Merseyside Dockers Report #6

The first of two articles in Subversion #19 about the Merseyside Dockers - includes details efforts to establish international contacts and solidarity.

Submitted by Fozzie on August 10, 2021

On Saturday 27th April, approximately 200 delegates and individuals from various organisations attended a meeting at the T & G's Transport House in Liverpool at the invitation of the Mersey Docks Shops Stewards Committee to, amongst other things, set up a National Co-ordinating Committee of Dockers Support Groups. Part of the meeting was given over to a 'report back' on the dispute and an analysis by the stewards of where they thought the dispute was 'up to'. One of the reasons why I have delayed my report was to be able to include their latest thinking in this bulletin. It also serves as a convenient point from which to review the dispute so far. . . .

Internationally, the boycott which I had previously reported as only being partially applied - pending negotiations with the MDHC which the union side had adjourned after one session in Warrington - has been fully applied. A mass meeting on Wednesday 3rd April unanimously agreed to the stewards recommendation that all further negotiations with MDHC be abandoned and that henceforth their strategy should be one of an all out international boycott of the Port of Liverpool.

Many people will say that we could have reached this point some months ago and that may be true, but, as ever there are good reasons for the dockers moving cautiously and exploring every avenue open to them. That said the concrete reasons for the decision, based on the report of the face to face negotiations with MDHC are revealing and confirm some of our earlier conclusions. At these negotiations the stewards, mindful of the fact that many of the older dockers would perhaps prefer the old severance terms they had enjoyed prior to the dispute, had suggested a compromise whereby the MDHC would re-engage all the dismissed workers and after a temporary period, those who wished to leave the industry could do so under the scheme. This was to be accompanied by the MDHC dismissing those scabs engaged on temporary contracts through agencies such as PDP.

Bernard Cliff and the other management team insultingly dismissed this chance of a compromise; stated they were perfectly happy with their existing workforce and proceeded to abuse their former workforce [remember - they were called 'the best in Europe' ?] - accusing them of being workshy, unwilling to re-train, prone to unofficial strike action etc. etc. That is - they behaved as proletarians - something which modern management are determined to stamp out. We shall see if they can succeed in this labour of Sysiphus.

All this quite understandably really 'got up the noses' of the mass of dockers, since it simply confirmed in their mind and in the mind of this correspondent that the whole dispute had been engineered, principally to prevent the 'contagion' of class consciousness being passed on to the younger generation of dockers at Torside and Nelson.

After the cheering at the news of a full boycott, we had the Easter holiday and then . . . nothing. The dockers mood slumped as it seemed that all the promises they had received of international action to back their boycott, principally in the United States and from an ILA official called Bowers, seemed to be worth nothing. The MDHC moved to slap writs on Bowers in the US - and this seemed to explain their arrogance and sneering confidence at the last session of talks. On the picket line on the Dock Road, the attitude of the police turned ugly as perhaps they sensed the dockers more despondent mood. There was talk of ACL simply moving from the East Coast American ports to French Canadian ones. The stewards could only ask the dockers to stand firm and have confidence in themselves and their strategy so far. Then slowly . . . oh so slowly, the news began to come in. Action in Portugal to 'black' Liverpool boats, similar action in Bilbao in Spain, Swedish dockers [who are syndicalists in opposition to their Social Democratic government] simply refusing to move empty ACL containers. ABC shipping line in Australia in financial difficulties - boats impounded to pay fees.

But the big question was what would ACL do ? At the time of writing [end of April] we are assured that ACL WILL pull out of the port - this was the agreement Bowers had negotiated on the Liverpool dockers behalf. The fact that they are literally hanging around waiting on the ILA in the US is not doing the docker's morale any good. No doubt the stewards are going back over their strategy, trying to rethink their situation - perhaps this is as far as they can go. I am not privy to their discussions, but it is impossible not to miss an air of despondency beginning to creep in to their manner.

But, determined not simply to sit back, more delegations have been despatched abroad. Many of the stewards and the hard core of activists are now becoming exhausted, tired and drained with the strain, the travel, the constant picketing. But every bit of news on the international front cheers them up no end [and pisses the police off as well - which is a bonus.] And at last the Women of the Waterfront are beginning to find their voice. Many of them have taken up the work of travelling and speaking. Up to now 3500 meetings have been addressed in this country, over 1 million pounds has been raised and spent on this campaign. A new delegation went out to the West Coast of America and thanks to the Internet [on [see e-mail address at the end] we knew what Bobby Moreton and Tony Nelson were up to in Los Angeles. [Thanks to whoever posted it] We now also know about attempts to break up the existing dockers organisation on the West Coast. Every trip the dockers take abroad is an education in the class struggle - and the state of struggles going on wherever delegates go, always forms a part of the 'report back' which delegates give the mass meetings on a Friday and is reported in the Dockers Charter. [issue #6 contains a report of a visit to Turkey. In London Turkish workers form a vocal part of the support group. The Charter is supposed to be available on Dockers web site:]

What you will not know is something of the 'composition' of the working class on the American West Coast. Bobby and Tony brought this story back with them. As they mounted their picket they were approached by groups of mostly Mexican truckers whom they had stopped. Fearing a possible confrontation they prepared themselves. Instead some of these non union [non organised ?] truckers simply asked what was the name of the union that 'had the balls' to send pickets 6000 miles ? And could they join ?

