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Liverpool was once the strongest union port in Britain, a country where all dockworkers were unionized for over 100 years. Under past Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, however, British ports were turned over to private companies. Dockworkers, who had been public employees, then became employees of individual private employers. In the process, recognition was withdrawn from the unions, and almost all were destroyed. Today, every port in Britain is non-union.
On September 29, 1995 the speedup and tumbling wages which followed privatization drove 500 workers to strike the Mersey Dock and Harbour Company. They were all promptly fired and replaced. Their strike became a cause celebre among dockers fighting privatization around the world.
In the last decade, privatization of ports has spread to Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and elsewhere. In most cases, the process has led to mass layoffs, the destruction of unions, and declining wages and working conditions. In some cases, as in the Mexican port of Veracruz in 1989, privatization has been carried out at the point of a gun.
Once their strike started, dockers from Liverpool fanned out to ports around the world. First setting up picket lines on Philadelphia wharves, they won the support of east coast dockworkers. Their message then met a sympathetic response in San Francisco, where longshoremen have a long tradition of stopping work in support of workers in other countries. A year ago, they refused to unload the Neptune Jade, a ship loaded in Britain by the struck company. The vessel then traveled up the west coast, even returning to Japan, seeking a crew which would move its cargo.
Despite worldwide support, however, the Liverpool dockers could win little support from their own labor movement. When the new Labor government of Tony Blair took office, it too sat on its hands, as the workers were eventually forced to concede defeat. The Liverpool struggle become a watershed event for British labor activists, like the passage of NAFTA in the U.S. A gulf is growing between the political parties built with workers votes, as they pursue neoliberal policies of privatization and labor reform, and the movements of workers.
Mike Carden is one of the sacked Liverpool dockworkers and a member of the general executive council of the Transport and General Workers Union. He represents the northwest region of England, which includes over 100,000 members. In this interview, he explains how the dockers look back on their own struggle.
DAVID BACON: Tell us how the Liverpool dock strike was resolved.
MIKE CARDEN: At the conclusion of the dispute a number of workers received pension entitlements, and there was a severance payment for 70 percent of them. Effectively, it was a financial settlement for a majority of the dockworkers, although over 100 workers were excluded from that process.
So when you say a settlement, essentially people were given severance pay in return for renouncing any claim to their jobs?
That's precisely the situation, yes.
How many people did that affect, apart from the 100 people who didn't get any severance?
Just over 350.
So who is actually working on the docks right now in Liverpool?
In the container area right now there are about 160 to 170 strikebreakers. The scabs are employed by Drake International, an offshore company with a known history of providing labor in strike- breaking situations. The scabs work on a per container basis, and they're more or less permanent labor because that type of operation demands it. Those who work the rest of the breakbulk cargoes in Liverpool are casual. They hide in pubs until they're hired on an as- and when-required basis.
So the strikebreakers are also residents of Liverpool?
They were brought in from the southern part of England. Some of them had a military background with the Territorial Army, which I believe is the equivalent of your National Guard. That was the first wave.
Subsequently more and more people from Liverpool and the northwest region were brought in. That more or less makes up the labor force now.
Could you compare the situation of those workers, in terms of pay and job rights, with the way things were at the time Liverpool was a union port, especially for your members?
Before the dispute we had imposed on us a contract whereby workers were hired and fired as the work presented itself, although they were still permanent employees. That led to massive problems in terms of social time for the workers. People were on call for the company 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The rates of pay were still, in my opinion, reasonable.
It's very difficult to be factual about the situation now because we get very little information from inside the port. But the rates of pay are certainly less than what dockworkers received prior to their dismissal. I think the contract is definitely a lot harsher. We know there are problems within the port, and this scab labor force is looking to be unionized—they actually want to be recruited into the Transport and General Workers Union.
Is the economic difference, the difference in wages and productivity, so great that the primary motivation in breaking the union was economic or were there other motives and other factors responsible for the attack against the workers?
I think there were a number of complex issues involved. It wasn't just the economics, and it certainly wasn't the productivity of the sacked Liverpool dockworkers. That was never questioned by the employer. They said we were the most productive dockers in Europe. Two weeks later, in September 1995, we were dismissed.
A number of things were happening in the port. The contract that had been imposed on the dockworkers was failing. Rather than blame themselves, managers sought to blame the workforce. We had the young Torside dockworkers [a new workforce of young workers contracted in the port, some of whom were children of existing dockworkers—ed.] becoming more aggressive in their demand for equal status—for permanency and for the establishment of a proper pension scheme, including holiday pay and sick pay.
