Liverpool Dockers by Mike Carden

Liverpool Dockers was written by someone supremely well placed to tell the story of the dockers’ struggle between 1995 and 98. Mike Carden, a third generation Liverpool docker, was one of the lead shop stewards during the lockout.

The battle saw workers fight for their jobs after the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company (MDHC) dismissed them for refusing to cross a picket line.

Carden, who sadly died in 2021, gives a forensic account—full of detail, based upon painstaking records and recollections. He remembers each meeting for all of its significant details, each turning point, every speech, the specific role of every official and activist, and every supporter or detractor. It is a truly remarkable achievement.

The struggle of the Liverpool dockers for reinstatement is in one sense a story of incredible resilience. But it has a greater importance than this. The time it happened, the trajectory it followed, and the debates that occurred within and around it, make it an episode of historical significance. It sheds an illuminating light on the changing character of the British trade union movement.

The 1995-1998 Liverpool dockers’ fight

The fight began in September 1995 when 80 dockers employed by the Bootle-based Torside stevedoring company picketed the Liverpool Port. They had been dismissed during an overtime ban. Some 329 Liverpool dockers refused to cross the picket line and, after three days on unofficial strike, were subsequently themselves dismissed by MDHC. With the dispute underway, there were to be altogether 500 dockers fighting for reinstatement.

By innovative use of the internet and specifically the LaborNet platform, the dispute was to have an international impact.

New York longshoremen respected a picket line by three of the Liverpool dockers who had travelled there in December 1995. And again in September 1997, strikes took place at seaports from Seattle to Los Angeles and the Irish east coast. On the 30 September 1996 day of action, thousands marched for the dockers at the Seaforth terminal gates, with supporters occupying the roof of one of the dock buildings.

In October 1995 the MDHC offered severance deals of £10,000, which the dockers rejected. In December 1996, they rejected severance offers which bosses had increased to £26,000. Each week for more than 100 weeks, dockers’ mass meetings voted to continue their fight.

In May 1997, the new Labour government was elected on a landslide victory, bringing Tony Blair into Downing Street. Immediately, hopes of reinstatement under the new government were dashed as Labour refused to recognise the dockers’ case. The fight ended in January 1998, when the dockers finally accepted the employer’s severance terms of £28,000. 

Character and politics of the struggle

Carden brilliantly conveys the dockers’ unbreakable commitment to the principle of the picket line for working class solidarity. Once the fight began, the dockers were at the gates of the Liverpool Port each morning before dawn.

They did not have official support from their union, the TGWU, and it became clear that the outcome would not be swift. But their resolve, self-sustaining initiative and independent organisation came into its own, for what was to prove a long and bitter fight.

As the dockers dug in, other developments began to shape the campaign. The emergence of Women on the Waterfront (WoW) brought the wives and partners of the port-side workers into the heart of the struggle. WoW became a hugely important driving force for solidarity work and support for the dockers for the duration of the lockout, with its own committee organising regular fundraising and solidarity.

The struggle became a rallying point of the trade union movement and of the left more generally. The marches and rallies also attracted celebrity support from the worlds of music (Billy Bragg, Martin Carr of the Boo Radleys, Noel Gallagher, Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream and Chumbawamba), football (Robbie Fowler, Steve McManaman, Duncan Ferguson, Stig Inge Bjornebye, and Alex Ferguson), and comedy (Lee Hurst, Jo Brand and Mark Steel). Writers Irvine Welsh and Jimmy McGovern, film-maker Ken Loach and journalist John Pilger also supported the dockers.

One unexpected alliance was with Reclaim the Streets (RTS). RTS centred its direct-action on privatised, commercialised and otherwise socially enclosed spaces that prevented their use by the general public—by working class people. At one point, RTS activists occupied cranes and port-side buildings in solidarity with the dockers.

The international strategy

In the early phase, delegations of dockers and activists from WoW toured all around the UK visiting major workplaces and speaking at union meetings. Everywhere they went they received enthusiastic receptions and financial solidarity. What they did not see however, was secondary action at the other ports in Britain. Where sympathetic support was available in abundance, solidarity action was being blocked by the official trade union leaderships.

Lead steward Jimmy Nolan made this point when he spoke to 15,000 supporters on the steps of St George’s Hall, Liverpool on 2 December 1995. “Our people in this dispute, whether official or unofficial, should be supported by our leadership and they are not doing it,” he said.

Increasingly, they tried to find an alternative strategy to relying on solidarity action from other port workers and trade unionists. Faxing contacts at ports around the world via the ITF union federation, the dockers called for an international solidarity conference to be held in February 1996. Ahead of the event, and emerging from the conference itself, solidarity actions began to occur in the form of boycotting ships destined for the Liverpool Port.

Already in December 1995 Liverpool pickets of the New York docks had been successful, hitting particularly the ships of the ACL shipping line. At the conference dockers’ representatives attended from the US, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Greece, Spain, Ireland, Italy, Germany, France and Portugal to discuss and agree objectives for a strategy of international solidarity. “The Liverpool dockers’ slogan had become, ‘The World is our picket line’,” Carden writes in the book.

