The Liverpool Dockers Dispute: Solidarity without borders


Solidarity is the single most important tool that workers have in their fight to build better workplaces, lives and communities – and to help workers around the globe do the same. It’s the lesson we pass to our brothers and sisters the first day they show up for work: an injury to one is an injury to all.

This week, the ITF’s Canadian inspectorate helps mark the 20th anniversary of the Liverpool dockers strike that saw workers in Vancouver join hands with 500 fired dockers in the UK and drive away a ship that had been loaded by scabs in England. 

The Liverpool dispute arose on Sept. 26, 1995, when dockers refused to cross a picket line that had been set up in support of a group of young longshoremen who had been fired by another company. For their act of solidarity, the 500 workers were fired too. Some were offered new contracts — but the contracts were subject to unacceptable change by the employers, and so the dispute began.

Over the next two-and-a-half years, the dockers waged a very high-profile public campaign for their reinstatement, and workers around the globe supported them. The strike – in their case, a dispute rather than a formal strike – failed in its declared objectives, but was an unforgettable modern example of solidarity.

The role that Vancouver workers played in the action was important, and we were invited to take part in anniversary events in Liverpool this weekend in recognition of our contribution.

But a meaningful chance to celebrate and build solidarity appeared in Vancouver at the same time. So instead of travelling to Liverpool, Peter Lahay, the ITF’s Canadian coordinator, spent this week with young union activists gathered for a youth conference of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, to help pass along the history of local resistance and the hard lessons learned in the dispute.

Peter was fortunate enough to play a key role in the local action. Tony Nelson and Bobby Morton, two Liverpool shop stewards during the dispute, spent some time in Vancouver during the worldwide support action and lived with Peter during their visit. As the ITF inspector, he got them them around to the ILWU locals for solidarity meetings.

During this week’s ILWU youth conference, Peter shared the unvarnished story of the docks dispute and the 500 dockers who lost their jobs, and talked about the need for maritime workers to act quickly when brothers and sisters in the global struggle need solidarity.

Workers at the meeting learned about the mobilization of the dockers’ shop stewards and the innovative campaigning program they ran.

The centrepiece of Peter’s talks was the story of the Neptune Jade, the ship loaded with scab cargo in Liverpool that headed north to Vancouver in October of 1997 after longshoremen in Oakland refused to work it – only to find that Vancouver workers refused too. They heard in detail about the creative tactics used to ensure that no ILWU workers would touch the vessel and that no discipline would fall on the ILWU local 500 members who did not cross the picket line they faced.

We’ll be posting great podcast featuring all the colourful details of Peter’s story later, but for now, the facts of the picket line in his words:

“I was contacted by ILWU Local 10, by Jack Heyman, the ITF’s Bay Area inspector. Jack advised that the vessel was departing Oakland for Vancouver after three days behind a picket line – and that it hadn’t been worked for those three or four days. My own ILWU Local 400 was active in the broader activist labour community, thanks to the leadership of Al Engler, who was then our president. I made some calls — from a phone booth on Hastings Street, not our office — to mobilize militant activists and retired trade unionists. I was able to track the ship, and they were given all the information they needed to ready themselves to respond to the vessel’s arrival. We even contacted a local maritime journalist, Christina Montgomery, from the city’s daily paper The Province, to cover the picket line and to make sure the scene was recorded and a public record created as longshore workers walked away from the gate. I knew from experience that when ILWU members see a picket line, they refuse to cross. I simply knew that if a picket line was there, workers would not cross it to tie up the ship.

“I still remember like it was yesterday. It was a dark and dirty morning, really early. The rain was coming down in sheets and the wind was blowing it sideways, but the picketers and the reporter showed up. When they saw the picket line, the members of ILWU 500 refused to cross it. They simply left the dock. Not one of them crossed the line.

“The Neptune Jade did lay alongside the dock for a couple of hours, but not a single mooring line was attached to the dock. There was just a tug pushing against her, holding her steady for safety reasons. Then she went and anchored for a couple of hours, but by afternoon, she pulled up her anchor for Yokohama.

“We sent a fax to the ITF in Yokohama and gave them an ETA for the ship there. The Japanese dockers refused to work her too. Eventually she went to China, where she was finally worked. The containers were taken off and redistributed to other ships and the owners of the Neptune Jade changed her name so that she would not be easily identified in future as that scab ship.

“Credit has to be given to the young activists who, on only 30 or 40 hours notice, pulled together a community-led picket line. They even had leaflets drafted and produced. I also give big credit to the rank-and-file members who knew what was going on in Liverpool. They were paying attention to what mattered — that dockers worldwide were under severe pressure by shipping companies. No one had to tell them what to do that morning.

