Dockers are fighting back internationally - Liverpool passes the baton to Australia


The Liverpool dockers were forced to end their dispute after 28 months in January of this year. But they were unbowed, the letter explaining to their supporters why they had ended the dispute ended with a quote from Jim Larkin "Who is it to speak of defeat? I tell you a cause like ours is greater than defeat can know. It is the power of powers".

Throughout their struggle the dockers had identified the attack on them as part of an international attack on dockworkers and on workers in general. This was one of the reasons why they received so much international support. We looked at this support in the last issue of Workers Solidarity. We also published what may have seemed at that time a rather conspiratorial piece about former Australian army personnel being trained secretly as dockers in Dubai in preparation to act as scabs.

On April 7th the main docks company in Australia (Patricks) sacked its entire workforce of 1,400. At the same time hundreds of security guards, with dogs, flooded onto 17 different dock locations around Australia, resulting in at least one worker being injured. Some arrived by boat and were described by one witness as behaving like Commandos as they leapt ashore. Some conspiracy theories it turns out are true!

Within days the courts had swung into action behind the employers, giving out injunctions against the dockers' mass pickets, then against community mass pickets, and finally reaching the absurd length of forbidding anyone filming within 200m of the docks. The government announced $250 million to pay sacking-money to docks companies. It also announced its intention to take out injunctions internationally against any blacking action against Australian ships.

It is unsurprising that a couple of days after the lock out started the media were already presenting it as over, and the government and companies had started popping the champagne. Their well laid plans they believed had left the dockers defenceless.

Your champers is flat

At the time of writing, just over a month later, it is clear the bosses celebrations were premature. They probably expected the mass pickets and occupations by dockers. They moved swiftly to ban them. But the first hint that this was only the start of the opposition came when - on the first morning - 1,000 Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union building workers marched off sites and down to the picket lines in Victoria.

On Saturday 11th at East Swanson docks 350 workers succeeded in stopping a cargo train entering the docks. On the 16th the 180,000 strong Australian Manufacturing Workers Union announced its intention to ballot its members for a strike in support of the dockers.

On the 16th, in response to injunctions against the dockers, some dozen unions in Victoria said they would strike if the police attempted to clear the picket lines. "We'll be there in the hundreds and the thousands . . we won't be intimidated by their injunctions".

On the 17th it was revealed that more than £250 million worth of cargo had been stranded on Sydney and Melbourne docks alone. Toyota said they would be forced to shut their Altona plant due to parts shortages. The following day Patricks told the courts they would have to close half their docks because of the losses they had suffered.

The 18th also saw thousands of dock workers and supporters engage in an overnight resistance to police attempts to smash the picket line in East Swanson. The police were forced to abandon these attempts in the early morning when 1,000 building workers arrived to join the pickets. Mass resistance like this forced Melbourne police to reach a deal with the pickets on the 20th

By the 21st mass pickets were stopping trucks and trains getting into many of the ports and sections of industry were being forced to close down. The ruling class began to look for a way out. The first sign of this was an injunction given to the unions re-instating the dock workers because "there is an arguable case that the Patrick owners and Patrick employers have engaged in an unlawful conspiracy".

Crucially the dockers continued to keep the pickets in place as the courts found in their favour and then Patricks applied for and got an appeal. Meanwhile international solidarity poured in from other dockers' unions in the form of donations and pledges to boycott Australian goods and ships.

On 4th May the dockers won a partial court victory. Patricks was forced to lay off the scab companies and employ only dockers from the original unionised companies. But the court left it open to Patricks as to how many of these workers it would be 'able' to employ. On the 8th the Melbourne (East Swanson) dockers marched back to work in triumph but elsewhere the return was a delayed due to attempts by Patricks to put 25 dockers on a blacklist.

The dockers fight is far from over. The battle has entered a "cold war" period, with skirmishes here and there. However whatever happens in the future the dockers and their supporters demonstrated the ability of mass action to halt a well planned conspiracy involving all levels of the state.

Meanwhile (May 11th) the "Columbus Canada", a ship loaded by scab labour during the dispute, is sailing from port to port on the US West Coast, unable to get unloaded because of boycotts by US dockers. There is little doubt that the speed of reaction of dockers internationally is due in part to the successful efforts of the Liverpool dockers, during their struggle to build contacts between dock workers all over the world.

This article is from Workers Solidarity No 54 published in June 1998