Workers History As Told by Those Who Made It.
Merseyside Dockers, and Women of the Waterfront.
Women of the Waterfront
Dockers’ Wives - Sue Mitchell and Doreen McNally
The Merseyside dockers’ struggle, which began over the sacking
of young dockers in 1995, and lasted two and one quarter years, became
the longest struggle in the history of the docks industry.
It was historic in many other ways, the most important being that it was
conditioned and determined by great changes which had taken place in the
dock transport industry. These changes took place, not only on the docks,
but in the whole of British industry and in the strength and power of
old industrial unions in Britain.
We cannot even begin to understand this dispute if we do not place it
within the context of the general economic and trade union developments
in Britain, and also within the framework of the international evolution
of capitalism and international class relations.
A dispute of historical importance
This struggle was the longest that had taken place in the history of the
docks. But more important than that, it expressed both the end of one
stage in the history of the British working class, and the beginning of
a new one. It had an importance way beyond the small number of dockers
and Women of the Waterfront involved in it.
There had certainly been great changes in industry and workers’
organisation in Britain and throughout the world. There can be no differences
over that among any of those who write labour history. There can be some
very sharp differences, however, on the nature of those changes, what
they represent and on the continuity which runs through those changes.
There is no lack of sociological commentators and impressionistic journalists
to talk about the struggle of the Merseyside dockers as representing an
age that had passed, an age of pickets and “never crossing a picket
line”. Among them are those who have told us about “post industrial
society”, and, since 1990 about the “end of history”
– a phrase meaning that economic liberalism and the rule of Capital
had conquered the world.
If its progress is to be seriously discussed, then all the basic questions
of trade unionism today must be involved. Among those serious questions
is the terrible weakness, incapacity and cowardice of trade union leaders
who presided over the decimation of the leading battalions of the British
working class and the loss of trade union power, and were put to rout
by the offensive of Thatcherism and the legal offensive against trade
union rights. There is also the consciousness of the working class expressing
a general sympathy with the struggle and feeling the ills that were being
fought, but not sure of what action they could take or having confidence
to take any.
There were certainly massive changes in the docks transport industry which
began in the 1960s but accelerated in the last three decades of the 20th
century. The orthodox sociologists and economists put the decisive changes
down to the advance of technology: for them, this advance and its effects
are inevitable and to be accepted as progressive. So that the struggles
of miners, dockers, shipyard workers, steel workers and others was the
last stand of troglodytes or Luddites who could not accept the reality
that was removing their old world.
Rundown of the industry
The dockers’ experiences from the end of the sixties up to the 1990s
were part of the general development of industrial and class relations.
Jobs on the docks began to disappear at the end of the 1960s and early
1970s. In 1947 more than 80,000 men had worked in the docks; by 1990 the
number was below 9,000 and rapidly falling. In 1992 in London, where as
recently as 1970 more than 20,000 dockers had been employed, there were
less than 500 dock workers.
Successive Labour and Conservative governments put up large sums of money
for the National Dock Labour Board to pay off tens of thousands of dockers:
from 57,505 in 1967 the registered workforce shrank to 34,606 in 1974.
The decline of the docks transport industry was one of the great changes
in British capitalism which were accelerated with the election of a Tory
government in 1979.
The book They Knew Why They Fought 2 put the experience of struggle on
the docks in the context of what was happening to the working class as
a whole. It showed the general retreat of trade union leadership in the
1980s. I believe it is necessary to underline here also the reality of
that retreat and its consequences.
In the 1970s, the post-war capitalist expansion ran down. Capitalism began
to have problems of fierce competition for markets and profit. Unemployment
began to increase steadily, and an offensive was begun by capitalist companies
and their state representatives to maintain profits by lowering labour
costs, by speed-up, and generally by a more intensive exploitation of
labour power. It was accompanied by a propaganda offensive in the universities,
in politics, and the state against "full employment" and against
the trade unions.
A trade union upsurge
During the 1970s, the trade unions steadily increased their membership
as the offensive of capitalism gathered pace. Workers were joining the
unions, expecting them to defend them.
Robert Taylor, labour correspondent of The Observer, wrote in his 1978
book The Fifth Estate - Britain's Unions in the Modern World:
“The late 1960s and early 1970s constitute one of the great periods
of expansion for the British trade union movement, similar in magnitude
to the growth between 1911 and 1913, in the early 1920s before the onset
of the interwar depression and the 1940s.”
