Dockers and Casualisation (February 1996)

DOCKERS AND CASUALISATION -

Why did the dockers reject the 25 000 ?

Many people will be aware that some dockers in this dispute have rejected an offer of 25 000 to 'sell' their jobs. You may not be aware however that this offer is not available to all those dockers involved in this dispute; but in any case you are probably wondering why anyone would reject a lump sum like that. Apart from the fact that these days 25 000 will go nowhere and besides, before this dispute, many dockers had already rejected a more 'generous' offer, the dockers have a more compelling reason for saying NO. You should give serious thought to their argument.

Throughout this dispute dockers, their wives, partners and supporters have argued that this dispute centres on one issue - CASUALISATION. Now many people reading this will know what this means, 'flexible working', short term contracts, constant insecurity caused by 'privatisation' or competitive tendering or simply the 'need to remain internationally competitive'. We have all been told that there is no alternative, that somehow it is all pre-ordained. Dock workers themselves have fallen victim to this trend in common with millions of other workers in this country. If you have read some of the letters and speeches of the 'Women of the Waterfront ' you will be aware of the constant call outs, disruption to family life and the tiredness and stress they cause. All this is the real cost of the continuing drive by the bosses, government and the political parties to make this country the 'enterprise centre of Europe.'

In the past dockers have had a tradition of mutual aid and collective struggle through which they have tried to blunt some of the effects of this. When in response to an attack on Torside dockers, others employed by MDHC or Nelson refused to cross the Torside men's picket line, they were attempting to preserve their collective organisation. A union or collective organisation in this sense is nothing without the right to picket - which of course is now illegal in this country. So now we have the real reason for this dispute - it is an attempt to destroy and root out of the docks any last remnant of collective organisation and solidarity, so that conditions and wages can be further driven down to make the port 'competitive'.

And this pressure is never ending. One of the most insidious changes of the last few years has been the pressure for continuous improvement or kaizen as the Japanese call it. In the past once a rate was agreed for a particular job, workers would be left to get on with it. Today this is no longer the case, management continually want more for less. Your best is never good enough.

Why this is so would take longer than we have space for in this article, but it is to do with another '-isation' - that is GLOBALISATION . As this dispute develops we are going to hear and more about this word and what it means. Those of you who have been following this dispute since September will know that in attempting, as they saw it to dispose of the last remnant of the 'old way' - the MDHC, the Government, the Liverpool Echo and so on, have badly miscalculated. Instead this remnant has transformed itself, risen to this new challenge and shown how collectively IT IS POSSIBLE to resist. We can mobilise ourselves, we don't have to suffer in isolation.

How have the dockers done this ? By taking this struggle into their own hands, by understanding the reality they were facing and not allowing the union to isolate them as has happened in the past, by sending delegates to ports all over the world to ask for practical solidarity. Above all by organising an international conference of port workers to see if we can work out a co-ordinated international approach to the problem of casualisation.

We live now in a world that is far more international than it used to be, companies think nothing of shipping goods round the world if it makes money, developments in information technology makes services just as footloose - which is why world trade is growing three times faster than world production. This globalisation of the economy means that now, we, the working class can also 'globalise' our struggle and no laws in any one nation state can stop us. And if dock workers can use international pressure to strengthen their collective organisation, why not Ford workers or Vauxhalls' [GM]? All this means we can begin to fight back and in the process find real answers to the problems that confront us.

So remember - it isn't about th money and you can't avoid the consequences by keeping your head down and hoping that you'll be all right. There aren't any individual solutions any more.

We need solutions at the level of society itself. You won't be all right if you just keep your head down - casualisation affects everybody, blue collar, white collar, working class, middle class. We can successfully resist, BUT only by using the only weapons at our disposal - our numbers and our ability to understand and organise ourselves. The dockers are showing us the way.