverpool dockers, their families and supporters have said - NO and have continued to say NO to the point where they are starting to become a thorough nuisance for international capital. The point I want to make is that it is no longer enough simply to pretend that this dispute is about 500 dockers getting their jobs back. If the dockers 'won' and went into the dock tomorrow they would be back out again 'in dispute' before a week was up. In addition, in order to make their new dispute effective, they would need to spread it to other ports in the UK. Ports which are now casualised and where workers conditions are also under attack. Ports like Sheerness which MDHC already owns, where it is handling high value traffic like new cars for distribution to the UK market, ports which are an integral part of a highly centralised and tightly organised distribution chain.

More next time . . .



Part Two (30 November 1995)

Submitted by libcom on July 29, 2005

Significance of the Dockworkers Dispute - Part Two

In the first article I set out the reasons why the present dispute arose and why I thought it might not be so easily resolved. I argued that this dispute was a symptom of the social realities of the 1990s and that therefore we should not use the concepts of a previous movement of the 1970s to understand it. I also argued that the dispute was delicately balanced between the old and perhaps a newly re-emerging labour movement. It will be necessary to ask if this is still the case.

The issue that makes it so modern is casualisation - that is the MDHC needs a workforce that it can call on at a moments notice to suit the pattern of work in the port. It also goes without saying of course that it needs to cut costs as well. In other words the terms and conditions of workers are going to be significantly worsened simply in order to keep a business competitive in world terms.

The dispute is now into its ninth week and there are some developments to report. Firstly a major user of the port, ACL, has diverted is boats away from Liverpool - to Thameshaven for the moment. This is a significant blow for MDHC both in terms of revenue and prestige and the reasons for it are important. The dockers had appealed for support in North America and particularly in New York on the East coast. To their credit the American longshoremen have said that any boat breaking the dispute over here will not be handled over there. ACL has bowed to this threat - almost certainly there will be repercussions.

There may also be something to report on the short sea crossing between Belfast, Dublin and Liverpool which the MDHC is directly involved in and where there are already long standing grievances to be sorted. More than this cannot be said at the moment.

The dockers have attempted to picket various different gates, since they are already 'dismissed' they cannot be sued for secondary action - although it is almost certain that some law will be found under the Criminal Justice Act to try and prevent this. Certainly some stewards fully expect to be locked up before long. The only thing that appears to be holding back the authorities is a fear of creating 'martyrs'.

It is important to realise that this is NOT a mass picket to stop the dock. The stewards are quite clear about this - rejecting the mass picket as a tactic of the past. It is also of course quite impractical. The dockers have called the docks a 'colander' because there are so many entrances. What it does do of course is put the dockers in full view of the scabs - who at the moment are being paid fabulous amounts of money to do virtually nothing. More importantly it also ties up the police, their equipment and vehicles and makes them look stupid.

A single 'dock bobby' on a lonely gate confronted by two or three hundred dockers and their families and supporters usually decides discretion is the better part of valour. By the time the 'cavalry' arrives, the picket is either long gone or on at least one occasion has occupied part of the dock. This frustrates the police no end and their mood has sometimes threatened to turn ugly. Obviously some of them are dying to crack a few heads, but the stewards have been very careful to offer them no provocation. This is an adaptation of a tactic borrowed from the anti-roads protests - ultimately the local state will have to pick up the bill for police costs and so on.

Additionally MDHC directors homes have been picketed or 'visited' en masse with amusing results and no doubt other 'guerilla' type actions are contemplated. All this has had the effect of solidifying the dispute and giving the dockers some pride in themselves and their struggle.

There is however some not so good news to report. It is quite clear for instance that the local 'labour movement' in the form of shop stewards committees, combine committees and so on, is NOT going to organise any practical solidarity action. Although this could have been predicted - the fact of its happening is all important. The 'Left' of course will try to deny this, still believing in their fantasy of a workers movement straining at the leash and only held back by 'traitors' and sell outs.

The dockers themselves although disappointed have not allowed it to dismay them. It has had the effect however of throwing them back onto themselves and it may be that a more 'sectional' approach now comes to the fore in this dispute. They have so far not taken the opportunity to try and turn their struggle in a more 'social' direction. On the other hand their efforts to turn outwards, to take their struggle abroad, to involve wives and partners may lead in this direction. Let us hope so.

It is my feeling that this dispute lacks a particular local focus. It is for instance quite clear that local firms and especially transport firms, are involved on a wide scale in scabbing on this dispute. So far the dockers have taken no steps to 'name names' nor to organise to put pressure on these firms in the local area. Some action of this sort is I feel necessary to generalise and polarise opinion in the city.

As ever the Left have limited themselves to tail ending the dispute or even worse doing their routine of passing resolutions, 'calling for support' and so on. So far they have had little practical influence - except for one incident, which is interesting. A group called the International Communist Party, a Trotskyist organisation but with an unorthodox and 'ultra left' view of unions and shop stewards, produced a leaflet calling into question the role of the docks stewards in this dispute. For their pains they managed to get themselves ejected from a supporters meeting.

Now they might be formally correct in their view of unions and shop stewards, but of course even for unorthodox trotskyists the crisis for the working class is one of 'revolutionary leadership' - NOT the working class's own view of itself and its struggle. In any case the practical effect of their 'intervention' has been in a small way to solidify the dockers around their existing leadership - whom the ICP blamed for preventing effective solidarity action.

But I think there is a lesson for us all here. We may call ourselves revolutionaries - although it is not clear what this means given today's reality, but the minute a group of workers comes into struggle and begins to seek a practical way forward, nobody is there simply to take them at their word and begin an honest attempt at dialogue.

There is a process going on here that we have to learn to relate to. This process is a questioning of everything as the old certainties crumble in the face of a new reality. If that means for the moment that the people facing that reality are avowed Stalinists like Jimmy Nolan, or simply long time Labour Party supporters like the majority of the shop stewards, then so be it. They are the ones who must confront and ultimately overcome the problems. If they do and are thereby transformed in the process, as some of them have acknowledged, or they lapse back, either way it makes no sense for us to reproach them for not conforming to our ideal of revolutionary behaviour.

In any case if by some miracle a whole new shop stewards committee was elected, it would almost certainly represent the same mixture of views and conception of struggle as its predecessor.

It may be that the prospects for this dispute opening out onto something more radical are diminishing. Certainly I do not feel quite as optimistic as in my first article. Just as certainly MDHC will have some kind of compromise forced onto them as this dispute drags on - for the dockers are not going to simply fade away. The reality for those who go back, as it is for all those gripped by wage labour wherever they are, will not alter. We cannot live with this system. Sooner or later another dispute will break out- casualisation and all the problems that stem from the fact that we have no control over our lives will not go away.

More next time

Sunshine Superrnouth


Part Three (19 December 1995)

Submitted by libcom on July 29, 2005


In earlier reports I have attempted to put together some thoughts on the dockers dispute [note it is NOT a strike but a lock out- something that 9 weeks into it the SWP still had not realised] and to draw out some of the implications for any future movement. The dispute is now in its 12th week as I write [19 December] and there are some signs that a deal may be in the offing. More about that later, for now I am more concerned to give a more 'in depth' analysis to what I wrote earlier, so as to draw out more clearly what I and others believe is fundamentally new about this dispute. To do this we have to go back a little to 1989 when the last dock strike was 'settled'.

Many readers who are older will remember that in the past dockers, like some other groups of workers, were in a position to exert great sectional strength. This was often combined with some quite reactionary attitudes - a contradiction which in London at least, since I was there at the time, the Communist Party as it then was, was quite happy to live with. Who remembers Jack Dash now ? Or 'Red Robbo' in the car industry ? The point is that after 1989, that kind of macho sectionalism was destroyed. If anyone is in any doubt perhaps the following story will help. From early on in the present dispute the dockers have been holding open mass meetings to gather support. This is a sea change in itself but as dockers got up in front of their mates and perfect strangers to tell their story, inevitably they concentrated on the character of industrial relations post 1989.

With the dispute over, the dockers went back to work as a body. There were supposed to be no recriminations, no victimisations. Officially this was the time of new more 'realistic' labour relations on the dock. The port prospered - with huge injections of public money, new traffic came, old traffic was won back, presumably from the former non registered ports, so their reward for breaking the dispute was short lived. However the dockers knew that this truce could only be temporary. Very soon the crack down came. And it came in the form of an all out attempt to break and humiliate the men. Dockers were put to work on their hands and knees to scrub toilets and other shitty jobs of which there are no shortage on a dock. This was the dockers 'victory'. One man described in vivid and moving detail how he was moved to tears to see his mate on his hands and knees. He went on to describe how they hugged one another in their mutual despair and out of this found a new strength for each other.

No one can begin to understand this dispute unless they appreciate this change in the attitude of the dockers. In the past disputes or strikes would be run by a small group of stewards - the 'rank and file' would be told to go home, dig the garden or paper the back bedroom, while the leaders got on with the job of 'running' the dispute - which usually involved shuttling between national union officials and the personnel office until the inevitable compromise deal was struck. When a hairy arsed docker stands in front of perfect strangers and is visibly moved to tears in describing his experiences, you know that something quite profound is going on.

Another aspect of the previously sectional nature of the dock is the degree to which jobs were passed on from father to son. The dockers have received some criticism for this - one of the conditions for settling the previous dispute in 1989 was that sons of dockers should be first in line when new dockers were being hired. This was criticised in a leaflet put out by a Trotskyist grouping called the ICP, which went on to argue for getting rid of the existing stewards, and especially the chair, Jimmy Nolan. Now Mr Nolan makes no secret of the fact that he is an unrepentant Stalinist - even a 'tankie'. And while the criticism of the ICP may be formally correct in much of what it says, it actually ignores the fact that on Merseyside at least [and I suspect in other areas of the country] it is well accepted that jobs should be passed on from father to son. This is understood almost as part of the post Second World War consensus - just as the National Health Service and Education are understood as a 'right'. We ought perhaps to research exactly what the full implications are of the break up of this consensus and the end of 'welfarism' that many of us talk about.

Tactically at least, the fact that the new dockers are in many cases related to the earlier 'Devlin' generation was supposed to make it easier to solidify a younger generation into a common struggle to improve conditions. For its part the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company [MDHC] had set up various front organisations so that they could 'offer' worse terms and conditions to new workers. In the event, Torside, a firm fronted by an ex-docker with his redundancy money, used the MDHC to negotiate less than full rates and reduced pension rights. For the time being the stewards accepted this deal. So we had all the ingredients for a renewed confrontation.

That to some extent this present conflict has been 'organised' by the MDHC, there can be no doubt. It is this fact alone which illustrates starkly the changed background to this dispute.

The firm charged with recruiting scab labour, Drake International, operates security and bailiff services and has a trained dock labour force in Southampton some of whom have been hired to train the scabs. Information about this firm is needed by the dockers.

The 1990s are not the 1970s

Many of the more astute dockers had thought that over time, as they had done in the past, they could steadily improve all dockers terms and conditions. This is after all the kind of class struggle they were used to - it had served them well in the past. It also makes a nonsense of the ICP's relentless criticism of Stalinist 'betrayal' of the dockers. Jimmy Nolan who is the oldest of the stewards and a survivor of the struggles of the 70s, is only able to have any influence precisely because he gives voice to the dockers own view of themselves and their struggle.

So when a dispute erupted at Torside and these workers put an illegal picket on the gate, the MDHC knew perfectly well that no docker would cross it and likely scab on his son. MDHC already had the dismissal letters typed for 500 dockers and the offer of new worse, individual contracts, some of which were hand delivered in taxies to dockers homes. [Now where did they learn that trick ?]

We come therefore to the second new aspect of this dispute - the drive towards casualisation .

In the past in the 1960s and 70s, firms could offer increases in wages and improvements in conditions secure in the knowledge that if the 'productivity' improvements negotiated, failed to materialise, [as they often didn't - due to workers resistance] then inflation would soon let them increase prices and avoid any losses. This planned use of inflation to defuse the class struggle relied on each nation state being able to independently manage its monetary and fiscal policy without outside interference. In the 90s two things have happened to upset this.

1. Increases in global competition - via GATT and the rise of the so called 'tiger economies' of the Far East. Costs, principally wage costs are being equalised throughout the world.

2. The inability of each nation state to absorb the rising costs of welfare - as a result the old social democratic welfare state is steadily being unwound.

We can see the results of this on society as we write, in France, Italy and Belgium. We have only indicated the broadest themes here, this does not pretend to be an analysis of these trends. For our purpose we are interested in what effects this is having on struggles such as the dockers.

The MDHC has been propped up in the past at considerable cost to state funds. It is time that this investment paid off in the form of quicker turn round for ships, cargo and vehicles. Shipowners and operators are quick to make international comparisons of labour costs, something which dockers need to take into account. A major obstacle to the employers reducing costs is the existing organisation and outlook of dock workers. We are no longer therefore talking of the old kind of struggle - casualisation is the means whereby the dock company, shipowners and transport firms can drive down costs. If this means 12 hour shifts, annual hours contracts, constant 'call outs', no premium for weekend or night work - then so be it. Casualisation is therefore the issue which binds these workers together - hence their demand for reinstatement on their old terms.

It also of course explains why the dock company will almost certainly not give in. We are not talking of the old style casualisation of the notorious 'pen' of the 50s, but a modern 'social' form. With each worker isolated in his own home at the end of a telephone line.

This is very basic and goes to the heart of what we might call workers collectivity. When unions first came about in this country, they were no more than conspiracies to try and blunt or frustrate the effects of competition, worker against worker. Our rulers, realising that attempting to prevent 'combination' might easily provoke a revolutionary alternative, allowed this new institution to grow, gave it legal immunity, and eventually granted unions a place in the management of the system. Today so far as this dispute is concerned, the union involved, the T & G, seems to have been at a loss to know what to do. Plainly it cannot risk 'sequestration' by endorsing illegal 'secondary action' - but it cannot be seen to simply abandon a section of workers, [although no doubt some national officials would love to do exactly that]. Now it looks as though Bill Morris is moving to do some kind of deal. Very likely he will attempt to negotiate a generous severance payment for those dockers, perhaps a majority, who would like to retire early with a decent lump sum. It should be noted that these older men, some with only a year or to go risk the prospect of losing everything - lump sum, pension and so on as a consequence of this dispute.

