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