More international initiatives followed, with a second international conference held in September 1996—without the support of the TGWU or the ITF). And workers created the International Dockworkers’ Committee from a meeting in Paris with dockers from 18 ports across 10 countries.

The high point of the international campaign was the Day of World Action that saw solidarity at 105 ports across 27 countries. This ranged from meetings, brief protests and lobbies of British embassies and consulates to walkouts and full shutdowns. Further international solidarity actions occurred in August and September 1997.

The struggle with the trade union bureaucracy

The leadership of the TGWU tried to justify not giving official backing to the dispute by pointing to the unlawful status of the dockers’ action. The officials were hiding behind the legal shield that had been put in place for them by the Tories.

There were, in fact, repeated attempts to put the campaign on a legal footing, with ballots on the employers’ offers organised via the Electoral Reform Society. Four months into the fight the dockers had voted 90.3 percent to reject the employer’s offer to settle. Carden explains that at the meeting before the ballot “speaker after speaker stood to remind everyone that they had not been fighting for money, but for jobs”.

In October 1997, an official ballot again rejected the employer’s financial settlement offer with a no vote of nearly 70 percent. That was despite concerted attempts at intimidation by the MDHC—and pressures put upon the dockers to accept. The TGWU sent literature saying this to dockers’ homes. Over the course of the struggle, three official ballots occurred, testing the resolve of the dockers, each resulting in decisions to fight on.

The major theme running through Carden’s narrative is that of betrayal, and this is justified. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that the British trade union movement hung the Liverpool dockers out to dry.

However, we must be clear. The struggle at the Liverpool docks enjoyed fantastic support from trade unionists all around Britain and beyond. The betrayal was not by ordinary members of the unions, but rather by the national trade union officials.

In October 1996 TGWU general secretary Bill Morris condemned the dockers’ links with groups such as RTS. He threatened to cut off support completely, and worked behind the scenes with the ITF to block efforts at international solidarity.

In December 1996, fearful of their association with a fight that had not begun with a legal ballot, the union’s executive council voted against supporting the Liverpool dockers. “The GEC voted 18 to 8 in favour of doing nothing beyond declaring their wish to end the conflict at any cost, again reiterating their long-held position that the Liverpool dock workers were not to be supported,” Carden remembers.

Even financial support that was forthcoming from other unions was prevented from reaching the dockers. The FBU firefighter’s union, for instance, pledged £250,000. The donation was blocked by the TGWU.

And neither did the TUC union federation lift a finger to help. When the Liverpool dockers unfurled their banner from a balcony at the TUC conference in Blackpool, while delegates on the floor applauded them. But the applause “from the platform … sounded hollow”.

At their meeting on 26 January 1998 the Liverpool dockers—isolated and let down by the union leaders, their hardship funds severely depleted—voted to accept the MDCH terms to settle the dispute.

The changed trade union landscape

The dockers’ struggle was a weathervane for the direction of the wider British trade union movement. By the early 1990s, anti-union laws meant national unions were liable for any breaches of the law. Union officials were wary of any situation where members might take control of their own industrial action, making it potentially unlawful. This was something that no official leadership would countenance.

How these laws affected the behaviour of the officials—both left and right—is the key to understanding the experience of the Liverpool lockout. And it is the changes in behaviour of the left officials that is of most relevance. By the mid-1990s, the trade union movement had shifted from the period when officials, under pressure from the rank-and-file, might give a nod-and-a-wink to workers taking action outside of statutory legal processes.

The “strategy debate”: obstacles and possibilities 

Despite the impressive international solidarity shown by port workers around the world, it also became the focus of sharp debate. Here Carden critically highlights the arguments that came from SWP members in the city, and also from two academics, Michael Lavalette and Jane Kennedy, in a book they published during the struggle. Solidarity on the Waterfront argued the way to win was by building mass pickets, not just at the Liverpool ports, but at ports around Britain, involving dockers and other workers beyond the city. International solidarity, however inspiring it could be, would not be enough to win the fight.

This strategy also would have meant a refusal to accept pressures to limit the action in order to remain within legal constraints. This would have necessitated a break with the official leadership of the TGWU. Here the distinction between left and right officials was important.

A key feature of the dockers’ campaign, argued Lavalette and Kennedy, was a reliance on the left wing of the TGWU and the ITF. The failure of that orientation only revealed the fundamental similarity between left and right officials when it came to any real test in the dispute. The best way forward for the dockers would be appeals for practical solidarity made worker-to-worker.

The major industrial battles of the 1970s had been characterised by episodes in which the lefts of the trade unions had up to a point encouraged walkouts and other actions that were relatively independent of national official control; that is of the right-wings of the unions.

By the 1990s, however, the left officials were more risk-averse, making them weaker in the face of pressures opposing action from the right officials. They had been moved by now onto the ground traditionally occupied by the right wing.