The price will be the acceptance of new, individual contracts by the younger workers. We shall see if the dockers can remain united in their opposition to this kind of deal.

We have talked at great length about the background to this dispute and only mentioned the dockers themselves in passing. This is perhaps unfair. There is much that is positive to report. First of all we should stress that this is an all inclusive dispute. Although 'run' by the existing shop stewards, perhaps 20 in number and we have had our criticism of the stewards movement in the past; criticisms which we still stand by, it would be utterly counter-productive to go into them now. There is no doubt that the existing stewards enjoy the confidence and overwhelming support of the mass of dockers locked out - for in a real sense they represent them. The stewards conception of struggle, their hopes and fears are exactly the same as those of the dockers themselves. Open meetings are held weekly - and they are genuinely open, anyone may attend although not vote. There is a huge amount of self activity, this is not a dispute that can be fought in the old way. Over 1000 meetings have been addressed around the country and abroad. Delegations appealing for practical solidarity have gone to North America, Australia and Europe. Benefits and other forms of activity have been organised. All this has so far been done not by relying on union officials or the like but by the dockers and their families and supporters. In the process many workers have been transformed, but they can tell their own story now.

What lessons have been learned ?

First of all the obvious one, workers have to rely on themselves alone. Although local Labour politicians and other arseholes have expressed support, this has had no practical effect on the dock company.

Secondly, the stewards had initially thought that they could mobilise local 'workers' organisations - shop stewards, combine committees etc. to have a day of action, possibly a local general strike. Despite many invitations, delegates from such bodies have been conspicuous by their absence. Although collections and levies have been organised, it is clear that the existing 'rank and file' type organisation of labour are a spent force, tied and bound by their relationship to the trade unions. This may seem a surprising conclusion and one that many dockers may not accept - but the facts are inescapable.

Thirdly - to their credit, the dockers realised that their union was not going to be of much use to them except for the use of its local facilities to meet, use telephones etc. Instead of bemoaning this fact, they simply accepted it as a necessary reality and got on with the job of promoting their struggle internationally. Their delegations have had much success with financial support, but more important, promises of blacking and other forms of secondary action, which is at present illegal in this country. ACL were obliged to divert boats to continental ports to be unloaded as East Coast American dockers threatened to black the boat if it discharged in Liverpool. Other similar promises have been made by Australian and Canadian dockers.

As I write this, a boat loaded by scab labour [the first] in Liverpool is at present on her way across the Atlantic to unload in Baltimore. It may be that the shipowners feel they can get away with it there. If they do it will certainly be a setback. But the dockers are absolutely correct in their international strategy, and plainly must continue on that front.To that end they are organising an international conference of dock and port workers in Liverpool in February. This is a tremendous step - so long as it avoids being taken over by the unions, this may well be able to begin to work out a way forward for workers in these industries and others.

Well - I intended to write this as a balance sheet, so there has to be some words of criticism, so here goes. Tactically the dockers have been sound - for instance they have learned the lessons of the early struggles and have avoided the siren calls of the Left for 'mass pickets', violent confrontation and so on. It is not that the stewards and the dockers themselves object to having a go at scabs or trying to close up the dock. But the forces of the state - police and so on are very well prepared for such tactics. They have had the chance to practice in Northern Ireland, and in the riots of Toxteth, St Pauls, Brixton and so on. They are the ones with body armour and the tear gas. It would be the height of folly to throw oneself against such forces and hope to win.

Strategically, I feel the dockers have neglected an opportunity to take up and generalise the very issue at the heart of their dispute - casualisation. Millions of workers across Europe and North America are today faced with the prospect of job insecurity or temporary contracts. They are already the the victims of the wholesale changes in the economy that have taken place since the 80s - here was a dispute that is very much concerned with those issues. It may even be that this will form the basis of the discussions at the international conference that the dockers will be holding in February. If that is the case then it is still not too late to take this issue up.

In addition the dockers have allowed a view of themselves and their struggle to get around that is totally at variance with what they actually are doing. Much of their propaganda is based on the notion of demonstrating what good, hardworking and loyal employees they are. Whether they are or not is not the point - the MDHC wants them on its terms, so it is not a 'bad employer' as one of the dockers leaflets says - merely an employer doing what all employers do. Moreover if they really thought about it, if they were so anxious to be 'good workers' and to show how 'competitive' they are compared with other ports - how can they in all conscience ask fellow workers to support them, if they are actually competing for their jobs ? I leave that particular contradiction to be resolved in the dispute itself. We are all as one steward said 'on a steep learning curve' - if we get ourselves a bit more together perhaps we can flatten it together.

Lastly, although I am responsible for what appears here and in the earlier reports I wrote on this dispute, I have benefited from numerous discussions with others and from attending the open meetings of the dockers. None of the dockers have ever said to me, what group are you in or what party do you belong to. It is almost certain that readers of this article will not be able to restrain their curiosity and if you have got this far you will almost certainly have formed some impression. You will have found some telling clue from the text perhaps. No ? Well let me put you out of your misery - I don't belong to any tendency, party or grouping. Make of that what you will.


19 December 1995

If you have any comments or suggestions for improvements, want more copies of this or whatever - you can write to

Dave Graham at PO Box 37, Liverpool, L36 9FZ

If you can be of any use in the dockers struggle either with international contacts, research or you just want to make a donation they can be contacted at:

Jimmy Davies
Liverpool Dock Stewards Committee
Transport House
L3 8EQ


Part Four (February 1996)

Submitted by libcom on July 29, 2005


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.


Part Five - (08 March 1996)

Submitted by libcom on July 29, 2005

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


Part Six - May 7th 1996

Submitted by libcom on July 29, 2005


On Saturday 27th April, approximately 200 delegates and individuals from various organisations attended a meeting at the T & G's Transport House in Liverpool at the invitation of the Mersey Docks Shops Stewards Committee to, amongst other things, set up a National Co-ordinating Committee of Dockers Support Groups. Part of the meeting was given over to a 'report back' on the dispute and an analysis by the stewards of where they thought the dispute was 'up to'. One of the reasons why I have delayed my report was to be able to include their latest thinking in this bulletin. It also serves as a convenient point from which to review the dispute so far. . . .

Internationally, the boycott which I had previously reported as only being partially applied - pending negotiations with the MDHC which the union side had adjourned after one session in Warrington - has been fully applied. A mass meeting on Wednesday 3rd April unanimously agreed to the stewards recommendation that all further negotiations with MDHC be abandoned and that henceforth their strategy should be one of an all out international boycott of the Port of Liverpool.

Many people will say that we could have reached this point some months ago and that may be true, but, as ever there are good reasons for the dockers moving cautiously and exploring every avenue open to them. That said the concrete reasons for the decision, based on the report of the face to face negotiations with MDHC are revealing and confirm some of our earlier conclusions. At these negotiations the stewards, mindful of the fact that many of the older dockers would perhaps prefer the old severance terms they had enjoyed prior to the dispute, had suggested a compromise whereby the MDHC would re-engage all the dismissed workers and after a temporary period, those who wished to leave the industry could do so under the scheme. This was to be accompanied by the MDHC dismissing those scabs engaged on temporary contracts through agencies such as PDP.

Bernard Cliff and the other management team insultingly dismissed this chance of a compromise; stated they were perfectly happy with their existing workforce and proceeded to abuse their former workforce [remember - they were called 'the best in Europe' ?] - accusing them of being workshy, unwilling to re-train, prone to unofficial strike action etc. etc. That is - they behaved as proletarians - something which modern management are determined to stamp out. We shall see if they can succeed in this labour of Sysiphus.

All this quite understandably really 'got up the noses' of the mass of dockers, since it simply confirmed in their mind and in the mind of this correspondent that the whole dispute had been engineered, principally to prevent the 'contagion' of class consciousness being passed on to the younger generation of dockers at Torside and Nelson.

After the cheering at the news of a full boycott, we had the Easter holiday and then . . . nothing. The dockers mood slumped as it seemed that all the promises they had received of international action to back their boycott, principally in the United States and from an ILA official called Bowers, seemed to be worth nothing. The MDHC moved to slap writs on Bowers in the US - and this seemed to explain their arrogance and sneering confidence at the last session of talks. On the picket line on the Dock Road, the attitude of the police turned ugly as perhaps they sensed the dockers more despondent mood. There was talk of ACL simply moving from the East Coast American ports to French Canadian ones. The stewards could only ask the dockers to stand firm and have confidence in themselves and their strategy so far. Then slowly . . . oh so slowly, the news began to come in. Action in Portugal to 'black' Liverpool boats, similar action in Bilbao in Spain, Swedish dockers [who are syndicalists in opposition to their Social Democratic government] simply refusing to move empty ACL containers. ABC shipping line in Australia in financial difficulties - boats impounded to pay fees.

But the big question was what would ACL do ? At the time of writing [end of April] we are assured that ACL WILL pull out of the port - this was the agreement Bowers had negotiated on the Liverpool dockers behalf. The fact that they are literally hanging around waiting on the ILA in the US is not doing the docker's morale any good. No doubt the stewards are going back over their strategy, trying to rethink their situation - perhaps this is as far as they can go. I am not privy to their discussions, but it is impossible not to miss an air of despondency beginning to creep in to their manner.

But, determined not simply to sit back, more delegations have been despatched abroad. Many of the stewards and the hard core of activists are now becoming exhausted, tired and drained with the strain, the travel, the constant picketing. But every bit of news on the international front cheers them up no end [and pisses the police off as well - which is a bonus.] And at last the Women of the Waterfront are beginning to find their voice. Many of them have taken up the work of travelling and speaking. Up to now 3500 meetings have been addressed in this country, over 1 million pounds has been raised and spent on this campaign. A new delegation went out to the West Coast of America and thanks to the Internet [on [see e-mail address at the end] we knew what Bobby Moreton and Tony Nelson were up to in Los Angeles. [Thanks to whoever posted it] We now also know about attempts to break up the existing dockers organisation on the West Coast. Every trip the dockers take abroad is an education in the class struggle - and the state of struggles going on wherever delegates go, always forms a part of the 'report back' which delegates give the mass meetings on a Friday and is reported in the Dockers Charter. [issue #6 contains a report of a visit to Turkey. In London Turkish workers form a vocal part of the support group. The Charter is supposed to be available on Dockers web site: http://www.gn.apc.org/labournet/docks/]

What you will not know is something of the 'composition' of the working class on the American West Coast. Bobby and Tony brought this story back with them. As they mounted their picket they were approached by groups of mostly Mexican truckers whom they had stopped. Fearing a possible confrontation they prepared themselves. Instead some of these non union [non organised ?] truckers simply asked what was the name of the union that 'had the balls' to send pickets 6000 miles ? And could they join ?

Next day some of them returned to mount their own 24 hour picket. If the Support Committees are looking for inspiration they might try to emulate this example

I simply report the story since on the same day as we met in Transport House in Liverpool, 'organised ' members of the dockers OWN union who work as gatemen and on the tugs and who are scabbing on this dispute, had their normal branch meeting - and even attempted to strike up a friendly conversation with their former work-mates, who have attempted in the past to 'picket them out'. There are some simple lessons in this dispute and one of them is - YOU DON'T CROSS PICKET LINES, and just because you are in a union it doesn't mean that you're class conscious, similarly some of the most class conscious workers are not necessarily in unions.

Before I turn to the actual business of Saturday 27th April, I should like to correct an impression I have erroneously given in my previous reports. I may have implied that all the dockers had to do was sit back and the international boycott would do the work for them. As you will realise from what has already been written such boycotts cannot be turned on and off like a tap. Each action has to be fought and argued for, hence the importance the dockers attach to sending delegates for face to face contact. Most of the delegates who attended the international dockers conference in Liverpool in February are rank and file activists and are not in a position to simply order workers around as if they were in an army. In any case such a policy is impossible and is a throwback to the kind of movement created by the Second and Third Internationals - if we are to take our understanding of new class 'composition' seriously, we should be looking for the emergence of new ways and forms of organising. I will return to this later in the report.

Now we must turn to the Saturday session and the work to create a solidarity movement in this country.

Firstly some of the more active and well established groups gave some account of their activities to date, and there was a series of contributions which came mostly from members of the various Left groups which participated. From the chair Jimmy Nolan speaking for the dockers indicated that they had no wish to dictate the policy of such groups nor to restrict in any way their terms of reference. Rather than report these initiatives, I should prefer to stand back and take a good hard look at what is being done. This is not to complain at what has been done or at those who are active, but we need to bring thought and action into play here.

It has to be asked - what does support or solidarity mean in such circumstances ? In the very first report I ever made on this dispute in November 1995 I posed this self same question. Already the major issue behind the dispute had become clear and that was casualisation. So far as can be judged all the support groups seem to see their role principally as that of raising funds, holding meetings at which dockers or Women of the Waterfront speak. Whilst these activities are important, the issue itself has hardly even begun to be confronted. Attempts have been made to picket or occupy premises used by Drake International who recruited and trained the scabs, but most of the speakers and the dockers themselves seemed to be fixated by the idea that somehow these support groups could organise strike action. Yet even Jimmy Nolan who is the most cautious of the stewards had to admit that the dockers were in no position to ask people to put themselves 'on the line' by taking a day off work to support them. He is of course absolutely right, and in previous reports I have commented on the inability of the base of the trade union movement locally to mount any real campaign in favour of the dockers. Being the hard headed realists that they are, most trade union officials know this too. As ever there are exceptions to every statement and locally workers at AC Delco in Kirkby deserve particular mention - and I am sure there are other individual plants, factories and worksites throughout the country doing likewise - but they are conspicuous by their exceptional nature.

