Last Stand

Stephen Smith

  • Solidarity on the Water front: The Liver pool Lock-Out of 1995-96 by Michael Lavalette and Jane Kennedy
    Liver Press, 147 pp, £5.95, December 1996, ISBN 1 871201 06 3

Reporting on the Liverpool dock-workers’ dispute in its early days, I was billeted in Wigan. It was December 1995, and an international football match was being played at Anfield. There were no rooms to be had on Merseyside that night. Had I been by myself, I would have turned up on the doorstep of my aunt’s house in Wallasey, which is a mile or two from the docks, but she couldn’t put up an entire television crew. So we made increasingly wide orbits of Liverpool by car before fetching up at a family establishment in darkest Lancashire. I was curious to see how far accommodation for the footloose investigator had come on since George Orwell laid his hat at the noisome tripe shop and lodging-house where we encounter him at the beginning of The Road to Wigan Pier. Orwell was sharing with three others and had to sleep with his legs doubled up to avoid kicking his neighbour. I had a room to myself – the hotel’s somewhat unlikely conference room, such was the shortage of digs – and my only worry was the possibility of collapsing the campbed I had been given. Orwell was disturbed at five in the morning when his roommate, Mr Reilly, got up to go to his job as a colliery mechanic. My sleep was interrupted by a lamp which burnt brightly all night long: it was intended to light the way to a fire-escape for conference-goers, and no means could be found of switching it off.

Orwell’s report on the ‘industrial districts’ of the North, published exactly 60 years ago, includes an encounter with some dockers in a ‘frowzy firelit kitchen’:

This was Saturday night and a hefty young stevedore was drunk and was reeling about the room. He turned, saw me and lurched towards me with broad red face thrust out and a dangerous-looking fishy gleam in his eyes. I stiffened myself So the fight was coming already! The next moment the stevedore collapsed on my chest and flung his arms round my neck. ‘’Ave a cup of tea, chum!’ he cried tearfully: ‘’ave a cup of tea!’ I had a cup of tea. It was a kind of baptism. After that, my fears vanished.

When you open The Road to Wigan Pier, you rise and shine with Orwell at his lodgings, and come across him in trepidation at the thought of his breakfast. The meals, he said, were uniformly disgusting, but to set himself up for a hard day’s footslogging, he ate bacon and a pale fried egg and the unforgettable butties of his landlord: ‘bread-and-butter which had often been cut overnight and always had thumb-marks on it. However tactfully I tried, I could never induce Mr Brooker to let me cut my own bread-and-butter; he would hand it to me slice by slice, each slice gripped firmly under that broad black thumb.’ It may have been something to do with this, but I didn’t mind about missing out on a full Wigan breakfast: we wanted to film the Liverpool pickets as the men who had taken over their work drove past them and through the dock gates at the start of their shift.

My family comes from the other side of the river from the dockers and, I suppose, from the other side of the tracks, though perhaps not quite so far on the other side as the Old Etonian Orwell. They worked in shipping, and seem to have managed to write off an appreciable tonnage. According to my aunt, my Great-Uncle Leslie was the captain of a tugboat which went down with the loss of all hands after mysteriously taking up a position side-on to a fast-moving freighter. ‘He hadn’t been drinking,’ added my aunt, a little too quickly. My father, who spent the war with the Sea Scouts spotting mines in the Mersey, involuntarily did his bit for the Third Reich by putting his foot through the hull of a canoe. The first I knew of the docks was the cranes you could see from Wallasey. You could look out across the river at them from the bottom of the street where my grandparents had a B&B – a place of endless passages and landings, or so it seemed, and very different from the Brookers’, though it appears in retrospect to belong to much the same era. My Great-Uncle George, like his late brother, worked for one of the tug companies and arranged for my brother and me to go out on a tug: there was a heady miasma of diesel, and the plates of the vessel throbbed. I remember a joke about the dockers from the same time. ‘What about this three-day week? The dockers aren’t happy. They’re only used to working two.’ The joke turned on the alleged bolshieness and bone-idleness of the dockers. I’ve always liked it. I hesitate to bring up the dread subject of the Liverpudlian sense of humour, but when funny stories are told about the dockers in their own backyard, it doesn’t seem to me that they are meant unkindly.

