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Opening the second front
Weekly Worker 521 Thursday March 25 2004.


When the dockers walked out on unofficial strike in July 1984, for a time the miners seemed to have victory within their grasp. Alan Stevens, then a union militant in London docks, recalls the decisive moments.

As Dave Douglass of Hatfield NUM points out, the Socialist Workers Party still does not have much of a clue about the miners’ Great Strike of 1984-85 (Weekly Worker March 11). The SWP does not really know what was going on in the two docks strikes during that epochal struggle either. It gives the appearance of some kind of detached commentator with a distinctly two-dimensional view. In this, though, it is not alone.

Like the miners, dockers had a long tradition of self-organising activity through unofficial committees that acted in parallel with the official structures of the union. To some extent, many of these once powerful unofficial bodies had, by the time of the strike, been incorporated into official union structures (under a plan devised by Lord Devlin to undermine Communist Party influence and rank and file activity). However, these incorporated shop stewards committees often operated both officially and unofficially and were organised in a single structure through the unofficial national port shop stewards committee.

Whilst TGWU leader Ron Todd made sympathetic speeches and organised support for the miners, it was within the very narrow restraints of legality and the trade union bureaucracy. The national port shop stewards were, on the other hand, desperate to find a way to bring about a strike in support of the miners. But several problems confronted them.

The docks were split nationally between older, run-down, registered ports and newer, more efficient, unregistered ports. Registered men, who had far more legal job protection, had substantially declined in numbers over the years through port closures and severance payments. They generally had a high age profile with a significant minority waiting for severance. Men in the unregistered ports, though having less legal job security, were thought to be relatively safe. The unregistered ports handled about 30% of traffic - mostly high value.

The union leadership was not about to defy anti-trade union laws and challenge the government head on. And despite massive sympathy with the miners there was not sufficient rank and file cohesion, organisation and support to successfully lead an unofficial national strike. So a way had to be found to get a national strike that side-stepped the anti-trade union laws - or, better still, get the employers to break the law so that we could legitimately react.

And so it came to pass that there occurred a technical breach of the Dock Labour Scheme. This was then used to invoke TGWU National Docks Group policy whereby any breach of the Dock Labour Scheme would result in an immediate national dock strike. We knew that it was going to kick off somewhere on the Humber and when the phone call came - in July 1984 - it was from Immingham. Without any warning we had an official national dock strike. On day one all the registered ports were out and the port shop stewards were arranging flying pickets. By day three - something of a pleasant surprise - all the non-registered ports were out too. As the vast majority of Britain’s imports and exports were by sea, we had a stranglehold on a vital economic lifeline.

So, was it a strike in defence of the Dock Labour Scheme or a strike in support of the miners? This and the thorny question of a miners’ ballot came up at a mass meeting of all London dockers in number one shed at Tilbury Docks. This ‘shed’ used to be the departure point for families migrating to Australia and was in reality a large hall with a platform, surrounded on three sides by a balcony. In the body of the hall stood the majority: the two-shift men who worked mainly conventional cargo. On the platform were the officials, while on the balcony were the three-shift men - they worked the container berths, were better paid and less inclined to strike. The atmosphere was electrifying.

The officials explained that there had been a breach of the scheme (shouts from the balcony: “This is nothing to do with the scheme - it’s about the miners”). A three-shift man, waving his finger at the platform, declared that “the miners haven’t even had a ballot” (shouts from below: “Fuck the ballot! We don’t need a ballot to tell us what side we’re on”). The three-shift man then waves his arm in our direction and pleads: “Are you really going to go on strike for the miners, a political strike against the government?” A single thunderous “Yes!” from below. And that was the end of questions.

For the government who had taken such great care to avoid opening up a second front it was a bolt out of the blue - totally unexpected and unprepared for. Just what we wanted. Our hope was that our strike would be the spark to ignite others - particularly railworkers. In any event London stewards estimated that, if we could last six to eight weeks, the miners could win.

I was told later by a Kent miner that their estimate was, had we lasted another two weeks, that would have been enough. When National Coal Board chairman Ian McGregor published his memoirs, he revealed that Margaret Thatcher was only two days away from giving in as a result of our action. Other Tories were also in a state of panic - Norman Tebbit begged Thatcher not to take the country to the brink.