In 1950 there was 44.1 per cent of the workforce in unions, by 1960 it
was 43.1 per cent. In 1969 there was 44.4, in 1970 47.7 and in 1972, the
year of struggle against the anti-union Industrial Relations Act, the
percentage was 49.4.
The total continued increasing. In 1974, the percentage of trade unionists
in the labour force was 50.4. By 1976 it was 52.1. It continued to rise
and in 1979, the year which all the political sages tell us was the year
when Labour lost the election because of the unpopularity of the trade
unions, the percentage of the workforce in union was 54.4 - the highest
it has ever been.
We can state quite definitely that the rise and fall of the trade unions
in the 1970s and 1980s was due to what they could win for their members
and how they defended them. The union membership declined steadily in
the 1980s as a result of the retreats before the attack on conditions
and legal rights - by 1990, it was 38 per cent of the workforce.
It is very clear that the retreats and betrayals of the leaderships, in
face of increasing unemployment and struggles such as the miners' strike,
bear the major responsibility for the decline.
It is also perfectly clear that, in the 1970s, wider layers of workers
felt the need of trade union organisation in the face of the attacks of
employers and government. There was again successful resistance in the
early seventies to the political and legislative attacks on the unions.
The history of British working class struggles in this period speaks for
The Tory government of Heath (1970-74) introduced the Industrial Relations
Act with its curbs on trade union organisation and the militancy of the
rank and file.
It was decisively knocked back by continuous protest actions and demonstrations
and struggle - again stemming from the rank and file of the workers' organisations.
Heath tried to win an election in 1974 with a campaign against the power
of the unions centring on the question: who should run the country, the
government or the unions? He lost.
The "Winter of Discontent", as the press called it, came at
the end of 1979. It is necessary to clear away the myths which were manufactured
by the press at the instigation of the "New Right" and their
"economic liberalist" doctrines.
The Labour government supported by trade union leaders had imposed the
conditions of wage restraint under the "social contract", to
meet the demands of the IMF. In 1979 workers resisting a decline in conditions
and wages were then attacked. Press and Tories conducted a vicious campaign
against striking workers, with slanderous attacks on gravediggers' and
sewage workers' strikes. The victory of the Tories in 1979 was largely
a matter of this malicious, manufactured campaign by press and politicians.
A myth, however, which entered into history was that the Tories won the
election in a swing away from Labour because of the widespread fear of
the unions. But, as we have seen in evidence above, it was during the
period of the 1970s that the British trade union movement made one of
its greatest advances in membership! It is also, of course, a fact that,
although Labour lost over 50 seats, its overall vote rose from 11,429,094
in October 1974 to 13,697,753.
There was a solid turn out of the working class vote in Scotland, the
North-east and the North-west. Following the Tories’ electoral victory,
the powerful resistance to their policies in the early eighties was not
allowed to develop. It was blocked by vacillation by trade union leaders
capitulating to a legal attack on the unions.
The workers respond: leaders retreat
The leaders had begun with boasts of resistance to trade union legislation
at the end of the 1970s. Hundreds of thousands of British workers demonstrated
in Glasgow, in Liverpool and Cardiff in mighty demonstrations of opposition
to unemployment. The demonstrations were called by the Labour Party and
the TUC. However, very soon, the TUC was to show what its words at these
demonstrations really meant.
Britain went into some severe class struggles which lasted until the defeat
of the miners' strike in 1985. Unemployment continued to increase. In
1981 it was increasing at a rate of 100,000 a month. In 1984-85 many of
the trade union leaders and leaders of the Labour Party were in fact,
overtly and even some openly, supporting the isolation and defeat of the
miners' strike at that time.
This was the depth to which the trade union movement fell at the end of
the eighties. No wonder there was increasing unemployment and the steady
deterioration of trade union membership from the great peaks of the 1970s.
Nervous trade union leaders dropped their heroics in relation to the Tory
government's anti-union laws and embraced the "new reality"
of working with the "new capitalism".
As the last half of the 1980s marked the pit of the retreat of trade union
leadership, with the defeats of the miners and the dockers, so in the
last half of the 1990s the Liverpool dock struggle was the beginning of
the rise of the struggle in Britain.
