THEY TALK of modernisation today. Funnily enough that was the language and the fight we faced back then. The employers and the Tory government wanted to break dockers and our employment 'scheme', which gave us real protection of jobs and conditions.
They talked of bringing in containers. They put the work in inland depots using non-dockers on lower wages and conditions. That threatened to massacre our jobs. Our TGWU union leader at the time, Jack Jones, was keeping everything within official channels, but we could see what was happening. We had a rank and file workers' organisation. It linked shop stewards and activists around the country in different ports.
We were ready to act, and we acted. We started to refuse to work with lorries and cargo that were undermining our jobs. We picketed container depots that were taking our work.
The government intervened repeatedly, and eventually used anti-union laws to jail five dockers in Pentonville prison. We didn't wait for the officials and union leaders. The stewards organised meetings and we walked out across the country.
I remember a group of us young workers meeting in London. Someone said, 'They're in the 'Ville - let's go down there!' So we went and established a picket outside the jail.
Other workers started coming to our picket, bringing support. But the key to winning was when we started sending people out from our picket to argue our case and win solidarity. The first place we went for was Fleet Street, where the national press was. The press had been, like most of it today, bitterly hostile to us.
They demanded that the government act against us, that we be jailed. Newspapers owned wharves for newsprint and were port employers in their own right at that time, so they had a direct link with our dispute. We went as rank and file dockers and turned up asking to speak to union reps, arguing our case. We persuaded workers to come out in solidarity. We had a slogan, 'Five trade unionists are inside - why aren't you outside?'
I remember going to an occupied print works in south London. That was a strange feeling, amazing. There was a sense of freedom. Workers welcomed other workers into the factory and kept the bosses out. They provided leaflets and posters for us.
We didn't stop at the print. I remember going to the rail workers at King's Cross. Building workers came out when we had marches. We'd get them walking off site to join us.
Wherever we went it was workers turning up and asking to see the union rep or steward and speaking to them directly, all unofficial. The solidarity grew and strikes were spreading. Our union leader, Jack Jones, went to an emergency TUC meeting and they proposed a one-day general strike. They only did that because they knew that if they didn't it would happen anyway from the rank and file.
The government caved in before it happened. They could see how things were spreading, and the dockers were released from jail. Today the fire dispute is key. It's for everyone. We can win. But to win you have to be hard headed. The government, the employers and the state are unscrupulous bastards. They will put the boot in as hard as they can.
You have to realise you're fighting a class war. There's no room for sentimentality. You have to be organised and assert your strength as a class if you want to win.
Achieving that depends on the level of organisation. You need a battle plan, and the crucial thing is the rank and file going out winning solidarity. One thing is sure. If the firefighters just stick by their fires on the picket line then the fire will go out from the dispute and they won't win. They have to go outwards to other workers. We could not have won our fight in the docks. We had to go out and win solidarity.
Each area needs a battle plan. Who do we know? Who do they know? Can we find the shop steward or union rep in that workplace, or the people who will organise solidarity in this one? If not, then how do we find these people? Get a leaflet in each area, with local union reps and the like, saying why you should support the fight and go round with it to other places.
Collections are important, not just for the money, but because they show who your friends are. Those are the people who will then organise active solidarity, coming out on the streets or possibly taking action.
The government is not as powerful as it pretends. It can be beaten, if rank and file workers organise, go out and win solidarity, and use our power as a class. Even the best union leaders or officials will be subject to pressure from the government, the employers, the press and other union leaders to compromise, unless they know that the rank and file is ready to mobilise and act, whatever happens.