The militancy of the workers was rising daily. The more aggressive the employer became the more aggressive the workers became.
The strike was portrayed internationally as the last stand of British dockworkers against port privatization, against the effort of the British government to complete privatization of the docks, and by implication, the rest of British industry. It was seen by both sides as symbolic of much more than the particular jobs of the individual people involved, sort of an “are we going to go forward with privatization or not” issue.
I think that is the case, especially following de-recognition [of the union] and privatization [of the port] in 1989.
With the election of a labor government, we clearly hoped the dock industry would be reorganized and re-unionized, and permanent labor would return to most of the major ports in the UK. But I think it's now clear that the process of privatization has become so powerful that opposition to it is seen as futile. That message struck home to a lot of trade unionists, particularly in our own city of Liverpool. Many of them are now working for privatized industry such as Ford, and Vauxhall [big auto companies—ed.].
So why was the strike lost?
The trade union movement, and the Transport and General Workers, made it perfectly clear throughout the struggle that they had no intention of facilitating practical support for the Liverpool dockworkers. That had international ramifications with the International Transport Workers federation and other trade unions. Because our strike had been ruled illegal, and they therefore said they couldn't get involved.
That was the most damaging thing that hung over our heads throughout the dispute.
Strikers didn't get the kind of support from their union that workers have the right to expect. But at the time the strike concluded there was a Labor government in power. Why wasn't the Labor government willing to intervene, especially considering the high profile nature of the struggle?
That was one of the easiest things the government could have done. The government is the major shareholder in the Mersey Docks and Harbor Company [the dockworkers' employer which provoked the strike—ed.]. It had every right to intervene, and say, “Look, what's happened here is clearly unfair. There are illegal labor practices being carried out in the port of Liverpool.” The Mersey Docks and Harbor Company was still nearly a nationalized industry. It had benefitted from taxpayers' money during numerous economic crises. The government had every right to intervene. It chose not to. I think the actions of the government concerning the Liverpool dockers shows the direction it wants to move in.
But why? Is this a case that unions no longer carry the same political weight inside the Labor Party or that the unions weren't trying to push the Labor Party and the Blair government to arrive at such a solution?
Well, my personal opinion, based on over 20 years of experience both in the Labor Party and in the Transport and General Workers Union, is that they've abrogated any responsibility. The unions have bought right into the Labor government's policies of partnership with employers, of giving to industry everything they demand. The unions could have put pressure on the Labor government. I still think they've got a tremendous influence to wield, when you look at the membership in some UK industries. But they chose not to do that, because of their views about the working class, and how they see their own role as leaders of unions. To them, their role of representing workers is exactly the same as the perception of the Labor government, which is partnership. Conflict doesn't exist. At the end of the day the employer is always right. Representing employers' needs seems to be the priority, not the representation of the working class.
Is there a sense in the leadership of the British labor movement, or at least in a big section of it, that the privatization of British industry, the economic changes, and the changes in British labor law that were instituted under Margaret Thatcher are irreversible?
The reality is they see the government has no intention of changing any of the labor laws. It sees it as beneficial to the country, beneficial to business, that workers should not have the right to withdraw their labor. I think Labor's actions speak volumes.
During the strike, there were a number of actions by longshore workers in other countries, who looked at what was happening to dockers in Liverpool and, aside from the human sympathy they felt, clearly sensed that what was happening in Liverpool could happen and was happening in other places. Did the dockers in Liverpool see their struggle as primarily a local battle or as part of a much larger struggle?
Well, we certainly felt the situation in England faced by the Liverpool dockworkers would have implications for other dock- workers throughout the world. Obviously, the shipowners that use Liverpool are the same ones that use U.S., Australian, or European ports. If an organized port like Liverpool could be dismantled, and companies given access to a non-unionized, deregulated port, that would have implications for their costs. They would obviously want the same thing in well-organized, disciplined ports like those in Australia.
The Australian dockworkers strike began soon after the situation in Liverpool concluded. Now it looks like a possibility on the U.S. west coast, where the Pacific Maritime Association [the ship- owners' association—ed.] wants to implement some of the same drastic measures other ports have adopted.
Do you think dockworkers in other countries were influenced by what happened in Liverpool?
