13. Liverpool dockers strike



‘Epic struggle’ is sometimes an overused phrase in relation to the struggles of the working class, though not when it is applied to the magnificent fightback of the dockworkers of Liverpool against the reintroduction of casualisation of employment in their industry in the 1990s. It was a battle which began in September 1995 and unfolded over 28 months – 14 months longer than even the great miners’ strike of 1984/85.They faced a brutal cabal of employers who tried to implement a lockout of the 500 dockers. This was bolstered by a near media blackout of the struggle, the aim of which was to prevent other workers coming to the dockers’ assistance. This completely failed, with unprecedented international support and wide solidarity from the length and breadth of Britain, in many cases organised by members and supporters of Militant Labour and the CWI, our international organisation. However, they were not just fighting a brutal boss but also their own trade union, the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU or T&G) led shamefully, unfortunately, by its then General Secretary, Bill Morris. If this union leadership – and backed up by the resources of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) as a whole – would have had just an ounce of the dockers’ determination they would have won in a matter of weeks. Unprecedentedly, when the dockers were forced, almost starved back to work, the Daily Mirror, a so-called ‘Labour paper’, claimed that they had secured a victory! The  dockers themselves considered this a whitewash designed to let the trade union leaders off the hook.

The strike, which was one of the first in Britain against modern globalised capitalism, saw sustained mass picketing with a high degree of participation by the dockers themselves. For instance, it was calculated at the end of the strike that just 30 out of 500 dockers had not participated at any time on the picket line. Bill Mullins, Militant Labour’s national industrial organiser, was one of the first to urge our Liverpool organisation to contact the dockers at the outset of the dispute. This came at a time when there was already friction between our EC and some of the leading Merseyside members, like Dave Cotterill and Michael Morris, on a number of issues, which subsided somewhat during the strike. However, it has to be said that these comrades, together with others like Tony Mulhearn, played a big role in the strike, as did Bill Mullins himself and many other comrades from Militant Labour throughout the country.

The employers had prepared for a long time to take on the Liverpool dockers, who had been the last to return to work after the national dock strike of 1989. That strike had been in defence of the Dock Labour Registration Scheme which for the first time had allowed dockers to either be regularly employed or, if there was no work, to receive a minimum level of wages. This had replaced the inhuman scramble for daily work in the ‘pens’ where employers picked out who would work for the day and who would not. As a child, and coming from a Merseyside working class family in which dockers and shipbuilding workers predominated, I had been regaled by my ‘Uncle Jimmy’ amongst others who had worked on the docks. The vicious dock overseers and their contemptuous treatment of the men were engraved on the consciousness of the working class of Merseyside, even amongst those who had not experienced employment in the docks first hand. For conscious socialist members of the labour movement, the dockers have a special place in their hearts, much like the miners had with the working class of Britain as a whole.

It was not an accident that this monumental dispute broke out at the time that it did. It was part of the Thatcher-inspired attempt to introduce mass casualisation of the labour force. Thatcher’s heirs continue her handiwork today with a huge lowering of living standards, even for those who work, by the introduction of more and more part-time, casualised employment. The 1989 strike was lost when the T&G leadership pulled the plug and the Dock Labour Registration Scheme ended. From then on the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company (MDHC) was determined to try and break the unions. It withdrew recognition from the shop stewards, but the dockers refused to withdraw support for them. The reason why the dockers found such support, locally, nationally and even internationally, was because of their unstinting record in support of other workers in struggle. As Bill Mullins commented: “70% of the strikes were not about their own issues directly but in support of other workers outside the docks.”1

The strike began on 28 September 1995. Right from the outset, Militant Labour pointed out: “The sacking of 500 Liverpool dockers has enormous implications for the entire working class. Liverpool is the only port not to employ casual labour… They represent the hopes and fears of millions of workers on the question of low pay, casual labour, redundancies and, above all, on intimidatory and arrogant management tactics.” Through the Port Shop Stewards’ Committee there had been a magnificent fightback. We warned about the possible role of the union leaders: “Unfortunately, the official position of the dockers’ own union, the TGWU, has been to sit back, afraid of losing their assets if they give them official backing. The union leaders simply don’t realise that the members are their one and only asset.”2 We also pointed towards the importance of the picket lines, which were organised on a daily basis, despite the difficulty in picketing a seven-mile waterfront. This often resulted in the dockers leading the police a merry dance as pickets appeared out of nowhere at this or that gate!

The conditions facing the dockworkers were described by young dockers who had been sacked: “After I became full-time for Torside [the company at the centre of the dispute], my wages were £170 top  line with no pension, no sick pay, no work clothing. [The employers] can call us out to work at any time for up to 80 hours a week. You can go in at 7:45am, if there is no work in they send you home at 12 o’clock, tell you to get eight hours’ sleep and come back and do the night shift.”3 Even the pro-business Liverpool Echo initially criticised the employers! Twenty years before there had been 6,000 dockers in Liverpool. This had shrunk to 500 but these moved more cargo than at any other time in history. This was an indication of the huge containerisation that was taking place in the ports. Moreover, Merseyside was one of the last ports that still had a permanent workforce and was therefore looked to by dockers all over Britain to make a stand against casualisation. From the start of the dispute Militant raised the demand for a 24-hour stoppage throughout Merseyside in support of the dockers.

