Lessons of the Liverpool Dock Strike
By Charles Walker
On July 3, 1989 the Margaret Thatcher government privatized Britains 60 seaports, ending five decades of the ports government ownership. In quick order, the new owners, private shipping firms, took on the dockworkers unions. After two years of court and picket line battles, all ports but Liverpool were no longer unionized. On Sept. 28, 1995, the Liverpool dockers were provoked into a strike against brutal speedup and deteriorating working conditions, according to labor writer Davis Bacon.1 The 500 dockworkers were promptly fired and replaced .Once their strike started, dockers from Liverpool fanned out to ports around the world. First setting up picket lines in 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.2
On January 1998, despite the international support and after more than two years, the Liverpool dockers lost. At the time the dockers said in a prepared statement3 that they needed a far more positive support role from our own union leadership in calling for an increase in both the national support through the TGWU (Transport and General Workers Union) industrial branches and international support via the ITF (International Transport Workers Union). Both the TGWU and the ITF, they said, joined the company in stating that the dispute was over. Further, they said the Labor government headed by Tony Blair failed to intervene on their behalf despite the fact that the government had a 14 percent share holding in the union busting company.
The dockers also cited the hard line tactics of the police on the picket lines as a major reason for bringing the strike to some sort of conclusion. Mike Carden, a dockworker who also was a member of the TGWU executive council, told Bacon after the strike that the union 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 declared illegal [a secondary strike], and they therefore said they couldnt get involved. That was the most damaging thing that hung over our heads throughout the dispute.
Bacon asked Carden to explain the relations of the Labor Party, the union and the employers.
Well, my personal opinion, based on over 20 years of experience both in the Labor Party and in the Transport and General Workers Union, is that theyve abrogated any responsibility. The unions have bought right into the Labor governments 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 theyve 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 doesnt 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.
The Liverpool strike as well as the earlier two-year British dockworkers national strike, brings to mind the Austin, Minnesota meatpackers strike against Hormel led by Local P-9 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) that began in August, 1985 and was ended in June, 1986. The P-9 strike was notable for the high level of militant activity by both the ranks and the locals leaders and the widespread solidarity that extended to communities well beyond Minnesota. Unfortunately, it was also notable for its betrayal by the unions international leadership with the assistance of the AFL-CIO leaders, the attacks by politicians in both capitalist parties, and the Democratic Party governor who ordered the National Guard to herd scabs through the plants picket-lines. With the packing plant operating and no support from the official labor movement, the balance of forces turned against the workers.
Both strikes and others as well are notable too because they were attempts to wrestle with the powerful forces of industrial rationalization and competition that have swept the industrial world since the early 1970s, with the completion of the re-rebuilding of the war-damaged economies of Europe and Japan. These are the same very powerful elemental forces of contemporary capitalism that confront the West Coast dockworkers and their union, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).
The dock bosses arent out to chisel a few bucks from the dockworkers wages. The bosses are out to enlarge their control over the job, a control they lost as a result of the historic 1934 dockworkers strike and the San Francisco general strike that sealed the victory. The Pacific Maritime Association (PMA, a consortium of 76 shipping and terminal firms) frequently speaks of the higher productivity achieved at overseas ports and they undoubtedly have been encouraged by British capitals rout of the British dockworkers.
The ILWU said on Sept. 26 that the government pledged not to place the dockworkers under the more restrictive Railway Act. However, the Los Angeles Times (Oct. 16) reports that the government is being urged by a group of rail, truck and shipping companies to consider a form of the Railway Labor Act of the 1920s, which imposes compulsory arbitration on labor disputes that endanger the national economy. The LA Times report speaks darkly of possible Congressional legislation to loosen the shackles that both sides have placed on the docks
In 1971, there was a similar situation. The ILWU struck for 100 days, went back to work under a Taft-Hartley injunction and then resumed its strike for another month before it won a contract. Just as the contract beef was settled President Nixon signed legislation passed by a Democrat-controlled Congress to end the strike and force the dockworkers back on the job for 18 months. Only the fact that a new contract had been agreed to almost simultaneously with Nixons signing the back to work legislation kept the law from being imposed. Today, President Bush and the Congress retain the authority used by Nixon and Congress under the Taft-Hartley Act to again pass oppressive legislation forcing the dockworkers back to work for a prolonged period.
The government has intervened supporting the PMA and that means that the ILWU is not just defending its present level of on-the-job power, it is defending its very right to strike. If the union refuses to buckle under and decides it must continue its strike to fight off this government-backed assault, what must it do (or not do) to escape the fate of the British dockworkers union?
Will the Democratic Party be more supportive of the ILWU than the Blair-led pro-capitalist Labor Party was of the Liverpool dockworkers? Weeks ago Democratic Party office holders up and down the coast said they backed the ILWU. Senator Daschle addressed a Seattle rally and urged the dockworkers to fight, fight, fight! Two prominent exceptions were Senator Diane Feinstein and Californias Governor Gray Davis. Feinstein called on President Bush to impose the Taft-Hartley, if the docks were not reopened within a week; and Davis simpered that he was opposed both to a lockout and a slowdown.
Its one thing for Democrats to tell the ILWU to fight, fight, fight when they have been locked out; but its entirely another thing, when dockworkers strike and strike and strike and refuse to return to their jobs, even if the government orders them to return. Defying a government order would make the dockworkers lawbreakers and give Democratic Party politicos more than enough cover to withdraw their hypocritical verbal support.
The dockworkers have said many times in recent weeks that dockworkers around the world would refuse to unload ships from the U.S. if loaded by strikebreakers. That solidarity is not without precedent; the Liverpool strikers got some solidarity along those lines. But in military terms that help was comparable to harassing sorties that had no apparent impact on the front-line battle. Clearly, the U.S. dockworkers would require a far more vigorous solidarity overseas to really hurt an wealthy American opponent inspired by the British owners victory over their dockworkers.
The British dockworkers strike did not spread to other sectors of the nations industry. As the dockworkers said, their union and the ITF, which claims to represent a membership of nearly 5 million workers in 594 transport unions in 136 countries, didnt even try to arouse other British workers and their unions to take industrial action (i.e., strikes) to back them up.
How much help can U.S. dockworkers realistically expect from the AFL-CIO? In 1989, the year that British dockworkers found themselves denationalized, the U.S. government took on and decisively whipped the union PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controller Organization). Top AFL-CIO union officials gave de facto support to government strikebreaking by ordering or silently consenting to their local affiliates routinely crossing striking airline controllers picket lines. Even if todays AFL-CIO officialdom didnt completely ignore a grave threat to the ILWUs present strength or even its existence, what is there in the record to suggest that the ILWU can count on the federations leadership to risk its many-sided relationships with corporate America and its political accomplices? Sweeneys speeches extol union partnerships with corporate America, dead-ringers for the partnerships with corporate Britain that the British dockworkers said were embraced by their union and the Blair government.
Just asking these questions suggests that the ILWU dockworkers cannot rely on the British battle plan that included depending on politicians in bed with the bosses and a union officialdom infatuated with the false notion that a partnership with corporations is realistic and the answer to privatization, rationalization and surging levels of world-wide corporate competition.
What battle plan then should the ILWU dockworkers adopt? Thats hard to say in detail. But surely, the ILWUs early militant history that allowed it to win out over dock bosses and government intervention, troops, cops and scabs during the depths of the Great Depression is a shining example and guide to action.
1 David Bacon, Longshore Workers Chase Scab British Cargo Out to Sea.
2 David Bacon, Liverpool Dockers, zmag.org./feb 99.