So what went wrong? Many commentators, including the SWP, have said that the battle at Dover was decisive and that the TGWU leadership should have called for an extension of the Dock Labour Scheme to include non-registered ports. The problem was that the strike always had a contradiction at its heart - support for the miners but technically a response to a breach of the scheme. In effect the official union running a reactive dispute in defence of the status quo, and the unofficial committees trying to help the miners win.

Although there was talk of extending the scheme, there was just not sufficient grounds for a campaign at that time in such a contradictory situation - the work of winning the hearts and minds of non-registered men was not done (and would have been difficult anyway) and in the registered ports we had suffered decades of inexorable decline and had plenty of men waiting for severance. The TGWU national executive was not going to campaign for registration of all ports when it had union members and agreements in all the unregistered ports anyway.

Only through the kind of rank and file pressure that might have resulted from winning the strike was extension of the scheme going to be a realistic demand. The real, concrete question was how to maintain a strike long enough to help the miners or spark other sections into strike action. Our best hope was not an empty and premature call to extend the scheme to other ports, but a railway strike.

Of course, these things were discussed, but, as dockers might say, the dunnage hadn’t been laid. A process of struggle that turned round decades of decline and division and threw up these questions concretely was needed. This was early days, full of contradictions and problems, and from the start we had been weaving in and out around anti-trade union laws, the union bureaucracy, and all the other weaknesses mentioned above.

In this contradictory situation the scope for a sell-out or breaking a weak link is easy to see - and we had both. Dover is significant for two reasons: Firstly, it was a non-registered port on strike ostensibly in support of a scheme of which it was not a part; and, more importantly, it was a large ‘Ro-Ro’ (fast, ‘roll on, roll off’ cargo handling) port close to Europe.

According to Nicholas Finney, head of the National Port Employers Association at the time, the government estimated that they could withstand a national dock strike for one to two months if they could maintain Ro-Ro traffic. That is, Dover was crucial to the government, because it might have bought enough time before economic collapse. A massive increase in air freight was also being organised at the same time, but that alone would not have been enough.

Dover was a weak link in the chain and the weapon employed to break it was a riot by lorry owners and drivers who, whilst the police looked on, forced their way into the dock and threatened to burn down the stewards’ office unless the strike was lifted. Having withstood intimidation for three days, the dockers gave in. Finney, when relating this incident to Australian employers who were getting set to attack the wharfies, advised them that it was important to “realise the strength of the transport drivers”. So far as we were concerned in London, they should have let them burn the stewards’ office.

Whilst this was a blow that dented morale, it was not decisive. What really stuffed us up, in what was to be round one of the battle, was the TUC and the national executive of the TGWU. It was not just the government that was in a state of panic: the TUC were shitting their pants. They intervened to get Acas, the official arbitration service, to mediate and, as the issue was technically a breach of the scheme, it did not take much to cobble up a deal with National Docks Group secretary John Connolly and have the strike called off. The collapse at Dover was just an added excuse. This retreat was to provide invaluable lessons for the government and employers that would cost us dearly later. However, pissed off but undaunted by this setback, the port shop stewards began to prepare for round two.

Our position was now certainly weaker. The hand we had at the government’s throat was temporarily removed: momentum and initiative had been lost, officials frightened, morale dented, confidence (especially amongst unregistered dockers) damaged - it would take time to build up the momentum again. Time that the government was to use stockpiling, creating divisions between registered and non-registered and preparing strike-breaking plans.

Things kicked off again in September. However, this time a breach of the scheme was contrived by the government to provoke a national strike when we were not ready. The government, so careful to avoid fighting on two fronts, now deliberately attacked the dockers - it was a risky, but well planned defensive move to decisively close down that second front before it could reopen.