The retreat of the trade unions continued through all the struggles of
this time with the biggest betrayal by the TUC in the miners' strike of
Defeat of 1989
In 1989, the Thatcher government put forward a Bill to abolish the 1947
Dock Labour Scheme which the dockers felt meant they had some control
over the hiring and firing of labour. A reluctant union leadership of
the Transport and General Workers Union, after months of prevarication,
called a national docks stoppage against the abolition of the Dock Labour
Scheme. The strike ended with the de-recognition of the union in all ports
except in Liverpool.
Because of the capitulation of union leaders, both before and during the
strike, the dockers were defeated. The strike ended with employers de-recognising
the union and the dockers being re-employed under individual contracts
in all the major ports in Britain, with the exception of Liverpool.
The majority of Merseyside dockers in 1995 belonged to the generation
of workers who had begun work in the docks in the period of the sixties
which had won the great advances in the 1967 strike (see They Knew Why
They Fought). They had embraced the traditions and solidarity but found
their power and numbers where whittled away in the 1970s with redundancies.
Then the trade union leaders retreated before the Tory Government in the
1980s; the dockers experienced the defeat of the dockers’ national
strike in 1989 against the abolition of the Dock Labour Scheme.
The five hundred dockers who remained on Merseyside were forced into a
struggle, which for them was a continuation of the struggles in their
In September 1995 the dockers, employed by the Mersey Docks and Harbour
Company (MDHC), refused to cross a picket line set up by 80 strikers,
young dockers employed by Torside, a company connected with the MDHC,
who were on strike over the sacking of a young docker who had refused
to work overtime at the end of his shift, after being given only a few
The MDHC issued an ultimatum:- the dockers must agree to return to work
and 200 would be re-employed on new individual contracts and those who
were not offered re-employment would be given redundancy money (the latest
offer during the dispute was £35,000 for each man). The ultimatum
was rejected and a long and extremely important struggle began, which
lasted two years.
The dockers, now locked out, put their aims in the paper, The Dockers'
Charter which was issued regularly in support of this two year struggle.
Our fight, is for regular employment, for the conditions that our forefathers
won and for the right of collective organisation. So that our fight is
also the fight of millions of men and women throughout Britain facing
uncertainty of employment both day-to-day and long term.
Everywhere now there are employers introducing casual labour and individual
contracts. They want to cut their costs and have flexible labour, they
want workers at their beck and call to be brought to work or discarded
at their will.
We had a magnificent international conference of dockers and found common
cause in facing a handful of multi-nationals and a fight against casual
labour, anti-union laws and uncertainty of unemployment.
Millions of people in all countries have now had bitter experience of
the meaning of the "free market" and free licence for capitalist
values. Throughout the world, capitalist governments dismantle welfare
provisions and drive the poor and defenceless into the pit. The circumstances
which have moulded these dockers and their companions who formed the Women
of the Waterfront (WOW) and who picketed the dock gates with the men -
are the drastic changes that have taken place in their living and working
conditions over the past decade and a half.
Policy of dispute leaders
The policy of the dispute leaders towards left political groups and tendencies
was impeccable. Their mass meetings were open; their policy was for "political
and industrial" support and solidarity committees from trade unions
and socialist organisations including Trotskyist tendencies and those
developed from the Communist Party.
Their rallies and mass meetings had international dockers' leaders speaking
from European countries, the east and west coast of USA, from Australia,
New Zealand and Canada but they had a continuous stream of reports from
workers engaged in struggles in Britain, including immigrant workers fighting
for union recognition and against low wages and against deportation. They
heard speakers from Nigeria, South Africa, Iran, and the Indian continent.
Leading members of the Movement for Socialism in Argentina spoke to them
on the persecution of the unemployed leaders there and a leading member
of the PSTU (Workers Socialist Party) in Brazil spoke on the struggle
of the landless peasants.
During one meeting early in 1996 a speaker from the Liverpool dockers
declared: "We are only ordinary people". So they were. However,
real history is full of ordinary people becoming extra-ordinary in meeting
the circumstances which have forced them into struggle. In this dockers'
dispute of 1995-97, one among many of the extraordinary things which these
ordinary people - both men and women - did was to travel to cities in
Europe, Australia and the Americas relating their struggle and gaining
support. Before these dockers were locked out and sacked, neither they
nor any of their partners who rallied to their support, had the least
thought of becoming international emissaries of a workers' struggle.
The delegates not only came back with reports of protest actions in their
support taken in other countries, but also with reports of conditions
and political struggles of workers there. The greatest impact was made
by the reports of the delegations to Turkey. Dockers had been there several
times, were there during the hunger strikes of political prisoners and
the brutal police attacks on demonstrations. Turkish workers played a
leading part in the dockers' support committee in London.
