Pickets' last stand in Liverpool docks

A bitter industrial dispute reminiscent of the 1970s is being played out by the Mersey, writes Decca Aitkenhead
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The Independent Online
LIVERPOOL'S Albert Dock, all tastefully renovated warehouses and gleaming quays, is the showy centrepiece of a troubled maritime city's efforts to reinvent itself for post-industrial days. It has been home since 1988 to Granada Television's This Morning. Millions tune in each day. What they do not see - nor do we read or hear about - are the ugly scenes going on daily just a mile along the waterfront, in the heart of the old, grizzled dockland. Merseyside dockers are encamped in a long and desperate battle - probably their last - and nobody seems to have noticed.

Ten weeks ago, a picket line was set up at the Royal Seaforth dock by 80 men sacked from the neighbouring cargo area. Seaforth's 320 dockers, men in their forties and fifties who had worked on the docks all their lives, would not cross it. Two days later they were fired. They have been huddled around makeshift fires at the gates ever since.

The first mention of the dispute in the national press came last week in a letter, printed in various newspapers, from four Scottish novelists, among them Booker Prize winner James Kelman. They alleged a conspiracy of silence imposed by a "gentlemen's agreement" between John Major and Tony Blair. "Can you," they asked, "open your pages to a discussion of the matter?" This, they suggest, is less the dispute that Britain forgot than one that workers' erstwhile parliamentary allies do not want us to hear about.

The scene on the picket line at dusk is not one to be found in any Blairite vision. Against a backdrop of crumbling warehouses, rearing gantries and rusted hulls, 100 or so men are lined up, screaming abuse. Workers leaving the dock are escorted by police through a roar of whistles, car horns, and chants of "Scab!" as the sacked men vent their fury and frustration. The scene will be repeated at dawn next morning, and each day after, for as long - they say - as it takes to get their jobs back.

At the root of the dispute is the dockers' belief that the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company is trying to reintroduce casual labour. In 1967, following an infamous strike, the National Dock Labour Scheme was introduced to create a national register of dockers with clearly defined status and rights. The scheme was abolished in 1989, but the MDHC gave assurances that there would be no return to casual labour. Many of the men on the picket line vividly recall life before 1967.

"We were put in pens on the docks, and you were hired with a tap on the shoulder. If your face didn't fit, there was no work. If you were picked, you worked the morning, then you were back in the pens at lunch," says Joe, a Liverpool docker for 32 years. His memories strike an emotive chord among a workforce comprised mainly of the sons and grandsons of dockers.

"I remember the terrible states my father used to come home in," says Derek Reardon, another picketer. "What he fought for with all those men was better conditions for their sons. I don't want my kids coming into the kind of working life he suffered - we are not going to have everything he fought for taken away from us, just because that's how society thinks men should have to live today."

After 1989, the MDHC continued - alone among port managments across Britain - to recognise the dockers' union, the Transport and General Workers'. But relations grew increasingly strained with the introduction of 12-hour shifts.

It was an overtime dispute at a neighbouring port company, Torside, that sparked the trouble. More than 80 men were sacked in late September after refusing to work overtime for which they claimed they were not being paid.

Two days after they set up their picket line, the Seaforth men were dismissed, in letters delivered to their homes, for refusing to cross it.

"We all met here at the gates. We are Liverpool people, and dock workers. We believe in solidarity. We do not cross a picket line," says Brian Roberts, a shop steward and a docker for 25 years.

He and the men claim that Torside and the MDHC conspired to engineer the dispute, in order to oust them and make way for the introduction of casual labour.

It is a charge that Bernard Cliff, director of port operations for MDHC, denies. When he sacked the 320 men, 200 were immediately offered new contracts - but these were personal contracts, non-negotiable with the union. The vast majority have refused to sign, and instead chose to join the picketing beneath his boardroom window.

"We will never employ casual labour," r Cliff says. "That's not what this is about. This whole problem has happened because there are men out there with their own agenda. They made sure a picket line went up, because for a man to cross a picket line is to go against his colleagues and his community.

"We are talking about people who have been conditioned to expect special protection. They cannot accept that they have to become like everyone else. They are looking to be unique, to enjoy the privileges they had under the National Dock Labour Scheme, and they think that is theirs of right, because of their history."

In many ways, the dockers outside would agree. Not that their rights were special, but that a history of labour should entitle workers to some distinct status. That Merseyside dockers occupy a curiously romantic place in Britain's social and industrial history is as much a source of strength to them as it is of frustration to the management - and, also, disquiet to the T&GWU.

The union cannot support the action, as no ballot was taken. The dockers say this was because they were sacked before they had the chance. But union bosses understand only too well that the potency of the striking docker in Liverpool is a profoundly alien image in the modern Labour Party.

"The whole culture has shifted - the concept of fighting for your job has been marginalised, and the Labour Party is as much a part of that now as anyone," according to Tom Leonard, one of the authors of the letter to the press.

The men enjoy the support of local church leaders and MPs and, by and large, the city of Liverpool, but how long they can remained camped at the dock gates - most of them without social security - while the rest of the country ignores their fight, is doubtful.

Could they accept that there is no conspiracy of silence but something at once both less sinister and more devastating for them. There is no need for a conspiracy - their action is as impotent now as, in 1967, it was irresistible. Asked what hope the men have of getting their jobs back, Mr Cliff says: "Their posts are being filled by newcomers now. The world has moved on." He is talking about the past 10 weeks. He could be talking about the past 20 years.