“I’ve seen a lot of solidarity actions in my life, but the Neptune Jade is one I’ll never forget. In the cold and the dark of that rainy morning, not knowing what was waiting for them or what would happen to them, activists in our community stood across a dock in solidarity with workers half way across the world. They said no to a ship loaded by scab labour after 500 other workers were robbed of their jobs. And when that community ringed that dock, our longshoremen acted with them in solidarity. They walked away from their work and their pay that day. And a massive ship was held off for hours, just three feet from a berth, unable to touch Canada, by the sheer power of solidarity. It couldn’t drop a line. It couldn’t unload a single piece of cargo. It was told to go away, and it did.”

Vancouver wasn’t the only place Canadian workers joined hands with Liverpool. In Montreal, members of CUPE 375 and of the International Longshore Association also extended their support. Albert Batten, then president of Local 1657 of the ILA and now Atlantic Coast vice-president, remembers the day that three Liverpool dockers visited his port on a solidarity mission to shut down loading of a ship that traded regularly in Liverpool and had arrived in Montreal:

“July 15, 1996, was a day that will always be a part of my makeup as a union brother. It was the day I was able to show support on an international level, when the brothers from Liverpool — Terry,Tony and Kevin — reached out for international solidarity and were able to get it.

“They walked into Cast Terminal in Montreal before 8 a.m. along with the regular workforce, then climbed up in the cranes as that ship was supposed to be worked. They refused to speak with anyone except myself and Michael Murray, who was then president of CUPE 375. This protest halted operations for a full shift. The two of us union presidents at the time, we became the spokesman for these dockers and we negotiated their release from any charges – but together we also made the public aware of what was going on in Liverpool.

“These men visited 21 countries over 10 months and created a solidarity that had never been seen before. I was proud to be able to support them in my small way, and was even prouder of how they had brought so many groups closer together.

“The ILWU motto — An Injury to One is an Injury to All — became a reality to all of us that day. Liverpool today, us tomorrow: This is the reality of corporate greed. We must always stand together, so that none of us ever has to kneel. It was a real lesson in solidarity.”

In fact, solidarity was one of many lessons learned during the two-year dispute.

The first lesson was the need for maritime workers to reach out to community groups and like-minded unions and form bonds of solidarity and trust. We need deep roots in the progressive community because these are the people with enough commitment to come to our aid when it’s necessary. The picketers of the Neptune Jade were by and large students and activists, and they showed up for us because they felt we had common cause.

The second lesson in this dispute was that the dockers used whatever communications tools were at their disposal. Back in 1995, the Internet was still new and the use of message boards was just beginning. The workers from Liverpool embraced the technology that was available and turned out reports nearly weekly. It became quite easy to follow the day-to-day struggles of the workers on the picket line on Merseyside.

We learned that timing matters. For other unions that wanted to help, it may be that we offered that help too late to positively affect the outcome of that dispute. It went on for two years, but the big acts of industrial solidarity came in the latter stages of the dispute. So effective communication and timely solidarity action clearly were lessons learned.

The ITF, likewise, learned to use its influence on shipowners early. In a later dispute in Charleston, in South Carolina, the ITF jumped in early and had the concerned shipping line drop charges against dockers there.

To this day, the learning goes on. We are honing the skills and strategies that we use in supporting dockworkers — because if dockers unions are smashed by corporate interests, there won’t be a single transportation union in the world that won’t be savaged by corporate greed and ambition.

(Here we should note that from Oct. 12 to 16, ITF inspectors from around the world will gather for workshops, and one of the things we will train on is how to give practical, effective and immediate support to dockworkers unions under attack or in industrial disputes.)

In the end, though, the most important lesson learned that cold October morning on the docks of Vanterm in the Port of Vancouver was the enduring lesson for all working people: That solidarity matters. And that solidarity, however challenging, works when it’s done right. It works.

We were so pleased to be able to pass that message along to the next generation of workers and trade-union activists this week in Vancouver. And we’ll be reporting back on their response in a future post.

In closing, we want to leave you with a thought on one of the artists who contributed to the struggle.

The photo at the top of the post is from a poster that came our way during the strike, from dockers in Liverpool. It was done by Danish artist Hans Krull for the Danish dockworkers and presented to the Liverpool dockers in solidarity, and then turned into a limited edition poster. It is an image that has burned in our hearts and inspired our days and has hung on our wall ever since.

You can find more on the Liverpool dock strike here.

You can find the story of the Vancouver picket line here.

The Liverpool Echo has some good background pieces up, marking the anniversary this month. There’s some  coverage here and here, and a set of Labournet stories here. The Echo also has an interactive timeline that lays the whole thing out here.



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