On September 25th 1995 the men who worked for Torside Shipping Company (a private contractor) were ordered to work for a disputed overtime rate. They refused. The following day all 80 men were sacked. They mounted a picket and the Mersey dockers refused to pass it. The 329 men of Mersey Docks and Harbour Company were sacked. Within 24 hours their jobs were being advertised in the local press.
Since then precious little else has been seen in media about this strike which is now longer running than the miners' struggle in 1984. Indeed it took Robbie Fowler to lift his football shirt and reveal a t-shirt supporting the dockers during a European football game, and a minor riot in London, for the dispute to gain access to the headlines again.
In September 1995 the dockers of Liverpool had handled the highest tonnages ever recorded in that port. Since 1989, the European Regional Development Fund has paid over £13 million to Mersey Docks to create employment. The irony is that all they've succeeded in doing is locking 400 men out of work. Yet the Managing Director of Mersey Docks pocketed an £87,000 pay rise just prior to kicking 329 men onto the dole.
The dockers are members of the Transport and General Workers Union, which has refused to make the dispute official because the dockers' actions were against the law (the stringent laws brought in by Thatcher to strangle the remaining power out of the right to strike). As John Magginnis, who has worked on the docks since 1951, put it "We worked in dirty, unhealthy, dangerous conditions.
But if the men had a grievance and sent for a delegate (trade union representative), he would walk round the sheds, straight into the office, come out, walk past the men without saying a word and you would find out later that nothing had changed. A case of "My hands are tied. What can I do?"
The striking dockers were offered £25,000 redundancy and 40 jobs as a settlement offer. It was rejected. As Jimmy Campbell said, "Our fathers and grand-fathers fought and died for jobs we could be proud of, I did it for the young ones."
The strike has gone on to bring forth an international show of solidarity with the struggle of these men to hold onto their jobs in an age of increasing globalisation and rationalisation. The international support has been nothing short of phenomenal.
On January the 20th an inter-national day of action took place around the world for the dockers. In Liverpool eight dockers and seven environmentalists occupied three cranes at the grain terminal and thus prevented the unloading of the "Lake Erie" which was delayed for a total of 35 hours. The activists were arrested and charged with aggravated trespass.
Actions occurred in Australia, New Zealand, Japan,the United States, Mexico, Brazil, Canada, Quebec, Sweden, Norway, Russia, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, Germany, France, Switzerland and Greece. These actions ranged from union meetings during working hours to stoppages to occupations, and even a general strike of transport workers. On the west coast of the United States, the Los Angeles Times reported:
"Pacific rim trade spluttered to a halt and dozens of mammoth cargo ships sat idle in their ports on Monday as union dock workers from Los Angeles to Seattle stayed off the job in a one day show of support for the striking longshoremen in Liverpool, England....." One vice president of a shipping company complained that "This is going to cost us millions of dollars in delays.'
What the workers throughout the world who have heard of this strike realise is that it is not an isolated issue. At stake here are the 400 jobs in Liverpool, but these men are also fighting for the right to decent pay and proper working conditions. For many years, dock work was some of the most brutal work, and was conducted in the uncertain air of casualisation.
Now the bosses are trying to return to this time and the workers are resisting. This tactic of the bosses is not confined to one port or one workplace but it is rearing it's ugly head in practically all places where people gather to work. It has to be fought before we all end up working on weekly contracts with no rights or privileges.
Despite the widespread international actions, the media in Britain have kept this long-running dispute almost completely out of the news. Marchers took to the streets of London on April 12th to focus the attention of the public and the politicians on the Liverpool dockers. The Social Justice March attracted 15,000 marchers and over 1,000 riot police who did not hesitate to smash them off the streets.
The march was divided into two parts by a police charge on horseback. Some protesters managed to get into the Foreign Office and scattered papers from an upstairs window. As usual the media stepped in to cover the story in their usual biased way, not covering the reasons for the events and turning a blind eye to the police brutality.
Now, once again the story has sunk into oblivion. The situation is not going to change with a change in government, as the Labour Party spokesperson on Industry considers the strike to be an "industrial issue" and not a political one, so he refuses to comment.
The workers who have shown their solidarity throughout the world know different. Nothing is more political than the right to work for decent pay and in decent conditions. They know that right had to be fought for in the past and now that battle is being fought again in Liverpool. Coming to a workplace near you. Fight on.