Message-ID: <>
Date: Fri, 6 Feb 1998 11:55:20 +0000
Sender: Forum on Labor in the Global Economy <LABOR-L@YORKU.CA>
From: LabourNet <chrisbailey@GN.APC.ORG>
Subject: Reply to Bill Morris

Letter from Bill Morris replying to an article in The Guardian by Mark Steel

6 February 1998

I do not wish to strain your readers' patience by responding to personal abuse from the glitterati of the Socialist Workers' Party over the Liverpool docks strike (Letters, February 3, January 31). There are, however, three points which everyone should understand.

Firstly, calls for solidarity action, defiance of the law and so on, would have been no more than rhetoric. There was no support for solidarity action whatsoever within the T&G—indeed, over 800 T&G members employed by Mersey Docks, workmates of those dismissed, continued working normally throughout the dispute, which was called without their involvement. I have as much responsibility to them as to the dismissed 320.

Secondly, the legal threats faced by the union were not abstract ones. A judgement was made in a New Jersey court which would have fined the union $1 million a day if we lent public support to the dismissed dockers. Fines of that magnitude, which could have been repeated in Britain itself, would have left the T&G incapable of functioning—a high price to pay for rhetoric.

If it was a matter of individual sacrifice, I would have been happy to make it. But I was not prepared to sacrifice the interests of every T&G member and their families and see our organisation smashed up to no avail.

Thirdly, it is ironic that those who normally shout loudest about rank-and-file democracy in trade unions should overlook the point that the course of action urged by various of your correspondents was explicitly rejected by the T&G's conference. This conference, which is exclusively composed of lorry drivers, car workers, building workers, catering workers, etc, has a better sense of the realities of both the legal dangers and the dockers' dispute itself. Not surprising since it is they, not the comfortable middle-class, who would carry the can for any misjudgement.

Bill Morris.

General Secretary,
Transport and General Workers' Union,
Transport House,
London SW1E 5JD.

Democracy and the Union

A reply to Bill Morris by Greg Dropkin of LaborNet

Reading the latest letter to The Guardian signed by Bill Morris, I cannot tell whether he wrote it.

Whoever did so is either incompetent or a liar. Their contempt for the truth indicates an equal contempt for their readers.

In its first point Morris' letter states There was no support for solidarity action whatsoever within the T&G.

It is true that the T&G membership did not rise up in mass defiance of the union leadership and impose widespread industrial solidarity action to win the dispute. Yet Morris was on the platform on July 7th 1997 when Deputy General Secretary Jack Adams tried to persuade the union's Biennial Delegate Conference to endorse an Executive Statement on the dockers. He knows that the convenor of the Rover Cowley plant, lorry drivers, Belfast dockers, the leader of the Civil Aviation Transport section at London Heathrow, and many others opposed the Executive and a number of these speakers called for action. He also knows that T&G Belfast dockers then participated in the 8 September International Day of Action by delaying Coastal Container vessels, and that T&G auto transport drivers honoured the picket line in Sheerness on 29 September, as they had done in January 1996. He knows that a few heroic T&G lorry drivers were prepared to be sacked for refusing to cross the picket line in Liverpool. He also knows that on occasion T&G tugboatmen within the Port of Liverpool refused to service vessels.

The letter also refers to over 800 T&G members employed by Mersey Docks, a figure refuted publicly by the sacked dockers who estimated a total of 417 union members within the port. Morris' claim to have as much responsibility to them as to the dismissed 320 conveniently ignores the fact that the vast majority of these 417 are not dockers and were not sacked.

Secondly, Morris' letter claims A judgement was made in a New Jersey court which would have fined the union $1 million a day if we lent public support to the dismissed dockers. Having covered the dispute on LabourNet for 2 years, this is news to me.

As Morris knows, the original legal action by ACL in December 1995 was against the Liverpool pickets, not the T&GWU, and was lifted in favour of negotations. A few months later, Mersey Docks attempted to sue the Merseyside Port Shop Stewards in the US Courts. The case was thrown out by the National Labour Relations Board, which was astounded that a UK company would attempt to use the US courts against a UK organisation. Mersey Docks finally succeeded in bringing an action in Brooklyn against the International Longshoremen's Association, claiming millions of dollars worth of damages. The case dragged on for a year or so and was eventually dropped. Now Morris' letter informs us of an unspecified judgement in New Jersey which would cost $1 million a day if the union so much as "lent public support to the dismissed dockers".

