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The Dockers and the Women on the Waterfront

The Liverpool Dockers - 2 years fighting
This dispute was one of the longest in recent British history. In Feb 98 the Dockers accepted a settlement. This is the story.

Background to the Dispute

Described as 'ordinary men and women, who have become extraordinary', the dockers and the Women on the Waterfront (WOW), have conducted one of the most imaginative and creative responses to global casualisation in trade union history. Like this...
  • mobilising massive international support and action
  • joining Reclaim The Streets in a historic anniversary action which later led to a 20,000 strong party in Trafalgar Square
  • recording a single called "***K The Millenium" with the KLF
  • taking the term 'flying picket' literally by sending dockers out to the world's ports
  • getting everyone from Robbie Fowler, Jo Brand & Chumbawumba to shout the score
  • and telling their former bosses to stuff their £30,000 bribes.
In short, the Liverpool dockworkers have been a beacon of resistance and hope...

Not only have they buried the myth that the worker's movement is an outmoded irrelevancy, but they have shown the way. By breaking down the barriers between not only countries and 'North and South', but also between the unions, environmentalists and refugees in the fight for a better world. The direct action movement has begun to realise that workplace struggles are just important as roadside struggles - and that the greater our alliances the more chance we have of creating a better world. We've said it before - this isn't about single issues, this is about fighting for a planet where, to put it simply, people are more important than profit.

"Our stand is simple and straightforward. We sell our labour power and we uphold our right to withdraw our labour power, otherwise we're slaves." - Mersey Docks Shop Stewards Committee


It's 1972. Five dockers are sent to Pentonville Prison for picketing and thus breaching the Industrial Relations Act. This sparks a national dock dispute and the threat of a general strike. The Government backs down and the dockers are released from prison within a matter of hours.

A quarter of a century later and some 500 Liverpool dockers remain sacked after refusing to cross a picket line. But this time, their sackings didn't lead to calls for a national dock strike - for the backbone of their union has been smashed in ports up and down the country. And we certainly didn't hear calls of 'all out for a general strike.'

Thanks to 18 years of Conservative rule people no longer have the right to strike, picket or act in solidarity with others. A trade union movement that had been forged out of confrontation with the law now bows down to Acts of Parliament. Its leaders - safe in their nice jobs, cars and houses "thank-you-very-much"- had not only allowed these attacks to happen without significant opposition, but had left those who fought back out on a limb.

And those involved in the new protests - the direct action anti-roads movement - well, joining a union isn't exactly high on your agenda when you're low or no-waged.


But two years on, the plight of the dockworkers and their fight back against all the odds draws admiration not just from the old left, but also from the direct action movement.

"Once you start standing up fighting against one injustice, it opens your eyes to so much going on the world that you need to stand up against." - Sue Mitchell, WOW

The background to the dispute is the reality of flexible working conditions, employment deregulation, streamlining, cost cutting and removal of so-called 'outmoded practises.'

In 1989, the National Dock Labour Scheme, regarded as the last protection against the "evil" of casual labour, was abolished. Conditions in ports began to worsen.


One docker explains "After I became full-time my wages were £170 top line with pension, no sick pay, no work clothing. They'd call us out to work at any time for up to 80 hours a week. You can go in at 7.45 am and if there's no work in they sent you home at 12 o'clock, tell you to get eight hours' sleep and come back and do the night shift."

Dockers were on call 24 hours, or as the members of the WOW described it, "They call it work to finish the job, but it became 'work to finish' our men - 12 or 14 hour shifts, constant phone calls changing their shifts, no social life."

The dispute began when dockers were ordered to work overtime for a disputed rate of pay. They protested and were sacked. Within a day, the entire workforce of 80 men were sacked. They immediately mounted a picket line, and all 329 men empoyed by Mersey Docks and Harbour Company, refused to cross it. They, too were summarily dismissed because under trade union law they could be sacked for "secondary picketing." And so began a mammoth struggle...

"I'm fed up with the trade unions hiding behind those laws, they must have millions in their funds. I mean my husband paid into that union for 31 years and they can't even come and support the 500 men. It was the dockers' money that built their big offices in the city centre. I can't understand why they can't have the backbone to just say 'Let's stick together and stand up for these people.' What else are unions for?' - Sue Mitchell, WOW


Environmentalists link-up

Environmentalists' cause with dockers began in 1989 when the waste disposal company Rechem won a contract to dispose 3,000 tonnes of highly toxic chemical waste from Canada. The Liverpool dockers refused to unload it, forcing the ship to return to Montreal. "What right have any of us to sell our kids' futures? How could you look yourself in the face shaving each morning if you'd done that!" - Jimmy Campbell, Sacked Liverpool Docker


International Support

The Liverpool Dockers have received widespread international support. Here's an example that almost brought a tear to our eye...

