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 In the process, recognition was withdrawn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
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.
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.
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.
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?
precisely the situation, yes.
people did that affect, apart from the 100 people who didn’t get any
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.
strikebreakers are also residents of Liverpool?
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.
more and more people from Liverpool and the northwest region were brought
in. That more or less makes up the labor force now.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
happened to the dock- workers since the conclusion of the strike?
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.
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
What is the
unemployment rate now in Liverpool?
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?
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.
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.
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
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?
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
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.
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
Bacon is a freelance photographer and labor journalist.