The belief by the Left that somehow a huge movement of solidarity is being held back by 'traitors' and 'sell-outs' amongst the trade union leadership/bureaucracy is shown to be completely superstitious and plain wrong. There were enough lay, full time and ex full time officials of various trade unions attending the conference who spoke eloquently of their efforts in the past to, for instance, argue for solidarity action at the time of the miners strike in 1984 to expose that particular piece of Leftist nonsense. Even worse however is the blatant attempt by some Leftists to force 'the leaders' [Morris, or even worse Monks of the TUC] to ORDER blacking, solidarity or whatever. I have no wish to take part in building a movement capable of that sort of crap.

Now it may be true as some speakers said that there is now a changed mood amongst workers. That the generalised insecurity brought about by increasing unemployment, short term contracts, the changed balance of power at work and so on, may indeed be bringing about an increased willingness to struggle, cannot be gainsaid. But we do ourselves no favours by relying on what perhaps may be the kind of wishful thinking that was so much in evidence on Saturday. By contrast we might do far better to try and understand what has brought about the situation we are in today, so that it can give us a clue to the growth of movements in the future. It might then be possible to do some lateral thinking and find other ways for today's working class to give expression to their struggle and themselves than the usual knee jerk strike action. And also we might do better to LISTEN to workers in struggle who are grappling in practice with TODAY'S SOCIAL REALITY.

Firstly, let's see if we can deal with the question of the relationship of the dockers to 'their' trade union, the Transport & General Workers Union. In common with some others I have in the past adopted an attitude of hostility to the existing trade union movement - considering it as totally integrated into the system. I have seen nothing in this dispute to make me change my mind, but having such an understanding in the abstract has been of no concrete use - far more important has been the actual realisation of what its practical consequences are. In moving the resolution that the dockers had submitted to the conference, Bobby Moreton fresh back from Los Angeles, in a well argued and powerful speech, set out their thinking. He said that perhaps the fact that the dispute was unofficial and illegal, had been a source of its strength. Had Bill Morris [General Secretary of the T&G] not been afraid of 'sequestration' of union funds and property, he and the Executive might more easily have been persuaded to make the dispute official. That being the case, argued Bobby, almost certainly there would have been some rich ex- dockers on Merseyside and - NO DISPUTE AT ALL.

This is such a profound comment and a real indication of how the dockers are thinking. So, he went on, please don't amend our resolution, especially to mount a campaign to make the dispute 'official' or put 'pressure' on union leaders. Hardly had he sat down when the first speaker called, moved an amendment to do precisely that. Obviously, since he appeared to have swallowed the 'Transitional Programme' whole, we got treated to the whole argument - 'make them fight', 'expose the leadership' 'calling for this or that policy' etc. etc. Are these people deaf as well as 60 odd years out of date ? How many times do we have to have our heads bashed against the trade union door before they reckon we learn a lesson ?

The dockers have their relationship with the trade unions 'sorted'. For the moment they have the use of substantial trade union owned assets, and a substantial sum being regularly 'donated' to their 'hardship fund'. In return the union has no involvement in the dispute and that's the way the dockers want to keep it. Does it really need to be spelled out any more clearly ? Undoubtedly some officials support the dockers and may even be helping behind the scenes, but just as likely there are as many opposed to the dockers. Either way YOU CAN'T BUILD A STRATEGY ON THE UNIONS. Is that so difficult to understand or am I on a different planet to the rest of the Left ? It is simply a question of practicality for the dockers. Would that the Left could show such flexibility of thought. I hope for the moment that this disposes of this question.

Secondly, we need to look at generalising the dispute and in particular the role of the various support groups throughout the country [and internationally]. The dockers have not sought to tie a support movement to any particular policy or 'line'. This is the first difference from the miner's strike - where the support groups were very much subordinated to the NUM. Instead the resolution passed at the conference was deliberately designed to leave the initiative in the hands of the local groups themselves. It remains to be seen however if such groups can break out of the conceptions that they seem to have imposed on themselves.

It is time to consider the question of 'class composition' which I have referred to in these reports. If a movement is to grow, it must reflect the needs of a social movement, the 'soil' if you like, in which it grows. What is the make up of this 'soil' - that is what is the 'composition' of the working class in this country in the 1990s? Only if we can recognise this can we begin to work out a way forward, and avoid becoming bogged down in an 'ideological' view which has been handed down to us from a previous movement. Many dockers have for the first time come to realise the reality of 'work' for the majority of the population, which their previous sectional organisation had helped to shield them from. Unfortunately they have still not understood fully the effect this is having on their own struggle.

So far as road transport is concerned for instance, the recent changes in the transport industry itself have all pointed in one direction - and that is to individualise and atomise drivers, so as to bring them under the control of Capital. All the new technology, from radio telephones, computerised route planning to Just in Time delivery systems, have had the effect of breaking up their former collective organisation, so as to allow the 'normal' functioning of the market to do its work. This is an international phenomenon which we have called a process of 'recomposition'. This means that the dockers have had great difficulty in getting road transport to respect their [mostly token] picket lines. On the picket line itself, this failure of the old form of struggle is having a very deleterious effect. So far however we have seen no sign of a change in tactics to take account of this reality. The stewards have chosen so far not to name the firms which are actively scabbing on the dispute. Nor have any attempts been made to take the campaign to the drivers themselves.

Yet we have concrete examples that breaking out of the old struggle can be done. Transport is now the 'weak link' in a very elongated production process - French lorry drivers have shown us how devastating they can be. German workers threatened with redundancy have disrupted traffic on nearby Autobahns with instant results. Sooner or later we have to confront this question, perhaps a minority within the support groups will attempt to hit those drivers and firms who are breaking the dispute ? After all if dockers can travel 6000 miles and do it why not in this country ? And this is merely one area of social life to be considered.

Many readers will be aware that for a younger generation, the struggle of the dockers is as remote as ancient history. For anyone under the age of 30 the dockers form of collective organisation is completely unknown, the 'trade union' question completely meaningless - have such people no role to play ? Are they incapable of collective struggle ? We know of course that this is not the case. Currently there is a campaign getting itself underway around the question of the Job Seekers Allowance as the state attempts to direct and control the Reserve Army of Labour. Can the two struggles somehow become one ? Will the participants recognise one another ? Will the support groups remain open for this to take place ?

Till next time.

May 7th 1996


PO Box 37P
Liverpool L36 9FZ

e-mail: [email protected]


Part Seven (May 31 1996)

Submitted by libcom on July 29, 2005


In my last report dated 7 May 1996, I told of the meeting to set up a National Committee to co-ordinate and extend the work of the various supporters groups around the country. The actual result of the meeting allegedly to set up such a body was inconclusive. So far as I can tell no such body exists at the moment, although it remains the dockers stated intention to set one up. The hesitation and indecision around this issue illustrates a debate or argument going on within the committee and the dockers leadership. I cannot say, since I am not privy to their discussions as to what their thinking is, but perhaps it is a sign of the limits of their struggle and its form of organisation that they seem unable to confront, never mind resolve their dilemma.

Whilst my purpose in writing my reports is obviously to support the dockers and their struggle, I also wish to act as a catalyst for discussion of the wider issues which their struggle raises. I am also trying to develop my own ideas and understanding of their struggle. Much comment on the dispute, and some of it directed at my reports, is on the question of the trade unions and what is the relationship of workers in struggle to them. I have had cause to deal with this question before, but it seems that my views are being [deliberately ?] mis-represented or misunderstood. I am not going to name the organisations involved, they certainly know who they are, but it is the question itself that needs dealing with. Communists [for that is how I would describe myself] can have their own views and disagreements. For most of the time these are quite esoteric and confined to small groupings whose existence and importance is marginal at best. However there comes a time when the question assumes a practical importance as it has done in this dispute.

At this time it of no use communists going around denouncing this or that policy or strategy - this only serves to INCREASE the gulf of understanding that already unfortunately exists. Whilst I for one have made no secret of my views on this question, I have been more concerned with the PROCESS through which a section of workers comes to grips with the reality around them. So essentially after 7 months of struggle I see the dockers position as follows:

The dockers by going directly international to dock and transport workers all over the world have managed to bring sufficient pressure onto the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company, so that they cannot be ignored. They are for the moment the only section of workers who have dared to challenge the prevailing offensive of the employers and their their constant demand for increased 'flexibility'. This is why the issue at the centre of the dispute - casualisation - is the one that they constantly emphasise. And just as constantly the MDHC denies that is employing 'casual labour'. However the reality is that the dockers remain 'locked out'; and MDHC has a replacement workforce whom they have recruited and trained, and which is working alongside approximately half the original workforce.

As time goes on MDHC will be able to drive up productivity levels without any or with very little collective resistance from the workforce. This after all was what the dispute was always all about - as the recent 'negotiations' have revealed. Liverpool docks were unique in the respect that it was the only port in Britain where, after the national strike of 1989, a recognised [by the employers] collective workers organisation still existed. The view has been advanced that this dispute is the 'last stand' of a dinosaur workers movement, dominated by sectional trade union organisation . . . . and at the same time this is the beginning of a 'fight back', but that same trade union movement will 'betray' the workers.

As ever, elements of a real situation have been used to bolster an ideological outlook, instead of the actual situation being looked at in all its complexity. Neither of the above views, however much they may contain elements of reality, can offer us a way forward. I am of the opinion that the existing trade union movement in all its forms represents a barrier to any new movement and that ultimately it will have to be confronted and destroyed. But as I also have pointed out, such an abstract understanding is of no practical use in the concrete situation the dockers find themselves in

Nobody who knows anything of the history of the dockers attempts at self organisation in Britain since the Second World War, can deny that dockers are rightly suspicious of the union that 'represents' them - the Transport and General Workers Union. When in the 1850s unions were first able to maintain their more or less permanent existence instead of disappearing with the business cycle as had, up to then, been the case and in accordance with bourgeois economic theory, this created a problem for the authorities. How should they deal with this new organisation ?

We are all aware of the history and the argument that initially at least, only skilled workers were able to keep their organisations in being, so they formed an 'aristocracy' of labour. But in the 1890s and just before the First World War, millions of workers in this country were unionised for the first time.

What was the response of the State ? - It was to attempt to draw all these new organisations into the management of the system, initially to keep the war going. But later, in the form of the Turner-Mond talks of 1928, this was formalised and by the late 30s the unions were already assured of a place in the economy. Keynes and his 'New Economics' simply formalised and rationalised a process that was ALREADY UNDERWAY.

Thus the T&G was a more than willing participant in the National Dock Labour Scheme which was the result of the dockers long fight to get rid of casual working in their industry. This was an organisation set up by the State, following Keynesian attempts to 'plan' the class struggle and use it as a motor of development for capitalism. When, in common with similar schemes in Europe and North America this mechanism began to falter in the late 60s, the T&G was its biggest defender, hankering after its role in the MANAGEMENT of the labour process. This it secured with the Jones Aldington agreement on the docks. But this was never going to be a permanent solution to a problem that has its roots in the FUNDAMENTAL antagonism between Capital and Labour, which more than anything else the Keynesian system and its Labour Party backers at the time, wished to hide.

So in 1989 there was a last ditch attempt to preserve collective organisation on the docks in this country - which was defeated. Nationally the unions had no answer to the combination new technology [containerisation] and the demand for 'flexibility' that dock work has always meant. In Liverpool, some dockers organisation managed to exist in a quasi independent manner from the union. The MDHC realising that the union was no longer serving any useful role in the management of the workforce, decided that a more confrontational style was needed and could be afforded. Hence the mass sacking of almost 500 who refused to accept the new 'realities' of the labour market.

In getting this far, and maintaining their collective organisation, the dockers have successfully challenged the new form of work organisation with which we are all becoming familiar - casual working, short term contracts, flexibility in the form of call outs, minimum hours contracts and so on. But they have done it on the basis of their old organisation and with many of their existing views and conceptions unaltered. Thus we can say THAT THE DOCKERS THINKING IS WAY BEHIND THEIR PRACTICAL MOVEMENT.

So far, for instance they have not been willing to challenge the right of the T&G to 'represent' them - being content to speak the language of procedure and collective agreements - even when their employer, the MDHC, has unilaterally torn them up. Even when in the last set of negotiations the MDHC roundly abused them - calling them workshy, prone to unofficial strikes, unwilling to retrain and so on - they indignantly denied this, when in fact it is the truth .

The truth is that by their actions they rejected wage labour, but they remain unwilling to recognise it - except perhaps in private and amongst people they know to be sympathetic. Now it is no good standing on the sidelines and berating the dockers, as some have done, for not confronting the union [or even worse condemning them and their struggle out of hand as doomed from the start - a la RCP]. If you are going to be taken seriously in making this argument you must be able to show what can and should be done instead. When it comes to this practical test many of the critics are found wanting.

What for instance should be the attitude when the union [as it has done] gives a substantial and regular 'donation' to the strikers hardship fund ? Or, concretely, should the dockers abandon their almost full time use of the T & G building in Islington ?

Most importantly, when an official called Bowers, of the ILA on the East Coast of America, negotiates a deal with ACL who account for 40 per cent of the turnover in the Port of Liverpool, that says ACL will pull out of the Port unless the dockers demands are met - do you gratefully accept it or call him a liar and a bureaucrat on the make ?

Even now, when it looks as if he will not or perhaps cannot deliver on what he said - do you denounce him, call him a traitor and a sell out ? Or do you quietly learn your lesson, send delegates out to the West Coast and attempt to do your own work ? And who knows it might even bear fruit - the West Coast and East Coast dockers organisations are talking to one another for the first time since 1934, - is this all nothing more than bureaucratic manoeuvring ?

When it is looked at in this way - you soon realise, as the dockers have, that it makes no sense to antagonise the union - IF YOU ARE NOT IN A POSITION TO OFFER A CONCRETE ALTERNATIVE THAT REALISTICALLY CHALLENGES THE UNION. In any case, all the ritual condemnation from the ICP and others has done, is to get the dockers backs up and force the dockers back onto the ground they know- which we have already argued is changing all around them. The realisation of what the unions are and why they must be confronted and destroyed HAS TO COME FROM THE DOCKERS THEMSELVES.

