No going back at Liverpool docks

Pickets fight on despite two years of TUC and Labour indifference, reports Ros Wynne-Jones
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The Independent Online
At the Gladstone gate of Liverpool docks, the morning's freight is already backed up to the horizon, stationary lorries and containers glittering in the September sunshine. Passage into the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company (MDHC) is blocked by a picket of 60 men standing quietly in front of the gates.

The scene is like one from 1979, but this was last week. The Liverpool dockers have been standing here every day for two years, blocking this and the other two gates to the MDHC for up to an hour before the riot vans of the Merseyside Police operational support division arrive to move them on. Then they stand accusingly on the pavement, watching the men who now do their jobs passing through the gates to work, reminding the MDHC control tower that they haven't gone away.

Two years old next Saturday, the dispute, which began when five men were sacked and led to 500 losing their jobs, is one of the longest running in the world.

The reasons for the length of the strike are many. There is the militant history of trade unionism in the area, and the fact that there are no other jobs for the men to go to. There is the backdrop of dock life, rooted in the days when the waterfront employed thousands of men who spent a lifetime there, as did their fathers. But, more than that, there is the power of culture, which on Merseyside transforms a picket into a barrier it is almost genetically impossible to cross. The men were sacked because they chose not to break a local sacred rule: in Liverpool you never cross a picket line.

"It's in our blood," says Kevin Robinson, a shop steward. "Never cross a picket line. My father, his father, my two uncles fought for better conditions on the docks. Some men gave their lives. We can't go and throw those hard-won rights away, sell out the future generations."

On 25 September 1995, 328 men who worked at the Torside gate of the docks formed a picket line after five men were sacked following an overtime dispute. Next day, others coming in to work, some of them the fathers of the Torside workers, refused to cross it.

There was no strike ballot - they simply turned around and went home. Without a ballot, the strike was declared unofficial by the Transport and General Workers Union. This position was confirmed, to the dockers' dismay, by the TUC conference earlier this month. The Labour government, meanwhile, despite appeals to the leadership and the party's old left, has apparently no intention of reversing the anti-trade union legislation enacted by the Conservative administration.

This is a strike that few believe the dockers can win. Yet they are still here, day in, day out, costing the MDHC millions of pounds in lost hours and late shipments, "stepping on the management's toes". Bobby Morton, who worked for nearly 30 years on the docks, says: "I would look at it another way. It is a fight we cannot lose. For ourselves, for our children, for trade unionism." At least, say the dockers, the MDHC is still making them "final" offers. The most recent was of pounds 28,000 for each man, but the men, many of whom are now so close to retirement they will not work again anyway, declined. "We want our jobs back," says Tony Nelson. "We don't want their money." Men from outside who took the 40 jobs are already being laid off, he says.

Senior MDHC managers were unavailable for comment last week, but a company statement said: "We have made an offer of pounds 28,000 ... our position remains exactly the same."

The dockers may not have mainstream political support, but help has come from unusual quarters. Last week, 30 ports throughout the world stopped work for 24 hours in solidarity, paralysing the US East Coast. Money comes in steadily from South Africa, where trade unionists remember the dockers' support of their activists during the apartheid era. Last week a former miner's wife, aged 84, turned up at the picket line with the savings her late husband had left her for emergencies, to give to the dockers' families. Young people from the new-roads protest movement, including Reclaim the Streets, have been to Liverpool to occupy the MDHC offices. But it is the dockers' bitter heritage which has kept the dispute running for 650 days.

Jane Kennedy, a lecturer in social policy at Liverpool University and co-author of Solidarity on the Waterfront: The Liverpool Docks Lock Out, says an understanding of dock life is vital. "An unusual aspect of this dispute is the role played by culture," she says. "The collective history of the docks - an organised, solid, militant history - may no longer be based in a geographical community, but it is still very powerful. Without the unquestioning support of the community, I doubt the dispute could have continued this long."

Ms Kennedy is wary of invoking Liverpudlian stereotypes, "whether the happy-smile comedian or the lazy, feckless scouser", but she believes there is a unique cultural identity on Merseyside. "For decades, Liverpool has effectively been a city under siege," she says. "It has suffered years of severe poverty and unemployment, coupled with ridicule from the rest of Britain. Their past has given them a sense of solidarity, attaching a `strong under adversity' label to the city. In 1989, Liverpool was the last city to give up the strike during the National Dock Labour dispute. It is no coincidence."

Crucial to this solidarity is the political involvement of women in the dispute, which Ms Kennedy believes is unique in the history of trade unionism. Women had a role in the miners' strike, bringing food, attending the pickets, addressing rallies. But the dockers' wives, girlfriends, aunts and mothers have surpassed that contribution. The organisation Women of the Waterfront, or WoW, was formed initially as a support group.

Today, WoW, which last week provoked national outrage by accepting a human-rights award of pounds 30,000 from the Libyan government, has taken on an overtly politicised role, sending women who had previously never spoken in public on national and international speaking tours, debating issues related to the strike, holding its own vigils and all-women pickets.

"You wouldn't believe it," says one docker, gesturing at the closed door of the WoW meeting room in the TGWU's Liverpool headquarters, "but they're not talking about knitting patterns in there, you know, they're having a proper political meeting. I sometimes think they're more organised than the men."

Inside, one woman says she comes for the support and to find out what's going on the dispute because her husband doesn't tell her. Other women are sharing their experiences, of how hard it is for the children queuing for free school meals, how the bailiffs came to repossess their cars or houses or property, how they've got pounds 2 to last to the end of the week. The striking men are entitled to no benefit. Then the women put their hands into their near-empty pockets for a collection for Bosnia.

A batch of European Union emergency supplies has arrived, tins of stewed steak are dished out. "It's probably horsemeat," calls out one woman. "No," shouts back another woman, "that's chopped scabs in a can, that is ... I wish."

Another woman says that the day before she had got into her car determined to "go round to every scab's house and say to them, look what you're doing to us" but she burst into tears and went home instead.

"It is very, very hard for everyone," says Jimmy Nolan, chairman of the shop stewards, "but don't you worry about us. We'll be all right, we've no pain left, we've nothing left to lose. You worry about this country when people aren't allowed to refuse to cross a picket line. We'll still be here for as long as it takes to get our jobs back. We've nowhere else to go."

Dockers' second anniversary rally: Saturday 27 September, 12.30pm, Myrtle Parade, Liverpool.