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.
IN OTHER WORDS, DESPITE THE DAMAGE BEING DONE TO THE PORT, IT IS MORE IMPORTANT THAT THE DOCKERS ARE DEFEATED THAN THE PORT OF LIVERPOOL SURVIVES AS A VIABLE BUSINESS.
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 . . .