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Working-class solidarity: how British dockers built it and how they lost it , 17 Dec, 2009

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Nothing will ever efface for me the memory of my first real strike — on the Salford docks — the first time I saw my class acting as a surging, uncontrolled force breaking the banks of routine capitalist industrial life and, for a while, pitting itself against those who control our lives.

Docks strikes were quick and frequent then, in the mid-’60s. Dockers fought back; they stood together. Lord Devlin’s Commission of Enquiry into conditions in the ports reported that to get a strike going in Liverpool often all that was needed was somebody running down the quays shouting “everybody out.” Dockers would stop to see who was in dispute, who needed support, what it was all about. That was essentially a true picture. It was not only true of Liverpool. And there was nothing senseless or mindless about it.

Imagine the scene on Salford docks. The Manchester Ship Canal, a deep, wide, man-made waterway linking Manchester to the sea, 30 miles away; ships tied up along the quays as far as the eye can see; towering cranes forming an endlessly stretching picket, lining the edge of the water. Just behind the cranes, railway tracks and wagons being loaded or unloaded; behind the rail lines, a roadway with lorries moving and parked, loading and unloading; at the far side of the road, multi-storied warehouses stretching as far as the eye can see in a parallel line to the ships.

Cranes dip delicately into the hatch-uncovered ships, lifting, or depositing heavy loads, moving from ship to warehouse and back again, high above the road and the rail line. Plying wrought steel hooks formed like question marks crossed at right angles on the base by a wooden handle, dockers move bags and crates, direct the movement on slings of long bars of steel, or motor cars, load and unload railway wagons; a barge here and there is being loaded in the water on the other side of a ship.

Into this hive of hard alienated work the call for a stoppage comes and explodes like a slow-motion bomb, changing everything.

First there is the news that there is a strike, that some men have stopped work. Word spreads. Nobody knows for certain exactly why, or what the issue is. What is known is that those dockers who do know, the men involved, think action is necessary, and that they have stopped work. This is done often, but everybody knows, despite idiotic witch-hunt stories in the press, it is not done lightly. The men who have come out know why and they need support. They are entitled to support! You know they would support you. The place to find out what it is about and whether they deserve support is at the mass meeting on “the croft” — waste ground — outside one of the dock gates. Let’s go there!

I no longer remember the issue, but I will never forget the sight of it, the first time I saw it and took part in it. Word spreads; dockers see others stopping, suddenly, in the middle of the working day; they too stop and come out on to the roadway. Men in battered, ragged old clothes and headgear, stained by age and chemical dust. A few men wearing company·issue blue overalls: they have been on some especially dirty cargo — blacking or asbestos — which saturates your clothes, skin and hair because bags always burst. Dock-hooks are slung over the curve of shoulders or hooked in belts or lapels. Men trickle out from the warehouses; others who have climbed up out of deep ships’ holds far below the water line, come down the gangplank in Indian file out of the ships. Crane drivers climb stiffly down the tall iron ladders from their cabins in the sky. Some men in the throng are far better dressed than dockers — checkers/tally clerks. Before long there is a great teeming, wide, growing stream of men on the roadway — 2,000 dockers work in this port — talking, laughing, gesticulating, cheerful at the excitement, the break in the monotony, the respite. Eisenstein in bright sunlight, and no fear of Cossacks, or of the mounted police Prime Minister Thatcher would send against miners in the 80s.

That first time, it reminded me of the great crowds of people coming out from 12 o’clock Mass in our west of Ireland town, Ennis. Quite a few other Salford dockers had also been in such processions in such towns. Here solidarity was God!

Walking in that great mass of workers asserting themselves, you got an inkling of the human strength that powered the port and the whole economy. You felt the reality and the potential of these minds and hands without which nothing moved — the muscles and the brains of thinking, reflecting human beings trapped in wage slavery who had come to know — most of them only partly to know — their collective power, and who already felt and acted according to the high ethic of solidarity which socialists who work to cultivate it know to be the seed of a new and better civilisation. When action becomes necessary, solidarity effaces personal rivalries and conflicts, job-jealousies, old pub brawls, politics, religion, race (in Manchester, unlike London, there were black dockers). Class predominates.

