Merseyside Dockers Report #7

The second dockers' article from Subversion #19 - includes a discussion of the role of the trade unions in the dispute.

Submitted by Fozzie on August 10, 2021

In my last report dated 7 May 1996, I told of the meeting to set up a National Committee to co-ordinate and extend the work of the various supporters groups around the country. The actual result of the meeting allegedly to set up such a body was inconclusive. So far as I can tell no such body exists at the moment, although it remains the dockers stated intention to set one up.

The hesitation and indecision around this issue illustrates a debate or argument going on within the committee and the dockers leadership. I cannot say, since I am not privy to their discussions as to what their thinking is, but perhaps it is a sign of the limits of their struggle and its form of organisation that they seem unable to confront, never mind resolve their dilemma. Whilst my purpose in writing my reports is obviously to support the dockers and their struggle, I also wish to act as a catalyst for discussion of the wider issues which their struggle raises. I am also trying to develop my own ideas and understanding of their struggle.

Much comment on the dispute, and some of it directed at my reports, is on the question of the trade unions and what is the relationship of workers in struggle to them. I have had cause to deal with this question before, but it seems that my views are being [deliberately ?] mis-represented or misunderstood. I am not going to name the organisations involved, they certainly know who they are, but it is the question itself that needs dealing with. Communists [for that is how I would describe myself] can have their own views and disagreements. For most of the time these are quite esoteric and confined to small groupings whose existence and importance is marginal at best.

However there comes a time when the question assumes a practical importance as it has done in this dispute. At this time it of no use communists going around denouncing this or that policy or strategy - this only serves to INCREASE the gulf of understanding that already unfortunately exists. Whilst I for one have made no secret of my views on this question, I have been more concerned with the PROCESS through which a section of workers comes to grips with the reality around them.

So essentially after 7 months of struggle I see the dockers position as follows:

The dockers by going directly international to dock and transport workers all over the world have managed to bring sufficient pressure onto the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company, so that they cannot be ignored. They are for the moment the only section of workers who have dared to challenge the prevailing offensive of the employers and their their constant demand for increased 'flexibility'. This is why the issue at the centre of the dispute - casualisation - is the one that they constantly emphasise. And just as constantly the MDHC denies that is employing 'casual labour'.

However the reality is that the dockers remain 'locked out'; and MDHC has a replacement workforce whom they have recruited and trained, and which is working alongside approximately half the original workforce. As time goes on MDHC will be able to drive up productivity levels without any or with very little collective resistance from the workforce. This after all was what the dispute was always all about - as the recent 'negotiations' have revealed.

Liverpool docks were unique in the respect that it was the only port in Britain where, after the national strike of 1989, a recognised [by the employers] collective workers organisation still existed. The view has been advanced that this dispute is the 'last stand' of a dinosaur workers movement, dominated by sectional trade union organisation . . . . and at the same time this is the beginning of a 'fight back', but that same trade union movement will 'betray' the workers. As ever, elements of a real situation have been used to bolster an ideological outlook, instead of the actual situation being looked at in all its complexity. Neither of the above views, however much they may contain elements of reality, can offer us a way forward.

I am of the opinion that the existing trade union movement in all its forms represents a barrier to any new movement and that ultimately it will have to be confronted and destroyed. But as I also have pointed out, such an abstract understanding is of no practical use in the concrete situation the dockers find themselves in.

Nobody who knows anything of the history of the dockers attempts at self organisation in Britain since the Second World War, can deny that dockers are rightly suspicious of the union that 'represents' them - the Transport and General Workers Union.

When in the 1850s unions were first able to maintain their more or less permanent existence instead of disappearing with the business cycle as had, up to then, been the case and in accordance with bourgeois economic theory, this created a problem for the authorities. How should they deal with this new organisation ? We are all aware of the history and the argument that initially at least, only skilled workers were able to keep their organisations in being, so they formed an 'aristocracy' of labour. But in the 1890s and just before the First World War, millions of workers in this country were unionised for the first time. What was the response of the State ? - It was to attempt to draw all these new organisations into the management of the system, initially to keep the war going. But later, in the form of the Turner-Mond talks of 1928, this was formalised and by the late 30s the unions were already assured of a place in the economy. Keynes and his 'New Economics' simply formalised and rationalised a process that was ALREADY UNDERWAY.

Thus the T&G was a more than willing participant in the National Dock Labour Scheme which was the result of the dockers long fight to get rid of casual working in their industry. This was an organisation set up by the State, following Keynesian attempts to 'plan' the class struggle and use it as a motor of development for capitalism. When, in common with similar schemes in Europe and North America this mechanism began to falter in the late 60s, the T&G was its biggest defender, hankering after its role in the MANAGEMENT of the labour process. This it secured with the Jones Aldington agreement on the docks. But this was never going to be a permanent solution to a problem that has its roots in the FUNDAMENTAL antagonism between Capital and Labour, which more than anything else the Keynesian system and its Labour Party backers at the time, wished to hide. So in 1989 there was a last ditch attempt to preserve collective organisation on the docks in this country - which was defeated. Nationally the unions had no answer to the combination new technology [containerisation] and the demand for 'flexibility' that dock work has always meant.

In Liverpool, some dockers organisation managed to exist in a quasi independent manner from the union. The MDHC realising that the union was no longer serving any useful role in the management of the workforce, decided that a more confrontational style was needed and could be afforded. Hence the mass sacking of almost 500 who refused to accept the new 'realities' of the labour market.

