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.