When the human trickles and rivers had emptied themselves out of warehouses and ships, bringing the whole enormous port complex whose life blood they were to a dead stop, and assembled on the croft. the meeting would begin. The issue would be carefully and didactically spelled out to upwards of 1,500 men by Joe Barry or Joe Hackett, the unpaid officials of the minority union in the port, the NASD (the so-called Blue Union: their union card was blue, that of the TGWU, the big union, white). The Blue Union Committee doubled as an unofficial rank and file committee. Both checkers, Barry and Hackett were the real leaders in the port, not the despised full-time officials of the T&G, to which most dockers belonged These two, who would stand as spectators at the back of the croft, were known contemptuously as “Houdini” (after the American escapologist) and “The Gas Man” because they would come from negotiating the price for unloading a difficult cargo — to take a terrible example, though we did not then know how terrible, asbestos when a lot of bags had burst in a ship’s hold — and shout down the hatch to men covered in chemicals, or whatever, either that they could do nothing — “Me-Hands-Are-Tied”, thus Houdini — or had got a measly shilling extra, a bob for the gas meter — “The Gas Man”. Officially, they were the only people empowered to negotiate, but the Blue leaders had tacit recognition and went, as they would boast, sotto voce — and with a pride that told you what they were — “up the back stairs”, where the White union officials went in the front door. Compared to the T&G full-time officials, who were the dregs of humanity, the Blue leaders were real trade unionists. But they were time-servers; Barry at least was a Catholic Action man; and by the ‘60s they too were part of the port establishment, albeit unofficially.

On the croft, after Barry or Hackett had explained what it was about, anybody who had anything to say would then have a chance to say it. You could get up and disagree, and argue your case. Sometimes things would get rowdy — on one occasion, very rowdy, just short of violence, when Barry launched a savage witch-hunt to protect himself and his friends from criticism and the danger of being outflanked by denouncing young Trotskyist militants as “politically motivated” “home wreckers”, men intent on “smashing the port and the industry”; but it was taken for granted by everybody that our group had the right to reply and Barry vacated his little step ladder so I could get up on it to speak. (Not very well, as I recall it; but we got a third of the votes — even though Barry and Hackett had threatened to resign — for a motion to add two Trotskyists and an old militant, John Magennis, who worked with us, to the Committee.) This was rough and volatile, communication was often bad and things sometimes got confused, but it was nevertheless real democracy. Everything was put to the vote, or could be after a light. If satisfaction for the grievance was not forthcoming we would usually vote to stay out. But satisfaction was as a rule quickly to be had.

In serious disputes we would normally use the tactic of the rotating one-day strike. One week the dockers would strike for a day and the cranemen and checkers would turn up for work that was not there, thus qualifying for payment before going home again; the next week the crane drivers would strike, the week after that, the checkers, then again the dockers; and so on until the Ship Canal Company crumpled.

Despite two unions in the port, some non-unionists and three distinct classes of workers, our efforts were easily coordinated.

When you consider where dockers “ came from”, a few decades earlier, the culture of militancy and solidarity they developed, a small vignette of which I have tried to sketch here, is all the more remarkable.

For centuries docking was casual, irregular work because ships came and went. There was little continuity. Men would be hired and fired as needed. Anybody could go on the docks.

It was a buyers’ market in labour, and those who did the hiring were all-powerful. Gangs of often hungry men, with hungry families, would crowd around them jostling — and sometimes fighting — each other for their favour, and a few hours’ work. Docker was murderously pitted against docker. Then the dockers began to organise.

In 1889, led by Marxist socialists such as Tom Mann and John Burns, both of them skilled engineers, not dockers, and with Karl Marx’s daughter Eleanor helping out, London dockers struck and organised themselves in a union — then a new sort of union — for the “unskilled.” The union was thrown up out of a volcanic eruption of revolt and militancy. It survived to civilise and educate the dockers to the ideal of working-class solidarity. They had to fight early struggles on such questions as stopping the then prevalent practice of paying dockers their wages in pubs, where they would be tempted to drink their wages, to the detriment of their children and the benefit of the publican (and the foreman, who’d get a cut from the landlord). Over decades the working-class weapon of solidarity — serving as both ideal, socialism its developed form, and weapon of struggle — allowed workers to win serious improvements. Dockers began to exert a little bit of control over their own working lives. In the days when great armies of men laboured to hump and haul cargoes in and out of Britain, dockers had perhaps the greatest power of any group of workers. Organised, they learned to use it.

After World War 2, the Labour government, rejecting demands for nationalisation, nevertheless created the National Dock Labour Scheme and its “Board”, the NDLB — an agency which would employ registered dockers and hire them out to employers.