Nevertheless I am bound to ask the question of a movement that can organise an international rank and file conference, send pickets 6000 miles round the world and provoke possibly a new form of struggle among previously 'unorganised' and casualised lorry drivers on the Californian Coast and act as a catalyst for struggles in Europe - How is it that it cannot find its way out of the impasse currently facing it ?

How is it that it cannot generalise its struggle on an issue that affects millions of workers in this country and is directly preventing their own dispute from achieving success ?

The old form of struggle that the dockers were used to - where because of their sectional power and collective organisation, they actually had NO NEED TO PICKET - has gone. In addition the things that went with the old struggle - 'rank and file' meetings, caucuses of shop stewards, 'co-ordinating committees' on which political deals could be stitched up, etc. is paralysed by its reliance on the trade union machine. Those within the support groups in this country, who orientate themselves to this trade union base, can only pass resolutions, appeal for money, and worst of all urge national leaderships to make the dispute official.

Now I am not going to denounce anyone in this dispute who thinks that they are proceeding along the correct lines. Obviously you proceed on the basis of what you understand [and in the case of the Left in this country that does not appear to be overmuch], but so much of what I have observed and heard in this dispute is simply a reaction to what is going on rather than the result of considered thought. This is one of the reasons why so much of the Left is quite unable to have anything meaningful to say - to the extent that the SWP is still trying to promote 'mass pickets' - and this months after the stewards have explained in some detail why this is neither possible nor desirable.

But certain realities must be faced. One of them is the daily and almost routine crossing of the dockers picket lines by lorry drivers, some of whom are known personally to the dockers. Transport is now one of the major cycles of capital. The capitalists, in the form of management gurus and 'human relations experts' openly boast of their 'Just in Time' production schedules, and we marvel at how easily goods are shipped round the world, overcoming barriers of language and culture. But this success also shows a weakness.

Docks without inland communications, and principally road communications, are simply useless pieces of real estate. As the action of the truck drivers in the greater Los Angeles area has shown, disrupting this flow is one of the main weapons workers have. Many of those engaged in the anti-roads struggle have demonstrated how easily road transport communications are disrupted, and this point has not been lost on some dockers. If the docks dispute is to move forward at all, this is the major question that has to be addressed. A way has to be found of overcoming the present atomised and fractured nature of road transport. We have to realise that the industry is organised in the way it is as a RESPONSE to the class struggle that took place within it. It does not take a genius to realise that one of the driving forces behind the 'privatisation' of the railways lies in the attempt to get round a very strong, sectionally organised group of workers, who have demonstrated their power and willingness to use their sectional strength.

To do all this a movement will have to break out of its sectional limitations, will have to overcome many of its ingrained habits and attitudes. I have tried to be as objective as I can in assessing how far and how much the dockers have done. Perhaps now after 7 months, we must realise that there is only so far such a movement can go. Perhaps given the point from where we started, much has already been achieved, but also given the point from where we started, perhaps this is as far as this movement can go ?

More next time


May 31 1996

Dave Graham
PO Box 37
L36 9FZ


Part Eight - July 1996

Submitted by libcom on July 29, 2005



JULY 1996

It is now July and some 11 months since this dispute began. Late last month ACL, one of the major users of the Seaforth Container Terminal in Liverpool announced its intention to pull out of the Mersey 'until such time as labour relations in the port returned to normal'. For the moment they are diverting their traffic to Thameshaven - an unregistered, that is a fully casualised port in Kent, where workers' collective organisation does not exist. [Whether this is truly the case is still to be established.]

Thameshaven is on the 'wrong' side of the country from the point of view of North Atlantic traffic and cannot be regarded as an ideal solution from the bosses' point of view. We shall return to this later. Some attempts have been made by the London Dockers Support Group - which is very active - to find out about and make contact with dockers in Thameshaven but so far there is nothing to report. Back on the Mersey, it is reported [and believed by the dockers themselves - whose information has been 100% accurate so far] that CAN-MAR and CAST will soon quit the port. There is an equivalent type of dispute brewing in the Canadian East Coast ports, and this may reflect the shipping lines 'clearing the decks' to some extent.

This will leave the Seaforth Terminal virtually idle. Also, on at least 4 occasions the dockers have 'picketed out' the tugboat men which paralyses the port for at least a tide, and on one occasion saw at least one 50 000 tonne vessel helpless in the channel as it attempted to enter the dock under its own power and unaided. All in all the dockers are reasonably pleased with the results of their efforts so far and at their Friday mass meetings their mood is one of quiet, if not aggressive, self confidence. I cannot say if this confidence is misplaced, but certainly now that MDHC is moving to dismiss some of the scabs and ancillary workers because of falling traffic levels, nobody can deny that at last the dockers campaign is effective.

In addition the dockers have shown themselves totally to immune to any of the usual crocodile tears that the media and bosses turn on about 'lost jobs', 'damage to the port', etc. etc. As ever the dockers' policy remains a full commitment to the 'status quo ante '; ALL dockers to be reinstated on their former terms and conditions before any negotiations will be entered into over severance, redundancy and so on.

The time therefore comes when more serious and in depth questions can begin to be asked about this dispute and I should like to begin by posing this one. First of all from the dockers point of view - what will 'winning' [if indeed they are winning] this dispute mean? In the short term this is relatively easy to answer. Over 400 dockers will go back through the gate with their heads held high. But anyone who has followed my reports will know that this is what happened after the 1989 dock strike - so we've been here before. No doubt at least half of them will immediately apply for severance or redundancy on the terms they formerly enjoyed. They will then leave the industry with lump sums and pensions intact and good luck to them.

But what about the younger ones - many of whom are active on the dispute committee and are now known activists ? For them, the struggle to hold on to, never mind improve their terms and conditions or even to hold on to their collective organisation AT ALL, will resume with a vengeance. MDHC like any modern employer cannot tolerate INDEPENDENT COLLECTIVE ORGANISATION amongst its work force. Whether this autonomous organisation takes on a union type form or, as it has in other workplaces, simply goes 'underground' is not actually the issue.

Now obviously I am not the only one to have noticed that REAL workers' collective organisation [as opposed to that which merely takes the name] has in this day and age, all but disappeared from the surface of life. The question then becomes, what should be the relationship between this self organisation, or if you like, this autonomy, and the existing 'workers' organisations [ie the unions]?

Many Left organisations are even now launching campaigns to 'recapture' or 'revitalise' the unions. Rather than debate this from a theoretical point of view [which in my experience is a singularly time wasting and frustrating experience] I should merely like to point to the dockers experience. The dockers have had to be careful in their position not to antagonise the union [at least openly]; but at the same time they have managed to keep it at arm's length from their struggle. Hence their plea for supporters NOT to campaign to make the dispute 'official'. The crucial point here is that the dockers do not look upon the union as the focal point nor the centrepiece of their strategy. As a result of their international conference, many actually believe that their future lies in a new international dock workers union and given the long history of antagonism between the T&G and the dockers, including a 'mass break out from the union in the late 1950s, this is perfectly understandable.

Well, if a new international union does ever get off the ground we'll have a look at this beast and see, but for the moment, the dockers prefer and rightly so, to rely on their own efforts. I think however we can go a bit further with our understanding. We started by asking the question - what does 'winning' this dispute actually mean? I said that in the short term we could certainly answer that, and most people would be able to recognise the answer. But over the longer term it would be far harder.

Even in the 70s we knew that we could not make any real economic gains - any wage increases we won were quickly swallowed up and cancelled out by inflation, and in any case nobody ever counts the losses to our class by those forced out into unemployment or casualised forms of work. Today it is not even a question of advancing wages conditions but one simply of trying to hold on. For myself, I am more concerned to see a growth in the confidence and organising abilities of a whole section of workers, than any material 'gain' they might make. And we should never forget that this whole dispute, like many others now, is not about improving wages and conditions, but merely an attempt to make previous 'victories' actually stick. It's the MDHC who have torn up the old collective agreements, its the MDHC who want to introduce individual contracts and so on. This marks out a crucial difference from disputes that broke out in the 70s and 80s. It is also very revealing about the real dynamics of the situation.

Like many in the past I had imagined the working class to be a largely passive, almost inert mass, that merely reacted to what the capitalists did to it. I now wish to challenge this view because it seems to me to no longer describe the actual situation [actually, it is doubtful that it ever did]. Throughout this dispute it has been quite clear that the initiative has lain with the dockers and not MDHC. I wish to suggest that this is so ALL THE TIME. Now when I came to this conclusion I realised it meant abandoning a whole previous outlook. Instead of formerly seeing the working class as the 'blind beast of revolt', merely reacting to its circumstances, we come to conceive of the position of the working class in capitalist society as being crucial to our conception of communism or the future society.If we accept that it is the working class that has the initiative - THAT IS CAPITAL ALWAYS REACTS TO US - then it makes what we have received from a previous movement all the more questionable. Whereas before we have had a conception of communism or socialism as belonging to the party - as the product of intellect and a reflection on our history, we were stuck with something that was very much the property of a political movement. We can now abandon this stultifying conception and look at what I now believe is the real situation.

Every change in the labour process - every change in our conditions of work, in the state form, even in our personal relationships, comes about as a result of our struggle to escape from our condition as wage workers. Now stated as baldly as that, it can seem a kind breathtaking madness. How silly you may argue - it is the capitalists who control the labour process, we are merely there to do their bidding. But stop and think - if the labour process were merely this mechanical relationship, why would management experts and gurus spend a lifetime trying to learn its secrets ? What can their problem be ?

And the answer is staring us in the face - it is us , WE ARE THE INSURGENT ELEMENT. We need to recognise the class struggle as pre-existing. It is not something invented by communists, it is always there even if we do not recognise the peculiar forms it sometimes takes. We are the ones who always bend and change their system to suit ourselves. If communists were to do nothing else, they would do all workers a favour if they are hammered this one lesson home. In any work situation, because our interests - as human beings, are ALWAYS fundamentally opposed to theirs, we always find ways to challenge their system.

When Frederick Taylor started to time and break down the work of skilled men in the New England machine shop where he worked at the turn of the century, it was not to 'improve' the 'scientific organisation of work' but to break down the control over the labour process exerted by the skilled men. Workers had imposed their collectivity on the labour process. That is he REACTED to the defacto rule of Labour OVER Capital.

Today, management uses a multiplicity of tools to try and recover control of the labour process - 'team working', TQM, breaking up of large units into small and scattered ones. Always the dynamic is the same - capital runs away from what it has created - socialised labour, BUT AT THE SAME TIME IT CANNOT AVOID RECREATING THE FORCE THAT SPELLS ITS OWN DOOM.

Now armed with this insight into the real balance of forces, we can see the end result of our struggle, what all our partial and perhaps futile struggles are aimed at, and that is to get rid of this parasitic relationship.

Socialism or communism, since from this point of view they are the same thing, becomes therefore the property, not of an intellectual elite, the 'men of science', but arises directly out of our very struggle. One of the most useful things those who call themselves socialists or communists can do, is to recognise and document this process.

In previous reports I have used the word 're-composition' as a shorthand way of showing how the capitalists have used technology and the power of the state to try and overcome the 'collectivity' that had been created. In Briain there was a move within transport to develop smaller, unregistered ports, so as to avoid 'collectivity'. This process has now come to a stop as capital attempts to wrestle with an even bigger contradiction.

Transport as we have noted is part of the circulation of capital, although not directly 'productive' in the same way as making goods and services, it nevertheless shows the same tendencies and processes - rationalistation, fragementation, concentration and so on. One of the problems the dockers have come up against is the lack of collective organisation among truck drivers, reflecting the present anarchic and deregulated nature of the industry.

This will change.

Already it is becoming more obvious to the far sighted capitalists that some kind of rationalisation is necessary - given the enormous amounts of investment that are going to be needed simply in order to keep transport efficient. It may be that the MDHC as presently set up is unable or unwilling to spend the amounts necessary. For instance on the Mersey there are at present TWO competing projects for Ro-Ro traffic to Ireland. And even these are not really facing up to the problem. The reality is that you cannot simply end at the dock gates. Whoever develops a facility on the West Coast of Britain [and wherever it is] will have to develop the whole chain - inland to distribution points, and on to exchange points with East Coast ports and the Channel Tunnel. Plainly this is beyond the MDHC.


With others I hope to be able to discuss and document this process more clearly and at greater length in a separate work - sorry if I've whetted your appetite, you'll just have to be patient.


Part Nine - September 1996

Submitted by libcom on July 29, 2005

First of all apologies to all those who did not get sight of 'dockers 8' - which is all of you. I abandoned it when it was almost complete because it became so rapidly out of date. ACL having quit the port then announced their intention to come back. The situation was confused but it seems that the alternative port - Thameshaven, was not suitable.

The dockers meanwhile had moved on to their second target CANMAR and CAST - hence the two dockers up the gantry cranes in Montreal [which has since been repeated but with not quite the same degree of success in other ports]. But the dockers have their own web site which people can access and the 'Dockers Charter ' gives regular updates of what is going on. The purpose of my reports is altogether different which I hope will become clear as people read further.

As I write [early September] we are approaching the first anniversary of the dispute which was sparked off by the dockers refusal to cross the picket line mounted by dismissed dockers employed by an 'independent' stevedoring firm called Torside. In Britain in the 1990s such sympathy or in the words of the legislation, 'secondary action', is illegal. The policy of the dockers remains one of insisting on the full reinstatement of all dockers dismissed on the terms and conditions they 'enjoyed' prior to the dispute.

Now I was going to begin this report/commentary on a note of criticism of the dockers. By concentrating on re-instatement, the dockers I thought, were allowing what I conceived to be the major question of casualisation [what Jimmy Nolan, Chair ofthe Dispute Committee confusingly calls 'employment contracts'] to be lost from view.

But of course this is looking at events at the surface and missing what is going on underneath. It is, in my opinion the first duty of communists, anarchists or whatever we call ourselves, to look beyond the surface of events and try and penetrate what is really going on. That is, it is first of all our job to try and understand.

