International support there to be won

The seven-month Liverpool dockers’ dispute has gained strength from international solidarity action. This week they are awaiting news from workers in the US, who are putting pressure on ACL, the biggest company that uses the port, to pull out. This would be a major breakthrough for the dockers. Lee-Anne Bates spoke to Terry Teague, one of the dockers’ shop stewards, about how this international solidarity can be built on and generalised for the workers’ movement as a whole

Your strength seems to have come from international solidarity, but has there been a problem with similar support in Britain?

After only four or five weeks of the struggle we began to look for international support out of frustration here. Since the Thatcher government and the continuing onslaught of anti-trade union laws, the strength of the unions has been totally dissipated.

Workers here always wanted to support us but are incredibly demoralised, and we couldn’t get that further step of actual physical solidarity action that we needed. We knew that we were doomed to failure if left isolated. We had to hurt the company.

We have close links with other dockworkers around the world because the jobs, pay and conditions are so similar.

Are other dockworkers facing similar attacks?

Many are, but they seem to have coped with it better. It seems that the shipping employers were operating on a global basis in 1989 when the National Dock Labour Scheme in Britain was abolished. Similar measures were being taken in Italy, France, Israel, New Zealand, Denmark, the US and a year later in Australia. But they seemed to have maintained organised labour within the ports, whereas in the UK, apart from Liverpool, more or less every other port went to part-time, casual labour.

The shipping companies are of course multinational, though the attack on us now comes from the port authorities which have to negotiate with these companies for business.

You are now having regular international rank and file meetings.

Our first meeting in February was the high point of the campaign. We first went to Bilbao which does a lot of trade with Liverpool. But though we got a lot of support we failed to get any actual action. We had more success in Stockholm and events escalated from there.

We had 17 countries represented at the International Dockworkers’ Conference in February. This was the first unofficial conference that has been organised on that scale on a global basis. A steering committee was set up to organise another conference.

We are emphasising the need for rank and file links.

Have other workers faced the same problems with the union bureaucracies as you have with the TGWU?

I don’t think it goes to the same extremes. In Sweden the official transport union over the years had a number of fallouts with the dockworkers’ section, which eventually set up its own union as a result of these problems. This has happened in a number of places: for example, Norway, which now has a powerful union.

The leaders of these syndicalist unions get only an average workers’ wage.

In Italy, the two ports that have links with Liverpool are run by cooperatives. They not only elect their shop stewards but also the management committee!

Are there lessons there for bringing the unions in Britain back under the control of workers?

Well for a start, if we were able to elect our officials I don’t think we would be in the state we are now. On paper we are supposed to have control of them, but of course it doesn’t work that way.

The whole of the union movement should be doing a lot more today, not just for dockworkers but for all workers.

The significance of the dockers is the strength we have gained through international support. As a result we have the chance to win, which would be a major victory in today’s conditions.

Can the coordinated action that you have achieved become an organised and generalised aspect of defending workers’ rights throughout the world?

I think we have begun to ensure that with the conference. If any workers come under attack the steering committee within a matter of days can get out supportive action.

With the bosses organised across Europe, do you think there is a necessity now for European-wide unions?

Certainly. It should have been done years ago. We are dealing with the same employers. We cannot act in isolation. The only way to combat such a global attack is through European and international organisation.

Looking back to the Timex struggle, which gained much international support, one thing that those workers quickly learnt was that theirs was a political battle, not just for their own jobs but for the conditions of all workers. Has the lack of a political response from workers in Britain been a problem for you?

This goes back to 1984-85. After that time workers simply did not believe that mass solidarity action was possible. A lot of that can be put down to the way the union movement has been organised from the top. In every major battle in history the union tops have always failed the people they are supposed to be representing. The Thatcher government, on the other hand, did not back away an inch; it defended the bosses’ interests, as we expected the unions to defend ours.

But we have been to over 3,000 meetings in Britain and wherever we’ve gone we’ve been well received. People are looking for someone to take action, to give a lead. They don’t feel able to take action now but are willing the dockers to win, to give us confidence again to break down the walls erected after the miners’ strike.

The bosses have been successful in setting workers in different countries up in competition with each other, to compete their wages down. What lessons should we draw from the dockers’ fight?

We know from our contacts that our work is so similar and therefore how strong we can be when we fight together. This is the message we have been spreading wherever we go and it is what we will be saying at the next national support group meeting in Liverpool this Saturday.

There are so many links being made throughout Europe on the bosses’ side. Now we have to do the same. The Labour government won’t do much for workers, but if it accepts the social chapter, unions will have to be organised on a European-wide basis. For the dockworkers it would be stupid not to organise that way. In other areas they will move work where it is cheapest. But the message we are spreading is that rank and file workers need to build on contacts with other workers in their industry because there is a lot of support out there to be won.