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. 1
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 itself.
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.

A myth
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 1984-85.

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 past.
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 hours notice.
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. It declared:

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.

“Ordinary people”
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 Australia.
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

My 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, “’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 out.”

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 back.”

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.

Doreen: 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 the dispute.
BH: There’s two or three questions. First didn’t the LCH go bankrupt?
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 for Torside.
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 else.

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