Part Eight - July 1996



JULY 1996

It is now July and some 11 months since this dispute began. Late last month ACL, one of the major users of the Seaforth Container Terminal in Liverpool announced its intention to pull out of the Mersey 'until such time as labour relations in the port returned to normal'. For the moment they are diverting their traffic to Thameshaven - an unregistered, that is a fully casualised port in Kent, where workers' collective organisation does not exist. [Whether this is truly the case is still to be established.]

Thameshaven is on the 'wrong' side of the country from the point of view of North Atlantic traffic and cannot be regarded as an ideal solution from the bosses' point of view. We shall return to this later. Some attempts have been made by the London Dockers Support Group - which is very active - to find out about and make contact with dockers in Thameshaven but so far there is nothing to report. Back on the Mersey, it is reported [and believed by the dockers themselves - whose information has been 100% accurate so far] that CAN-MAR and CAST will soon quit the port. There is an equivalent type of dispute brewing in the Canadian East Coast ports, and this may reflect the shipping lines 'clearing the decks' to some extent.

This will leave the Seaforth Terminal virtually idle. Also, on at least 4 occasions the dockers have 'picketed out' the tugboat men which paralyses the port for at least a tide, and on one occasion saw at least one 50 000 tonne vessel helpless in the channel as it attempted to enter the dock under its own power and unaided. All in all the dockers are reasonably pleased with the results of their efforts so far and at their Friday mass meetings their mood is one of quiet, if not aggressive, self confidence. I cannot say if this confidence is misplaced, but certainly now that MDHC is moving to dismiss some of the scabs and ancillary workers because of falling traffic levels, nobody can deny that at last the dockers campaign is effective.

In addition the dockers have shown themselves totally to immune to any of the usual crocodile tears that the media and bosses turn on about 'lost jobs', 'damage to the port', etc. etc. As ever the dockers' policy remains a full commitment to the 'status quo ante '; ALL dockers to be reinstated on their former terms and conditions before any negotiations will be entered into over severance, redundancy and so on.

The time therefore comes when more serious and in depth questions can begin to be asked about this dispute and I should like to begin by posing this one. First of all from the dockers point of view - what will 'winning' [if indeed they are winning] this dispute mean? In the short term this is relatively easy to answer. Over 400 dockers will go back through the gate with their heads held high. But anyone who has followed my reports will know that this is what happened after the 1989 dock strike - so we've been here before. No doubt at least half of them will immediately apply for severance or redundancy on the terms they formerly enjoyed. They will then leave the industry with lump sums and pensions intact and good luck to them.

But what about the younger ones - many of whom are active on the dispute committee and are now known activists ? For them, the struggle to hold on to, never mind improve their terms and conditions or even to hold on to their collective organisation AT ALL, will resume with a vengeance. MDHC like any modern employer cannot tolerate INDEPENDENT COLLECTIVE ORGANISATION amongst its work force. Whether this autonomous organisation takes on a union type form or, as it has in other workplaces, simply goes 'underground' is not actually the issue.

Now obviously I am not the only one to have noticed that REAL workers' collective organisation [as opposed to that which merely takes the name] has in this day and age, all but disappeared from the surface of life. The question then becomes, what should be the relationship between this self organisation, or if you like, this autonomy, and the existing 'workers' organisations [ie the unions]?

Many Left organisations are even now launching campaigns to 'recapture' or 'revitalise' the unions. Rather than debate this from a theoretical point of view [which in my experience is a singularly time wasting and frustrating experience] I should merely like to point to the dockers experience. The dockers have had to be careful in their position not to antagonise the union [at least openly]; but at the same time they have managed to keep it at arm's length from their struggle. Hence their plea for supporters NOT to campaign to make the dispute 'official'. The crucial point here is that the dockers do not look upon the union as the focal point nor the centrepiece of their strategy. As a result of their international conference, many actually believe that their future lies in a new international dock workers union and given the long history of antagonism between the T&G and the dockers, including a 'mass break out from the union in the late 1950s, this is perfectly understandable.

Well, if a new international union does ever get off the ground we'll have a look at this beast and see, but for the moment, the dockers prefer and rightly so, to rely on their own efforts. I think however we can go a bit further with our understanding. We started by asking the question - what does 'winning' this dispute actually mean? I said that in the short term we could certainly answer that, and most people would be able to recognise the answer. But over the longer term it would be far harder.

Even in the 70s we knew that we could not make any real economic gains - any wage increases we won were quickly swallowed up and cancelled out by inflation, and in any case nobody ever counts the losses to our class by those forced out into unemployment or casualised forms of work. Today it is not even a question of advancing wages conditions but one simply of trying to hold on. For myself, I am more concerned to see a growth in the confidence and organising abilities of a whole section of workers, than any material 'gain' they might make. And we should never forget that this whole dispute, like many others now, is not about improving wages and conditions, but merely an attempt to make previous 'victories' actually stick. It's the MDHC who have torn up the old collective agreements, its the MDHC who want to introduce individual contracts and so on. This marks out a crucial difference from disputes that broke out in the 70s and 80s. It is also very revealing about the real dynamics of the situation.

