Message-ID: <>
Date: Sun, 1 Feb 1998 15:32:43 +0000;
Sender: Forum on Labor in the Global Economy <LABOR-L@YORKU.CA>
From: LabourNet <chrisbailey@GN.APC.ORG>
Subject: Playwright Jimmy McGovern on Liverpool dockers

When you are a Liverpool docker, it never rains but it pours

By Jimmy McGovern, The Observer Review, 1 February 1998

Twenty eight months ago, Liverpool dockers refused to cross a picket line made up of men they saw as their colleagues. They were immediately sacked. They then set up their own picket line and waited for Mersey Docks and Harbour Company to give them their jobs back. And waited. And waited.

Many of the dockers were not young. They had pensions to look forward to. And when Mersey Docks offered them £28,000 a man to abandon the dispute, the temptation must have been overwhelming. But there were other men, men with young families and many years of work ahead of them. For them, 28 grand was an insult. That is why the men consistently rejected the Mersey Docks’ offer: not because it didn't suit the majority, but because it didn't suit them all. These were men of the highest principle.

You would have expected Bill Morris, General Secretary of the TGWU, to applaud such principle. He didn't. Yes, he made a lot of apparently supportive noise in the first year of the dispute, but he never got around to declaring it official. And when it dragged on into its second year, he made it clear what he thought the men should do: take the money and run.

This led to some serious criticism, including an article of mine in the Observer a few months ago. Morris responded by imposing a secret ballot on the sacked dockers. An amazing 70 per cent voted to continue the dispute. Morris was unimpressed by such resilience. ‘I regret,’ he said, ‘that it has not been possible to resolve this dispute.'

Morris consistently argued that the dispute was illegal. There is strong evidence that he was wrong, but let's suppose he was right. Would that have mattered? If a law is bad, that is a very good reason for breaking it. And a law that allows a company to ruin the lives of hundreds of loyal, long-serving workers is surely a bad law So I doubt if even Bill Morris ever questioned the morality of supporting the dockers. It was more the wisdom of it.

He argued that if he gave the dispute his official blessing, and thus broke the law, the union's funds would be sequestrated and it would be unable to protect its one million members. It was better for 50 dockers to rot than for one million members to lose their union. Now that sounds plausible. A bit depressing, of course, but pragmatic and brutally honest. In fact, it is utterly dishonest and if trade union leaders are allowed to get away with cowardly rubbish like this, the movement is doomed. What are unions for? Why do people form them? They do it because they know that the strength of the many will protect the few. That is the fundamental principle of trade unionism. Lose that, as the TGWU has done, and there is no reason to join or remain in a trade union. The Mersey Docks dispute should have been won.

Bill Morris has blamed the dockers’ defeat on anti-trade-union laws which New Labour is pledged to retain. But the dockers lost because their union leadership blew it. Besides, whose fault is it that those laws are still in place if it isn't Bill's and the other trade union bigwigs? They give the Labour Party millions. Bernie Ecclestone, for God's sake, donated a single, measly million and for that he was allowed to help peddle a drug that kills billions of people worldwide. Bill and the boys should clearly be pushing a bit harder for what they say they want.

Trade union leaders must know where the Labour Party is headed. One day all its money will come from private individuals and nothing at all from the trade union movement. That's what the Bernie Ecclestone saga was all about. It was not the disaster that the commentators claimed. It was, in fact, a publicity coup, an advertisement, carried free by all the media, declaring that you too can have your say in Labour Party policy—so long as you can come up with the cash. Despite this, Morris goes on chanting his mantra: ‘We will continue to campaign for changes to the law [on industrial relations].’ Bill, it's now or never, if it isn't too late already.

As for the dockers, some are relieved it is all over. Who wouldn't be? Many are determined to fight on and they're talking of a campaign for justice. But, above all, they are angry that a union to which they have been loyal all their working lives could so callously betray them. Last time I wrote for the Observer about the Liverpool dockers Morris complained that, apart from one fax, I hadn't contacted him. That's not the whole truth. I sent a short fax, yes, and he sent one back threatening to sue me. I'm looking at it as I write. At the top is the TGWU motto: ‘Unity is Strength’.