The new rise of resistance
The dockers' struggle in 1995 held the promise of the beginning of the
revival of the rank and file in the unions. That was the feeling of many
at the beginning of the dispute. It certainly attracted a wide support
in the country.
A very important aspect of it was the uniting of dockers with the most
exploited immigrant sections of workers in struggle, and with the "reclaim
the streets" movement of the youth.
The tenacity with which it was fought, the sympathy and solidarity which
it gained nationally and internationally, came because it was a struggle
against the ills and problems facing the working class in Britain and
throughout the world.
The dockers had the longest and most consistent history of rank and file
movements, through which they sought to resolve the problems of trade
union bureaucracy. Their unofficial national port shop stewards' organisation
had played a big part in pushing forward the struggle against the abolition
of the Dock Labour Scheme in 1989.
The relationship with their union came up continually in the struggle
of these Liverpool men and women against the Mersey Docks and Harbour
Company and in their campaign against casualisation, individual contracts
and jobs for young workers.
The increase of international consciousness was the most inspiring aspect
of the Liverpool dockers' struggle. The action of five hundred men swept
through the world with a reaction from Japan to the USA, from Spain to
The majority of the participants in this struggle were of the generation
which came into industry at the end of the 1960s when they could feel
the strength of the working class, only later in the 1970s and 80s to
have it wasted away by the retreats of working class leadership.
They are part of that generation in Britain who suffered the great disappointments
of the end of this period which had reached its height a few years before
and its depths in the last half of the 1980s and the first half of the
1990s. It should be recorded.
Women of the Waterfront
Dockers’ Wives - Sue Mitchell and Doreen McNally
name is Sue Mitchell and my husband has worked the docks since 1964. He
worked for 15 years in Birkenhead for the Caledonian Stevedoring Company
as a “rigger/storekeeper” and when we were married in 1976,
after a year or so, he came over to Liverpool and took the job of a “counter-off”;
he was on the staff and was then on the Staff Pension Scheme; he wasn’t
on the Dock-workers Register. After 15 years doing counter-off he worked
on the timber 15 years and in 1990 - 91 he was moved; 60 men from the
timber terminal were moved (forced to move) to the container base. The
shift patterns all changed. He then became on a three weekly rota of 114
hours. We were used to having him at home of a night; he only worked nights
very, very rarely. I think I can count on one hand the times he worked
nights. He did work, sometimes, weekends for overtime. But suddenly he
was out of the house at all different hours; I think it was on three different
shifts. I gradually saw a deterioration in him as a man. He just became
like a robot. He was working long hours for weeks on end. We did not see
one another. The children no longer saw him.
He used to get telephone calls at home. They used to ring up and sometimes
we had visitors, and we might have been sitting in the garden and the
phone would go and he would be saying, “I’m not in! I’m
not in!” It got to the point when you couldn’t live normally
for fear of the phone going because you knew they either wanted him in
or if he’d worked his 114 hours, or sometimes more, they’d
ring up and say, “...you’re not required.” So, as soon
as he reached a point were they needed to pay him overtime they would
say that, “We don’t want to see you for four or five days”.
So all the time they were “kicking him”; taking every ounce
of energy from him and then either saying, “you’re not required”
or “we want you more” because the ships are in.
BH: Did they give him a bleeper?
Sue: No they didn’t give him a bleeper. They didn’t give him
anything like that but we only live just 10 minutes away from there. I
must admit he did work when they asked him. Most of the time he would
say yes because we only had his wage and I used to say, “Why? You
haven’t had a day off. You look bad. You look awful.” But
he would say, “It’s a bit extra to pay the bills. It’s
a bit extra for the kids.” So when I didn’t pressurise him
to do this, I felt the company were just draining him of all his resources.
But men tell me now that he was a good worker, but to me they had over-stepped
the mark and he became under the control of the Mersey Docks and Harbour
Company. I don’t think he regrets working hard but I think he feels
hurt and angry to think they did treat the men this way. They made comments
about the men, “...they wouldn’t move with the times!”
Well Colin used to be a counter-off; he could drive all the machinery
on the timber [terminal]. Then, because his pay had taken such a drop,
said, “I can’t cope on this wage!” I think he was on
£14,000 a year. The highest pay was £18,900, and that was
working on the “straddle”. So he asked to go on the “straddle”.