Like many in the past I had imagined the working class to be a largely passive, almost inert mass, that merely reacted to what the capitalists did to it. I now wish to challenge this view because it seems to me to no longer describe the actual situation [actually, it is doubtful that it ever did]. Throughout this dispute it has been quite clear that the initiative has lain with the dockers and not MDHC. I wish to suggest that this is so ALL THE TIME. Now when I came to this conclusion I realised it meant abandoning a whole previous outlook. Instead of formerly seeing the working class as the 'blind beast of revolt', merely reacting to its circumstances, we come to conceive of the position of the working class in capitalist society as being crucial to our conception of communism or the future society.If we accept that it is the working class that has the initiative - THAT IS CAPITAL ALWAYS REACTS TO US - then it makes what we have received from a previous movement all the more questionable. Whereas before we have had a conception of communism or socialism as belonging to the party - as the product of intellect and a reflection on our history, we were stuck with something that was very much the property of a political movement. We can now abandon this stultifying conception and look at what I now believe is the real situation.

Every change in the labour process - every change in our conditions of work, in the state form, even in our personal relationships, comes about as a result of our struggle to escape from our condition as wage workers. Now stated as baldly as that, it can seem a kind breathtaking madness. How silly you may argue - it is the capitalists who control the labour process, we are merely there to do their bidding. But stop and think - if the labour process were merely this mechanical relationship, why would management experts and gurus spend a lifetime trying to learn its secrets ? What can their problem be ?

And the answer is staring us in the face - it is us , WE ARE THE INSURGENT ELEMENT. We need to recognise the class struggle as pre-existing. It is not something invented by communists, it is always there even if we do not recognise the peculiar forms it sometimes takes. We are the ones who always bend and change their system to suit ourselves. If communists were to do nothing else, they would do all workers a favour if they are hammered this one lesson home. In any work situation, because our interests - as human beings, are ALWAYS fundamentally opposed to theirs, we always find ways to challenge their system.

When Frederick Taylor started to time and break down the work of skilled men in the New England machine shop where he worked at the turn of the century, it was not to 'improve' the 'scientific organisation of work' but to break down the control over the labour process exerted by the skilled men. Workers had imposed their collectivity on the labour process. That is he REACTED to the defacto rule of Labour OVER Capital.

Today, management uses a multiplicity of tools to try and recover control of the labour process - 'team working', TQM, breaking up of large units into small and scattered ones. Always the dynamic is the same - capital runs away from what it has created - socialised labour, BUT AT THE SAME TIME IT CANNOT AVOID RECREATING THE FORCE THAT SPELLS ITS OWN DOOM.

Now armed with this insight into the real balance of forces, we can see the end result of our struggle, what all our partial and perhaps futile struggles are aimed at, and that is to get rid of this parasitic relationship.

Socialism or communism, since from this point of view they are the same thing, becomes therefore the property, not of an intellectual elite, the 'men of science', but arises directly out of our very struggle. One of the most useful things those who call themselves socialists or communists can do, is to recognise and document this process.

In previous reports I have used the word 're-composition' as a shorthand way of showing how the capitalists have used technology and the power of the state to try and overcome the 'collectivity' that had been created. In Briain there was a move within transport to develop smaller, unregistered ports, so as to avoid 'collectivity'. This process has now come to a stop as capital attempts to wrestle with an even bigger contradiction.

Transport as we have noted is part of the circulation of capital, although not directly 'productive' in the same way as making goods and services, it nevertheless shows the same tendencies and processes - rationalistation, fragementation, concentration and so on. One of the problems the dockers have come up against is the lack of collective organisation among truck drivers, reflecting the present anarchic and deregulated nature of the industry.

This will change.

Already it is becoming more obvious to the far sighted capitalists that some kind of rationalisation is necessary - given the enormous amounts of investment that are going to be needed simply in order to keep transport efficient. It may be that the MDHC as presently set up is unable or unwilling to spend the amounts necessary. For instance on the Mersey there are at present TWO competing projects for Ro-Ro traffic to Ireland. And even these are not really facing up to the problem. The reality is that you cannot simply end at the dock gates. Whoever develops a facility on the West Coast of Britain [and wherever it is] will have to develop the whole chain - inland to distribution points, and on to exchange points with East Coast ports and the Channel Tunnel. Plainly this is beyond the MDHC.


With others I hope to be able to discuss and document this process more clearly and at greater length in a separate work - sorry if I've whetted your appetite, you'll just have to be patient.