The NDLB paid a (very low) guaranteed fall-back wage, which dockers would get if they failed to find work after turning up twice a day, morning and dinner time. The NDLB was staffed 50% by employers’ representatives and 50% by the TGWU. The NDLB embodied big gains for dockers, but it also meant putting officials of a very bureaucratised union, which should have represented the men, in charge of them as both employer and disciplinarian. It led to union officials organising strike breaking and to threats from union leaders to sack dockers “making trouble” in the union. (The whole Manchester Branch Committee was hauled up before TGWU Secretary Arthur Deakin, who threatened to have all of them sacked if they didn’t do what he, their union’s General Secretary, told them to!) All differences kept in mind, this system was a little bit of Stalinism rooted inside the British capitalist system. Ultimately it led in 1954 to the breaking away from the union of 16,000 dockers of the northern ports.

Nevertheless, there was a wonderful flowering of working-class self-assertiveness and self-control within the NDLB system. It was a time of full employment, and by way of countless short local strikes dockers gained a great deal of real control of their — still very hard, underpaid and dangerous — working lives. Dockers not prone to idealising their lot would talk about “the freedom of the docks.” To take perhaps the most extreme example, there was a “custom and practice” system known in Liverpool as the “welt” and in Glasgow as “spelling” under which only half a gang would work at any time. It meant working half a shift! In Manchester, where we had no welt, they would when it suited them “shanghai” temporarily redundant dockers and bus us for night work to Liverpool — where we worked four hours and spent the other four reading or playing cards, yarning or napping, or whatever, while the second half of the gang did their stint! But you cannot have socialism — or even what dockers had — indefinitely in one industry The technical basis of docking was changing. A system was growing up of moving goods through ports in giant containers packed in one factory, rolled on and off ships, and unpacked in another. Everything had to change in the docks.

Who would gain the benefit of the new technology, dockers or employers? For example, would work, on the basis of the new technology, be divided up, or would tens of thousands of docking jobs be destroyed? These questions were decided in the struggle around the reorganisation of the ports — “decasualisation” —— in 1967, and in subsidiary battles in the 70s.

Sweetened by desirable things like regular employment, decasualisation was fundamentally about the employers clawing back all the elements of workers’ control dockers had won, so that they would be able to carry through the revolution in port technology — containerisation — under their control, in their own way and for their own benefit, Dockers resisted, but in a confused and disorganised way. Dockers had no unofficial national structures; they did not then even have shop stewards. The leaders of both White and Blue docks unions backed “Devlin.” So the bosses succeeded in ramming the changes through amidst confusion and resentment, though not without long strikes in London and Liverpool and a week long strike in Manchester.

Because of wretched leadership, the dockers, once the most powerful and militant group of workers in Britain, lost. The NDLB was abolished in 1989.

To become a committed socialist in times like these, when the working class is disoriented and cowed, you have to make an imaginative leap from the working class around you to the working class as it will be when it fulfils the hopes and expectations of Marxist socialists.

Today, it is difficult to resist the commonsensical cynical view that workers will never rise up and remake society, that we are by nature incapable of it, that Marxist socialists are chasing a will o’ the wisp.

The proper answer to such pernicious nonsense lies not alone in hope for the future, in discerning the seeds of that future in working-class activities in the present. but in remembering the past — and learning from it: for there was nothing inevitable about the defeat of Britain’s dockers, or of what, at their best. they stood for.

There are important lessons for the labour movement today in the story of how some of the most degraded, atomised, exploited and initially backward workers pulled themselves up out of misery and degradation to create a splendid culture of class and human solidarity. Certain material conditions — insecurity and so on — allowed that solidarity to develop. But it would not have developed without the example, the leadership, and the patient propaganda of socialists. Left to themselves conditions in the ports for a very long time bred savage individualistic competition, not solidarity, amongst dockers. The socialists made the difference.

Just as the degraded dockers in their time rose up. so the victims of today’s dog-eat-dog anti-solidaristic culture will rise up. Those who keep alive the memory of the past and spread it will speed that day.

It is in the nature of the class struggle to ebb and flow; of the working class to be repeatedly made and remade by the never-ceasing changes in capitalist production and technology. The working class. as the story of the dockers shows, pays dearly for missed chances and for defeats.

Until it takes control of society, the working class movement — aided by socialists who try to be its memory — is forced again and again to resurrect, remake and redefine itself. The job of socialists is to help it do that, and, learning from the past, help avoid defeat in the next round.