So here is my attempt. The policy of total re-instatement which is endorsed every Friday at the mass meeting of dockers and their supporters is actually what used to be called by the American SDS student movement in the 70s a 'non negotiable demand'. That is, given the changes in the economy since the National Dock Labour Scheme was abolished in 1989, there is NO WAY the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company can allow a return to the previous situation. In any case a whole new scab labour force has been recruited, trained and is even now driving up productivity levels to unheard of heights. So, for instance when ACL came back to the port, the 80 dockers who left 'voluntarily' were not replaced. The fact that there is now a regular turnover of scab labour which cannot cope with the new casualised way of working and the much reduced pay, does not bother MDHC.

They have a core layer of skilled workers who are prepared to take on and train a succession of casualised and atomised workers to do the bulk of the basic work in the port. The fact also that it has been become more dangerous to work in the Port of Liverpool does not bother them either.

Those of you who have been following my reports will know that we have argued that this is a generalised and long term trend in all workplaces - and it spells the end of the post war Keynesian based consensus which we had all become used to. Space prevents me from going into this in any more detail here, but we are working on a much longer analysis in which we hope to demonstrate this clearly. All this being the case, the dockers official policy is, I have come to realise way behind their real thinking and practice. The only 'negotiations' going on are those sponsored by Bill Morris and the T & G national and local officials, ably abetted by the ITF, who have made it quite plain that a 'compromise' must be found over the heads of the dockers.

And obviously not in the interests of the dockers but because Morris and Co have been visibly shaken by the dockers international campaign and the open discussion on 5 continents of the idea of forming a new international dockers union. Morris came to Liverpool and attempted to lay down the law about 'unofficial action' and going through official channels and just showed how out of touch he is. Unfortunately, although many dockers would willingly have told him where to go - they are held back by the fact that they are still to a major extent financially dependent on the union, and could find themselves slung out of the T & G building which they have made their own almost, for the past 11 months.

And more importantly because they are at the end of the day only some 500 and as yet neither they nor us have seen any 'echo', or sufficient evidence from other groups of workers similarly affected, in conflict with 'their' unions. I said at the beginning that the dockers had allowed the question of casualisation to slip from the forefront of their campaign, but actually that is not quite accurate. Because the campaign is around a 'non negotiable demand' for re-instatement, the dockers are not sitting around waiting for the MDHC to cave in - because they now understand that they will not.

Mike Carden on the dispute committee posed the question at the time when ACL came back to the port and when there was some understandable gloom about the future of the dispute -

Where can we go ? There is no offer 'on the table', all we have is struggle.

And struggle is what the dockers have been engaged in. And struggle, as we know changes everything. Wherever dockers have gone to speak in this country they have faced concretely the question of casualisation, they have urged workers to struggle, to support them financially but also to learn how they have done things for themselves and to have the confidence to do things likewise. In the process this group of workers has been utterly transformed. What was by their own admission a sectional, racist and inward looking, male dominated group is now working consciously to transform itself into something else. Some of these people can never go back to the kind of life they had before.

If we needed concrete proof of this, it is in the recent approaches of the dockers to eco-warriors and other marginalised groups for help and information on ways of waging the campaign; it is also in the contacts the dockers and the support groups are beginning to make with other 'social' movements against the Job Seekers Allowance for instance, which will hit dockers just as it hits other members of the unemployed. Within all these movements the dockers are starting to play a role in 'knocking heads' together. So many of the delegates who have gone all round the country have come back saying they are fed up with having to put up with members of the Left playing their silly games. Since I too have had some experience of this I should like to pass the example on.

Firstly, many of you will be aware of the intervention of the ICP late last year and in the Spring of this year, with their insistence that the existing leadership of the stewards and the especially the arch Stalinist , Jimmy Nolan, should resign and let the dispute be led 'properly' - well, for all their trouble the dockers barred them from attending the mass meetings. It has now come to the point where the dockers are demanding an unreserved apology from the ICP as an organisation before they will be allowed back in. And quite right too, for if, in reality you have nothing constructive to say then it is best to say nothing.

Secondly, I attended in Liverpool a meeting called by one of the Left groups to launch a Merseyside Socialist Alliance. It was a well attended meeting but I might as well have been transported back in time. Despite some recognition of the changed era we are in - absolute opposition to the Labour Party for example, it was clear that for many of these people [all male, white and about the same age] nothing had changed. The meeting set up a steering group' to draw up a list of 'demands' around which the mass of the working class is supposed to unify.

No doubt for instance, each of the Left groups will engage in an auction to decide who is going to set the 'demand' for a minimum wage. Whether it will be the SWP [ever so cautious and mindful of its links to the full timers in the unions and TUC ] and their policy of 4.26 an hour, or Militant Labour with with their rush of blood and a demand for 6 an hour [and nationalisation of the banks].

The point I want to make is that I do not see it as the job of political minorities to set 'demands'. These arise from the movement itself and their nature is determined more by the movement than in what is actually said. Our job is to understand and to offer an explanation, to test hypotheses and to think heretically. Unless we can have the space to do this no movement will get off the ground. This is why it was more than disappointing to be told right from the outset of the meeting that the chair would accept no contributions critical of the overall decision to set up an alliance. When afterwards one of the organisers asked us if we would go and participate in the Steering Committee, both of us who attended, declined.

The question I would like to pose to all who read this is - were we wrong ?

September 1996

This was the first report I 'posted' onto an Internet discussion list called 'Autopsy' which generated some discussion which will follow as Dockers 9 'Again' and 'ICP1'


Part Ten -

Submitted by libcom on July 29, 2005


Just a short note to describe the weekend of 28/29 September. I am only going to describe what I personally saw. Any reflection on the events will have to wait unitl I can check my impressions with others.

The 'eco-warriors' who came together under the banner of 'Reclaim the Streets' to support the dockers struggle brought with them new ideas, new ways of doing things and an almost naive curiousity about the dispute. On the Saturday there was a demonstration through the city centre which was odd mixture of the old and new.

New was the colour, the music and the feeling of excitement which many of these people brought to what has been in the past a rather tired, social democratic trudge through the streets. When we got near MacDonalds the state showed that it took the new elements seriously when the OSD in full body armour and holstered pistols, blocked off the road . . . just in case. Then when we got to the Pier Head, traditional meeting place for the struggles of the 70s, what a transformation ! Instead of the cobbles and Liverpool's version of the Tatlin tower [a monument to an earlier attempt at trade union internationalism, that of Ford shop stewards to co-ordinate a struggle internationally], there was a manicured lawn and a podium. Our history transformed into a tourist trap. The Tatlin tower, 'temporarily removed' during renovations has no doubt been cut up so as no longer to embarras the Council or the MDC which now 'owns' the Pier Head. Another piece of our history turned against us - it was almost too much to bear. . . .

In the evening, whilst we were just having a quiet drink, one of the WoW burst in to say that the OSD had surrounded the Custom House on the Dock Road. This is one of those 2 storey government buildings, now abandoned by the state, which the eco-warriors had squatted since the previous Wednesday. Social space that any movement needs and which the dockers have, precariously, in the form of their use of the T & G building in Liverpool.

Suddenly, a crisis. All the arrangements for co-ordination that the dockers and eco-warriors had made - mobile phone telephone numbers for just such an emergency, were not answering. Does the state know when they are switched off ? Were the OSD just waiting for people's guard to be lowered ? What sort of mobilisation did they expect at 9-30 on a Saturday night ?

We rushed down to the Custom House - Jimmy Nolan wanting us to impress on the eco-warriors the need to avoid a futile confrontation, would they be in the same frame of mind ? How do they handle situations like this ? What seriously were the 20 or so us who went supposed to do ? I called at a garage to buy spare batteries for my flash on the camera - but if the OSD were serious, on past experience you don't get to keep your equipment intact.

In the end when we got down there, the younger Torside dockers had the situation 'sorted'. The OSD had gone, there was only one busy on the door and a 'deal' had been agreed that the all nighter could go ahead - provided it was not made known in the city. The fact that the Custom House was stuck in the North End, and a good taxi ride away was going to be sufficient to prevent that. Motto - next time squat some 'social space' nearer to where people are.

Still it wasn't so bad. There were hot showers, the building was fully carpeted, the heating worked and the rooms were big enough for a huge party. While I was there I got the chance to use my flash - taking a picture of the 'throne' - the toilet the customs used to use to 'await results' for those intent on smuggling 'illegal substances' by swallowing them. Meanwhile, a cafe was organised, the sound system arrived and the party went on and on . . . .

On the Monday there was a picket of the Seaforth dock and the same people were there to help. Along with some of the dockers [including a couple of stewards] they were arrested attempting to invade and occupy some of the cranes . . .

What impression each has gained of the other I cannot say at this stage. But who knows, social movements have to start somewhere.


Part Eleven

Submitted by libcom on July 29, 2005


Just a short note to describe the weekend of 28/29 September. I am only going to describe what I personally saw. Any reflection on the events will have to wait unitl I can check my impressions with others.

The 'eco-warriors' who came together under the banner of 'Reclaim the Streets' to support the dockers struggle brought with them new ideas, new ways of doing things and an almost naive curiousity about the dispute. On the Saturday there was a demonstration through the city centre which was odd mixture of the old and new.

New was the colour, the music and the feeling of excitement which many of these people brought to what has been in the past a rather tired, social democratic trudge through the streets. When we got near MacDonalds the state showed that it took the new elements seriously when the OSD in full body armour and holstered pistols, blocked off the road . . . just in case. Then when we got to the Pier Head, traditional meeting place for the struggles of the 70s, what a transformation ! Instead of the cobbles and Liverpool's version of the Tatlin tower [a monument to an earlier attempt at trade union internationalism, that of Ford shop stewards to co-ordinate a struggle internationally], there was a manicured lawn and a podium. Our history transformed into a tourist trap. The Tatlin tower, 'temporarily removed' during renovations has no doubt been cut up so as no longer to embarras the Council or the MDC which now 'owns' the Pier Head. Another piece of our history turned against us - it was almost too much to bear. . . .

In the evening, whilst we were just having a quiet drink, one of the WoW burst in to say that the OSD had surrounded the Custom House on the Dock Road. This is one of those 2 storey government buildings, now abandoned by the state, which the eco-warriors had squatted since the previous Wednesday. Social space that any movement needs and which the dockers have, precariously, in the form of their use of the T & G building in Liverpool.

Suddenly, a crisis. All the arrangements for co-ordination that the dockers and eco-warriors had made - mobile phone telephone numbers for just such an emergency, were not answering. Does the state know when they are switched off ? Were the OSD just waiting for people's guard to be lowered ? What sort of mobilisation did they expect at 9-30 on a Saturday night ?

We rushed down to the Custom House - Jimmy Nolan wanting us to impress on the eco-warriors the need to avoid a futile confrontation, would they be in the same frame of mind ? How do they handle situations like this ? What seriously were the 20 or so us who went supposed to do ? I called at a garage to buy spare batteries for my flash on the camera - but if the OSD were serious, on past experience you don't get to keep your equipment intact.

In the end when we got down there, the younger Torside dockers had the situation 'sorted'. The OSD had gone, there was only one busy on the door and a 'deal' had been agreed that the all nighter could go ahead - provided it was not made known in the city. The fact that the Custom House was stuck in the North End, and a good taxi ride away was going to be sufficient to prevent that. Motto - next time squat some 'social space' nearer to where people are.

Still it wasn't so bad. There were hot showers, the building was fully carpeted, the heating worked and the rooms were big enough for a huge party. While I was there I got the chance to use my flash - taking a picture of the 'throne' - the toilet the customs used to use to 'await results' for those intent on smuggling 'illegal substances' by swallowing them. Meanwhile, a cafe was organised, the sound system arrived and the party went on and on . . . .

On the Monday there was a picket of the Seaforth dock and the same people were there to help. Along with some of the dockers [including a couple of stewards] they were arrested attempting to invade and occupy some of the cranes . . .

What impression each has gained of the other I cannot say at this stage. But who knows, social movements have to start somewhere.


Dockers and Casualisation (February 1996)

Submitted by libcom on July 29, 2005


Why did the dockers reject the 25 000 ?

Many people will be aware that some dockers in this dispute have rejected an offer of 25 000 to 'sell' their jobs. You may not be aware however that this offer is not available to all those dockers involved in this dispute; but in any case you are probably wondering why anyone would reject a lump sum like that. Apart from the fact that these days 25 000 will go nowhere and besides, before this dispute, many dockers had already rejected a more 'generous' offer, the dockers have a more compelling reason for saying NO. You should give serious thought to their argument.

Throughout this dispute dockers, their wives, partners and supporters have argued that this dispute centres on one issue - CASUALISATION. Now many people reading this will know what this means, 'flexible working', short term contracts, constant insecurity caused by 'privatisation' or competitive tendering or simply the 'need to remain internationally competitive'. We have all been told that there is no alternative, that somehow it is all pre-ordained. Dock workers themselves have fallen victim to this trend in common with millions of other workers in this country. If you have read some of the letters and speeches of the 'Women of the Waterfront ' you will be aware of the constant call outs, disruption to family life and the tiredness and stress they cause. All this is the real cost of the continuing drive by the bosses, government and the political parties to make this country the 'enterprise centre of Europe.'

In the past dockers have had a tradition of mutual aid and collective struggle through which they have tried to blunt some of the effects of this. When in response to an attack on Torside dockers, others employed by MDHC or Nelson refused to cross the Torside men's picket line, they were attempting to preserve their collective organisation. A union or collective organisation in this sense is nothing without the right to picket - which of course is now illegal in this country. So now we have the real reason for this dispute - it is an attempt to destroy and root out of the docks any last remnant of collective organisation and solidarity, so that conditions and wages can be further driven down to make the port 'competitive'.

And this pressure is never ending. One of the most insidious changes of the last few years has been the pressure for continuous improvement or kaizen as the Japanese call it. In the past once a rate was agreed for a particular job, workers would be left to get on with it. Today this is no longer the case, management continually want more for less. Your best is never good enough.

Why this is so would take longer than we have space for in this article, but it is to do with another '-isation' - that is GLOBALISATION . As this dispute develops we are going to hear and more about this word and what it means. Those of you who have been following this dispute since September will know that in attempting, as they saw it to dispose of the last remnant of the 'old way' - the MDHC, the Government, the Liverpool Echo and so on, have badly miscalculated. Instead this remnant has transformed itself, risen to this new challenge and shown how collectively IT IS POSSIBLE to resist. We can mobilise ourselves, we don't have to suffer in isolation.

