What Battle Plan for Dockers?


On July 3, 1989, the Margaret Thatcher government privatized Britain’s 60 seaports, ending five decades of nationalization. In quick order, the new owners, private shipping firms, took on the dockworkers’ unions. After two years of court and picket line battles, all ports but Liverpool, were no longer unionized.

On Sept. 28, 1995, the Liverpool dockers were provoked into a strike “against brutal speedup and deteriorating working conditions,” according to labor writer David Bacon.1 The 500 dockworkers were “promptly fired and replaced. … Once their strike started, dockers from Liverpool fanned out to ports around the world. First setting up picket lines in Philadelphia wharves, they won the support of East Coast dockworkers. Their message then met a sympathetic response in San Francisco, where longshoremen have a long tradition of stopping work in support of workers in other countries.” 2

Despite the international support, in January 1998, after more than two years, the Liverpool dockers lost. At the time the dockers said in a prepared statement3 that they needed “a far more positive support role from our own union leadership in calling for an increase in both the national support through the TGWU [Transport and General Workers Union] industrial branches and international support via the ITF [International Transport Workers Union].”

Both the TGWU and the ITF, they said,had joined the company “in stating that the dispute was over.” Further, the Labour government headed by Tony Blair failed to intervene on their behalf, despite the fact that it had a “14% share holding” in the union-busting company.

Mike Carden, a dockworker who also was a member of the TGWU executive council, told Bacon after the strike that the union “made it perfectly clear throughout the struggle that they had no intention of facilitating practical support for the Liverpool dockworkers. That had international ramifications with the International Transport Workers federation and other trade unions.

“Because our strike had been declared illegal [a secondary strike], and they therefore said they couldn’t get involved. That was the most damaging thing that hung over our heads throughout the dispute.”

Bacon asked Carden to explain relations between the Labour Party, the union, and the employers. “Well, my personal opinion, based on over 20 years of experience both in the Labour Party and in the Transport and General Workers Union, is that they’ve abrogated any responsibility. The unions have bought right into the Labour government’s policies of partnership with employers, of giving to industry everything they demand.

“The unions could have put pressure on the Labour government. I still think they’ve got a tremendous influence to wield, when you look at the membership in some UK industries. But they chose not to do that, because of their views about the working class, and how they see their own role as leaders of unions.

“To them, their role of representing workers is exactly the same as the perception of the Labour government, which is partnership. Conflict doesn’t exist. At the end of the day the employer is always right. Representing employers’ needs seems to be the priority, not the representation of the working class.”

The Liverpool strike, as well as the earlier two-year British dockworkers’ national strike, brings to mind the Austin, Minn., meatpackers’ strike led by Local P-9 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW), which began in August 1985 and ended in June 1986.

The P-9 strike was notable for the high level of militant activity by both the ranks and the local’s leaders and the widespread solidarity that extended to communities well beyond Minnesota. Unfortunately, it was also notable for its betrayal by the union’s international leadership, supported by the AFL-CIO; and the attacks by politicians, who ordered the National Guard to herd scabs through the plant’s picket-lines, all of which decisively turned the balance of forces against the strikers.

Both strikes were attempts to wrestle with the powerful forces of industrial rationalization and competition that have swept the industrial world since the early 1970s, with the completion of the re-rebuilding of the war-damaged economies of Europe and Japan. These are the same very powerful elemental forces of contemporary capitalism that confront the West Coast dockworkers and their union, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).

The dock bosses aren’t out to chisel a few bucks from the dockworkers’ wages. They are out to enlarge their control over the job, control they lost as a result of the historic 1934 dockworkers strike and the San Francisco general strike that sealed the victory.

The Pacific Maritime Association (a consortium of 76 shipping and terminal firms) frequently speaks of the higher productivity achieved at overseas ports; and they undoubtedly have pondered the lessons of British capital’s rout of the British dockworkers.

The ILWU said on Sept. 26 that the government pledged not to place the dockworkers under the more restrictive Railway Act. However, theLos Angeles Times (Oct. 16) reports that the government “is being urged by a group of rail, truck, and shipping companies to consider a form of the Railway Labor Act of the 1920s, which imposes compulsory arbitration on labor disputes that endanger the national economy.”