Urgent steps were taken to step up mass picketing to urge MPs and councillors to maintain their political support, by putting pressure on the MDHC, by extending support groups, in particular women’s support groups, and holding public rallies. Meetings and demos were held to build further public support and to extend contact and lobbying with shop stewards and workers in the Canadian and US ports; 30-40% of cargo out of Liverpool was going to Montreal. Above all, the demand went out for the leaders of the trade union movement to match the resolve of the Liverpool dockers themselves, with special attention paid to the TGWU and the TUC. The demand was for a solidarity campaign with workers refusing to handle all cargo going to Liverpool docks and organising solidarity action. The right-wing trade union leaders hid behind the Tories’ anti-union legislation. They argued that the strike was technically illegal but this held no water because, in 1972, London dockers had famously defied the anti-union laws of Edward Heath’s Tory government and secured the release of the imprisoned Pentonville Five.

One docker compared the past to the current scheme: “It was a step in the right direction and what we had fought for, like my father and grandfather. Everybody was employed by the National Dock Labour Board first, then you were subcontracted to an employer.”4 It was true that, through the introduction of new technology and mechanisation things became easier. However, this was not for the benefit primarily of the dockers but bolstered the profits of the employers. A ship makes no profit without its cargo. The bosses therefore wanted quick turnarounds with bigger containers. The trade unions were an obstacle to them so they wanted to do away with effective union organisation.

The international campaign in support of the dockers had the effect of increasing solidarity from co-workers worldwide, which included not just messages of support and finance but also visits to Merseyside. One such example was that of Jack Heyman from the San Francisco local of the International Longshoremen and Warehousemen’s Union. He marched with the dockers on 13 January 1996 and said: “What impresses me is the militancy and unity. The support they are getting internationally is astounding; there hasn’t been this sort of campaign launched in a long time.” He drew parallels with their struggle in the uS: “Our union has jurisdiction on the docks but the employers are attempting not to register any new longshoremen [dockers], so we are fighting the employers over casualisation. This is going to be a big fight… If dockworkers cannot organise themselves internationally unionised workforces around the world will be decimated. Three years ago we sponsored the Pacific Rim dockers’ conference, which brought together all the dockers’ unions in the Pacific Rim trade as a first step towards that effort.”5 Dockers in Israel, Greece, Italy and France added their support to the Australian, US, Canadian, German, Swedish and New Zealand dockers. They were prepared to take direct action against any ship that used Liverpool and the intention was to draw this altogether and coordinate it at an international conference in Liverpool.

Despite the determination of the dockers and the mass support they were receiving from ordinary workers, the leadership of the T&G, specifically Morris and his entourage, refused to use the union’s resources to prosecute the dockers’ struggle to the end. In words Morris ‘supported’ the dockers and hoped they would win a victory for the union movement. However that did not involve the  vital basic principle of the reinstatement of the sacked dockers. Instead, he proposed negotiations leading to a severance deal. Morris had always been reluctant to give significant support, but this dispute was taking place at a time when the Tory government was on the rocks and would soon be defeated in the general election. A great opportunity was presented to press the dockers’ case and achieve a famous victory which would have redounded to the benefit of the whole of the working class.

In practice the T&G General Executive Council (GEC) had consistently termed the Liverpool dockers’ dispute as ‘unofficial’ and ‘illegal’, leaving the union with no immunity or legal protection if it declared the dispute official. It is this reason that was always invoked to explain the T&G’s role over the previous 22 months. Yet the dockers said that, in effect, their dispute was not unofficial because the union had not issued any ‘letters of repudiation’ to the Liverpool docks shop stewards, the dockers themselves or the MDHC. The dockers were pressing for more than just limited finance and the promise of future negotiations. They were demanding the full power of the union to be used against the docks’ employers.

The bosses were frank about their determination to crush the dockers, as shown by the speech of Nicholas Finney, former director of the National Association of Port Employers: “Fundamentally and long before the government repealed the scheme, we took the decision that the employers were going to abandon all national and port pay bargaining.” He further revealed the viciousness and determination of the employers: “We used every political body which had influence. We also used the press and media. We constantly searched out and supplied the media with anti-docker stories… We had a Times columnist write headlines like… ‘Legalised Extortion Racket’. We also encouraged radio and television to do documentary programmes on the dock scandal. We knew that confrontation would be inevitable and when at last the government announced on 5 April 1989 that they were going to repeal the dock labour scheme we knew we had won a famous victory… We had 9,221 dockers on 5 April 1989. In October 1990, there are less than 4,000 dockers left and many ports where there are no ex-registered dockers at all. But I think the greatest of our achievements is that we destroyed for the foreseeable future the power of the trade unions.”6

The frustration of the dockworkers at the refusal of the union leadership to fully back them culminated in a ferocious clash at the TGWU’s national conference in July 1997. The GEC tried to foist a statement about the Mersey docks dispute onto delegates but found themselves facing defeat. The debate was stormy, with Jimmy Nolan, chair of the Merseyside Port Shop Stewards Committee, stating that support for the executive’s statement would be a knockout blow to the dockworkers. Another delegate defiantly declared: “The union is celebrating 75 years but its real establishment was in the great docks strike of 1889. The dockers are the reason we are here today.”7