Next day some of them returned to mount their own 24 hour picket. If the Support Committees are looking for inspiration they might try to emulate this example

I simply report the story since on the same day as we met in Transport House in Liverpool, 'organised ' members of the dockers OWN union who work as gatemen and on the tugs and who are scabbing on this dispute, had their normal branch meeting - and even attempted to strike up a friendly conversation with their former work-mates, who have attempted in the past to 'picket them out'. There are some simple lessons in this dispute and one of them is - YOU DON'T CROSS PICKET LINES, and just because you are in a union it doesn't mean that you're class conscious, similarly some of the most class conscious workers are not necessarily in unions.

Before I turn to the actual business of Saturday 27th April, I should like to correct an impression I have erroneously given in my previous reports. I may have implied that all the dockers had to do was sit back and the international boycott would do the work for them. As you will realise from what has already been written such boycotts cannot be turned on and off like a tap. Each action has to be fought and argued for, hence the importance the dockers attach to sending delegates for face to face contact. Most of the delegates who attended the international dockers conference in Liverpool in February are rank and file activists and are not in a position to simply order workers around as if they were in an army. In any case such a policy is impossible and is a throwback to the kind of movement created by the Second and Third Internationals - if we are to take our understanding of new class 'composition' seriously, we should be looking for the emergence of new ways and forms of organising. I will return to this later in the report.

Now we must turn to the Saturday session and the work to create a solidarity movement in this country.

Firstly some of the more active and well established groups gave some account of their activities to date, and there was a series of contributions which came mostly from members of the various Left groups which participated. From the chair Jimmy Nolan speaking for the dockers indicated that they had no wish to dictate the policy of such groups nor to restrict in any way their terms of reference. Rather than report these initiatives, I should prefer to stand back and take a good hard look at what is being done. This is not to complain at what has been done or at those who are active, but we need to bring thought and action into play here.

It has to be asked - what does support or solidarity mean in such circumstances ? In the very first report I ever made on this dispute in November 1995 I posed this self same question. Already the major issue behind the dispute had become clear and that was casualisation. So far as can be judged all the support groups seem to see their role principally as that of raising funds, holding meetings at which dockers or Women of the Waterfront speak. Whilst these activities are important, the issue itself has hardly even begun to be confronted. Attempts have been made to picket or occupy premises used by Drake International who recruited and trained the scabs, but most of the speakers and the dockers themselves seemed to be fixated by the idea that somehow these support groups could organise strike action. Yet even Jimmy Nolan who is the most cautious of the stewards had to admit that the dockers were in no position to ask people to put themselves 'on the line' by taking a day off work to support them. He is of course absolutely right, and in previous reports I have commented on the inability of the base of the trade union movement locally to mount any real campaign in favour of the dockers. Being the hard headed realists that they are, most trade union officials know this too. As ever there are exceptions to every statement and locally workers at AC Delco in Kirkby deserve particular mention - and I am sure there are other individual plants, factories and worksites throughout the country doing likewise - but they are conspicuous by their exceptional nature.

The belief by the Left that somehow a huge movement of solidarity is being held back by 'traitors' and 'sell-outs' amongst the trade union leadership/bureaucracy is shown to be completely superstitious and plain wrong. There were enough lay, full time and ex full time officials of various trade unions attending the conference who spoke eloquently of their efforts in the past to, for instance, argue for solidarity action at the time of the miners strike in 1984 to expose that particular piece of Leftist nonsense. Even worse however is the blatant attempt by some Leftists to force 'the leaders' [Morris, or even worse Monks of the TUC] to ORDER blacking, solidarity or whatever. I have no wish to take part in building a movement capable of that sort of crap.

Now it may be true as some speakers said that there is now a changed mood amongst workers. That the generalised insecurity brought about by increasing unemployment, short term contracts, the changed balance of power at work and so on, may indeed be bringing about an increased willingness to struggle, cannot be gainsaid. But we do ourselves no favours by relying on what perhaps may be the kind of wishful thinking that was so much in evidence on Saturday. By contrast we might do far better to try and understand what has brought about the situation we are in today, so that it can give us a clue to the growth of movements in the future. It might then be possible to do some lateral thinking and find other ways for today's working class to give expression to their struggle and themselves than the usual knee jerk strike action. And also we might do better to LISTEN to workers in struggle who are grappling in practice with TODAY'S SOCIAL REALITY.

