Dancing in the snow
It’s taking a while for labour – and an inert labour bureaucracy – to catch up with footloose capital.
Anne-Marie Sweeney recounts the remarkable story of a group of dock workers
in Liverpool who’ve renewed their international connections.
For all its failings, the international system of the UN is based on principles of partnership. It has also recognized the parallel growth of civil society alongside the market and the state. An international form of civil society has begun to emerge. One of its tasks is to monitor international commitments made by national governments see chart below where serious problems are now evident. These are political issues, often in direct conflict with the self-interest of the market or the state. Whether effective international agreements are reached and implemented depends on the political influence of social movements at home. This is no less true of the official labour movement and its international bureaucracy which need to get closer to wider social movements.
The maternal-mortality stopwatch
(proportion of countries):
Reducing maternal-mortality rates to half the 1990 level by the year 2000 is one of the commitments from the Copenhagen Social Summit. Social Watch, a group based in Uruguay, has devised a stop watch to show what progress is being made. Many countries are making little progress or going backwards.
Source: Social Watch, No 1, 1997,
Instituto del Tercer Mundo, Jackson 1136, Montevideo 11200, Uruguay,
All around the world you can find the same landscape of docks – giant gantries, cranes, towering hulls of cargo ships – built like cities. Waterfronts stretch for mile upon mile of cavernous silos, warehouses, snaking railway lines and thundering trucks. Docks, like stock exchanges, are crucial to international capital: waterways, trade winds and currents are its main arteries for supplying raw materials, manufactured goods, food and fuels.
So when CNN news cameras panned along deserted, silent wharves on the West Coast of North America last January, Mike Johnson, President of the Port Intermodal Operators Association, raged: ‘Half-a-billion dollars in commerce is shot... down the drain!’
That same week in January, shipping was hit by industrial solidarity in 13 countries around the world. In Aotearoa/New Zealand seafarers picketed the three major container terminals in Auckland, Wellington and Lyttelton. In Japan the National Council of Dockworkers Unions (Zenkoku Kowan) stopped work in 50 ports.
The docks had been stopped on behalf of a community thousands of miles away in Liverpool – ordinary men and women who became extraordinary. What they all have in common, however, is the casualization of dock labour that for the past 20 years has been just as much a part of the landscape as the gantries and cranes.
The Liverpool story began in September 1995, when almost 500 dockers were sacked by Mersey Docks and Harbour Company (MDHC) and their contractor Torside – 329 of them for refusing to cross a picket line of younger dockers, many of whom were their sons, nephews or neighbours.
It isn’t easy, when you’ve worked all your life in the docks, to face the sack for a principle and know that you may never work again. It isn’t easy to refuse an offer of $40,000 to sell your job and give up, when you’ve had no wages for nearly six months.
But for Jimmy Campbell there was no hesitation. ‘For all of us it was a lot easier to do than crossing the picket line or selling a job that isn’t ours to sell. What right have any of us to sell our kids’ futures?’
‘If he had I’d have never forgiven him,’ says Irene Campbell. ‘Now look at him: a man, 60 years old, a grandfather, never been in trouble with the law. And he’s been bodily removed to a police cell, charged as a criminal – not once but several times – for a gesture, or something he’s shouted. The job’s gone, the money’s gone, the chances are – like so many others – he’ll get a criminal record. Well, let me tell you, I’m proud of him!’
Families in Liverpool speak of what lies behind the word ‘casualization’, those glib business-school terms like ‘downsizing’, ‘retrenchment’, ‘flexibility’ and ‘streamlining’. You have to understand what it means to be on-call 24 hours a day: the arguments, the depression and stress. As one woman said: ‘They call it “work to finish the job”, but it became work to finish our men: 12- or 14-hour shifts, constant phone calls changing their shifts, no social life. Work in the car factories and other places is just as bad. And it’s mad – there’s 18-per-cent unemployment in Merseyside.’
Everywhere in the world dockers can relate to the experience of Liverpool. In the Brazilian port of Santos a strike was provoked in April by COSIPAR, the giant company processing iron ore in the Amazon, when it employed casual dock labour. In the same month Amsterdam dock workers blockaded a road tunnel for the same reason.
In Liverpool the response of the dockers, together with the support group Women on the Waterfront (WOW), was imaginative and internationalist. Truly ‘flying’ pickets took off to ports around the world. They found they shared the same humour and quick wit, the same thirst for deep draughts of beer, the same gut reaction to mean management and hard, perilous working conditions.
In December 1996 they went to Baltimore in the US, where the giant Atlantic Companion was due to dock from Liverpool. Its owners, Atlantic Containers Ltd (ACL), are major customers of the dock company. The Liverpool dockers mounted a picket at the gate in a raging blizzard, the worst for 70 years, just before Christmas. Offered four times their normal rate of pay to unload the containers, the Baltimore longshore workers refused, preferring to respect three very cold, snow-swept, jet-lagged strangers from thousands of miles away, standing doggedly at the gate. ‘We told them what it was about,’ says one of the Liverpool men. ‘They turned their cars around. We were ecstatic, dancing there in the snow.’
The ship sailed on to Norfolk, Virginia. The dockers followed it by car. The district attorney and the police chief threatened them with jail – longshore workers began a go-slow. The ship moved on once more to Newark and the three flew off in pursuit. Not one longshore worker crossed the picket line, and in the end the MDHC lost millions when ACL pulled out of Liverpool for a month.
In February 1996 veterans of blockades against Pinochet’s Chile, Indonesia, apartheid South Africa and Namibia gathered in Liverpool for a week of shared experiences and tactics.
