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:
Liverpool Dock Stewards Committee