It would be interesting to know what powers of enforcement the New Jersey courts have over the T&GWU. Be that as it may, everyone knows that in March 1996 Bill Morris pledged that the entire union was backing the dockers all the way. Presumably this was before the New Jersey court pronounced judgement. But the T&GWU General Secretary also spent much of last year insisting that contrary to ill-informed criticism from John Pilger and others, the union was indeed supporting the dockers. In the February-March 1997 issue of the T&GWU Record, the union's official publication, he stated:

Nevertheless the union has endeavoured to give our members in Liverpool whatever support it can... (and) has worked with the International Transport Workers Federation to campaign for the dockers' reinstatement within the bounds of what is legal and practicable. and, in a letter to the Guardian printed in full in the same Record, he observed:

the shop stewards are well aware of the support given to them by their union, notwithstanding the fact that the dispute falls foul of the draconian anti-union legislation passed over the last 17 years, a fact many of the TGWU's critics simply ignore.

I reckon the T&GWU must owe someone in New Jersey around 365 million pounds for that indiscretion!

But let us take Morris' argument at face value, forgetting for the moment that no-one I've spoken to has ever heard of this New Jersey judgement and that the T&GWU is evidently in breach of it anyway. Suppose instead that a ruling in a New Jersey court knocks out the mighty T&GWU. Well, we live in a global economy where much of industry is either transnational or dependent on international trade.

If Morris' letter is correct, it is simply irrelevant whether a dispute is official or unofficial, adheres to the UK employment law or defies it, because as soon as any employer halfway round the world gets a court judgement gagging the union, no public support is possible. Why should we be in the T&G, Bill?

In its 3rd point, Morris' letter contrasts those who normally shout loudest about rank and file democracy with lorry drivers, car workers, building workers, catering workers etc. who have a better sense of the realities of both the legal dangers and the dockers' dispute itself.

Actually, car workers and catering staff care about rank and file democracy. That's why they stood up at the Biennial Delegate Conference to attack the Executive Statement as an abuse of democracy. When conference voted against the Executive and the Chair declared that the statement had carried, it was the lorry drivers, building workers, and the rest of the low-paid membership whose dues maintain the union headquarters, who refused to leave the hall until the Chair announced the vote would be retaken the next morning. The Executive was then defeated 283–182.Unfortunately, in a further abuse of democracy, the Chair had ruled there would be no debate on any of the docks motions submitted from branches. He also declined impassioned pleas that the Executive withdraw their Statement and allow an acceptable composite reflecting the views being expressed from the conference floor.

It was in this context, with an Executive Statement hijacking the debate, that Conference made what decisions it could without further discussion on any specific motion. Bill Morris may regard this as an endorsement of his strategy. I do not.

Furthermore, the issue does not stop with policy vis-a-vis action by T&G members. In his previous letter, Morris blames the UK anti-trade union laws for the dockers' defeat. But these laws did not force the T&G to dissuade other trade unions from taking industrial solidarity action in support of the dockers.

Indeed, during the British Airways dispute last summer the T&G appealed to the International Transportworkers Federation, who in turn threatened action against BA around the world. When BA began proceedings under the anti-union laws, the ITF simply offered to move its headquarters to a more union-friendly country. BA backed off.

For the last year, every attempt to persuade the ITF to encourage its affiliates to join the extensive actions against shipping companies trading with Mersey Docks has foundered on the direct opposition of Bill Morris and his backers within the union leadership.

At the T&G General Executive Council in early December, delegates were prevented from even discussing a properly submitted motion from the Region 3 (Ireland) Regional Committee, calling on the union to instruct the ITF to give full support to the Liverpool dockers. Morris claimed the law prevented the Executive from even discussing the motion.

The utter lack of democracy within the union is one key factor in the defeat of the Liverpool dockers.

Greg Dropkin