In the early years of the 1970s, the right officials could to a degree tolerate independent actions without having to be concerned with the safety of union assets. So, along with tacit encouragement from the left officials, for a brief period at least, there could be a partial acceptance from the right. This is what had changed by the time of the dockers’ fight. It meant also that the left officials were no longer confident they could bring out members in sufficient numbers to reduce the risks of victimisation for breaking contracts to acceptable levels.

The realities faced by the Liverpool stewards—without alternative mechanisms for delivering secondary action—made things more difficult than in the previous era of British trade unionism. The dockers had historically taken secondary action in solidarity with other groups of workers. Moreover, the dockers of the MDHC had respected the picket lines of the Torside dockers, taking secondary action in solidarity with them. That was the last major example of this happening in Britain.

The most active dockers, stewards and WoW activists, Carden explains, had spoken at hundreds of meetings appealing for workers to show practical—not just financial—solidarity. It was not, he argues, that the stewards failed to make this case. In fact, they made it repeatedly. 

Two decades earlier, a dispute such as that of Liverpool dockers would in all likelihood have seen other groups of workers walking out in solidarity. It would likely have been encouraged by left officials who paid no heed to official sanction, and were unconstrained by legal worries.

A break with the left bureaucracy, and a strategy of worker-to-worker solidarity, was the best hope of winning against the MDHC. But the absence of an organisational mechanism that might have replaced the role of the left officials made it a very difficult—although not impossible—prospect in the immediacy of the struggle.

The experience of the 1 May Day of Action in 1996 illustrates both the potential for an alternative strategy, as well as the challenges the stewards faced. As the preparations for the day developed, it was clear that in some key places workers were prepared to strike. There were positive reports coming particularly from Unison union members in Sefton council, and from postal worker CWU branches in Liverpool.

That Wednesday, pickets at the Sefton council buildings and at the massive Copperas Hill Royal Mail Sorting Office could have been successful in bringing out these groups of workers. This type of action might have then created the basis for new organisational forms, and new arenas for practical solidarity. By itself, one day of sympathy action by council workers and postal workers wouldn’t have been enough to win. But it could have opened up new possibilities in the struggle and new forums for the planning of further solidarity action. Such a development could have transformed the prospects of the dockers’ fight.

In the event, the day was limited to picket line visits and lunch-time protests. In the case of Sefton, Unison leader Rodney Bickerstaffe had intervened. He warned the branch that no protection would be forthcoming from the national union if members were disciplined for taking solidarity action. By the mid-1990s this type of intervention was enough to reign-in the left officials of each of the unions concerned. In the early years of the 1970s, it would not have been.

Financial solidarity, demonstrations of support, activist stunts, celebrity backing and episodic international solidarity were not going to be enough to win. And on this question, Lavalette and Kennedy were unquestionably right. However, neither were recommendations for direct worker-to-worker solidarity alone, without the types of solidarity culture needed to maximise unofficial action’s effectiveness and minimise its risks. The leap was big from a reliance on the trade union left officials to self-reliant, independent and direct picketing out of workplaces for secondary action.

This question hangs over the British trade union movement still. The answer will come in actions that breach the restrictions the Tories continue to build around the trade unions. Such actions can create spaces for innovation, new forums for worker-to-worker organising, and new types of solidarity.

Carden’s book is important in more ways than one. It captures brilliantly the experience of one of the longest industrial battles in British history. It also tells the story of a dispute that was a turning point in British trade unionism. In that sense the 1995-98 lockout stands alongside the 1977 Grunwick dispute, the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike and the 1988-89 P&O seafarers’ strike. Each in different ways revealed how the trade union movement in Britain as a whole was adapting to a changing and increasingly hostile environment. In the case of the dockers, here was a group of workers that had no choice but to take action without the approval of their national leadership. It was a leadership with no answers for their situation that turned against them.

And today?

The 2022-23 strike-wave over pay opened up new possibilities for trade union activism. In Liverpool and other towns and cities, networks, forums and cross-union alliances emerged to support the strikes. They created some space for new types of solidarity, and fresh perspectives about how to maximise their impact nationally and at the local level.

They did not provide the answers in the immediate term. They were small steps towards the much more substantial organisational forms that are needed, and that will emerge in larger and more sustained waves of struggle.

In September and October 2022, and as part of the strike-wave, the Liverpool dockers struck over pay. Their morning gatherings at the port gates were magnificent daily shows of solidarity and determination. The result was a much-improved deal, compared to what they had been offered originally. But this was not just about pay. The dockers had shaken off the shadow of the 1995-98 lockout, and demonstrated once more the immense industrial power they continue to possess. While the problems the Liverpool dockers faced during their lockout remain for the trade union movement, their action in 2022 was nonetheless a move once more in the direction that we need.

Carden’s narrative is that of betrayal. And the Liverpool dockers were betrayed—left to fight alone by the officialdom of the trade union movement. They were abandoned for standing by the oldest and most important principle of class-conscious workers—”Never cross a picket line!” And they never did.

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