In getting this far, and maintaining their collective organisation, the dockers have successfully challenged the new form of work organisation with which we are all becoming familiar - casual working, short term contracts, flexibility in the form of call outs, minimum hours contracts and so on. But they have done it on the basis of their old organisation and with many of their existing views and conceptions unaltered. Thus we can say THAT THE DOCKERS THINKING IS WAY BEHIND THEIR PRACTICAL MOVEMENT.

So far, for instance they have not been willing to challenge the right of the T&G to 'represent' them - being content to speak the language of procedure and collective agreements - even when their employer, the MDHC, has unilaterally torn them up. Even when in the last set of negotiations the MDHC roundly abused them - calling them workshy, prone to unofficial strikes, unwilling to retrain and so on - they indignantly denied this, when in fact it is the truth. The truth is that by their actions they rejected wage labour, but they remain unwilling to recognise it - except perhaps in private and amongst people they know to be sympathetic.

Now it is no good standing on the sidelines and berating the dockers, as some have done, for not confronting the union [or even worse condemning them and their struggle out of hand as doomed from the start - à la RCP]. If you are going to be taken seriously in making this argument you must be able to show what can and should be done instead. When it comes to this practical test many of the critics are found wanting. What for instance should be the attitude when the union [as it has done] gives a substantial and regular 'donation' to the strikers hardship fund ? Or, concretely, should the dockers abandon their almost full time use of the T & G building in Islington ? Most importantly, when an official called Bowers, of the ILA on the East Coast of America, negotiates a deal with ACL who account for 40 per cent of the turnover in the Port of Liverpool, that says ACL will pull out of the Port unless the dockers demands are met - do you gratefully accept it or call him a liar and a bureaucrat on the make ? Even now, when it looks as if he will not or perhaps cannot deliver on what he said - do you denounce him, call him a traitor and a sell out ? Or do you quietly learn your lesson, send delegates out to the West Coast and attempt to do your own work ? And who knows it might even bear fruit - the West Coast and East Coast dockers organisations are talking to one another for the first time since 1934, - is this all nothing more than bureaucratic manoeuvring ?

When it is looked at in this way - you soon realise, as the dockers have, that it makes no sense to antagonise the union - IF YOU ARE NOT IN A POSITION TO OFFER A CONCRETE ALTERNATIVE THAT REALISTICALLY CHALLENGES THE UNION.

In any case, all the ritual condemnation from the ICP and others has done, is to get the dockers backs up and force the dockers back onto the ground they know- which we have already argued is changing all around them. The realisation of what the unions are and why they must be confronted and destroyed HAS TO COME FROM THE DOCKERS THEMSELVES.

Nevertheless I am bound to ask the question of a movement that can organise an international rank and file conference, send pickets 6000 miles round the world and provoke possibly a new form of struggle among previously 'unorganised' and casualised lorry drivers on the Californian Coast and act as a catalyst for struggles in Europe - How is it that it cannot find its way out of the impasse currently facing it ? How is it that it cannot generalise its struggle on an issue that affects millions of workers in this country and is directly preventing their own dispute from achieving success ?

The old form of struggle that the dockers were used to - where because of their sectional power and collective organisation, they actually had NO NEED TO PICKET - has gone. In addition the things that went with the old struggle - 'rank and file' meetings, caucuses of shop stewards, 'co-ordinating committees' on which political deals could be stitched up, etc. is paralysed by its reliance on the trade union machine. Those within the support groups in this country, who orientate themselves to this trade union base, can only pass resolutions, appeal for money, and worst of all urge national leaderships to make the dispute official.

Now I am not going to denounce anyone in this dispute who thinks that they are proceeding along the correct lines. Obviously you proceed on the basis of what you understand [and in the case of the Left in this country that does not appear to be overmuch], but so much of what I have observed and heard in this dispute is simply a reaction to what is going on rather than the result of considered thought. This is one of the reasons why so much of the Left is quite unable to have anything meaningful to say - to the extent that the SWP is still trying to promote 'mass pickets' - and this months after the stewards have explained in some detail why this is neither possible nor desirable.

But certain realities must be faced. One of them is the daily and almost routine crossing of the dockers picket lines by lorry drivers, some of whom are known personally to the dockers.

Transport is now one of the major cycles of capital. The capitalists, in the form of management gurus and 'human relations experts' openly boast of their 'Just in Time' production schedules, and we marvel at how easily goods are shipped round the world, overcoming barriers of language and culture. But this success also shows a weakness. Docks without inland communications, and principally road communications, are simply useless pieces of real estate. As the action of the truck drivers in the greater Los Angeles area has shown, disrupting this flow is one of the main weapons workers have. Many of those engaged in the anti-roads struggle have demonstrated how easily road transport communications are disrupted, and this point has not been lost on some dockers.

If the docks dispute is to move forward at all, this is the major question that has to be addressed. A way has to be found of overcoming the present atomised and fractured nature of road transport. We have to realise that the industry is organised in the way it is as a RESPONSE to the class struggle that took place within it. It does not take a genius to realise that one of the driving forces behind the 'privatisation' of the railways lies in the attempt to get round a very strong, sectionally organised group of workers, who have demonstrated their power and willingness to use their sectional strength.

To do all this a movement will have to break out of its sectional limitations, will have to overcome many of its ingrained habits and attitudes. I have tried to be as objective as I can in assessing how far and how much the dockers have done. Perhaps now after 7 months, we must realise that there is only so far such a movement can go. Perhaps given the point from where we started, much has already been ,but also given the point from where we started, perhaps this is as far as this movement can go?

DG May 1996