First they would not let him. They said, “No” and ignored
him. They just said, “Get on with the ‘Office’.”
He wasn’t very happy but the other men were trying to fit him in.
They had their job to do. They had done their jobs for so many years.
And then you had somebody coming in the office. You had to train them
up. But Colin said, “I don’t think they’re doing this
deliberately but I felt like I’m slowing things down. You know when
you’re organised? You know exactly what you’re going to do.
Then suddenly you’ve got to stop what you’re doing to tell
somebody, ‘This is what you do now. You’ve made a mistake’.”
I think it was at the third attempt of asking the boss that was in charge
could he try again, could he train on the straddles. I was a bit apprehensive,
I said, “Them big machines.” “That’s them,”
he’d say, as we were driving past. I’d say, “don’t
you think that it’s a bit dangerous now because you’re not
getting any younger?” “No,” he’d say. “If
I’m going to earn a decent living that’s what I have to do.”
So he did “move with the times”.
BH: So did he move onto the straddles?
Sue: Yes. He’d been on the straddles 18 months.
BH: Did he complain about them?
Sue: Yes. He used to come home. He wasn’t just black, he was caked
in oil. He’d get washed and if you used them after he had, you would
feel oil on the towels. He would say that there were so many bad machines
you were either breathing in the fumes; things kept breaking down. One
day, I remember he came home and he was really tired. He said that he
had been up eight straddles that day. In them you are about 60 feet up.
All the controllers say is: “Keep going. Keep going. Do your best.
O.K. it’s blowing smoke in but keep going.”
He used to stay behind. I used to be sitting in the car park waiting
for him. I didn’t know anybody then. And I would see all these men.
In the end I would pick up a bit of courage and say, “Excuse me,
do you know my husband?” and they’d go, “What’s
his name?” [I’d answer] “Colin Mitchell,” and
they’d reply, “Oh he’ll be out in a minute.” He’d
stay. Because of the length of the queue he’d stay and do a few
more lorries because he didn’t live too far. There were men who
had to drive half an hour or get a bus. He would stay and do it. And not
just him but other men.
But I would say, “You should have finished at 11.00 not twenty
past.” This is what he was like. He was conscious of the pressure
that men were under so he would do his job a little bit over so that the
man who may have been a little bit late because of the traffic wouldn’t
get into trouble. This was the way it was. I used to take him into work
about 7.00 and the queue of lorries would be out of the gate and past
where the picket line is now. And he used to say to me, “Oh my God,
I’ll be on the pads.” Meaning that was going to be a bad day.
BH: So did you get boiled up like him?
Sue: Yes I was angry. I kept saying, “Who’s worked these shift
patterns out? Don’t they know this is not working? This is taking
over your life! It’s taking over our life and the children’s
lives!” And he used to say to me that Dempsey (the union official)
had agreed to these things. And I’d say, “Who’s he?
Why didn’t you get rid of him? This is terrible, this is more than
a job. This is taking over your whole life; your social life! We’re
getting pestered with phone calls. You only know your children by name.”
It got that way were you did not have a weekend any more. Every day was
just the same.
The children would say: “Where’s Dad, Mum?” I'd reply:
“He’s in bed.” Or: “He’s at work.”
They would be lucky if they saw him. Usually he would be lying in bed
or he would have just come in as they were going to bed. That’s
the way it was. You would be on edge because the children were complaining.
You would say, “Excuse me! Your Dad is working to keep you, so don’t
complain.” But you knew they were right. We wanted the human side
of him back; not just the robot that brought a pay packet home. That was
not what family life is about. It just seemed that we had no control.
It wasn’t until they sacked them. I remember saying to Colin a month
before, “This is terrible!” and he went, “I know Sue.
Don’t worry, the firm know it’s not working. We’ve had
a meeting. They know it’s not working - they are going to sort it
And a month later they did, didn’t they? Because they sacked the
lot of them. That’s probably why the women were so quick on getting
involved because before we have never needed to because there has always
been strikes. We’ve had to do without anything, but then this was
different. This was like it was because we could see what the management
had done. After the initial shock, and after not being able to see your
husband very often, and working all these hours, and keeping and keeping
his little dates of the times he had worked because he couldn’t
even trust the people that kept the times because many was the time he
was not getting paid for the time he had been working. So it got where
he had to keep record of exactly what hours he had worked so he could
go in and say, “No. I didn’t get paid for those hours!”
