This is a detailed account of the lock out at Liverpool Docks from September 1995 to January 1998. The author, Mike Carden, who died in 2021, was a docker himself and the son of a docker. After the dispute he went on to gain a PhD .This book is the result of his thesis. It is far from a dry academic tome. It is a detailed, partisan account of the dispute, an iconic one on Merseyside. By 1985 The Liverpool Docks employers were increasingly using sub contractors and, as the dockers saw it, an increasingly harsh regime. In 1994 one docker at Seaforth (north Liverpool) described the latest contract as ‘a slave contract’, with workers required to be available ‘at any time’ for increasingly unstructured hours.
Sue Mitchell of the support group ‘ Women of the Waterfront’, described the effect of the changed regime on her docker husband: ‘I gradually saw a deterioration of him as a man. He just became like a robot….. We did not see one another. The children no longer saw him…’ It was in this powder keg environment that Torside, a subcontractor, sacked five dockers in a dispute about overtime in September 1995.
They set up a picket line that their fellow workers refused to cross and all 80 of them were also sacked. As the dispute spread, 300 men directly employed by the Mersey Docks were also sacked for refusing to cross picket lines. In March of the following year, Bill Morris, general secretary of the TGWU, the dockers union, spoke to a meeting in Liverpool, declaring the union’s wholehearted support for the dockers. He concluded ‘comrades, you in Liverpool will never walk alone. Good luck and victory to the Liverpool dockers!’ These words may have come back to haunt him.
The union supported the individual workers financially but the dispute remained ‘unofficial’. The TGWU took the view that if they supported secondary action they faced the prospect of having their funds seized under Thatcher’s anti union laws.
A Labour government was elected during the dispute. Tony Blair had no intention of repealing this law. Relations between the union leadership and the dockers became increasingly bitter and this is at the heart of Mike Carden’s book .He believed that the workers were betrayed by their union, leading to their eventual defeat.
The dockers did use traditional means of struggle – pickets, solidarity, demonstrations. However, they also found novel ways of advancing their cause. The support group ‘Women of the Waterfront’ became increasingly influential. US unions, boycotted ‘scab’ shipments from Liverpool; rock bands formed ‘Rock the Dock’; An anarchist band Chumbawumba threw water over deputy Prime Minister John Prescott. The Liverpool FC striker (!) Robbie Fowler revealed the strikers’ iconic t-shirt featuring a fake Calvin Klein logo after scoring a goal. Ken Loach produced a television programme. But they still lost, eventually accepting a pay off and the bitterness remained.
Mike Carden has produced a detailed, and stylishly written account of the dispute and makes his case well. The book is a daunting 720 pages. However, it is unlikely that a more comprehensive account of this famous dispute will ever be written. It includes ten pages of fascinating photographs of the author’s family, including one of his sons, Daniel, now the Labour MP for Liverpool Walton.
The book is self published by Mike’s family. It is still available in radical bookshops and even on a well known on line retail giant. It is a tribute to a remarkable man and an iconic labour dispute.