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