Foreign unions rally to port in a storm

Sacked Liverpool dock workers have organised an international boycott to damage their former employer as Mersey's share price collapses
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The Independent Online
ON A murky Merseyside morning three sacked dockers chat amiably in front of a burning brazier. Between them, they have almost a century's experience working on the waterfront. For the past four months, though, they have stood outside the same dock gates, huddled around the same makeshift fire, watching the same lorries and containers they have unloaded countless times go in and out of the port.

Only at dawn and dusk does the action hot up. Then they join a mass picket of several hundred sacked colleagues to hurl abuse at workers clocking on and off escorted by police.

It could be a throwback to the 70s. A car passes by, tooting its horn in a gesture of support. Graffiti on a wharf wall proclaims: "Scabs out". There have been reports of intimidation of non-strikers and outside recruits involving the daubing of houses and damage to cars.

But Cliff, 30 years a Liverpool docker, is keen to play down any extremist overtones. "We're not militant. We just want our old jobs back." It's been a good week for the dockers, possibly their best since the bitter industrial dispute began last September when Mersey Docks & Harbour Company, owner and operator of the Port of Liverpool, dismissed 320 workers for refusing to cross a picket line set up by 80 men sacked from a nearby cargo area. While talks between the harbour company and the Transport & General Workers Union continue, the workers have enlisted the backing of dockers' unions from around the world to boycott ships using Liverpool ports.

Such solidarity is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the protracted stalemate. Although secondary picketing is illegal in Britain, and the dispute could not be official because no ballot was held, dockers have staged legal secondary protests in America.

The pressure has prompted the US shipping giant, Atlantic Container Line (ACL), Mersey Docks' biggest customer, to issue an ultimatum that it will leave Liverpool unless the lock-out is settled soon. The threat followed strike action against ACL's ships by New York dockers in support of their sacked Mersey colleagues.

The sympathy action has extended to a Belgian customer, ABC Containerline, which has also threatened to take its business elsewhere after the Maritime Union of Australia delayed one of ABC's ships in Sydney Harbour.

"We're getting more support from overseas - from America, Australia and even Israel - than we are getting in this country," says Cliff. He notes how the big shipping companies operate globally. "It's time for us to do the same."

Mersey Docks' tactic of sacking the workers first and facing the consequences later was another highly unusual move. It certainly took the dockers completely by surprise.

"I've been on strike before," says Billy, a relative novice with 25 years under his belt. "But I've never been sacked."

Two weeks before handing out the P45s, Billy recalls how management told Lloyd's List, the bible of the shipping industry, that they were the best dockers in Europe.

New contracts were even offered as recently as last May. Billy's point is soon underlined when Mick Cullen, a former shop steward, is overheard telling a Radio Merseyside phone-in: "You don't offer a two-year pay deal to a bad workforce. It's all about bad management."

It is not the first time Mersey Docks has become embroiled in controversy. In 1993, it bought Medway Ports for pounds 100m, making Medway's chief executive Peter Vincent a multi-millionaire overnight. He had made a killing three months before the takeover when he bought more than 100,000 Medway shares from other Medway directors. The controversy was compounded when it emerged that sacked dock workers were forced to sell Medway shares for just pounds 2.50 on the back of a valuation from KPMG Peat Marwick shortly before Mersey's pounds 37.25 per share offer. Compensation claims are still being pursued. Mr Vincent resigned from Mersey's board and relinquished executive responsibilities with the group in April 1994.

Now Mersey is back in the headlines again. A sudden burst of national media interest has lifted the dockers' spirits, but they remain cautious. They fear Mersey Docks' refusal to meet their demands for full re-instatement indicates a hidden agenda: the reintroduction of casual labour.

Under the National Dock Labour Scheme introduced after the 1967 strike, a national register of dockers was set up with clearly defined rights and status. In effect, it amounted to a job for life. Although the scheme was abolished in 1989, Mersey Docks has given repeated assurances there would be no return to casual labour. It is a claim the dockers, most of whom are in their 40s and 50s, find hard to accept as they watch younger, more flexible and cheaper labour supplied by an outside contractor being bussed in daily to do their old jobs. The sacked workers have been told they must apply for work in competition with new recruits if they wish to be taken on again.

"The employer only wants to pay you when the ships are in," says Mr. Cullen. "All we see all over the country is the cancerous spread of contract labour."

A Mersey Docks & Harbour Company spokesman said: "Mersey Docks has never employed casual labour and has no intention of doing so. That issue is a complete red herring." Whatever the motives behind the stand-off, the dispute is beginning to take its toll on both sides. The longer the war of attrition goes on, the more training and experience the new recruits gain and the harder it becomes for the sacked dockers to return to work.

Increasingly, it looks as if the sacked men may have worked their last days at the port. So far they have been offered just pounds 10,000 in compensation for loss of office and pension rights.

As for Mersey Docks, where the Government still holds a 13.9 per cent stake, the dispute is also beginning to bite. According to the Liverpool Daily Post, analysts reckon the company is losing pounds 400,000 a week in profits. The company spokesman declined to disclose the full financial impact of the dispute because the company is in its close season ahead of reporting full-year results. But he went on to claim that productivity at the port had improved substantially since the dispute began, and that despite the threats and support for the dockers from abroad, no customers have been lost so far.

Perhaps Mersey's collapsing share price tells the real story. At one stage last week, more than pounds 70m had been wiped off its stock market valuation since the shares started to slide in value when the dispute began four months ago.

Any further selling pressure in the coming weeks is bound to concentrate management's minds wonderfully and only hasten a settlement to one of the most bizarre and damaging disputes in recent industrial relations history.