How have the dockers done this ? By taking this struggle into their own hands, by understanding the reality they were facing and not allowing the union to isolate them as has happened in the past, by sending delegates to ports all over the world to ask for practical solidarity. Above all by organising an international conference of port workers to see if we can work out a co-ordinated international approach to the problem of casualisation.

We live now in a world that is far more international than it used to be, companies think nothing of shipping goods round the world if it makes money, developments in information technology makes services just as footloose - which is why world trade is growing three times faster than world production. This globalisation of the economy means that now, we, the working class can also 'globalise' our struggle and no laws in any one nation state can stop us. And if dock workers can use international pressure to strengthen their collective organisation, why not Ford workers or Vauxhalls' [GM]? All this means we can begin to fight back and in the process find real answers to the problems that confront us.

So remember - it isn't about th money and you can't avoid the consequences by keeping your head down and hoping that you'll be all right. There aren't any individual solutions any more.

We need solutions at the level of society itself. You won't be all right if you just keep your head down - casualisation affects everybody, blue collar, white collar, working class, middle class. We can successfully resist, BUT only by using the only weapons at our disposal - our numbers and our ability to understand and organise ourselves. The dockers are showing us the way.


Conference Report

Submitted by libcom on July 29, 2005


So the dockers have had their international conference - delegations came from America, Canada, Germany, France, Spain, Portugal, the Canary Islands, Greece, Australia and New Zealand all reflecting the trading pattern at the port. No delegates came from West or Southern Africa - this may reflect the current situation in Nigeria but it might have been expected that some may have come from South Africa.

For the most part they were rank and file activists reflecting a huge variety of political views and opinions. Officially the gathering was organised to further an international campaign to 'black' ships loaded by scab labour in Liverpool. To that end the delegates were treated to a full page 10 000 advert in the Liverpool Daily Post and the Echo , telling the delegates not to listen to the stewards, and trying to blame the resulting job losses etc. on a group of political adventurers. The dockers invited the MDHC to come and address the delegates, but this was ignored.Various resolutions about the dispute were passed and the character of waterfront labour relations internationally was discussed. Some analysis was made of the changes within production which have lead to such things, as JIT, and so on.

So the many international changes in dockworkers conditions - privatisation, the end of the old kind of corporatism represented by the Devlin agreement in Britain, - was a result of the drive to make distribution [or the circulation of capital for those of you of a Marxist persuasion] much quicker and cheaper. This trend and others such as Globalisation, have been identified [but not analysed] in previous articles on this dispute. Unofficially, outside of the formal sessions, the main topic of conversation seemed to be about the nature and purpose of international organisation. Some delegates had a more bureaucratic conception than others, and all delegates had stories to relate of their experiences and how their struggles had been sabotaged by the existing union apparatuses.

It is not my purpose here to repeat these, if you are reading this at all then it means you are already critical to some extent of unions and trade unionism as an ideology. Concretely, a Steering Committee has been elected whose function will be to monitor and coordinate the campaign and to arrange a further conference possibly in August and probably in Canada. Those who wish to see the exact wording of the resolutions passed can contact the dockers directly.

What was the importance of the conference ?

Simply the fact that it took place at all. Attempts have been made in the past to organise port-workers internationally, but they have had 2 flaws:-

1. they have always relied on the trade union base and took place against the background of the Cold War.

2. they have always been after or outside of a dispute situation, so that they had an element of unreality.

For the moment we have a situation where this dispute is 'unofficial' that is not recognised by the trade union [but tolerated nevertheless], AND is being waged internationally - this is almost certainly without precedent perhaps since the days of the First International. We shall have to wait and see if this international organisation can manage to navigate its way through the murky waters that lie ahead of it, without succumbing to the bureaucracy and control of the existing union apparatus.

So far as can be ascertained there were throughout the conference no full time union officials present and many delegates from overseas especially from Spain, Italy and Portugal were evidently perplexed to understand why the dockers remained within the T & G given its role. One of the Spanish delegates made an impassioned plea for the construction of a rank and file body from the bottom up, and for it to be a fighting organisation and nothing else, which was received with approval at the regular Friday mass meeting. He alsospoke powerfully to the women involved in the dispute, urging them to find a bigger role for themselves and telling how this had been vital in their own struggle in the Canary Islands. [shouts from the back 'I'm going there for me 'olidays, Paco !] Humour has been one of the major features of this dispute, something all the delegates commented on.

All in all the whole experience has been a profoundly moving one, and no doubt many international friendships have been cemented [certainly they were toasted] over the past week. Perhaps this was the most that could be hoped for. The delegates have gone home inspired, promising to work to maintain and extend the blockade of Liverpool. Many have also gone away with the determination not to allow the kinds of attacks on their own organisations which are such a feature of disputes in this country and which have up to now prevented any meaningful solidarity action either from other dockers or other sections of workers in Britain, a feature which many delegates noted.

It is to this area which I should now like to turn. Many in this country will argue that the dockers are a 'special case', only they could make their dispute international. Only they have a history of independent job organisation and so on. Now on the face of it this is quite true. But there is no secret to how the dockers have managed to achieve this. In previous articles I may have given the impression that much has been done spontaneously, and I should like to correct or qualify this impression.

At an analytical level, we know that 'nothing comes out of nothing'. It would be utterly misleading to suggest to workers in struggle today and faced with a similar situation, that they could simply 'copy the dockers'. But nevertheless a comparison is worth making, for its shows just what must be done, if we are ever to recover from the defeats we have suffered. We have, for instance also ongoing in Liverpool a firefighters dispute, which has been unresolved for over seven months. At heart its basis is the local Labour controlled authority's need to curtail spending [something which is going to be extended to all the Council's employees soon, as the Council is seriously 'overspent'.] So to some extent the firefighters are a sign of things to come, and you don't need to be a Marxist to work that out. The result has been that the firefighters union [FBU] has been locked in a series of fruitless negotiations to get some kind of deal acceptable to the workers. Locally there have been 24 hour stoppages - meaning that the Army must be called in to provide fire cover.

Because the FBU is locked in this ritualistic dance with the Authority, the bosses have been able to retain the initiative, many firefighters are becoming demoralised and disillusioned with the struggle [no doubt that is the FBU's intention]. Many rank and file activists would prefer to pursue a policy of rolling 2 hour stoppages which would have 2 major advantages:-

1. firefighters would not lose as much money. We have to remember, we are dealing with a young workforce many of whom are newly married, with mortgages and so on. Tactics must reflect this new class composition - remember that from previous articles ?

2. since the authorities would have no advance warning, and strikes would be continuous over a wide area, given the concentration of fire stations in urban areas, they would quickly exhaust the army's ability to cover, thus bringing the dispute to a head. Many firefighters [unlike the Left who seem to learn nothing form history] have no wish to repeat the experience of previous all out stoppages, where firefighters meaninglessly picketed their own fire stations for days on end.

But, it is quite clear that for the moment the firefighter's lack the INDEPENDENT means to do this. At an earlier mass meeting in Liverpool, massive amounts of money were raised for a 'hardship' and a 'fighting' fund' - to be held and administered by the union. Nobody at the meeting challenged the right of the union to do this nor insisted on the sovereignty of the mass meeting. Without an independent source of finance, no movement can get very far. This can be contrasted with the dockers and other sections of workers such as car workers, who voluntarily levy themselves in preparation for disputes, usually holding the money in social funds, administered by a trusted workmate [often a steward]. One of the reasons why the dockers have been able to act independently of the union is because to some extent the stewards ARE independent. They were only 'recognised' on the docks in 1967, and have had an uneasy relationship with the T&G ever since. More importantly in Liverpool ever since 1989 [unlike in the other ports, for example Tilbury] a MINORITY of stewards and other activists, perhaps 50 in number, have organised regular monthly meetings to discuss their situation and their organisation on the dock. [We can see why now this dispute was deliberately created by MDHC]. This kind of regular activity and attendance is certainly more than most union branches could maintain.

Not only have the dockers maintained an independent organisational existence [and I would be misleading readers if I did not mention that most of the activists were 'political' in the sense of identifying for the most part with a number of the numerous different Trotskyist organisations which have always had a presence in Liverpool,] but they have always had an independent source of finance - from previous disputes, levies and so on. The importance of this cannot be overestimated - it is what has given the dockers the ability to plan and organise their conference, send delegates overseas and so on. It also accounts for the perplexity of some of the foreign delegations - who seeing dockers real independence almost, from the union ask why they do not go the whole way. I touched on the answer to this in my last article. I mentioned in a previous article that some of the dockers were on a steep learning curve, well this is true for your correspondent as well.

Having seen a workers' organisation in struggle close up, seen how it has come into existence, traced its roots and so on, only now am I in any position to draw some conclusion. Prior to this dispute, I had believed along with many others in 'spontaneous' forms of organisation, that were somehow 'elementary' and therefore 'better' because they came directly from a worker's position in the productive process. It is quite clear from this dispute that this is not the case or at least it must be severely modified. Although I would disagree at a formal level with much of the ideology and perhaps the outlook of the dockers, there is no doubt that their wish to maintain a separate organisation was quite correct. That this was essentially a political decision, stemming from a fully worked out world outlook or ideology, cannot be gainsaid. Ultimately it seems to me if workers are ever going claim a world that is rightfully theirs, they must proceed along the same lines as the dockers.

I hope to be able to post future articles [yes this dispute is not going to go away] on the Internet - readers interested to know where, can contact the author

Dave Graham,
PO Box 37
Liverpool, L36 9FZ.


To the Editor of the Dockers Charter (February 1996)

Submitted by libcom on July 29, 2005

To the Editor of the Dockers Charter

In issue No 6 of the Dockers Charter dated May 1996 you carried the response of a number of academics at the University of Liverpool to the openly pro-market stance of Professor Patrick Minford and Peter Stoney, entitled 'The Real Issues '. The various signatories mostly from the Sociology and Social Work Departments at the University, attempted to show that Minford and Stoney did not speak for the academic community. Moreover they exposed their claim to so called 'objectivity' by showing how Stoney was directly in the pay of the MDHC - and Minford was a 'right wing' economist and supporter of Margaret Thatcher and TINA ['There Is No Alternative']. Whilst this is invaluable, the 'Academics against Minford ', as the article was called, cannot be allowed to dictate the terms of our thinking.

They went on in their article to say that the Dockers dispute raised a 'more fundamental question' - and that is 'what kind of economy do we want ?'

The question is absolutely the right one to pose but, typical of academics, they went on to answer the question FOR US.What is so vitally new about the dockers dispute is that for the first time in this country at least, a section of workers in struggle has polarised opinion in the world of academia. Whilst I have no wish to let people like Minford 'off the [dockers] hook', we must not allow academics, however well meaning, to speak for us. Geoff Pilling, who taught me what little I know about 'economics' from the workers point of view, made an attempt to restate the real issues as they affect us, in an article printed alongside that of the academics. May I be allowed through your columns to develop his argument a bit further ?

The key, Geoff said, was to understand the changes brought about in the economy by the 'new economics' of John Maynard Keynes, after the Second World War. Geoff also said quite correctly, that Keynes believed that slow inflation would be a better way of controlling the growth of wages to within what capital could afford, than the old fashioned methods of direct wage cuts. Experience of these in the 20s and 30s had shown that with the growth of the workers' movement, such wage cutting was dangerous to 'social stability' and in Italy and Germany had led to the state taking on a Fascist form so as to tame the workers' movement. Keynes was determined not to allow a similar situation occur in Britain.BUT, and this is crucial, Keynes' solution of increased state spending and manipulation of the currency [he made his fortune as a currency speculator] in order to maintain 'full employment' also meant in practice a vast and permanent increase in state spending [mostly financed through taxation of workers wages or borrowing] AND a permanent increase in the role of the state not just in the economy, but in all areas of social life. Thus we had the growth of a welfare system, NHS, education and so on.

In other words the 'free market' was no longer to be relied upon to deliver 'full employment'. Nor could it, Keynes argued, solve the problem of balancing 'social supply' and 'social demand' - what economists call 'equilibrium'. That was the extent of the 'new economics' which swept over Western Europe. These changes were accepted by Conservative and Labour parties, Christian Democrat and Social Democrat all over Europe, Republican and Democrat in the USA - to the extent that at this time they became the new orthodoxy.We can therefore describe this early post war period from the 50s to around the late middle 70s as the period of the 'planner state'.

However we all know that since that period all this has begun to come apart. The dockers themselves have discovered as a result of their visits abroad that since roughly 1989 there has been a concerted move away from the old corporatist ways of organising work. The ending of the National Dock Labour Scheme in this country - a body inspired by Keynesian principles - has its parallel all over the world.

Why is this ? What has caused the 'planner state' to become the 'crisis state' ?

One of the reasons, we would argue, is because the world itself has changed. Capitalism is a dynamic system. As such it cannot be contained within the nation state straitjacket that Keynesian economics specified for it. The twin forces of increased world competition caused in part by technological development, and the globalisation of capital, mean that the nation state is no longer able to use the old solutions. These two factors are also at the heart of the dockers dispute. An article in the same issue of the Dockers Charter explored what globalisation means for us workers. We need to be able to explore this much further to find out all its implications for us.

Coming back to 'Academics against Minford' , their response to the question they posed - 'what sort of economy do we want ? was as follows - we need they said 'an economy based on well regulated, well paid jobs which considers the rights of those at work rather than emphasising the rights of employers to make excessive profit.'

Never mind how you define 'excessive profits' - ask yourself, who is more accurately describing the real world as we experience it and who is harking back to a past that is rapidly becoming a distant memory ?

The answer has to be that the real world belongs to Minford and his like. Now we know where we are with him and his sort. We confound his 'economics', we won't allow ourselves to be dominated by his 'free market'. We can organise ourselves and express ourselves collectively. He hates working people and the more we stand up for ourselves, the more we express ourselves collectively, the more visceral his hatred becomes.

