This Issue
Current Issue
Next Issue
Back Issues
Marxist Theory
Socialist History
Left Politics
Left Groups
New Interventions
Islamophobia Watch

Defeated but Still Fighting: The Liverpool Docks Dispute – Some Lessons for Socialists

Jim Dye

THE ENDING of the dockers’ struggle, after 850 days of heroic resistance, is a tragic event for the working class as a whole. The dockers stood as a inspiration to workers who wanted to fight against the restrictive anti-trade union laws, against the greed of the bosses, and against the treachery of the Labour Party and trade union bureaucrats. Their sacking, for refusing to cross a picket line, was a deliberate attack by Mersey Docks and Harbour Company (MDHC) to end any effective union organisation within the port of Liverpool.

So much is well known, and yet it is still possible for the Stalinist Morning Star to attempt to explain their defeat through the lack of a legal ballot! This nonsense can only divert attention away from the terrible betrayal of union leaders more concerned with their plush offices and expense accounts than in the plight of their members.

At a meeting called by the dockers after the ending of the dispute, leading steward Jimmy Davies gave the reasons why the Port Shop Stewards Committee recommended the calling off of the dispute. Firstly, and most importantly, there was the role of Bill Morris and the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) bureaucracy. TGWU executive members, including Liverpool docker Mike Cardin, had been continually blocked in their attempts to organise meaningful support for the lockout. Secondly, there had been a fall in the effectiveness of international solidarity by other port workers around the world. An attempt to organise renewed blacking of Liverpool-bound ships from the USA had failed due to the threat of legal action against the New York based International Longshoreman’s Association, allowing the ACL shipping company to continue to sail to Liverpool. Thirdly, there had been a complete rejection by the newly elected Labour government to intervene in the dispute, despite the government being a major shareholder in MDHC. The other significant factors were lack of any solidarity action by other groups of workers in Britain, and the continually increasing hardship of the men and their families. Over the course of the dispute four of the dockers had died, which only added to the mounting demoralisation in a situation where the dispute appeared to have hit a dead end. The result was a 3 to 1 acceptance of the pay-off on offer from MDHC, which amounted to backdated redundancy packages of up to £28,000 per man, but no money whatsoever for the sacked Torside and Nelson Freight workers (those involved in the original dispute) who were not MDHC direct employees.

Could the outcome have been different? The starting point for this question is the state of the class struggle in the recent past. Britain has suffered a low level of confidence and combativity within the working class for longer than any of us care to remember. Whilst this is perhaps about to change, the tragedy for the dockers was that it was always going to be hard to organise solidarity action in their support. Their great achievement, however, was to set up a international network of support that did deliver significant action in many countries. This network will hopefully live on, although it always risked being compromised by union bureaucrats in the unions where it had support.

We can dismiss the SWP view that mass pickets were key to the dispute. The port stretches for miles, with multiple entrances, so whilst mass pickets had symbolic and propaganda value, they could not have shut down the port’s operations. Similarly, occupations had been attempted, but were only of limited success given the size of the docks.

What was key to the dispute was the need to deal effectively with the union bureaucrats. The Broad Left (BL) within the TGWU was a complete failure when it came to mounting any kind of fightback against the leadership of Morris & Co. A small grouping with a secretive nature, the BL could not even mobilise its own members to support the dockers, showing clearly that a launch of a rank-and-file based left grouping, that combines the best elements of the old BL with an open democratic structure, is desperately needed. Whilst the winning of union positions is essential, this can only be successfully achieved by placing the rank and file at the centre of activity and outlook in order to make any newly elected left leadership accountable.

The immense moral authority of the dockers among union activists has given them a unique opportunity to spearhead the formation of a genuine rank-and-file organisation that could be the means to rid the union of the bureaucrats and return it to the members. Throughout the dispute this move was rejected by the dockers’ leaders on the basis that it would give Morris the excuse he needed to stop all hardship payments and remove them from union premises. This view was mistaken, as it offered real hope of taking the dispute forward, and of exposing Morris to those TGWU members who still view him as on the left. However, even now, dockers’ leaders like Jimmy Nolan still reject the idea, saying only that they will offer support if others wish to call a rank-and-file conference to launch a campaign within the TGWU.

The answer to why the dockers leaders have failed to organise the rank and file fight within the TGWU lay with the politics of stewards such as Nolan. Jimmy Nolan, an SLP member, is an open Stalinist, and retains the political outlook of the old Communist Party in relation to the unions. However, Nolan is also a genuinely nice person with, perhaps strangely, no apparent sectarian poison within him against Trotskyists, for example. This may explains why he has received little criticism from large sections of the left. Of course, as others have said, we could do with more "Stalinists" like Nolan in the unions, because at least he led the dispute well in many respects! This is true, but on the question of seriously addressing the issue of the union bureaucracy Nolan had no answers.

If the opportunity presented by Morris’s betrayal of the dockers not to be lost, then TGWU members need to organise themselves quickly, hopefully with support of the dockers, and lay the foundations of a new rank-and-file grouping. For the left outside the union, the actions by the union and Labour Party bureaucrats are another example of the danger they represent within the labour movement to any workers’ struggle. The fight of the dockers should not therefore be viewed as being over. We need to take it into our unions and also the rotten heart of the Labour Party, and attempt to weaken the bureaucrats in both organisations, exposing their dirty role to the working class as a whole. When the class struggle intensifies again, the lessons of the dockers should not be forgotten.

Even though the dockers have been defeated, they have also been in many ways liberated. This may sound a strange statement but, as Marx explained, consciousness is changed in struggle. The internationalism developed by the dockers, the immense importance of Women of the Waterfront in breaking down sexism, and the bonds that have developed with Asian women strikers at Hillingdon, and also with Kurdish and Turkish communities (it is common with dockers who have travelled the world over to be especially appreciative of the warm welcome they received from workers on their visits to Turkey), have shown a glimpse of what can happen in a period when the class struggle becomes generalised again. The time allowed to talk politics that the lockout provided, and indeed necessitated, made powerful socialist agitators from those who never thought of being anything other than "ordinary", particularly among the women. In fact, if the dispute has proved only one thing, it is that ordinary people are more than capable of extraordinary achievements. Such is the basis of socialism, and our best hope for its victory.