This was what it was like. It must have been stressful for the timekeepers
and everyone who was working because you just got told, “You’re
working on!” “You’re working on!”
Unless you did exactly what you were told you would go “on report”.
Some men did do exactly what they were told but Colin once did go “on
report”. He had worked six 11.00 to 11.00 shifts. And when he got
to the car at about 11.45 he went, “I’m out at 7.00.”
And I said, “You can’t go out at seven in the morning. Look
at the state of you!” You were looking at a 45 year old, more like
a 65, walking out of the gate. And I said, “You can’t, enough’s
enough!” And he went, “I’ve got to.” And he was
10 minutes late that morning; we overslept. By then I’m having to
get up and take him to work. I’m still up; going to pick him up
from work. So I’m tired.
We just overslept, and he rang in, and he said, “I’m late;
I’ll be in 10 minutes.” And they said, “Oh no, It’s
not a problem. You can be first tea break so there’s not a problem.”
But he was put on a warning for that. And I remember reading it. In fact,
he went in and had words with the people that had done it. He said, “I’ve
done everything I think I should’ve done. It wasn’t like I
was hours late. I was 10 minutes late.”
And this was what was happening. Even the men that didn’t argue
about the hours much. They were doing it to them thinking, “We’ll
get you! We want you all upset. We want you all on report!” So then
it’s like ammunition against them. Like I say I was just so mad
over it. And when they sacked them I think that is why I wanted to do
something, and I didn’t know anybody. I used to listen to ladies
on the radio. It must have been Doreen and Ann Morris. And I’d be
in the car and I’d hear Radio Merseyside and they would be going
and saying things that were happening in my family. This was before we
knew one another.
And I’d say, “I wonder who that lady is?” This was even
before the strike took place. She would ring up talking about the hours
the men were working. How the men were being treated. I didn’t know
anyone then but I was saying, “I wonder who it is? I wonder if we
could get in touch with her.” And I used to say to Colin, “I
heard a woman on the radio today and they seemed to be going through the
same as what I’m going through.” You said [to Doreen] that
they were intruding on family. And then the first time I really got a
word was when we went on the rally and Doreen spoke.
And I think you read out the letter, Doreen, that you had written; and
I was crying. I really was because I felt like Doreen had written for
every woman, could see themselves in that letter and I think everyone
was going up to Doreen saying how brilliant! But I was absolutely choking,
thinking this can’t go on. This is not just about the strike, or
crossing or not crossing the picket line. They used these men and then
they thought, “I think it’s about time now to get rid of them!"
They thought the morale was low. Everyone was on warnings. Men were frightened
to do anything wrong and I think they must have thought, “Right!
We’ll do it.” And they must have thought all the men would
just go away; but they didn’t. I don’t think they envisaged
the wives getting involved.
Two weeks after the strike started, I think it was 18 October 1995 we
were asked if we wanted to come to the meeting. It should have been on
the Tuesday. I came. I’d never been before. I didn’t know
where Transport House was. And I sat down in the foyer and nobody was
here! The door was open but everywhere else was locked up. I think it
was about half an hour before anyone else turned up. I don’t go
out of a night on my own and I came on the train that night and I remember
thinking, I was so determined that I wanted to get involved and do something
and it seemed the time [of the meeting] had been changed as well! It was
the next day, but I still came back! And we came to that very first meeting.
That’s when anyone was just asked if they had got any time to spare.
There was about 80 to 90 women; and there were a few stewards there.
Some women didn’t know anything about what was going on. I knew
everything. Well when I say “everything” - I knew what had
been happening and I was able to tell this woman next to me (I think she
was a “Torside Mum”) and she said, “Are you a Torside
wife?” And I said, “No my husband has been on the dockside
30 years.” And she said to me, “Ah, we feel awful.”
And I said, “Well, why? If it hadn’t been you it would have
been something else. We’ve all just got to keep together and fight
Then when all the stewards were answering questions she was saying to
me, “You already said that!” So she must have thought “She
knows everything!” But I’m looking at Doreen and other women
that were there and thinking…well they know as well. Well I think
that when everyone felt clear about what was happening I think the stewards
said, “You need to organise a committee.” No they didn’t
even say that at first.