And that's fine; as Bobby Moreton said - some things are simple and should be kept that way.

But what about our friends ? At the end of his article Geoff Pilling reposed the fundamental question the academics had asked in CLASS terms, the only way we can look at it. Will our friends in the academic world help us with our project. That is, as Geoff said, how to bring about 'the control of production by the real wealth creators and . . . [its] use in the interests of all . . . .'Will the dockers international campaign and all the contacts and discussion that it is leading to help us to work out what the answer to Geoff's question is in practice ?

What new forms of organisation do we need to run an 'economy' based on need and not profit ? What will such an economy look like anyway? How will it work ?

Or would the academics prefer to hark back to the cosy world they knew and are familiar with ? A world which most of us know is fast disappearing. I note for instance that no-one from the Economics department felt able to sign the letter from the University.

How should we account for this ? Do they all agree with 'Market Mad Minford' or has casualisation and the insecurity and fear that it creates reached right into that institution as well ?

Minford's and the MDHC is the real world - the one we have to confront.

Dave Graham 28 April 1996

[I have in the past produced a number of commentaries on the Mersey docks dispute and I am at present working on the latest - the sixth. Those of you who wish to obtain copies or have anything that you want to add criticise or whatever, can obtain them from the author by writing as follows:-Dave Graham PO Box 37 Liverpool L36 9FZ].


ICP and the Dockers

Submitted by libcom on July 29, 2005

ICP and the Dockers

Following my last report [Dockers 9] and in particular my reference to the dockers decision to bar the ICP from any more of their mass meetings, I have received several requests for further information and background. My first reaction was one of resentment at being 'sidetracked' into what for me was an entirely understandable and perhaps overdue decision on the dockers part.

So far as the ICP are concerned they have now gained their role as 'rejected prophets' - so they can sit on the sidelines and like Cassandra forecast doom and gloom, without really having to take any responsibility for what they have said and done. Some reflection and the realisation that this issue raises other questions has persuaded me to write this piece. In my view it highlights the relationship of communists, revolutionaries or whatever we call ourselves to workers in struggle.

The ICP have been barred from the meetings for an almost ceaseless campaign of vilification and gratuitous insults to the dockers and to named stewards in particular - most especially to self proclaimed 'Stalinist' and Chair of the Dispute Committee - Jimmy Nolan. The ICP and its supporters will be re-admitted to the meetings when the dockers receive an apology and some promise of better behaviour in future. In short the dockers are doing no more than what many of their delegates have found themselves doing round the country and 'knocking [leftist] heads together so that people can actually get on with the business in hand.

Now as I have pointed out in my previous reports, the ICP criticises the dockers and the stewards in particular, from a perspective of Trotskyism. And their rather idiosyncratic version at that. That is they believe that the trade unions today are now organs of the capitalist class in the 'workers movement'. So far one would have to agree with them. But from this conclusion they jump back to 'orthodox' Trotskyism, to continually warn of the 'bureaucracy' [among whom they include the entire docks committee] inevitably scheming to prepare a 'sell-out' or 'betrayal' of the dispute.Their conception is of a trade union movement 'in crisis' - being forced to manoeuvre constantly under pressure from an active and restless 'rank and file' straining at the leash and just waiting to respond to [their] 'revolutionary leadership'. I have in the past tried to show how this is an utterly unrealistic and misleading understanding, but the ICP, blessed with the superior insight of the elect, nevertheless insist on it.

Hence in their view the existing shop stewards and their supporters who form the dockers leadership must be removed as soon as possible and as part of that campaign their every move and public announcement must be discredited. Of course it helps enormously if the favourite 'bete noire ' of Trotskyists - their alter ego - Stalinists, and especially those like Jimmy Nolan, who makes no secret of his politics, can be held personally responsible for 'treachery', 'double dealing' and so on.

I do not think I am being unfair to the ICP since I have attempted on numerous occasions to probe their reasoning and I am satisfied that I am reporting it correctly. The point is of course that it is utterly wrong headed and a completely ideological reading of the dynamics of the situation. What distinguishes the ICP from other 'Left' groups such as the SWP for instance who still believe that trade unions can be pressurised into a 'Left turn', is the ICPs 'principled' refusal to back down, whereas the SWP lacks the courage even to argue for its own understanding.

Which brings me to the point of this piece. If communists [and I do not find anything remotely communist about any of the Trotkyists views on the state, working class organisation or a whole number of questions,] are to be of any USE in a situation such as the dockers find themselves in, if what they say and do is to earn any respect, then it must reflect the reality that the dockers find themselves in. I have in previous reports tried to argue that the world has changed around them and I am not at all sure that what I produce is having any influence at all.

Nevertheless, insulting the dockers leadership who are quite obviously at the limits of their own understanding and trying to grasp this fundamentally changed reality is hardly likely to endear you to them. If in addition what the ICP proposes makes no sense to them, since going all out against the union would only further isolate them. Remember its the dockers who have gone all over this country and addressed over 5000 meetings - if anyone is qualified to judge the mood of the working class in this country, it is the dockers and not the ICP. If in addition you present your argument in such a manner as to brook no opposition and in the process aggravate and insult them - you fail on 3 counts.

1. You have not aided the dockers to come to a better understanding of their own position - but then workers are only capable of a trade union consciousness anyway, aren't they ? But they are the ones with houses being repossessed, and contemplating an old age with no pension which some have paid into for nearly 40 years in some cases

2. Your intervention throws them back on to the 'certainties' of the old movement. Certainties we have been trying to argue which no longer hold.

3. In order to sustain your analysis and make it fit the facts, you are obliged to distort and misrepresent what is actually going on.

I should like to illustrate this last with a concrete example - in the latest leaflet the ICP have put out [and which is also reprinted in their newspaper, The International Worker no 219 ] the ICP gives a detailed summary of the events which led up to the second international congress which the dockers have just held in Liverpool [which in my opinion was not a success]. The ICP is as ever concerned to paint a picture of a 'bureaucracy in crisis' but they actually manage to slander the dockers as well, saying,

'they have portrayed themselves as 'rank and filers', with the best interests of the dockers at heart, but who are also loyal to the union. In fact their loyalty is solely to the union bureaucracy of which they themselves are a part.'

Their proof for this assertion [for that is all it is] is a direct quote from Mike Carden,

'Look at this patform. Jimmy Davies is on the National Executive of the TGWU Docks and Waterways Committee. Bobby Moreton is responsible for 130 000 TGWU members in the North West. Jimmy Nolan is the Chair of the TGWU National Port Shop Stewards Committee. Terry Teague is an elected shop steward for more than 20 years. I sit on the union's General Council. I'm a big cheese. '

The ICP comment,

'the stewards will do nothing that will endanger their own career in the union .'

Now I was not present when Mike Carden spoke the above words - but I am assured by those who were there, and it fits the character of the man that I know, that this speech was intended to be wholly ironic. The TGWU leadership [and by that I mean the real bureaucracy - full time paid officials, not the lay jobs mentioned above] have made it clear that it intends to strip Nolan, Moreton, Carden and all the others of any and every position they hold in the union.

Since in any deal that the TGWU stitches up with MDHC, there is no way that these workers and the 100 or so who make up the 'hard core' will ever work on the dock again, I am at a total loss to see how the 'bureaucracy' is 'looking after its own.'

There is no crisis of the union bureaucracy - it is alive and well and functioning as normally as it always has. It should be obvious from the ironic and even anguished tone of Mike Carden's speech that the only crisis is in the old 'workers organisation' which so many of these militants have given their lives to and in the dockers own view of themselves and their struggle. When I first started reporting on this dispute in November 1995, I commented on how dockers had a history of strong, sectional organisation, born out of the old kind of struggle, a struggle conditioned by the Keynesian state. I tried to show how this state was undergoing a transformation and that we needed to see how this would affect struggles such as the dockers. It is very easy to talk of 'objective circumstances' and 'tendencies' in the economy and state, but ultimately we make our own history - people like Jimmy Nolan and Mike Carden. People struggling to come to terms with what is going on around them, not central committees with a ideology that is today 70 or even more years out of date.

I hope this finally disposes of the question of the ICP

Dave Graham


Dockers June 1997

Submitted by libcom on July 29, 2005

Dockers June 1997

First of all it is now some considerable time since I last produced a report on this dispute - for which I apologise. But just as 'events' in the form for instance, of threatened repossession of some dockers houses and the like have threatened to individualise and paralyse to some extent the dockers collectivity, so too have 'events' intervened in my life, so that I have not been able to give this dispute the kind of attention I formerly could.

Then again, in common with many of the dockers and especially those on the dispute committee, I have perhaps been 'too close' to what has been going on. To the extent that a sort of paralysis has been induced which creates a kind of psychological lethargy. For the past few months it seems that the dockers policy has amounted to not much more than waiting on 'events'.

* waiting for the MDHC to react to their proposal for a 'labour supply company'.
* waiting for TGWU Docks and Waterways National Official Stevenson to produce a 'financial appraisal' for this proposal -- by relying on MDHC's accountants KPMG !
* waiting for the TGWU Finance and General Executive Council to formally 'pull the plug' on their dispute by forcing them to accept the Stevenson / KPMG proposals and put them to a 'secret ballot'. It is by no means certain even then that the proposal would be accepted by the majority of dockers. But it is an indication of the power the TGWU bureaucracy holds over the dispute, even though the dockers have managed to sustain this dispute largely independent of the union.
* and who knows, possibly waiting on a Blair led 'New Labour' government, which has a large share holding in MDHC to 'do something' ?

It may indeed be all this waiting which has contributed to much of my sense of frustration about this dispute. I constantly go over all the options facing the dockers in my mind -- much the same as I am sure many of the dispute committee do on a regular basis. It is a hard lesson to learn that sometimes you cannot always see what is going on under the surface of events.

For instance I am still not entirely sure that I have estimated the relationship of the dockers to the TGWU correctly. For sure the T&GWU would love to turn its back on this dispute, but after 22 months it is obvious that the dockers are not going away. The problem for the union is that they have to make a DEFEAT; a return for a small minority of dockers on terms which are substantially worse than those 'enjoyed' prior to the dispute, seem like a victory. In addition the union has to marginalise and silence those on the dispute committee who also happen to hold lay positions in the union. People such as Mike Carden who is on the T & G's General Executive Council or Bobby Moreton who represents dockers on one of the union's Regional Committees. After all this time these people have not been able to use their positions to bring the full weight of the union behind the dispute - and they are not at all happy about that. This is the union that many have given their lives to and it is very unsettling for them having to explain to the WoW for instance why the T & G is not doing more for them. They have begun to openly question the role of the union and of course once that starts there is no telling where we might end up.

As I write this, new Docks and Waterways secretary Stevenson who is quite obviously on his way up the union hierarchy, has still not made available the report by KPMG on the Labour Supply company to the dockers, even though we know that it has been discussed among the full time officials. Stevenson represents the new kind of union official, a complete contrast to Morris who is quite clearly struggling and out of his depth. Stevenson is happy to endorse the dispute and is articulate and is quite at home amongst all the new technology that is changing our working lives. He seized on the dockers proposal for a labour supply company and because he was 'a breath of fresh air' in Jimmy Nolan's words, the dockers allowed him to set about the research and production of the business plan to bring it into being. But even he cannot alter the basic facts which brought this dispute about in the first place. In any case I doubt that any docker still thinks that the sun shines out of Stevenson's arse any longer.

Trevor Furlong, MDHC director, made the issues quite clear in an interview with the local paper, the Liverpool Echo.

'We felt we could work with the TGWU. Other ports got out, we didn't.'

Although there are still workers [including scabs] represented by the T&GWU on the dock, without the 'collectivity' which is represented by the sacked dockers, this is merely token representation. Effectively the workforce is casualised as it is in every other port in the country, something which the T&GWU admits.

One of the difficulties we have tried to get our heads round is the apparent lack of response among other groups of workers in this country to the dockers dispute. We have already commented on the inability of the existing trade union base - shop stewards committees and the like, to mount any kind of campaign. But this is not adequately explained by the total dependence of these bodies on the trade union machine.

What we must also face up to is the fact that the modern UK workforce appears to no longer identify with the kind of struggle the dockers are waging. In effect the working class in this country is already so casualised and broken up that it cannot identify with the kind of struggle mounted by workers on the continent, who are still willing to take to the streets in the name of 'social solidarity' and to defend a welfare state consensus which has broken down here.

But this is not a totally negative trend. If the old certainties of what we have called in previous reports the 'old movement' no longer hold, it also means that new realities and new tasks are presented. One of the questions it raises for me is that of anti scab violence.

It is a near miracle in my opinion, that there has not been in the past 22 months, more than the occasional stone throwing. In the Magnet dispute in the North East of England, violence erupted as soon as the scabs made an appearance: their vehicles were attacked, homes as well as their persons. Is this a sign of things to come ? One result of the old movement losing its strangulating grip on workers, an expression of the new needs of the moment ? Any new movement arising needs to debate this question.

I should like to turn now to what is generally recognised as the dockers most successful strategy - and that is their attempt to 'go international' and since they work in a world industry, to pursue a world wide boycott of the major shipping lines using the Port of Liverpool -- ACL, CAST and CanMar. I will not give details here of the international conferences, the attempts to utilise the official TGWU structure and the ITF. All these the dockers have reported on themselves and these reports can be found on 'Labournet' and in the Dockers Charter.

But what these attempts do show is very revealing. In the past since I had come to understand the unions as presently constituted to be fundamentally opposed to any group of workers in struggle, I had expected to see a 'clean break' or some kind of rupture with these organisations. I now feel that this is an incorrect estimation of the real process at work. Workers will not openly confront unions until they have mastered the more urgent tasks that confront them.

One of the most important of these urgent tasks is, I believe, for them to understand the truly global nature of what confronts them. Globalisation is a much used term and many readers will have seen some sophisticated analyses of what it is. But it seems to me we have to look at it as the dockers do -- and that is as a practical problem. No amount of sophisticated analysis will bring us a step nearer unless it leads to concrete action.

