By James Vassilopoulos
LIVERPOOL — The Liverpool dockers, in the 20th month of their dispute with the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company (MDHC), are determined to fight on. Despite the obstacles and hardships — 90 dockers have had their houses repossessed — shop steward Bobby Morton told Green Left Weekly that the morale of workers is "fantastically high".
The dispute started in August 1995 after Torside, a company set up by MDHC to fill labour shortages on the docks, sacked 20 dockers and replaced them with casual staff. After a union ballot for action, Torside briefly re-employed the sacked workers but then sacked all 80 of its workers.
After maintaining a picket line which 500 dockers refused to cross for two weeks, the workers accepted union advice and tried to return to work, but were locked out by the MDHC, which contracted the strikebreakers Drake International. That is where the dispute remains today.
A picket line on April 22 outside a Torside shareholders meeting attracted 500 dockers and their supporters. Kevin Robertson, a shop steward of the Mersey Port Shop Stewards Committee (MPSSC), told Green Left, "We've got nowhere else to go. We have to stay and fight. The employers want a low pay, non-unionised casual system."
Community support for the dockers is widespread. Millions of people on March 19 witnessed Liverpool soccer player Robbie Fowler lift his jersey, after scoring his second goal in the Cup Winners' Cup match, to reveal a T-shirt with the message "Support the 500 sacked Liverpool dockers".
The dockers have also received broad international support, including solidarity strike action. Morton, who attended the recent convention of the International Longshoremen's Association in Hawaii, reported that "this union has been our strongest supporter".
"Their locals sent us US$500,000. We asked them if they could participate in a further international day of action. They suggested having a strike — not for 24 hours but for three days! This is what we are taking to the international dock workers' conference in Montreal, May 25-30."
The dockers are demanding reinstatement and the removal of scabs. The MDHC has offered to reinstate some 60 workers, pay a £28,000 redundancy package to some and let 120 others go without anything.
Eighty-four per-cent of the dockers rejected this in a secret ballot in January 1996. Since then, mass meetings of dockers have rejected similar attempts to buy them out.
Worldwide, massive numbers of jobs were cut in the maritime industry throughout the 1980s and '90s. In Liverpool in 1971, there were 12,000 dock workers; by 1987 there were only 329.
In 1989, the National Dock Labour Scheme, a government plan guaranteeing permanent work for dock workers, was abolished.
The Liverpool dockers have had very little support from their own union, the Transport and General Workers Union (T&GWU) and, with a few exceptions, little support from others.
The T&GWU has refused to endorse the dock workers' picket line, saying they failed to have the necessary ballot. But two weeks before they were dismissed, the Torside dockers held an official ballot over enforced redundancies and casual labour, with 86% voting in favour of action.
The T&GWU has provided some financial assistance, but has concentrated on getting the dockers to accept the redundancy packages. The union journal, the Record, has not run a single article about the dispute. According to Robinson, "The silence has been deafening".
Jimmy Nolan, MPSSC chairperson, in an article in the Dockers Charter titled "Unshackle the unions", put it this way: "It is over 18 months since we were sacked for refusing to cross the picket line, and our union will not support us for fear of breaking the law and having its funds sequestrated!".
The Tories' secondary picket legislation has been used by the T&GWU, Trade Union Congress and other unions as an excuse not to undertake solidarity action.
However, as the January 20 international day of action showed, this is a hollow argument. As Morton explained, "It is illegal for the US to [have a solidarity strike] like in England, but they did on January 20; they can picket but they don't have the right to strike.
"Despite [the fact] that we broke the trade union laws of most of the countries involved, not one single individual, nor one single union, was sued for a single dollar. The reason was that if any employer, if any shipping line had decided to take litigation against a union, there would have been a trade union backlash the likes of which have never been seen."
Only the National Union of Mineworkers and the National Union of Seafarers have given the dockers more than token support. Harry Hunter, another dock worker, told Green Left Weekly,"If everyone came out in support of the dockers [the bosses] could not do anything. The problem for the miners [in their 1984 battle with the Thatcher government] was that they were isolated."
Few dock workers have illusions that Labour will help resolve the dispute in a satisfactory way. The local Labour candidate refused to meet with the dock workers or attend their picket line. Before the elections, Labour promised it would leave in place many of the Tories' anti-union and anti-worker laws.
Shop steward Tony Russell explained that Labour's attempt to sell out the struggle: "Morris [general secretary of the T&GWU] is a Labour member. Blair is saying to him, get this dispute over so he [Blair] can have a smooth path to power without any strikes."
With little support from trade union leaders in Britain, the dockers have had to rely on international solidarity. On January 20 an international day of action for the dockers was held at 105 ports in 27 countries. In Los Angeles, the Longshoremen and Warehousemen's Union closed down the world's third biggest port for 24 hours and caused employers US$1.5 billion damage across the US. It had not struck since 1934.
Thousands of pounds have been pouring in to the strike fund, including A$60,000 from Denmark, A$10,000 from the International Longshoremen's Association and A$4000 from Greece.
The Maritime Union of Australia has been one of the dockers' strongest supporters. Kevin Robertson told Green Left Weekly, "The MUA has given us financial assistance and also solidarity in practical terms. One of the shipping lines, ABC, has gone out of business partly because of this."
John Pilger, in an article in the November 23 Guardian, said the dockers had almost achieved a European blockade of ships using Liverpool, but for the International Transport Federation, which stopped the Belgium and German unions from taking part.
The partial blockade has had an impact on the MDHC; profits have fallen from £35 to £29 million over the last two years.