News and other Busyness
Harbouring Dissent In Merseyside
Dockers and DIY activists stand together to Reclaim The Future reports Ally Fogg
Squall 15, Summer 1997, pg. 9.
On September 25th, 1995, 80 dockers working for Torside, an independent contractor at Liverpool Docks, were summarily sacked when they threatened industrial action in an overtime dispute.
This small company was a subcontractor of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company (MDHC), and it shared recruitment, training and customers with them.
When a picket line set up by the Torside workers was respected by all 329 dockers employed by MDHC, the company quickly sacked them too. In total nearly 500 dockers were sacked that week.
Under the iniquities of current trade union legislation, the refusal to cross a picket line established against another employer is illegal and the dockers' union, the TGWU, said they were unable to recognise the dispute.
For the past 18 months the dockers have been fighting their dismissal and the constant refusal of politicians and the media to even discuss the strike has emphasised the total detachment of the political establishment from the lives of ordinary people.
For the first year of the strike, media coverage outside Liverpool was effectively non-existent.
Around the world dockers had been building support with sympathetic actions being taken in numerous other countries. In Britain, however, the union’s refusal to recognise the strike and the Labour Party’s distancing of itself from its trade union roots meant it remained a non-issue.
In one of the most revealing statements of New Labour’s values, minister for education Stephen Byers refused an interview with journalist John Pilger saying: “This is not a political issue, but an industrial dispute.” In the summer of 1996, perhaps beginning to despair of finding useful support from traditional corners, the dockers heard of the sympathetic action conducted by Reclaim The Streets in London for striking tube workers shortly after the mass occupation of the M41 at Shepherds Bush. They approached RTS to ask for help and the seeds were sown for one of the most significant events in the recent history of the direct action movement and perhaps the trade union movement as well.
On the first anniversary weekend of the original sackings, September 28th-30th 1996, activists from RTS, the Advance Party, and a host of other DiY protest groups joined together under the banner ‘Stop the Clampdown - Reclaim The Future’.
They joined the dockers and their more traditional supporters in a weekend of action that began with a demonstration and rally, complete with drumming, performance and bus-shelter dancing, and ended in a mass picket of Seaforth Docks, where veterans of direct action protests put their skills to good use, occupying gantry cranes and the MDHC office roof.
A small army of riot police made sure the day was not entirely peaceful, but when Bill Morris, head of the TGWU, called on the dockers to disassociate themselves from the groups involved, they responded with derision, praising the ‘principled, courageous and peaceful support’ of their new friends.
In April this year, at the height of the election campaign, the friendship was renewed on the March for Social Justice which ended with a Reclaim The Streets party in Trafalgar Square.
Although few knew it last September, environmentalists had reason to be grateful to the Liverpool dockers.
Over the years they had refused to handle several cargoes on ethical grounds, including imports from Pinochet’s Chile, Uranium Hexaflouride from South African occupied Namibia and, most famously, thirty shipments of Canadian toxic waste which they sent back in 1989.
The company which lost out on the £3million contract to process the waste was Rechem, a subsidiary of the waste disposal conglomerate Shanks McEwan.
The Chairman of Shanks McEwan is Gordon Waddell. Mr Waddell is also chairman of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company.
The dockers believe that their stand against the lucrative toxic waste trade was typical of the reasons MDHC wanted to sack them and casualise the workforce.
Their claims appeared to have been given some credence in January 1997 when figures from the Environment Agency showed that the volume of toxic waste coming in through the docks had doubled since the dockers were sacked and replaced with an inexperienced casual workforce.
The docks company and, bizarrely, a senior Environment Agency spokesman, claimed shortly after that the figures were unreliable because the manner in which the statistics were collected kept changing.
If this were true (which local anti-toxin campaigners doubt) it is a testament to the uselessness of the Environment Agency that even they don't know how much toxic waste is being imported through Britain's ports.
Support for the dockers fight continues to grow. Shortly after the Reclaim the Future weekend, journalist John Pilger and filmmaker Ken Loach pricked the conscience of the nation in a major Guardian feature and a television documentary.
In Pilger’s article, he praised the DIY protestors who joined the dockers saying: “Their alliance shames those who should have been there and were not.”
Now that people such as footballer Robbie Fowler and comedian Lee Hurst are in support, all the activists who have helped make Reclaim The Future so successful can be proud of the part they have played.
It is in our own hands to make sure the momentum generated on Seaforth Dock and in Trafalgar Square is carried through to victory for the dockers.
Square Dancing - In case you only learned of the event through the media’s negative coverage, here is the story of the March for Social Justice retold in pictures by Ivan Coleman and Nick Cobbing. Squall 15, Summer 1997.