As I write this the dockers delegations have just come back from Montreal. There over 54 delegates from 5 continents, 17 countries, and 27 ports met to hammer out and agree a way forward for themselves. They had begun to see that a global cycle of attacks on their collectivity was under way. And so they agreed to raise their sights to meet this challenge. Michel Murray, President of the Canadian Syndicat des Debardeurs, said,

'employers seek the weak link of the chain, where they could benefit from casual, under-paid labour without protection. . . Our principle objective is to reinforce this chain, to plug all the breaks by which maritime employers could try to slip through to destroy the safety net of protection which the dockers have won in over 100 years of struggle. It must be timely to speak today more than ever of Liverpool!

This meeting brought together dockers from ITF and non ITF affiliated unions, and they have agreed to mount a rolling campaign against vessels operated by ACL, CAST and CanMar.

But fundamentally they have still not seen what the changes in transportation imply, indeed demand of their own self-organisation. However it takes some background understanding to justify such a conclusion. Since this dispute began we have been researching the myriad changes in the world of transport or logistics as they like to call it.

In addition and thanks in part to the marvellous technology of the Internet, I have been able to receive first hand reports of the effects these changes are having, especially in the giant complex of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

If we can grasp these changes and where they are leading and what they mean for us, then perhaps we can gain an idea of what our response should be. The dockers here normally regard 1989 and the defeat of a national dock strike, as a defining moment. This was when their last attempt to hang on to national collective bargaining in what was known as the 'scheme ports' was defeated in this country. It was the end of the National Dock Labour Scheme. From now on ports competed with one another and there was to be no interference in the 'free market'.

But this event did not come out of nothing. The dockers now have evidence that the state planned this outcome [since the 'normal' working of the free market would not necessarily have led to this outcome]. But that is looking at things in the short term. What is important to realise is that 1989 also marked the end of an era in Britain's dock industry.

Dockers had always fought against the casualised nature of their job. But this casualised working arose from the way in which ports were structured. Shipping lines had never owned ports or operated any facilities -- instead preferring to rely on a mass of sub contractors, stevedoring firms and so on. In Liverpool as in other docks this resulted in the notorious 'pen' or 'stand' system.

So as a result of the shipping lines unwillingness to invest in facilities, we had an extremely fragmented and some would even say disorganised industry. The price of 'rationalising' the industry nearly always took on a similar form during the post war period. State or municipal ownership of the ports, creation of a full-time registered workforce, guarantee of certain monopoly rights to certain firms and agencies providing ancillary services etc. and the setting up of a system for 'collective bargaining' so that changes -- new traffic, new terminals etc. etc. had to come within this institutional relationship. That is the dockers own struggle was used a 'motor' to rationalise the docks - this was a classic Keynesian solution, since it relied on the state doing what the private ship owners could not or would not do.

Hardly had these arrangements come into force in this country before they came under attack. Felixstowe on the East Coast of this country was deliberately set up as a 'non-scheme' port so as to avoid the strong collective organisation of the Lower Thames basin and especially Tilbury. It was already apparent in the early 70s that the pattern of UK trade was shifting to the East Coast. This, combined with the introduction of containerisation to which the unions and the dockers had no answer, was sufficient to undermine collective bargaining on the docks. Already technology was being used to undermine the settlement that had been worked out -- the Devlin scheme lasted less than a decade. But it is important to note that technology in the form of containers and computerised route movement was not sufficient on its own. There needed to be changes in the institutions and in the management of the ports in order to take full advantage of the new technology. Only in Liverpool as we have noted, did collective organisation still recognised by management survive.

The MDHC have endeavoured to portray the dockers as modern day 'Luddites' intent on preserving their sectional strength at the expense both of the shipping lines and the 'community' of the city. In my opinion this is a danger the dockers could fall into, but they can avoid by studying the experiences of their brothers [and sisters - there are women dockers in the US] overseas.

Now the dockers have had the model of 'labour relations' in ports that exists on the Pacific Coast of the USA in their sights. It was believed by some here that a similar settlement could be brought about, which could somehow fix or institutionalise the role of the union [or the stewards] in the running of the port. This is of course is a caricature of an argument that was once heard in Liverpool.

We know from our own history here and the failure of that kind of policy way back in the 70s, that this was an outside chance. But now thanks to this technology we can look at the situation on the American Pacific Coast as well. The Pacific Coast ports operate under a complicated joint management system that dates back to an earlier wave of workers self organisation that led to the formation of the CIO prior to the Second World War. Here too the state took the lead in rationalising port facilities - so for instance all ship owners must work through a body called the 'Pacific Maritime Association'.

This was set up to avoid the 'free for all' that would have resulted from the casualised nature of dock work. This has the effect of course of stifling competition between ports on the Pacific Coast. On America's East Coast the dockers union has been engaged in a slow process of 'selling' the condition and agreements that they had previously 'won' - - in much the same way as has happened in Britain. This is obviously a zero sum game -- dockers competing with one another to attract a fixed amount of traffic to 'their' port are always going to end up net losers. Only the fact the world trade is growing faster than world production has served to slow the results of this process.

Today it is obvious that as a result of the changes that we can collectively refer to as 'globalisation' that this old structure is in the process of being dismantled. Firstly, there are now far fewer shipping lines than in the past. They have merged, concentrated and rationalised themselves to the point where one 'conference' not only dominates a particular trade or route but a whole ocean. Neptune Orient now owns American President lines so that is effectively 40 % of the Pacific trade between Japan and America in one company's hands. Soon the results of such concentration will reflect themselves in the size of vessel they typically operate - we have heard of ships with a capacity of 12 000 TEUs 'on order'. How many ports could cope with such a monster ?

The second change that is coming about is in information technology and its application - ship planning and routing, loading and unloading is now accomplished at the touch of a button. Soon that technology will extend over the ships side and onto the dock. In Singapore which concentrates and distributes container traffic as the 'entrepot' for the entire region, we have seen plans to have this done ENTIRELY AUTOMATICALLY. By having wires buried in the roadways and induction loops automated carriers can move boxes to exactly where they are wanted for distribution.

The third change is that the 'state form' which governs the infrastructure is now being changed to suit the requirements of multi-national capital. In this respect the UK is somewhat backward since our rulers are split in how far to go down this particular road.. Multi-national capital does not recognise national borders or frontiers.

The buzz word today in transport is 'seamless' -- the cargo must move from one mode to another with as little disruption as possible., what dockers call 'hook to rail'. The old national state administrations must not be allowed to interfere with this movement. In Europe the former Labour party leader, Kinnock is now 'Transport Commissioner' and part of his role is to oversee the necessary changes in transport infrastructure.

Freeing up international markets has had the effect of revolutionising the costs of transportation. That same shipping line, Neptune Orient, has stated that costs must fall by 50% if it is to earn an 'acceptable' return on the capital it employs. This cannot be done simply by building bigger boats, but massive savings can be made by altering the methods of working. Ironically this means in many cases a new role for rail in transport. In road transport, although it is extremely flexible and cheap [especially if owner operators are used to undercut rates], it has what economists call 'high marginal costs', that is there are not many economies of scale. If you need 11 trucks instead of 10 the costs of the 11th are just about the same as the cost of the first. If you have gone to the expense of concentrating traffic in super big boats working through huge terminals, then a truck that can only take one 12 mtr container is simply too expensive other than for very short delivery work, say within 30 miles of a railhead.

So now we have a handle on some of the changes, what has been the response of the official movement ?

Internationally the ITF is now publicly arguing for a change of policy, a change from its earlier attempt to sabotage previous attempts by the dockers to organise international action.

But on the ground if we are to judge by the policy of the ILWU in the new Terminal Island complex, it is simply to give in ! The ILWU recognising that the cost of 'its' labour is high compared with other unions who are also jockeying for the right to represent workers in this terminal, is offering the ship owners 'seamless' movement of cargo from ship to rail and onwards. In other words it is a policy of giving the shipowners exactly what they want.

How has the ILWU come to such a position ? Largely because it has chosen to represent a SECTIONAL group of workers on the US Pacific Coast. But this is true of unions everywhere and its consequences for united action are ominous. In this country the other major group of workers in transport is the truck drivers, whom the T & G also represents.

But there is simply no way that lorry drivers identify with the dockers struggle. Today many of them are happy to drive through the dockers picket lines. Despite many drivers being union members, by and large there is no lorry driver's organisation - they are almost completely casualised, with a large percentage of owner drivers. In the US the situation is almost entirely identical with the added complication that there are also racial divisions between white, black and Hispanic drivers, all with varying degrees of security, all with differing and competing interests. When these drivers made an attempt to organise themselves, the ILWU lost an opportunity to strengthen itself. Now it faces a 'competitor' on the docks in the form of the CWU. The real interests of ALL the workers - their solidarity, is going to become lost in a turf battle between the ILWU, CWU and the railroad unions who are also aware of the competitive advantage that rail now offers in the global economy.

What concerns and distresses me is that the campaign of the Liverpool dockers runs the risk of being used in this turf war, for the short term gain of one or other of these unions. I have used the example of the US Pacific Coast, but unions everywhere are well aware of the changes looming on the horizon. Utterly unable as they are to break in any way with the capitalist system, and instead desperate to find an employer to negotiate with, they will use an international rank and file organisation that can inspire workers everywhere. I fear that they will latch on to it to use it for their own purposes. Given the changes I have outlined ANY deal that the unions negotiate with the shipping lines will be broken even before the ink is dry. The days of procedure and orderly collective bargaining are over.

We can no longer contemplate the kind of organisation we once knew. Even where all workers in an industry are organised in one union, they will find it very difficult to hold on to their 'collectivity'. Here in Liverpool, amongst the postal workers, there is a strong unofficial organisation that is comparable to the kind that existed on the docks. Because it has been a thorn in the management's side and an obstacle to the casualisation of the delivery system which is the managements long term strategy, the Post Office proposes to simply shut the whole complex down and open two satellite sorting offices about 30 miles apart. Again information technology and the railway has played a role in giving management control over mail sorting. But note that they are prepared to spend over £10 million [sterling] simply to get round this collective organisation, in one sorting office.

Whilst these workers are very militant and have identified with the dockers struggle from the beginning, my feeling is that they too have not realised how much the terrain of their struggle has altered around them.

If we are going to build a new organisation then it has to be a fighting organisation from the beginning. It must attempt to link workers who are at present placed into competition with one another. Anything less and those workers left out will simply be used as the shock troops to break down whatever sectional deal we have managed to obtain.

This is the fundamental change that globalisation poses for us. Whereas before in the time of the Keynesian welfare state, we were involved in the process and allowed to have a role, now that is all in the past. The question is - is the new international organisation the dockers are seeking to build going to be able to raise itself to this new reality ?

When Michel Murray talks of 'plugging the gaps' does he realise that it also means the truck driver who is probably on a time dependent bonus for delivering the box that Michel's members are proposing to delay for a couple of hours in solidarity with the Liverpool dockers ?

Brian Ashton

Dave Graham


In the report we produced for June 1997, we concentrated on looking at the background to the changes in the international shipping and transport scene and suggested how these might affect the kind of organisation which the dockers are attempting to build. Our argument simply put is that given the massive upheavals we can foresee coming about, then the dockers will be obliged to turn outward and embrace those workers and non workers who have so far been the main victims of these changes. Most notably we have identified lorry drivers as a major group who should be natural allies of the dockers, even though this may not be obvious at first.

We have argued that the policy followed up to now by unions world wide, of attempting to arrive at sectional deals for a minority of workers at the expense of those already casualised and atomised by the effects of the world market, will only play directly into the hands of the shipping lines, who are the real winners in such a situation. Thus we have tried to indicate the direction in which a policy and a strategy of real internationalism might lie. Either the international organisation which the Liverpool dockers dispute has called into being can bring this about or it will fall victim to the 'turf wars' that will inevitably break out as the unions attempt to hang on to their short term position as Capital reorganises.

Concretely we will have a chance to judge whether this will be a fighting organisation or not, by the result of the campaign to extend the blockade of ACL, Cast and CanMar around the world's ports. We will also have a chance to assess the attitude and role of the official movement. At some point the question will be sharply posed -- either you are for the Liverpool dockers campaign or you are against it. Either the T & G, ITF and all the others are part of the solution, or they are part of the problem. There is no third way.

In the UK the other part of the dockers strategy, which has absorbed much of their energy is the T & G's Biennial Delegate Conference. Theoretically this is the supreme policy making body of the union. We say theoretically because, 'theoretically' outside of this biennial delegate conference, union General Secretary Bill Morris, is 'responsible' to the General Executive Council of the union. This body however which has a majority composed of what is called the 'Broad Left' has never to our knowledge opposed Bill Morris and his policy of isolating this dispute and forcing a settlement on the dockers. So one of the first questions that has to be asked is - just what precisely is the function of this 'Broad Left' ?

The dockers have managed to get many resolutions in their favour onto the conference agenda, in the hope of finally getting some of the massive resources of the T & G behind their struggle. But as is the way of these things, the real job of persuading the so called 'delegates' to vote for them is being done by the various caucuses that operate within the union machine. This is the normal horse trading that is what passes for 'debate' inside unions today, and already it is clear that at best many of the delegates might abstain rather than support the dockers. Now that might salve their consciences [and keep their noses clean for when the jobs are handed out] but in the circumstances of this dispute after 22 months, it is the same as siding with the union executive.

So there we have it, 500 or so dockers can only do so much. The question we want to raise is -- what is the dockers strategy to be if both of the elements of their strategy prove ineffective ?

Surely now it must be time to re-think many of the assumptions that have formed part of this dispute from the beginning.

In a world where the majority of the workforce is casualised and precarious -- is there any point in hanging on to the conservative, defensive and SECTIONAL outlook of trade unionism ?

During these 22 months apart from their own efforts, who have been the only people who successfully managed to occupy the 'rathouse' and the cranes of the Seaforth Container Terminal ? When and under what circumstance were the dockers able to stop the dock -- the only way that real pressure has been brought to bear on MDHC.

Who today are the real allies of the dockers ?

Just posing the question answers it.

Brian Ashton

Dave Graham