By Dave Owens
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Issue 408

Twenty years on and it is fitting that tribute is paid to the courage, sacrifice and humour of the Liverpool dockers’ struggle.

The dispute began in defence of the first principle of rank and file trade unionism: “Never cross a picket line”. It was a principle the Tories thought they had buried with the miners’ defeat ten years earlier, but as Ken Loach comments, “nobody told the Liverpool dockers.”

This book of images invokes the spirit of the dockers’ fight. The dispute became a beacon for socialists and trade unionists in Britain and internationally; however, it ended in bitter defeat. Defeats need to be analysed forensically.

This book by nature could never hope to do that but if it helps inspire resistance today it is none the worse for it.

In his foreword Ken Loach asks the question, “Could the dockers have won?” The answer has to be a resounding yes!

Had the dockers’ Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) not called off plans for a national dock strike during the miners’ strike in defence of the National Dock Labour Scheme — which guaranteed working conditions in ports — both dockers and miners would have won.

As it was, the Tories came for the scheme in 1989 and as other ports were picked off Liverpool was left to stand alone.

Union leaders hid behind the anti-union laws and withheld support but this was a lock-out by the employers, not a strike. The lorry drivers who drove past the picket lines between 1995 and 1998 were mainly members of the same TGWU as the dock workers. Why did the union leadership allow this to happen?

The dispute also continued well after Labour’s election victory in 1997. Despite expressions of support, the Labour leadership abandoned the dockers.

Support on Merseyside at the time was overwhelming. To give one small example, workers in local job centres refused to handle job vacancies in the Port of Liverpool for the duration of the dispute and civil service management accepted this.

Was this a glimpse of what was possible? Ken Loach refers to Liverpool as the “Petrograd” of Britain.

This makes reference to a tradition of working class solidarity in Liverpool that stretches back to the General Transport Strike of 1911. Had this tradition survived the battering the city took in the 1980s? The working class of Liverpool were never asked!

As it was, the dockers were left to fight alone, and lost. With the Tories gunning for the unions again it is a lesson for today.

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