British union struggles to survive Striking dockworkers find scant support

February 09, 1997|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LIVERPOOL, England -- When Steve Booth became a dockworker 27 years ago, his Transport and General Workers Union was so powerful that its strikes could virtually shut down the nation's business.

Now, Booth has lost his job, his marriage and his home during a 17-month labor dispute that has attracted only sporadic headlines in Britain and little national support. And his union can't even deploy a decent daily picket line.

"It's a struggle," Booth says, as he watches another truck rumble past the bedraggled workers and through the gates. "People have lost a lot. Some guys are on the dole [welfare] and that's embarrassing, too. This isn't about money. It's about reinstatement."

For the managers of the port, it's about fighting to keep Liverpool thriving in the face of competition from other British and European ports. Their situation is similar to the battles for business waged by U.S. East Coast ports such as Baltimore.

A transformed climate

In a way, the dockworkers' predicament is a metaphor for Britain's transformed business and political climate. Britain's old state-owned industries have vanished. And the days are long gone when business chiefs bowed to every labor demand, including jobs for life. At the height of her Conservative Party reign, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher scrapped the rules that guaranteed union labor on the docks, just as she broke the once-powerful miners union in a bitter confrontation.

But in this staunch union city with its seven miles of docks that Herman Melville once likened to "a chain of immense fortresses," the union dockers are holding out against all odds.

The dispute began in September 1995, when 80 men were fired at Torside, a Liverpool longshoremen firm, after taking "unofficial industrial action" over pay. The fired workers set up an unofficial picket line, which 329 of 389 dockworkers at Mersey Docks and Harbor Co. refused to cross.

Mersey fired those who refused to report to work and eventually hired 140 replacements.

The union is demanding the reinstatement of all the fired workers, including those who were at Torside, which isn't even in business anymore.

Mersey Docks recently made a "final" offer to rehire 40 men and give $40,000 buyouts for each of those fired, leaving the original Torside workers in the cold.

Booth might return to work at Mersey if his union accepts the deal. But that's not enough for him.

He and others speak with obvious pride about their work, about jobs that were often passed from father to son, and about a union that commanded power and respect, not only on the waterfront, but in Britain's Parliament.

"You should have seen this place in the old days," says Booth, who used to earn $35,000 a year driving a truck and operating a crane that plucked containers from the holds of cargo ships.

"There were 17,000 dockers. When we called a strike, we didn't need picket lines. We just all went out. And everybody else followed. But now. "

Standing alone

The dockers are virtually alone. They do not have the full backing of the national Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU). In fact, TGWU members who are not dockworkers have regularly crossed the dockers' picket lines.

The Labor Party, essentially the creation of labor unions, is more concerned these days with reaching out to managers and the middle road as it anticipates a new election this year.

People in Liverpool express astonishment that the men refuse to take the buyout.

The most sympathetic hearing they received in Britain was from filmmaker Ken Loach, whose television documentary about the Liverpool strikers was titled "The Flickering Flame."

Internationally, the dockers have received stronger support, including a brief sympathy work stoppage last month at West Coast ports in the United States.

"I hear from people all the time, that what we're doing is great," says Terry Teague, a shop steward. "But people also say, 'What you're doing is tremendous, but it will end up in defeat.' "

"We're making a principled stand on jobs," he adds. "Sooner or later, some group of workers would have to do this, to defend the right to belong to a union, to defend the right for the workers to have a voice."

Teague says he believes that the strikers will get back their jobs. But the odds would appear to be against them.

The days of prosperity

Liverpool was the transportation hub of the British empire, as raw materials poured in and finished goods were shipped out. Thousands performed the back-breaking labor of loading and unloading the ships. They literally fought one another for jobs, which were handed out at the whim of bosses.

Unions gained a foothold on the docks in the early 20th century. By 1967, they were all-powerful, with the introduction of the National Dock Labor Scheme that improved pay and working conditions and ended casual hiring. Every union man got a job, and the daily scramble for work ended.

But the scheme became costly and antiquated as fewer workers were needed to load and unload container shipments.

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