Firstly, let's see if we can deal with the question of the relationship of the dockers to 'their' trade union, the Transport & General Workers Union. In common with some others I have in the past adopted an attitude of hostility to the existing trade union movement - considering it as totally integrated into the system. I have seen nothing in this dispute to make me change my mind, but having such an understanding in the abstract has been of no concrete use - far more important has been the actual realisation of what its practical consequences are. In moving the resolution that the dockers had submitted to the conference, Bobby Moreton fresh back from Los Angeles, in a well argued and powerful speech, set out their thinking. He said that perhaps the fact that the dispute was unofficial and illegal, had been a source of its strength. Had Bill Morris [General Secretary of the T&G] not been afraid of 'sequestration' of union funds and property, he and the Executive might more easily have been persuaded to make the dispute official. That being the case, argued Bobby, almost certainly there would have been some rich ex- dockers on Merseyside and - NO DISPUTE AT ALL.

This is such a profound comment and a real indication of how the dockers are thinking. So, he went on, please don't amend our resolution, especially to mount a campaign to make the dispute 'official' or put 'pressure' on union leaders. Hardly had he sat down when the first speaker called, moved an amendment to do precisely that. Obviously, since he appeared to have swallowed the 'Transitional Programme' whole, we got treated to the whole argument - 'make them fight', 'expose the leadership' 'calling for this or that policy' etc. etc. Are these people deaf as well as 60 odd years out of date ? How many times do we have to have our heads bashed against the trade union door before they reckon we learn a lesson ?

The dockers have their relationship with the trade unions 'sorted'. For the moment they have the use of substantial trade union owned assets, and a substantial sum being regularly 'donated' to their 'hardship fund'. In return the union has no involvement in the dispute and that's the way the dockers want to keep it. Does it really need to be spelled out any more clearly ? Undoubtedly some officials support the dockers and may even be helping behind the scenes, but just as likely there are as many opposed to the dockers. Either way YOU CAN'T BUILD A STRATEGY ON THE UNIONS. Is that so difficult to understand or am I on a different planet to the rest of the Left ? It is simply a question of practicality for the dockers. Would that the Left could show such flexibility of thought. I hope for the moment that this disposes of this question.

Secondly, we need to look at generalising the dispute and in particular the role of the various support groups throughout the country [and internationally]. The dockers have not sought to tie a support movement to any particular policy or 'line'. This is the first difference from the miner's strike - where the support groups were very much subordinated to the NUM. Instead the resolution passed at the conference was deliberately designed to leave the initiative in the hands of the local groups themselves. It remains to be seen however if such groups can break out of the conceptions that they seem to have imposed on themselves.

It is time to consider the question of 'class compo-sition' which I have referred to in these reports. If a movement is to grow, it must reflect the needs of a social movement, the 'soil' if you like, in which it grows. What is the make up of this 'soil' - that is what is the 'composition' of the working class in this country in the 1990s? Only if we can recognise this can we begin to work out a way forward, and avoid becoming bogged down in an 'ideological' view which has been handed down to us from a previous movement. Many dockers have for the first time come to realise the reality of 'work' for the majority of the population, which their previous sectional organisation had helped to shield them from. Unfortunately they have still not understood fully the effect this is having on their own struggle.

So far as road transport is concerned for instance, the recent changes in the transport industry itself have all pointed in one direction - and that is to individualise and atomise drivers, so as to bring them under the control of Capital. All the new technology, from radio telephones, computerised route planning to Just in Time delivery systems, have had the effect of breaking up their former collective organisation, so as to allow the 'normal' functioning of the market to do its work. This is an international phenomenon which we have called a process of 'recomposition'. This means that the dockers have had great difficulty in getting road transport to respect their [mostly token] picket lines. On the picket line itself, this failure of the old form of struggle is having a very deleterious effect. So far however we have seen no sign of a change in tactics to take account of this reality. The stewards have chosen so far not to name the firms which are actively scabbing on the dispute. Nor have any attempts been made to take the campaign to the drivers themselves.

Yet we have concrete examples that breaking out of the old struggle can be done. Transport is now the 'weak link' in a very elongated production process - French lorry drivers have shown us how devastating they can be. German workers threatened with redundancy have disrupted traffic on nearby Autobahns with instant results. Sooner or later we have to confront this question, perhaps a minority within the support groups will attempt to hit those drivers and firms who are breaking the dispute ? After all if dockers can travel 6000 miles and do it why not in this country ? And this is merely one area of social life to be considered.

Many readers will be aware that for a younger generation, the struggle of the dockers is as remote as ancient history. For anyone under the age of 30 the dockers form of collective organisation is completely unknown, the 'trade union' question completely meaningless - have such people no role to play ? Are they incapable of collective struggle ? We know of course that this is not the case. Currently there is a campaign getting itself underway around the question of the Job Seekers Allowance as the state attempts to direct and control the Reserve Army of Labour. Can the two struggles somehow become one ? Will the participants recognise one another ? Will the support groups remain open for this to take place ?

Till next time. May 7th 1996