The Liverpool dockers’ dispute is now 26 months old. In October the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company made a pay-off offer, to be voted on by secret ballot. The dockers rejected the deal by over two to one. The vast majority want their jobs back, and are prepared to stick it out until they win.
Despite international solidarity from dockers as far afield as Japan, America and Australia, the Liverpool dockers have been isolated in the British labour movement. The anti-union laws fetter our class, preventing solidarity action that would strengthen us in our battles against the bosses.
Sacked Liverpool docker, Herbie Hollerhead spoke to Jill Mountford of Workers’ Liberty. He had the following to say:
We have received some fantastic international solidarity. Initially, we went over to the continent to talk to dockers in Germany, Denmark and Norway. We got the support of the rank and file dockers and on occasion the union leaderships. In Germany, dockers’ support groups have been set up and they have raised money for dockers and their families. This support is vital for us and our families, especially after being out so long.
But the real international solidarity, that is, the solidarity that has really hit back at the bosses, has come from dockers in America, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Japan.
Dockers all over the world have responded brilliantly to the days of International Action we’ve called. Dockers have brought key ports to a standstill worldwide. Cargo from Liverpool and Medway (another port controlled by the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company) has remained on ships for months, going from one port to another because dockers refuse to touch the boxes. This is how you hit back at the bosses.
Goods from Liverpool and Medway were on a ship called the Neptune Jade. The shipping line changed the numbers on the boxes in an attempt to trick American dockers into shifting them. The American dockers flatly refused to move any cargo whatsoever until the bosses identified the goods from Liverpool and Medway. The boxes then went on to Japan. The Japanese dockers took the same line as the American dockers. The last we heard the goods were thousands of miles from their stated destination, somewhere in the Pacific Ocean! You can begin to see the power we have if we simply stick together.
In the recent secret ballot the dockers voted over 2:1 to reject a pay-off. The bosses’ offer consisted of a lump sum and the reinstatement of our pension rights for the last two years. 97 men voted in favour, but 244 voted against. The 97 men said they would respect the majority decision. That’s how trade union democracy should work.
The bosses were shocked by the size of the rejection, and by the response of the 97 who voted in favour of the offer.
Next they sent out individual letters offering a £28,000 lump sum. We have now heard that 15 men have accepted this latest offer, and that the 15 men have now heard that the bosses have reneged on their offer of reinstating their pension rights for the last two years. This will cost the 15 more than £11,000 each.
The Socialist Campaign Group of MPs are going for another Early Day Motion in an effort to get our case discussed in Parliament. The Labour Government is the biggest shareholder in the Mersey Dock and Harbour Company. We want them to use that power to get some justice. So far they have refused to do so.
After two years the men and their families are feeling a bit battered. It is not enough knowing you’re right, you need to know you’re supported, you need to know you can win.
Since the ballot result and since some of the men accepted the offer the police seem to have stepped up their attacks on us. Merseyside is not one of the richest areas in the country as everyone knows. It desperately needs money for schools, hospitals, homes and jobs. Yet local people have been forced to pay £2.4 million so far on policing the dockers’ picket lines and demonstration. The people of Merseyside have never been balloted on whether they wanted their local taxes to be spent in this way.
The police should be chasing the real criminals, the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company, who have robbed 500 dockers of their livelihoods.
The dock company turn a blind eye to what’s going on the picket lines and so, unfortunately, does Bill Morris, the leader of our union.
Before the ballot result Morris promised to meet us whatever the outcome. He too was obviously shocked by the result, because of all a sudden he’s not available for a meeting.
At a union recruitment meeting in Birmingham we gave out leaflets outlining our case, the case for solidarity, the basic reason for unions existing. We asked a simple question in our leaflet. “Why try to recruit more members to the union, when the unions leadership is not prepared to defend existing members?
We want an answer from Bill Morris on this and other questions.
Jimmy Nolan, the Chair of our Committee, is standing for election to the National Executive Council of the TGWU. The campaign we’re running to get him elected is in opposition to the anti-union laws. We want them scrapped. We want to get British workers into a position where they can fight to win improvements and, most importantly, can fight together in solidarity.
The big lesson for us all in this battle should be about the importance of solidarity.
At the beginning of this battle we realised how potentially powerful we are. You see, the bosses can close factories down and move them elsewhere if the workers get stroppy. They can move the workers elsewhere if the factories are too expensive in one place or another. But they can’t move the ports! This is one reason why worldwide solidarity from other dockers has been so good.
It doesn’t matter if you speak Japanese or American, workers of all languages understand the word solidarity!
The Liverpool dockers have in recent times taken solidarity action in support of dockers in Spain and South Africa. They won their battles. It’s not just British dockers who have been under attack. Since 1989 dockers all over the world have faced similar attacks.
There are something like six massive shipping lines that move the world’s goods. The globalisation of capital makes these people very powerful, more powerful than some governments. These bosses have got a virtual monopoly on the transporting of all cargo.
But while they might own the shipping lines, we run them and the globalisation of industries and capital is one thing but international or global solidarity is quite another. We are the muscles and the brains that actually make it work. At the end of the day, it’s down to us!
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