Yes. There's a long history of solidarity between ports, across the world. We had relationships before this strike began, strong union relationships on a rank-and-file level, with dockworkers in France and Australia. We know that the work is the same work, that the struggle is the same struggle. That was brought home during the course of the Liverpool dock- workers dispute.
What's happened to the dock- workers since the conclusion of the strike?
Half the dockworkers were able to retire from work because of their age. In a city like Liverpool, where there's massive unemployment, it would be very difficult for those people to work again, especially after having been through a two and a half year strike.
The same situation didn't pertain to another 200 to 250 dockworkers who aren't old enough to qualify for pensions or are ineligible because they didn't have a pension scheme. All those workers are still unemployed. One or two have found jobs, but the employment they find is at low rates of pay, with long hours.
What is the unemployment rate now in Liverpool?
Unemployment is the highest in Europe. Liverpool and Belfast qualify for “objective one” status, in terms of European aid, because of the high level of unemployment and social deprivation. In certain parts of Liverpool, unemployment is as high as 25-30 percent. In one or two areas, we're talking about a third generation of unemployment.
The work is not there. That's one of the dilemmas that not just dockworkers, but large numbers of people in the community of the Merseyside, have to contend with on a daily basis.
When you talk about third generation, you're talking about three generations in a family that have been more or less permanently unemployed since the first generation lost whatever job they were working at?
That's precisely the situation. I know from personal experience in one area, the Kairby district of Liverpool, it's normal that children growing up have never known their mother or father or uncle to have had employment. That's a whole culture developing there, where unemployment is seen as the norm and employment is seen as most unusual.
You're not painting a very bright prospect as far as the ability of dockworkers, at least those too young to retire, getting jobs at all, much less jobs paying anything like those lost on the dockside.
That is the situation. Since the end of the dispute we've formed a cooperative based around learning, reskilling, and using information technology, particularly in the area of the creative arts. European analysis has come up with the idea that employment possibilities are better in the creative arts. A local Liverpool economic assessment has identified the arts as being a major area of growth and opportunity. So we're examining these possibilities.
We don't actually know whether to believe it, but the one thing we've clearly come to understand is that there needs to be a radically new way of thinking about the situation of the unemployed. Where you can't guarantee employment, maybe you have to stop talking about unemployment and start talking about people having their own skills and their own rights. We need to give people access, not only to education services, but services in the work sector generated within the community on a cooperative basis. Maybe the so-called unemployed can exchange their skills as a swap or some other system.
Liverpool dockers, along with a number of other community groups, are examining new ways of addressing long-term unemployment. We believe that it's more radical and more helpful than people standing in dole queues for six months, because after six months they get kicked off anyway. Then, although they supposedly get means tested benefits [equivalent to welfare—ed.], most people receive no benefits whatsoever.
From what you describe, I take it that at least a certain percentage of the dockworkers are staying together and have chosen to form some organization. Do they continue to play a political role in the life of the community in Liverpool?
Yes. Approximately 250 dock- workers have signed up for the cooperative. At the moment we don't have any money to pay them, but we still meet on a monthly basis. We report back on various projects. We're working on a CD-ROM that's a history of the Liverpool docks dispute. We've got dockworkers on digital film projects, learning those techniques. We're looking toward having a building in the city center, which we've more or less acquired, but which we don't have the money to pay for. The city council is waiting for the first bill to be paid, and they'll have to wait a little longer. We know an awful lot of businesses who've acquired buildings in the city center and haven't paid a penny for them, so we don't see ourselves as any different.
What do you think has been the long-term impact of this struggle on the workers?
We believe some of the projects we're working on will identify the Liverpool dockers' struggle as a turning point in our community and a turning point in the political life of the working class here.
It highlighted some of the major failings of the British labor movement. Why didn't the trade union movement here support the Liverpool dockers? Because our leaders don't support workers in struggle. People feel more free now to talk about this failure of unions to really represent the rank-and-file. I've been a member of the union for 27 years. I remember that when people had criticism of the union, it was always in the background and never open. Over the last ten years that type of debate has been on the table.
I think a lot of good will come out of the dockworkers struggle. I certainly don't think it will never reappear. The struggle of the working class will continue for rights and for justice. I think our struggle will be remembered as an important event in global trade unionism, not just unionism in the UK. The people who supported us were the longshoremen on the west coast of America, the longshoremen on the east coast, the Australian dock- workers, and the dockworkers in Europe. They showed what support meant, and physically they gave it. Z
David Bacon is a freelance photographer and labor journalist.