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Mersey dockers vote to end 28-month dispute

After one of the longest industrial conflicts in recent history, Mersey dockers yesterday finally called a halt to their 28-month-old dispute. Barrie Clement, Labour Editor, argues that the deal accepted by the port workers gave them less than an earlier offer.

A mass meeting of Liverpool dockers yesterday voted by four to one to accept up to pounds 28,000 a man in settlement of their dispute with the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company (MDHC).

Management calculates that the offer, aimed at putting a stop to the daily picket line which the dockers have mounted at the harbour entrance, will cost the company around pounds 10m.

The industrial action began on 28 September 1995 when 329 port workers refused to cross a picket line mounted by 80 colleagues who had been dismissed from another company.

Trevor Furlong, managing director of MDHC, said he was pleased the dispute had come to an end "for the sake of our shareholders, employees and Merseyside in general". The company's shares finished 6.5p up on the day at 497.5p.

Arguably, the peace formula was inferior - from the dockers' point of view - to proposals tabled by the company last October, but which they rejected by two to one. As part of yesterday's settlement the company offered to consider the former dockers for any vacancies that might occur. Last year's offer, withdrawn after its rejection, involved a specific plan to make 40 jobs available on top of the pounds 28,000 cash settlement. The jobs plan was taken off the table after it became increasingly clear to the company that the business could operate without them.

It is understood the latest moves came after dockers' shop stewards concluded their fight for the reinstatement of all the dismissed men was a lost cause. "They had been under an awful lot of pressure and it was absolutely clear there was no prospect of them winning the dispute. Their only strategy was to show determination, but it became clear that determination was not enough," said one union source.

Dockers' leaders contacted the Transport and General Workers' Union (TGWU) who then put pressure on the company to make a fresh gesture.

From the first day of the dispute the port workers picketed the harbour and managed to secure solidarity action by dockers in other countries. Management originally tabled a formula worth pounds 10,000 a head.

The TGWU never declared the dispute "official" because the men failed to hold a ballot before withdrawing their labour and were therefore taking unlawful action. But the TGWU has contributed heavily to a hardship fund set up to help the dockers' families.