The dockers’ shop stewards rang our house and said, “Look
Doreen, would you be interested in starting a women’s group because
all the wives have indicated that they want to get involved.” So
I said, “Yes I don’t have a problem with that.” So I
came down and all the women were there. Sylvia Pye had come down because
we didn’t know how to form a committee so there was Bobby Moreton
and Kevin Roberts in the room with us and they said you need this and
you need that; you need a Chair, you need a Secretary; you need this,
you need that. Sylvia Pye said, “When we started we didn’t
have a clue but we muddled our way through and eventually it all fell
into place,” which of course it did.
BH: Did the stewards know you?
Doreen: Not really. What happened, you see, I’ve always been a busybody
(laughter). Since the men went back to work in 1989 I’d been making
my views known. They’d never actually met me but they were all aware
of my feelings from supporting the strike of 1989.
I knew about the Torside lads from my husband. I remember feeling furious.
I sent a letter to Jack Dempsey saying that we had no confidence in his
ability to represent the men and that we didn’t think that he was
doing a good job and we sent a copy to Bill Morris.
We got a reply from Bill Morris; and we waited weeks and I rang here [Transport
house in Liverpool], practically on a daily basis asking, “Has Jack
Dempsey replied to my letter? I haven’t had a reply from Jack Dempsey!”
I did that first, and several weeks later when Bobby Owen the union official
died and everybody went to the funeral and it was after that funeral that
we got a reply to our letter from Jack Dempsey. But in the February before
this dispute the men had all been moved. They were told that they either
signed this contract like the LCH [Liverpool Cargo Handling] men.
BH: That would be 1993?
Doreen: No! What happened with LCH was that when Torside came in they
were on a lesser rate than the dockers so what they used to do was, any
ships where you could make money, they’d cop the job. They could
make a lot of tonnage on that. They’d put the Torside on it where
they weren’t getting paid tonnage. And that was the type of thing
they started to do. Initially the LCH men were giving the Torside the
overtime but then they decided, well no, we can’t give them the
overtime; we’ve got to do our own overtime because they’re
not having to pay them. So there was a lot going on at LCH which complicates
BH: There’s two or three questions. First didn’t the LCH go
Doreen: What happened, we told the dockers it was absolutely booming,
I mean booming. The guy came in, the Christmas before, and said to them
you underestimate yourselves, you men. You’ve brought this company
from nothing to being renown throughout the world. Everybody knows about
Liverpool and Liverpool cargo handling. The port of Liverpool is booming,
LCH is booming, here’s a bottle of scotch. And he gave all the men
a bottle of scotch and when my husband came home I couldn’t believe
it because we didn’t have anything from the dock board. And as I
say, it was a bottle of Grant’s I think it was; the three cornered
box. We laughed about that because it was like a pat on the back - Well
done Lads! But what happened they then told them the work started going
less. It was a plan. It was all part of their plan. The told the dockers
you’re all going to Seaforth. So the dockers were going, well no.
This is our job here a LCH. There’s work here. This is our job -
we’re not going anywhere. So then the union representative came
up and said to them, ‘“You’re either sign these…”
There was an agreement put on the table - three times the men agreed the
terms and three times when the stewards went back they were told “That’s
off the table!”
Then the third time they came back (everything’s off the table).
[Employers]“You either take the money; £25,000 and go. You
go to Seaforth container base or we will liquidate. And then that’s
not just you out of a job - Torside are out of a job as well”.
Right! So they were forced to go to Seaforth. Others that felt that they
wouldn’t be able to handle it at Seaforth (they knew the hours and
all the rest of it) took the money.
BH: What was the connection? If they said, “If we liquidate that’s
Torside out of a job” what’s the connection?
Doreen: Well you see they were employed by LCH/Torside although they were
supposed to be an agency all their work was for Liverpool Cargo Handling.
So if Liverpool Cargo Handling liquidated as they threatened the men they
would if they didn’t sign these contracts there would be no work
Sue They did the same with the timber. Once Colin had been forced to go
to Seaforth he… I remember him saying one day,” I’ve
got to go back and work on the timber”. I said, “Well I thought
you had been sent out of there?” He said, “Whatever has happened
they think they’ve had Torside working on, and the ship company
wasn’t happy with the work. It was shoddy the work. Because you
had the Torside lads that weren’t as well trained as the timber
men who had the job down to perfection. Everything was really running
perfectly and the ship owners they were going to pull out if they didn’t
get the original timber men back. So what they did in Seaforth was they
sent many of the timber people back to work and right the wrong - if you
know what I mean. I remember think if he goes back there - there were
some men that he didn’t think should have been left there that did
- I thought he might have said something but he didn’t. He was still
angry over the way they were all treated. But they went back. Did the
work and that was it.