The Times report speaks darkly of possible congressional legislation “to loosen the shackles that both sides have placed on the docks.”

In 1971, the ILWU struck for 100 days, went back to work under a Taft-Hartley injunction, and then resumed its strike for another month when it won a contract. Just as the contract beef was settled, President Nixon signed legislation passed by a Democrat-controlled Congress to end the strike and force the dockworkers back on the job for 18 months. Only the fact that a new contract was agreed to almost simultaneously with Nixon’s signing the back-to-work legislation kept the law from being imposed.

President Bush and Congress retain the authority used by Nixon and Congress under the Taft-Hartley Act to again pass oppressive legislation forcing the dockworkers back to work for a prolonged period. If the union refuses to buckle under and decides it must strike to fight off a government-backed assault-not just on the ILWU’s present level of on-the-job power but also on its very right to strike-then what must it do or not to do to escape the fate of the British dockworkers union?

Will the Democratic Party be more supportive of the ILWU than the Blair-led Labour Party was of the Liverpool dockworkers? Weeks ago Democratic Party office holders up and down the coast said they backed the ILWU. At a Seattle rally, Sen. Daschle urged the dockworkers to “fight, fight, fight!”

Two prominent exceptions were Sen. Dianne Feinstein and California Gov. Gray Davis. Feinstein called on President Bush to impose Taft-Hartley, if the docks were not reopened within a week; and Davis simpered that he was opposed both to a lockout and a slowdown.

It’s one thing for Democrats to tell the ILWU to “fight, fight, fight” when they have been locked out; but its entirely another thing, when dockworkers strike and strike and strike and refuse to return to their jobs, even if the government orders them to return. Not to heed a government order would make the dockworkers “lawbreakers,” giving Democratic Party politicos more than enough cover to withdraw their verbal support.

The ILWU dockworkers have said many times in recent weeks that dockworkers around the world would refuse to unload ships from the U.S. loaded by strikebreakers. That solidarity is not without precedent; the Liverpool strikers got some solidarity along those lines. But in military terms that help was comparable to harassing sorties that had no apparent impact on the front-line battle.

Clearly, the U.S. dockworkers would require far more solidarity aid from overseas to really hurt a wealthier American opponent, inspired by the British owners’ victory over the British dockworkers.

The British dockworkers strike did not spread to other sectors of the nation’s industry. As the dockworkers said, their union and the ITF- which claims to represent a membership of nearly 5 million workers in 594 transport unions in 136 countries-didn’t even try to arouse other British workers and their unions to take industrial action to back them up.

How much help can U.S. dockworkers realistically expect from the AFL-CIO? In 1989, the year that British dockworkers found themselves “denationalized,” the U.S. government took on and decisively whipped the air controllers union. Only one major union, the Machinists, called for organized labor to stand with the air controllers. The call was ignored.

Even if today’s AFL-CIO officialdom didn’t completely ignore a grave threat to the ILWU’s present strength or even its existence, what is there in the record to suggest that the ILWU can count on the federation’s leadership to risk its many-sided relationships with corporate America and its political accomplices? Sweeney’s speeches extol union partnerships with corporate America, dead-ringers for the partnerships that the British dockworkers said were embraced by their union and the Blair government.

Just asking these questions suggests that the ILWU dockworkers cannot reply on the British battle plan, which included depending on politicians in bed with the bosses and a union officialdom infatuated with the false notion that a partnership with corporations is realistic and the answer to privatization, rationalization, and surging levels of world-wide corporate competition.

What battle plan, then, should the ILWU dockworkers adopt? That’s hard to say in detail. But surely, the ILWU’s early militant history that allowed it to win out over dock bosses and government intervention, troops, cops, and scabs during the depths of the Great Depression is worth a second look.


1 David Bacon, Longshore Workers Chase Scab British Cargo Out to Sea

2 David Bacon, Liverpool Dockers, zmag.org./feb 99


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