Magazine article New Internationalist

Dancing in the Snow [A Group of Dockworkers in Liverpool Who've Renewed Their International Connections]

Magazine article New Internationalist

Dancing in the Snow [A Group of Dockworkers in Liverpool Who've Renewed Their International Connections]

Article excerpt

It's taking a while for labour -- and an inert labour bureaucracy - to catch up with footloose capital. Anne-Marie Sweeney recounts the remarkable story of a group of dock workers in Liverpool who've renewed their international connections.

All around the world you can find the same landscape of docks-giant gantries, cranes, towering hulls of cargo ships - built like cities. Waterfronts stretch for mile upon mile of cavernous silos, warehouses, snaking railway lines and thundering trucks. Docks, like stock exchanges, are crucial to international capital: waterways, trade winds and currents are its main arteries for supplying raw materials, manufactured goods, food and fuels.

So when CNN news cameras panned along deserted, silent wharves on the West Coast of North America last January, Mike Johnson, President of the Port Intermodal Operators Association, raged: 'Half-a-billion dollars in commerce is shot... down the drain!'

That same week in January, shipping was hit by industrial solidarity in 13 countries around the world. In Aotearoa/New Zealand seafarers picketed the three major container terminals in Auckland, Wellington and Lyttelton. In Japan the National Council of Dockworkers Unions (Zenkoku Kowan) stopped work in 50 ports.

The docks had been stopped on behalf of a community thousands of miles away in Liverpool-ordinary men and women who became extraordinary. What they all have in common, However, is the casualization of dock labour that for the past 20 years has been just as much a part of the landscape as the gantries and cranes.

The Liverpool story began in September 1995, when almost 500 dockers were sacked by Mersey Docks and Harbour Company (MDHC) and their contractor Torside-329 of them for refusing to cross a picket line of younger dockers, many of whom were their sons, nephews or neighbours.

It isn't easy, when you've worked all your life in the docks, to face the sack for a principle and know that you may never work again. It isn't easy to refuse an offer of $40,000 to sell your job and give up, when you've had no wages for nearly six months.

But for Jimmy Campbell there was no hesitation. 'For all of us it was a lot easier to do than crossing the picket line or selling a job that isn't ours to sell. What right have any of us to sell our kids' futures?'

'If he had I'd have never forgiven him,' says Irene Campbell. 'Now look at him: a man, 60 years old, a grandfather, never been in trouble with the law. And he's been bodily removed to a police cell, charged as a criminal - not once but several times - for a gesture, or something he's shouted. The job's gone, the money's gone, the chances are - like so many others - he'll get a criminal record. Well, let me tell you, I'm proud of him!'

Families in Liverpool speak of what lies behind the word 'casualization', those glib business-school terms like 'downsizing', 'retrenchment', 'flexibility' and 'streamlining'. You have to understand what it means to be on-call 24 hours a day: the arguments, the depression and stress. As one woman said: 'They call it "work to finish the job" but it became work to finish our men: 12-or 14-hour shifts, constant phone calls changing their shifts, no social life. Work in the car factories and other places is just as bad. And it's mad-there's 18-per-cent unemployment in Merseyside.'

Everywhere in the world dockers can relate to the experience of Liverpool. In the Brazilian port of Santos a strike was provoked in April by COSIPAR, the giant company processing iron ore in the Amazon, when it employed casual dock labour. In the same month Amsterdam dock workers blockaded a road tunnel for the same reason.

In Liverpool the response of the dockers, together with the support group Women on the Waterfront (WOW), was imaginative and internationalist. Truly 'flying' pickets took off to ports around the world. They found they shared the same humour and quick wit, the same thirst for deep draughts of beer, the same gut reaction to mean management and hard, perilous working conditions. …

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