BH: The Timber then went into Seaforth?
Sue: No the timber always stayed at the timber berth. But then what happened
was that they only used to use them when they needed them to put the mess
to rights. Colin used to come in and he used to say to me, “You
want to see the state of that quayside now where they have had everything
out!” I used to say to Colin where’s such and such. As big
as that timber berth was, Colin used to know where every piece of wood
from every part of the world [was kept].
Doreen: Liverpool is the only port in the world that does a mark [on the
cargo], so when a driver comes in you know exactly where the stuff is.
But that all went to pot.
Sue: What happened then was when these new contracts came out, they sacked
the men for refusing to cross the picket line; but who did they give the
contract to? They gave it to the Seaforth men. So what they probably wanted
to do no one on the timber got a contract amongst all the men in 1995.
Well, they sent 200 contracts out. And those 200 contracts were for the
container base. What they’ve done is that they’ve made the
timber men obsolete. So that was probably to become agency, or casual
labour. By the sounds of it that’s what they’ve done. They
have got the original men out of the way, brought the casual labour in
like Torside. But I remember saying to Colin, “Well who are they?”
Coastal didn’t get contracts - so it looks as if they just wanted
to run the container base but the 200 men didn’t sign the contracts
and that’s where it backfired on the company. Had those 200 men
gone in they would have been able to run that base and the other men would
have just had to go away because there wouldn’t have been enough
of them. They would have just had to go without anything and this is where
it backfired on the company. They must have thought, “They’ll
all be thinking, ‘Oh we’re alright, we’ll go in’.”
They didn’t think that these men had got principles and morals and
this is what the company didn’t think about. They thought everybody
was like them. They thought everyone was greedy and wanted their own living.
Doreen: When Charlie went to Seaforth he was sent to the container base
and he said that, “…we’ll have to play it by ear because
we don’t know the score.” In the first two weeks he’d
worked over 114 hours. So he went into the office and he said, “Well
I’m off next week, am I? I’m off now and I don’t come
in until a week next Monday. Is that right because I’ve done my
114 hours?” [They replied] “Oh, you can’t be doing that!
You can’t be doing that! You’ve got to come in!” So
he went in.
When he brought his first pay packet home from Seaforth I nearly collapsed!
Because he had a whole week of these extra days all at overtime rates.
I said that’s absolutely obscene. I said two families could live
a decent life style on that.
I said that’s absolutely outrageous. So he said, “I know;
but it won’t happen again.” He said that they had decided
that they wouldn’t work any days off.
If his day off was on the rota, he was having those days off and it didn’t
matter what they said and what they didn’t, they were the days off
and he was having them. I said, “Yes, that’s right.”
But you see what happened; whereas before your weekends were your days
off and they were overtime. What happened now, Saturday and Sunday were
just a normal day. You could be getting your day off on a Monday or a
Wednesday. So you were down to work 7.00 to 3.00 on the Monday, your day
off was Tuesday, you would get a phone call, “Come in at 11 o’clock
tonight, not at 7.00.” So you’d work 11.00 to 11.00 or 11.00
to 7.00, or 11.00 to whatever time they decided you could go and then
your day off would be on Tuesday. So you didn’t get your day off.
Sue: I said to Doreen, “You know, your Charlie made a stand and
didn’t do that.” Colin did the opposite. He worked, anything
they asked him and I used to say, “I don’t believe you…,”
and he’d go, “Look at this,” [but I’d say] “But
what can we do with it Colin? You could drop dead with a heart attack
tomorrow and I’m left a widow!” And Colin must have thought,
“Well I can earn it!”
Doreen: You know what would have been at the back of Colin’s mind?
The same that was at the back of all our minds, “This is going to
blow!” Because Seaforth was a time bomb! And the men reacted in
different ways. Some men thought: right we’ll work it at present
because it’s going to explode; I think that was the feeling. But
they all wanted to fight. They were all waiting for the explosion because
everybody knew it was just round the corner. [to Sue] Really, didn’t
you know? Seaforth was a time bomb. That’s why if people say it’s
because of Torside or wherever, I go, “No! Seaforth was ready to
blow!” And if it hadn’t been Torside it would have been something
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