Port shop steward Bobby Morton denounced the inaction of the union leaders: “Every time they went to deliver a knockout blow internationally, the white towel flew into the ring from Bill Morris. Whilst agreeing with the protection of the fabric of the union, the reality was that the fabric is the members.” Teresa Mackay, a prominent member of the Socialist Party, made a telling contribution in which she pointed to the international nature of the dockers’ actions in confronting the notorious anti-trade union laws, regarded by dockers internationally as reminiscent of a dictatorship. She declared: “If the dispute was illegal, why was the union negotiating with the bosses?” Morris replied that non-compliance was against the rules of the union: “We are a law-abiding union.”8 However, the fighting contributions from the dockers and their supporters carried the day, overturning the GEC statement, despite the bureaucratic manoeuvres from the top. The dockers, however, were under no illusion about the reluctance of union leaders to ensure the success of the struggle. Attention therefore shifted towards the national and international planes with a plan of action in support of the dockers.

Militant Labour had always opposed crude ‘rank and filism’, a hallmark of groups like the SWP: the idea that action from below, without the involvement of the official organisations and  structures of the trade unions, was enough. We have always strongly argued that action from below must be combined with consistent attempts to change the structures of the unions so that they more accurately reflect the real interests and demands of the members. It is true that Morris rubbished the dockers’ struggle with his continual reference to “the 800 TGWU members still working in the port”. We made searching criticisms about the structures of the union. In addition, Region 3 (Ireland) called for an official request to be made to the International Transport Federation to organise a worldwide boycott of ships going through Liverpool. Morris insisted that this would have been in breach of the law: “Now we had British anti-union laws being used by the leadership to justify inaction internationally!”9

Despite the setbacks the fight continued to make the union more responsive to the needs of its members. Militant Labour urged the dockers to reclaim the union, even if this particular dispute was to go down to defeat. The vindication of this position – as opposed to the direction in which some of the Merseyside Militant Labour leaders were going – was shown in the election as general secretary of left-winger Len McCluskey in 2010 and his subsequent re-election in 2013. Militant Labour gave critical support to Len McCluskey, a supporter of Militant in the Liverpool Council struggle, because of the stand taken by him in support of workers in struggle. Not one industrial dispute was repudiated by the national leadership under his stewardship up to June 2015. Nonetheless, we did not give carte blanche to him or other national union leaders. We later criticised Lenny for not going ahead with his threat to organise with other unions a one-day general strike.

Another indication of the estrangement between the national leadership of Militant Labour and some of the Merseyside comrades was that, in the whole period of the dockers’ strike, our national leadership – particularly myself – was not invited to speak at any mass meeting or rally. Less prominent Militant Labour activists were. This was the first time in 30 years I had not spoken at the big meetings and rallies in the area in which Militant Labour played a prominent role. Yet the late Paul Foot was invited to speak from the balcony of the Council Chambers. He was a prominent member of the SWP which had condemned the Liverpool labour movement and Militant in its paper’s headline, ‘Sold Down the Mersey’, following the victory of the marvellous 47 Labour councillors in the conflict with Thatcher in 1984!

This did not prevent me and other Militant Labour leaders from visiting the dockers and discussing with leaders like Jimmy Nolan. Moreover, we did not let our differences – which were not evident to the dockers at the time – stop us from energetically supporting the dockers throughout Britain and internationally. We recruited a number of dockers to our ranks. One commented: “After many years of inactivity in the movement I found myself in a dispute that has changed my life. It’s difficult to put into words what the dispute has done. Sooner or later you have to make a conscious decision to fight against the attacks on the working class… I decided to join Militant Labour on the train journey from Glasgow to Liverpool. I had just finished a four-day delegation visit… I was impressed by the spirit of comrades and the issues they were addressing that affect us all on a daily basis.”

Another said: “I remembered when I worked in the council in the days of the 47 Liverpool councillors, the impact that Militant Labour had on the local and national political scene and how it made me sit up and take notice of what was going on in the city. To me it was the only choice to make.” Jimmy Nolan, who was also a prominent member of the Communist Party – and self-professed ‘Stalinist’ – commented that for the first time in a long time he was working amicably with Trotskyists! He commented in the Militant: “During the twelve months of our dispute, all Militant Labour representatives have played a highly principled role toward our reinstatement… Their organisational facilities have been put at the disposal of our organisation and their representatives have attended our mass meetings over the last twelve months.”10

The Liverpool dockers’ struggle was monumental. But after 28 months and without the backing of the national leadership of their  own union or the TUC – despite the ardent support of hundreds of thousands and millions of workers – the dockers were forced to accept defeat. However, the lessons of this struggle were not lost on workers in general and particularly the dockers themselves. They participated in other battles of the Merseyside working class, including on the issue of the political alternative – a mass workers’ party – that it is necessary to create in order for working class people to be victorious in the battle against the bosses.