Part Two (30 November 1995)

Significance of the Dockworkers Dispute - Part Two

In the first article I set out the reasons why the present dispute arose and why I thought it might not be so easily resolved. I argued that this dispute was a symptom of the social realities of the 1990s and that therefore we should not use the concepts of a previous movement of the 1970s to understand it. I also argued that the dispute was delicately balanced between the old and perhaps a newly re-emerging labour movement. It will be necessary to ask if this is still the case.

The issue that makes it so modern is casualisation - that is the MDHC needs a workforce that it can call on at a moments notice to suit the pattern of work in the port. It also goes without saying of course that it needs to cut costs as well. In other words the terms and conditions of workers are going to be significantly worsened simply in order to keep a business competitive in world terms.

The dispute is now into its ninth week and there are some developments to report. Firstly a major user of the port, ACL, has diverted is boats away from Liverpool - to Thameshaven for the moment. This is a significant blow for MDHC both in terms of revenue and prestige and the reasons for it are important. The dockers had appealed for support in North America and particularly in New York on the East coast. To their credit the American longshoremen have said that any boat breaking the dispute over here will not be handled over there. ACL has bowed to this threat - almost certainly there will be repercussions.

There may also be something to report on the short sea crossing between Belfast, Dublin and Liverpool which the MDHC is directly involved in and where there are already long standing grievances to be sorted. More than this cannot be said at the moment.

The dockers have attempted to picket various different gates, since they are already 'dismissed' they cannot be sued for secondary action - although it is almost certain that some law will be found under the Criminal Justice Act to try and prevent this. Certainly some stewards fully expect to be locked up before long. The only thing that appears to be holding back the authorities is a fear of creating 'martyrs'.

It is important to realise that this is NOT a mass picket to stop the dock. The stewards are quite clear about this - rejecting the mass picket as a tactic of the past. It is also of course quite impractical. The dockers have called the docks a 'colander' because there are so many entrances. What it does do of course is put the dockers in full view of the scabs - who at the moment are being paid fabulous amounts of money to do virtually nothing. More importantly it also ties up the police, their equipment and vehicles and makes them look stupid.

A single 'dock bobby' on a lonely gate confronted by two or three hundred dockers and their families and supporters usually decides discretion is the better part of valour. By the time the 'cavalry' arrives, the picket is either long gone or on at least one occasion has occupied part of the dock. This frustrates the police no end and their mood has sometimes threatened to turn ugly. Obviously some of them are dying to crack a few heads, but the stewards have been very careful to offer them no provocation. This is an adaptation of a tactic borrowed from the anti-roads protests - ultimately the local state will have to pick up the bill for police costs and so on.

Additionally MDHC directors homes have been picketed or 'visited' en masse with amusing results and no doubt other 'guerilla' type actions are contemplated. All this has had the effect of solidifying the dispute and giving the dockers some pride in themselves and their struggle.

There is however some not so good news to report. It is quite clear for instance that the local 'labour movement' in the form of shop stewards committees, combine committees and so on, is NOT going to organise any practical solidarity action. Although this could have been predicted - the fact of its happening is all important. The 'Left' of course will try to deny this, still believing in their fantasy of a workers movement straining at the leash and only held back by 'traitors' and sell outs.

The dockers themselves although disappointed have not allowed it to dismay them. It has had the effect however of throwing them back onto themselves and it may be that a more 'sectional' approach now comes to the fore in this dispute. They have so far not taken the opportunity to try and turn their struggle in a more 'social' direction. On the other hand their efforts to turn outwards, to take their struggle abroad, to involve wives and partners may lead in this direction. Let us hope so.

It is my feeling that this dispute lacks a particular local focus. It is for instance quite clear that local firms and especially transport firms, are involved on a wide scale in scabbing on this dispute. So far the dockers have taken no steps to 'name names' nor to organise to put pressure on these firms in the local area. Some action of this sort is I feel necessary to generalise and polarise opinion in the city.

As ever the Left have limited themselves to tail ending the dispute or even worse doing their routine of passing resolutions, 'calling for support' and so on. So far they have had little practical influence - except for one incident, which is interesting. A group called the International Communist Party, a Trotskyist organisation but with an unorthodox and 'ultra left' view of unions and shop stewards, produced a leaflet calling into question the role of the docks stewards in this dispute. For their pains they managed to get themselves ejected from a supporters meeting.

Now they might be formally correct in their view of unions and shop stewards, but of course even for unorthodox trotskyists the crisis for the working class is one of 'revolutionary leadership' - NOT the working class's own view of itself and its struggle. In any case the practical effect of their 'intervention' has been in a small way to solidify the dockers around their existing leadership - whom the ICP blamed for preventing effective solidarity action.

But I think there is a lesson for us all here. We may call ourselves revolutionaries - although it is not clear what this means given today's reality, but the minute a group of workers comes into struggle and begins to seek a practical way forward, nobody is there simply to take them at their word and begin an honest attempt at dialogue.

There is a process going on here that we have to learn to relate to. This process is a questioning of everything as the old certainties crumble in the face of a new reality. If that means for the moment that the people facing that reality are avowed Stalinists like Jimmy Nolan, or simply long time Labour Party supporters like the majority of the shop stewards, then so be it. They are the ones who must confront and ultimately overcome the problems. If they do and are thereby transformed in the process, as some of them have acknowledged, or they lapse back, either way it makes no sense for us to reproach them for not conforming to our ideal of revolutionary behaviour.

In any case if by some miracle a whole new shop stewards committee was elected, it would almost certainly represent the same mixture of views and conception of struggle as its predecessor.

It may be that the prospects for this dispute opening out onto something more radical are diminishing. Certainly I do not feel quite as optimistic as in my first article. Just as certainly MDHC will have some kind of compromise forced onto them as this dispute drags on - for the dockers are not going to simply fade away. The reality for those who go back, as it is for all those gripped by wage labour wherever they are, will not alter. We cannot live with this system. Sooner or later another dispute will break out- casualisation and all the problems that stem from the fact that we have no control over our lives will not go away.

More next time

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