Francesco (Paco) Ramos told of a bitter 18-month dispute in the Canary Islands and the originality of the women supporters. A young docker’s daughter, Bella Maria, had been run over and killed by a truck on the picket line at the port. A large department store, Galeria Preciado, received its goods through the dock company: ‘One day 1,300 women all went into the store at the same time, spending hours shopping without buying anything. The shop was completely full of women asking for goods, trying everything on, but purchasing nothing. There’s no law against that!’ At the bank where the dock company had its account they queued to deposit 100 pesetas (one dollar) and then went to the back of the queue to withdraw 50 pesetas. The bank lost an entire day’s business.
Collette Melia and Sue Mitchell from WOW then went to the US. Sue had not spent a night away from her family in her life. ‘I used to suffer from, you know, that housewife’s syndrome, never see daylight, obsessed with cleaning and wiping the surfaces. In fact I used to have counselling, I’d get so low. Now I have all this anger in me at what the MDHC have done... Once you start standing up, fighting against one injustice, it opens your eyes to so much going on in the world that you need to stand up against.’
In Los Angeles Collette and Sue addressed 400 longshore workers and you could have heard a pin drop. In Seattle, as they spoke to a mass meeting in the hiring hall, huge men applauded in tears. They also met with women longshore workers. One of them, picketing alongside two Liverpool dockers in April 1997, persuaded non-union Mexican truck drivers to respect the picket line against the unloading of a Japanese vessel with cargo from Liverpool. The drivers said that striking port workers in Mexico had been shot. The entire terminal was shut down.
Support has often been warmest from countries with the most repressive regimes. Several delegations have gone to Turkey, where union leaders and opposition activists are routinely killed. Turkish unions have pledged support. The Kurdish refugee community in Britain has sent groups with dancers to dockers’ demonstrations. Many are clothing workers whom the dockers have supported in their struggle against sweatshop conditions.
Hassan from the Iranian Refugee Workers Association says: ‘The dockers are part of our struggle and we are part of theirs. Despite the many divisions amongst Iranian groups, all of them in our organization, support any action that comes from them. They are always asking what’s happening to them and we listen to the voice of the dockers. We will not let them be forgotten.’
The Liverpool dockers have a record of refusing to handle toxic waste, uranium and nuclear cargo. Strike-breakers are now handling dubious goods without question. So environmental campaigners have turned out as fire-eaters, giant puppets and dragons on drum-beating demonstrations in support of the dockers. In September 1996 they occupied the cranes and gantries, dancing and waving flags. In April 1997 the coalition organized a demonstration in London for social justice. Thousands attended, including the 60 drummers of Batteria Mandela, England’s biggest Samba band.
Many musicians, like Noel Gallagher, Paul Weller, Bruce Springsteen and Dodgy have given support. When soccer player Robbie Fowler scored a goal in a big game for Liverpool he lifted his shirt for the TV cameras and revealed a vest saluting the dockers. A powerful film about them, The Flickering Flame, has been made by the celebrated director Ken Loach.
The support of celebrities has offset an almost total media blackout. But the dockers know that hitting the company where it hurts – in the pocket – is what counts. So they have played the stock exchange. Strategically placed phone calls to stockbrokers, notifying them of forthcoming blockades, have caused the MDHC share price to tumble. Dockers now scrutinize the stock-exchange index with unaccustomed zeal.
Most energy, however, still goes into building the blockade. Liverpool was the only port in Britain still unionized. Their own union, the Transport and General, says it cannot make the dispute official because of Britain’s anti-union legislation. Sue Mitchell, reflecting the anger this has caused, comments bitterly: ‘I’m fed up with them hiding behind those laws. They must have millions in their funds. I mean, my husband paid into that union for 31 years. I can’t understand why they can’t have the backbone to just say: “Let’s stick together and stand up for these people.” What else are unions for?’ Unlikely to get supporting action in Britain without official backing, the dockers have turned to building the international blockade.
In May 1997 dockers from all over the world came to Montreal, and pledged a rolling program of action building to a 24-hour work stoppage in support of Liverpool. With a poignant twist, the South African delegation agreed to boycott fruit bound for Liverpool, where the striking dockers once boycotted imports from apartheid South Africa.
Julian Garcia Gonzales, representing 32 ports in Spain, spoke of globalization and the way ‘five or six major shipping consortia dictate to governments what policies they want to operate in ports’. The Labour Government in Britain is now the largest shareholder in MDHC, but so far has shown little interest.
In the first week of September MDHC was hit by the toughest action yet in a dozen or more countries. In Australia all major ports were hit by stoppages of five hours or more. Dockers from Sydney, Freemantle, Adelaide, Melbourne and Brisbane wrote to the British Trade Union Congress calling on them to ‘adopt the same approach to the Liverpool dockers as has been adopted throughout the world, and that is support’.
The Liverpool dockers, the Women on the Waterfront and their children have travelled a long way since that day in September 1995 when the men refused to cross a picket line. Without fear of dreaming they have pursued an internationalist vision. They have shown that there is no law of nature that makes globalization unchallengeable. A small local community has sparked a global movement and ignited a sense of recognition – that strangers are just like us. They have broken down the barriers between North and South, between unions, environmentalists and the dispossessed.
Merseyside Dockers’ Shop Stewards Committee can be contacted via J Nolan/J Davies,
Tel: (+44) 0151 207 3388,
Fax: (+44) 0151 207 0696.
Anne-Marie Sweeney is a film-maker whose video, Port In A Storm, is available from Video News,
PO Box 10395, London N7 9DN,
Tel: (+44) 171 7007660,
Fax: (+44) 151 207 0696.
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