On the Arctic morning we went to film the picket-line, I was doing my best to coddle these warm sentiments. Although I am the son of a Merseysider, a Liverpool FC supporter and a sometime would-be Scouser, I realised that I had never actually met a Liverpool docker before, and that my knowledge of the docks and the dockers was confined to a joke and a view over the side of a tug. Like Orwell, I approached my first docker with a certain amount of apprehension (‘I stiffened myself’). Picket-lines, including those shepherded by the police, can be inhospitable places for camera-crews. The Liverpool men were lined up by the gates to the Sea-forth docks, where Great-Uncle George had worked. There were police officers in fluorescent bibs, with reinforcements in paddy-wagons drawn up at a roundabout beneath a flyover. The dockers were jeering at fellow trade-unionists whom they had been working alongside until a few weeks earlier, as well as at the men recruited by a contractor to take over their own jobs. Some of the dockers were cooking on braziers. They were flipping burgers, cracking eggs: their fried eggs didn’t look pale. These rations were just a stopgap, however. Breakfast at a pub – a combination of drop-in centre and campaign headquarters – was something to look forward to after an early start on the picket-line. The pub was called the Alms House. We were made welcome. The dockers were grateful that anyone from the media was paying attention to them. I had toast and an Orwellian cup of tea: ‘it was a kind of baptism.’

What struck me about the men was how old they were: we didn’t meet a docker with less than twenty years’ experience. There is a tradition of generations of the same family working on the docks. Indeed, the dispute began when the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company (MDHC) sacked 329 men who refused to cross a picket-line set up in support of 80 others, their sons and nephews among them, who had been fired by a smaller concern. The MDHC offered 200 new contracts on condition the dockers accepted them at once. But the men insisted they must all be taken back, and on their terms. Within days, MDHC was advertising dockers’ jobs in the local press, provoking the charge, denied by the company, that it had wanted to impose casual working all along. A spokesman told me in December 1995 that he expected negotiations to ‘centre on two issues: jobs that might be available, and payments. What I can say is that the possibility of jobs for the men who have been dismissed is very, very much reduced now. The door is almost closed on the possibility of jobs that might exist.’ In fact, the company made what was at least its fourth ‘final offer’ a year later. But it still wasn’t talking about reinstatement. It was inviting the dockworkers to apply for jobs – for their own jobs, as the dockers saw it – and only 40 of them, by this time. The company also promised severance payments and pension rights to its former employees, but the older men who would have benefited most were as adamant as the others about rejecting the offer.

The dockers I spoke to in the ‘frowzy kitchen’ of the Alms House had worked in a trade that was little changed since Orwell described it: ‘Dock-labourers ... who are generally hired by the half-day, have to sign on at a Labour Exchange twice daily; if they fail to do so it is assumed that they have been working and their dole is reduced correspondingly.’ In Solidarity on the Waterfront, a docker called Jimmy Davies recalls starting work at the age of 18 in 1960:

At that time they were still operating a casual system and I went into pen number eight, which dealt with all the coastal traffic to Ireland. There were about 2000 men in that control area and the boss would wander round and put his hand on your shoulder to indicate that he’d hire you. The problem was that there was an old-established gang system and it was very difficult to break into that if you were a young lad ... and so you would end up with a couple of days’ work and a couple of days on the dole each week.

Another dock-worker, Jimmy Nolan, told the authors, who are lecturers at Liverpool University, that when he started ‘you were expected to work in the rain, the snow and gale force winds and everything. There was no protective clothing, you were just expected to work in your ordinary clothes.’ Meeting the men in the Alms House was like meeting miners during their dispute (which was over in a fraction of the time): you felt disbelief at their determination to resume an occupation which is so uncongenial, and to pass on that burden to their children. The dockers’ heyday was in the Seventies and Eighties, when pay and conditions improved. But then came the abolition of the National Dock Labour Scheme in 1989, and with it, according to the dockers, creeping casualisation. They claim that they were sometimes expected to work 15-hour shifts, and to wait at home by the telephone on their days off in case they were called in. You might wonder what they were getting out of this: what the employer was getting out of it was the unprecedented achievement of turning around 29 million tonnes of cargo in a year (1994), and the reflected glory of praise for the workforce from Lloyd’s List. As in the miners’ strike, there has been consolation in the camaraderie of the dispute. Workers have found themselves lobbying for help in exotic surroundings: ‘the day finished with the men being arrested and deported from Canada but feeling the trip had been worthwhile.’ This is the first recorded British dispute in which the pickets have included well-wishers from overseas. Had they been local, they might well have fallen foul of legislation drawn up with secondary action in mind. There have been sympathetic initiatives from some workers at home – the tugboat men among them, I note – and the dockers’ wives, sisters and mothers have formed a formidable support organisation, the Women of the Waterfront: another parallel with the pit dispute.

