(en)The internationalisation of the Liverpool dockers

Keith Standrin (itusc@gn.apc.org)
Sun, 13 Apr 1997 17:23:36 GMT

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BY JACK HEYMAN (a member of the Executive Board of the San Francisco longshore union and the ILWU delegate to the first International Dockers Conference in Liverpool in February.)

In September of 1995 when Mersey Docks and Harbour Co. in Liverpool fired the last of the union dockers in Britain, 500 all together, no one in the maritime industry took much notice. After all, since the abolition of the National Dock Labour Scheme in 1989 by the Thatcher government, which paved the way for port privatization, all other dockers' unions had been eliminated. So why not Liverpool?

Yet, nearly a year and a half later, the strike continues and appears to be picking up steam. At a strike rally in Liverpool in solidarity with the Merseyside dockers, Akinobu Itoh, Assistant General Secretary of the National Council of Dockworkers' Unions of Japan, announced a 24-hour national strike.

The dockworkers will shut down all ports in Japan today, in protest against World Trade Organization's and Federal Maritime Commission's attempts to abrogate their labor agreements and against Ministry of Transport's plans to privatize the docks in Japan.

Some Merseyside church leaders have blamed the feisty port shop stewards for the prolongation of the dispute. Other community leaders blame Mersey Docks' style of corporate arrogance and intransigence. But the indisputable facts are dockworkers were fired for refusing to cross a picket line of fellow dockers, including their sons, Mersey Docks had hired Drake International to recruit strike-breakers to try to keep ship cargo operations going.

Moreover, even without official support from their union, the Transport and General Workers Union, the Liverpool dockworkers have been able to elicit solidarity actions from longshoremen in other countries against ships with Liverpool cargo.

Isolated Liverpool's Merseyside area, the dockers decided to spread the strike internationally, a brilliant idea in a maritime industry based on international trade. They started by taking their grievance to the United States.

Shortly before Christmas of 1995 and during a blinding snowstorm, three Liverpool dockers set up a picket line in front of an Atlantic Container Line ship in Port Newark, New Jersey. Rank-and-file longshoremen respected the picket line and with that simple act of solidarity the isolation was broken.

The dockers received favorable BBC-TV coverage. Morale of the strikers in Liverpool was boosted and a new waterfront tactic was born. Clearly, the message of the three Liverpudlians resonated along the waterfront.

Meanwhile, port privatization along the model followed by former British Prime Minister Thatcher -- buyout of older union workers, replacement of them with younger, non-union casual labor and elimination of unions -- is being reproduced in other places, including Manzanillo, Mexico and Auckland, New Zealand.

Portworkers around the globe have been negatively impacted by these "reforms" losing jobs, receiving lower wages and benefits, and seeing their working conditions deteriorate. But they are starting to share a lot more than their woes. They are beginning to act collectively, in many respects mirroring the newly-formed global alliances of the shipowners.

In 1993, the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union (ILWU), which represents West Coast dockers, and the National Council of Dockworkers' Unions of Japan Zenkokukowan organized a Pacific Rim Dockers Conference, issuing statements of common concern regarding port privatization.

The Liverpool dockers have not only organized three International Dockers Conferences, two in Merseyside and one in Paris, but more significantly they have succeeded in organizing an effective worldwide port shutdown on Jan. 20 with the participation of workers in some 105 ports. Even the conservative-led International Transport Workers Federation with its 5,000,000 members participated, lending its name to the International Day of Action.

Last month at a trade union conference in Calcutta, India, two representatives of the Liverpool dockers received resounding applause and a supportive resolution opposing port privatization and eviseration of labor from delegates who came from all corners of Asia and Africa.

In May dockers will be convening yet another international conference in Montreal called by the Syndicat des Debardeurs de Quebec to plan further actions in support of their Liverpool comrades.

After nearly two decades of labor defeats, maritime workers may be awakening to the rapid changes taking place on the waterfront.

The Newsnight program of BBC-TV, itself recently privatized, concludes its segment on the Liverpool strike saying: "The pressure on Mersey Docks to settle is mounting .......... The dockers may yet succeed in using the combined forces of international labor against the might of international capital."

If so, credit for this victory must be given to the determined men and women in Liverpool,who have inspired maritime workers around the world in the struggle to defend their jobs and their union.

__________________________________________________________________________ International Trade Union Solidarity Campaign (ITUSC) at:- PO Box 18, Epsom, Britain KT18 7YR Tel/Fax: ++44 (0) 1372 817778 e-mail: itusc@gn.apc.org URL: http://www.itusc.org.uk The ITUSC is an international and internationalist association of organised workers and communities, dedicated to rebuilding the workers' movement and to overcoming sectarianism and division in working class organisations. ____________________________________________________________________________

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