What did you do during the Dock Strike?

13 July 2006

Members of the flexible workforce might find a lesson in the dockers' fight against casualisation.

Near the end of Dockers, shown last Sunday on Channel 4, there is a scene in which Big John, a docker, is found dead in his garden. It is deeply moving. I remembered the freezing day last year when Bill Rooney had a heart attack and died. A week later, Jimmy McUmiskey, who seemed a fit man in his 50s, followed. He was the fourth to die since the Liverpool dockers and their families made their stand: one of the longest and most tenacious in British labour history.

Dockers, the film, was written by Jimmy McGovern and the dockers themselves and their wives. It is fine work that guards the memory and tells the truth from the ground up. Among the characters, I recognised Doreen McNally. Feisty, funny, eloquent wife of Charlie, a Liverpool docker for 29 years, Doreen helped found Women of the Waterfront. I first saw her one Saturday in the autumn of 1996 at the Pier Head, a year after the sacking en masse of 500 men described by Lloyds list as the most productive workforce in Europe. The heroic Liver building reared up behind her to a watery sun; a flock of seagulls rose and fell until a hooter sent them flapping back to the Mersey. "Where is the union," she asked a rally, "where is Bill Morris, where is the TUC?"

It is a question millions of Britons might ask as Tony Blair's ideas about flexible working guarantee a poverty that gives the children of British working people the worst health in western Europe, now on a par with Slovenia and Albania.

This was everything the Liverpool dockers fought against. Since the abolition of the National Dock Labour Scheme in 1989, casualisation had spread through the docks; they believed they were next. In September 1995, they refused to cross a picket line which included their sons and nephews sacked by Torside, a sub- contractor to the main company at the port, Mersey Docks. Within 24 hours, their jobs were advertised. When they tried to return to work, they found the gates locked. It was a trap.

In July 1996, Bernard Bradley, managing director of Torside, revealed to the Commons employment committee that he had wanted to give his men back their jobs almost immediately. Having passed the offer to a regional official of the TGWU, Jack Dempsey, he heard nothing. The Torside dockers were never told about the offer. Had they been told, Mersey Docks would never have had a pretext to get rid of the main workforce.

Almost none of this was reported. Misrepresented as relics from a bygone era, the dockers looked abroad. "It was 6am on a December morning in the fiercest blizzard for 70 years," said Bobby Morton, one of four dockers who set up a picket at the port of Newark in New Jersey just as a container ship had docked from Liverpool. "We didn't know what to expect. When we told the longshoremen coming to work what it was all about,they turned their cars around. We were dancing on the picket line, and we hadn't had a drink."

From a room with one phone, a fax line and a tea urn, they ignited a show of international labour solidarity believed to be without precedent this century. "Pacific Rim trade sputtered to a halt," reported the Los Angeles Times, as dozens of mammoth cargo ships sat idle in their ports as union dockworkers from LA to Seattle backed the dockers of Liverpool. In Japan, 40,000 dockworkers stopped. Ships were turned away from Sydney harbour. In South Africa, dockers closed all ports "in solidarity with the Liverpool dockers who stood by us during the years of apartheid".

Five months after the dockers were sacked, Bill Morris, general secretary of the TGWU, their leader, came to Liverpool. "I am proud to be with you," he told them. "Your struggle is so important that our grandchidren will ask, 'Where were you at the great moment?' and you will either stand up with pride, or you'll hang your head in shame. There can be no backsliding until victory is won... God is on our side."

The union gave the dockers money, though not enough to live on. Morris refused to make the dispute of ficial, claiming the government would invoke Thatcher's law on secondary picketing - a technicality in this case - and sequestrate his funds. Had he launched a legal campaign challenging the injustice of the dockers' dismissal and anti-trade-union laws that are shameful in a democracy, the battle could have been won there and then.

Betrayal is the political theme of Blair's Britain, whose pillars include those paid generously to protect the vulnerable, with or without God. In such surreal times, the dockers' great achievement was to show what was possible. For me, watching their principled fight as they lost almost everything, until the loss of Bill and Jimmy proved too much to bear, was watching Britain at its best.

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The John Pilger archive is held at the British Library