The aim of the national officials, of course, was to resolve the breach of the scheme - something the government was always going to do. The port shop stewards and the majority of ordinary registered dockers were, despite the weaker position and bad timing, up for a fight. In view of previous events and efforts by government and employers, it was not surprising that the unregistered ports continued working. Even so, a large proportion of cargo was stopped and the potential of another flashpoint was always there (as was apparent with the later Nacods strike vote). However, it was going to take months this time and the government had only to resolve the technical breach and cobble up a deal that national officials would grab with both hands.

The calling off of this second official strike helped to seal the fate of the National Dock Labour Scheme. Not that the fighting resolve of dockers was crushed - in fact I was involved in far more disputes after the miners’ strike than before it.

So what are the lessons to be learned?

Something not appreciated by those who lack experience of such industrial battles is that they develop a momentum, a spontaneity, an initiative and a fighting camaraderie all of their own that drives the mass forward. This or that missed tactical opportunity or mistake can be damaging, but so too can a loss of momentum and initiative. Then there is the whole historical background - the culture, customs and so on - that impact on the way workers see things.

In the case of the ballot question, for example, some militant, class-conscious dockers held the view that it would have been advantageous to have denied the class enemy the chance to use the lack of a ballot as a weapon. However, this was a secondary, tactical question. The docks culture was not ballots, but mass meetings - it was assumed that this was probably true in the case of miners. Added to this was the whole drive by the class enemy for ballots to shackle workers. This did not rule out using such a tactic, but really it was for the miners to decide.

Very quickly this became a purely academic point and, the die being cast, all calls for a ballot subsequently were just excuses for not fighting. This is why dockers in London who supported the miners, including those who thought a ballot should have been held (at the only appropriate time, of course), said, “Fuck the ballot”. A single, secondary, tactical option - perhaps useful only at an early stage - was nothing compared to class solidarity.

Although many had an inkling of the impact and potential of that first dock strike, it was seriously underestimated by all except the ruling class. A golden opportunity missed. Dave Douglass is right when he says: “It was Immingham, with the possibility of a rail and dock strike and the isolation of the steelworks, which was the vital flashpoint, not the Orgreave mass picket ... The docks were the place to do it, rather than fighting in a field every day, where we could only take a beating” (Weekly Worker March 18).

Miners joining dockers’ picket lines would have built up a momentum and camaraderie and helped overcome some of the inherent weaknesses we faced. It would have helped solidify the dockers’ own action, applied greater pressure to TGWU leaders and possibly prevented (or at least delayed) the collapse at Dover.

All of this is, of course, well within the limits of trade union politics. The government was fighting a class war, one union at a time. We, a section of one union, were trying to help our class comrades - it was all woefully inadequate. Even had we won, they would have been back for us, more ferociously than ever.

There was, above all, one overarching and, I think, fatal weakness: the lack of an independent political party of the working class, a Communist Party. I have many criticisms of the old ‘official’ CPGB, but as late as the 70s it was still a powerful fighting machine. The SWP’s founder, Tony Cliff, wrote somewhere: “At the heart of the shop stewards’ movement, the cement which held it together was the Communist Party.” He was right.

I might add that probably the most concentrated and continuous industrial militancy in British history - in the London docks between 1960 and 1963 - was entirely the result of the communist-dominated unofficial rank and file committees. Even then the old CPGB was well on the reformist road, was bureaucratic and made lots of mistakes. In fact it was very economistic and mired in the narrow confines of trade union politics. Indeed criticisms can be made over the CPGB’s entire history, but you get a glimmer of what is possible. And it could be done a lot better.

By 1984, of course, the ‘official’ CPGB was a hive of contending factions. The leadership, dominated by the pre-Blairite Eurocommunists, played a treacherous role during the miners’ Great Strike. The membership in the main loyally supported the miners and were often the mainstay of collections and local meetings, arguing the miners’ cause - important and necessary, but hopelessly inadequate: simply the sum of individual efforts. I was a CPGB member in the docks and was not organised by the party at all even during the docks strikes - just left to my own devices.

What was needed, then as now, was a party, armed with a revolutionary programme, that was capable of collecting and generalising the experience of struggle; acting as a national think tank, able to analyse developments and judge their significance; providing a means of debating political strategy and tactics; educating, agitating and organising; cohering battles and initiating actions - in short, leading the class struggle.