Four hundred sacked dockers have fought for five hard months. Now they sense an unlikely victory
John Morris is a big, smiley, slightly anxious-looking man. For 24 years he has been a Liverpool docker, handling the great ships and their cargoes as they pull into port from around the world. But this morning he is sitting in his living room, looking out at those ships as they pass along the Mersey through the snow.

It has become a familiar view. John and some 400 fellow dockers have not worked since last September, when a bad-tempered dispute flared into dismissals. The 80 sacked men raised a picket line; the remainder refused to cross it; P45s were dispatched by taxi to their homes. The dockers have been standing at the gates ever since, spitting "scab!" at the new labour ushered in under police guard, and calling for their jobs back.

With no ballot having been called, and as sacked men, the dockers' action was unofficial and could not be backed by their union, the TGWU. But what looked then like the defiant last breath of Mersey militants whose time had passed is, five long and cold months later, not only holding firm but threatening to succeed.

Through an arctic winter, the fierce dockside picketing at dawn and dusk has continued. Strikers have flown to Australia, New Zealand, America and elsewhere to win support and financial backing from foreign unions; last month, three men closed the American port of Newark to Liverpool cargo.

The dispute has already cost an increasingly bewildered and beleaguered Mersey Docks and Harbour Company (MDHC) an estimated pounds 400,000 a week. Millions have been wiped off the share price. If the international conference of dock union delegates convened in the city this week succeeds in getting Liverpool ships "blacked" across the globe, the men's demands for their old jobs will have a new, perhaps irresistible urgency. Suddenly, old- fashioned industrial action, "Scabs out!" and all, is staging a renaissance.

"I'm just pacing up and down in here every day, waiting for some news on the radio," admits John Morris, 44. Like most of the men - and their fathers - he has known nothing but life on the dock, and five months on strike, despite high morale, have been long and unnerving.

"He sits there biting his nails," says his wife, Ann, 44. "Sometimes he just won't speak. The other day, my son Lee was really on a downer and saying to him, `Dad, be quiet, I'm fed up listening to you talking all the time.' Just joking, like, because his dad hadn't spoken for two days."

From an annual income of about pounds 20,000, the family has had to adjust for the first time to social security. "I'm scared to spend money," John says. "The first time I went up the dole office it was degrading. Having to see them people up there, and they made you feel like you were begging or something." Suddenly, adds Ann, "we were `our poor John and Ann' in the family. And we were always the ones with a good job."

For Ann's friend Colette, 34, with three youngsters and a husband on strike, the financial strain is beginning to tell. "One of my boys hasn't had a new coat for two years, but he wants one that costs pounds 200. Well, we can't be buying that, but he was out in the snow last week in just his blazer and, you know, you just feel so guilty."

There is a predictable reluctance among the families to volunteer tales of hardship. Morale is all, and at times there is more than a touch of the Stepford Wives about those who have set up the support group Women on the Waterfront. Their marches, vigils, rallies and unerring commitment have been crucial to maintaining the strike's momentum. As with the miners' wives of the Eighties, the strike has thrown up energy and talents previously unimagined.

But beneath the bullish enthusiasm come accounts of children mortified by the stigma of free school meals; of confusion and shame in DSS offices; of embarrassment in high-street shops; of outstanding debt ("that three- piece suite - I'd waited 15 years for it"); of having to take part of a disabled son's benefit for the housekeeping.

How, then, has the strike survived this long without even union backing? A peace offer from the MDHC of pounds 25,000, full pension rights and re-employment for 40 men was rejected by postal ballot two weeks ago, by a margin of more than five to one. For the many men near retirement age it was an attractive offer. Loyalty to younger dockers put it out of the question.

There is a powerful sense that only in Liverpool would the men have gone out on what seemed a poignant but futile gesture, and only in Liverpool could they have survived. "You cut your cloth accordingly" is a phrase the dockers are all proudly familiar with. Donations arrive at Transport House in Liverpool, from pounds 1 from a pensioner to several thousands from foreign unions. The city centre is spattered with posters advertising "Grab a Docker Night", one of the many fundraising events where facilities have been given free. At Christmas, a turkey was brought down to the picket line.

"At a dinner before Christmas, I told the lady sitting next to me that my husband was a striking docker," says Trisha MacInally, a mother of four. "She put her hand in her bag and gave me pounds 5. I had never met the woman before in my life."

There is a hint, even among the dockers themselves, of some surprise at the endurance and achievements of the strike. "At first, we thought we had made a heroic stand but a ghastly mistake," admits Geoff Liddy, a docker for 27 years, just back from rallying support in Greece. Now they believe that if delegates from 20 foreign dockers' unions, who have been meeting in the city's council chambers this week (a venue provided free, to the fury of the MDHC), can go back to their ports and black every boat that passes through the hands of Liverpool scab labour, the MDHC will have no choice but to get rid of that labour and reinstate the men.

"There's a phrase you hear a lot in Liverpool," says a taxi driver as we pass along the waterfront. "It's `there's nothing down for us'. It means there's nothing doing, it's no good to us. It comes from the days when dockers were casual labour - when you were put in the pens every morning, and a man in a bowler hat picked you out. If there was no work for you that day - well, `there's nothing down for us'."

Perhaps it is the fact that Mersey dockers still hold a central place in the city's culture and consciousness that has sustained the strike. Their historic fight in the Sixties against casual labour played a defining role in the city's romance with workers' solidarity, and this latest strike evokes all the old, emotive images of casual work.

It may also be due partly to the fact that the men have nowhere else to go. Lifelong dockers in their forties and fifties are, by their own admission, unemployable. "We've got nothing to lose now," shrugs John Morris. "If we don't win this, there's nothing down for us."