The dispute increasingly looks like the dockers’ last stand. The MDHC has claimed that it is having no impact on its business. Productivity went up by 40 per cent after the dockers were replaced, it said, and total port cargo increased by more than 800,000 tonnes to a record 15.13 million tonnes in six months. The dockers’ action is unofficial. Their representatives in the Transport and General Workers’ Union have offered sympathy and the use of office premises but ‘the lack of practical and financial support from the TGWU has been heavily criticised by dock workers.’ The campaign to win backing overseas culminated in American Container Line, the biggest container outfit using Liverpool, pulling out of the port – but only for a month. Even those Brandoesque figures, the American longshoremen, got cold feet about blacking ships which dealt with MDHC when they thought of losing work to other dockers around the world. Nor would the dockers be advised to have high hopes of an incoming Labour government. Solidarity on the Waterfront tells the story of workers and their families who have found precious little solidarity in other quarters. Michael Lavalette and Jane Kennedy also suggest that the cost of securing foreign support has been some ‘inactivity’ by the men at home: ‘if internationalism and the international dock labour force are going to win the dispute for the Liverpool workers why do they need to attend 6 a.m. pickets?’ There’s a clear suggestion, too, that Merseyside shop-stewards have erred on the side of caution in their interpretation of Conservative trade-union laws.

Perhaps because it’s not official, the Liverpool dispute has scarcely registered on the national imagination: a march, a showbusiness benefit, a fine for Liverpool footballer Robbie Fowler for displaying a supportive T-shirt after scoring a goal. In any case, it’s doubtful that the dockers have ever enjoyed the goodwill once felt for the miners. I’ve seen a kindly piece in the Daily Express, of all places, but the Mail on Sunday last September ranted that ‘the same self-destructiveness and sheer bloody-mindedness which reduced Britain – victors of the Second World War – to industrial inferiors of Germany and Japan have been strutting the waterfront like peacocks.’ If you believed the Mail on Sunday, you might not want them moving in next door, but at least in this caricature they are recognisably flesh and blood – which is not always the case when they are hymned by their friends. An international conference held in support of the dockers is described in Solidarity on the Waterfront. Overseas delegates queue up to pay tribute to the Merseysiders (the account reads like the preamble to a doubtful joke: ‘the Portuguese worker said ... the Canadian delegate stressed ... while the Greek docker stated’). The Australian representative tells the dockers: ‘Your victory will further enrich the great working-class history of Liverpool. Your victory will be a victory for every decent man and woman throughout the world.’Meanwhile, the man from Ireland says: ‘You will march back to work victorious, unbowed, unbloodied and undefeated.’

Setting on one side the reliability of these forecasts, there is something glassy about the people who are being evoked here. Lavalette and Kennedy, in their account, don’t shirk awkward details – the dockers’ war effort included an average of thirty strikes a year between 1939 and 1945 – but the best parts of the book are the first-person accounts of the lock-out by workers and their wives. A docker called Derek reports to a mass meeting on his visit to France, where he held talks with union officials. ‘All they kept saying was: “du courage, du courage, du courage” – and that means “courage”, lads.’ It’s a dockers joke, of a sort. Here’s another one, which a Liverpudlian comic called Sean Styles told me in December 1995: ‘A steward stood on a platform. He said: “Right, lads, we’ve come to an agreement. We’re only going to work Fridays.” And this fellow shouted: “Every Friday?”’ Chance would be a fine thing, the men in the Alms House might say.