In December 1996 three flying pickets went to Baltimore, US, where the giant 36,000 tonne Atlantic Companion was due to dock from Liverpool. The trio mounted their American picket at the dockgate in a raging blizzard, the worst for 70 years, just before Christmas when the longshore workers needed full wage packets for their families' festivities. Despite being offered 4 times their normal rate of pay to unload the containers, the Baltimore dockers refused. "We told them what it was about and they turned their cars around. We were ecstatic, over the moon, dancing there in the snow." The ship then sailed to Norfolk Virginia, where the dockers followed it by car and at midnight mounted a picket. A go-slow was operated by longshore workers, and so the ship was sent to Newark, followed by the flying pickets. Not one worker crossed the Newark picket line for the next four days. Their action had triggered the mobilisation of the ILA, one of the strongest unions on the US East Coast. At one of their meetings, Bobby Moreton came away with $50,000 in a carrier bag! Later the ACL were to pull out of Liverpool for a month. The Common Cause


Statement from the Liverpool Dockers Liverpool Dockworkers Final Settlement.

Dear Colleagues,

After 2 years and 4 months the Liverpool Dockworkers have decided to end their dispute following a recommendation from the shop stewards.

Over the past 4 weeks the shop stewards have been debating what direction the dispute had been moving in. The conclusions that we came to were that in certain key areas, the campaign had started to falter and that in order not to see good men and women lose everything or risk a collapse from within, we decided to conclude a collective agreement on the best possible terms achievable.

We felt that following the last secret ballot in October 1997 in which we gained a 70% rejection of the employers offer, a springboard for greater supportive actions should of been launched. In terms of a political intervention from the new Labour government by the use of their 14% share holding that they have in the Co. and a far more positive role from our own union leadership in calling for an increase in both the national support through the T.G.W.U. industrial branches and international support via the I.T.F. That support never materialised in fact both of these organisations decided to support the line of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Co. in stating that the dispute was over.

This was also compounded by the fact that the two biggest container companies that use the port of Liverpool ACL and CAST had not been touched by industrial action for some time. We also suffered the sad loss of two of our stalwarts from the picket line who died over over the Christmas/NewYear period making a total of four during the course of the dispute.

These elements along with the extreme hardship that the men and women have had to endure over the past 28 months and the more hard line tactics of the police on the picket lines were major factors in our decision to bring the heroic struggle of the Liverpool dockers their families and their supporters to some form of conclusion.

The terms of the settlement were based on up to £28,000 redundancy payment for all ex Mersey Docks men. We have approximately 80 of our dockers who are excluded from this process and it is our intention to raise some financial package to ease the obvious debt burden they have accumulated over the last two and a half years. It is indeed impossible to quantify the hardship experienced by the dockers and their families over the last 2 1/2 years. Importantly, the limited redundancy payments being made to approximately 2/3 of the sacked dockers will be subject not only to debt repayment but also be reclaimed by the benefits office. Tragically, four dockers died during the course of our struggle and their families rights are currently the source of some dispute with Mersey Docks. Over the Christmas period our brave dockers and their families attended two funerals of comrades who died as a direct result of the stress created by such a long and bitter struggle.

A number of jobs are on offer in the port and we continue to examine the practicability of this option. A joint approach will be made in relation to the pension entitlements of the majority of dockers. We have to recognise that work in Liverpool is a rare commodity and we expect that all our comrades will experience great difficulty over the next few years.

It is with a great sadness in our hearts that we write to all our magnificent supporters and express our deepest gratitude. We have to build upon our internationalism, upon the experiences of all our struggles let the words of a great Irish trade unionist capture our thoughts;

"Who is it speaks of defeat? I tell you a cause like ours is greater than defeat can know. It is the power of powers." ----James Larkin.

Yours in Solidarity,

Jimmy Nolan


Merseyside Docker's Shop Stewards Committee and sent to J. Davies, Treasurer, 19 Scorten St, Liverpool, L6 4AS.

Telephone: 0151 207 3388 Fax: 0151 207 0696

Source: Reclaim The Streets/SCHNews 136 26.09.97
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