Liverpool Dockers Dispute – Better than Prozac: Proof that the Personal IS Political by Pauline Bradley

Part One November 1997:… I am writing as a 35 year old political activist and officially diagnosed lunatic. I’ve tried (generally I’ve been coerced) several `cures’ ranging from the latest wonder drug, to being hospitalised, but the most effective and liberation one has been my involvement in the Liverpool Dockers Dispute. This also happens to be the politically the most important dispute for at least a decade and probably several decades.

For those who have been on another planet and don’ t already know the background to the dispute, it is this. 80 young Dockers, many who were sons and relatives of long standing Dockers who worked at Liverpool docks for a subsidiary called Torside, were sacked when their management reneged on an earlier overtime agreement.

They set up a picket line at the Seaforth terminal where Dockers of 30-40 years service worked. These Dockers refused to cross the picket line ( as workers world-wide know you NEVER cross a picket line) and they were sacked for breach of contract, under the Tories (now Labour) anti-union laws. The Dockers turned to their international comrades for support and anyone else who was interested – like myself.

When I first learned of the dispute, I was mainly involved in Women’s Politics, due to my own discontent with male dominated, sectarian political parties. When I heard Doreen McNally from the Women of the Waterfront (WOW) speak , I was immediately hooked. I’ve since written a song about this `evening that changed my life’, where I mention her shyness and the `passion within her heart’ – I felt her anger and emotion, and the dispute encapsulated what I’d learned intellectually from Marxism and Feminism.

This was a momentous occasion for me personally, and now my life had a meaningful focus. It took a little while to get into the swing of getting up at 4 or 5am for a demo or picket, but the solidarity and comradeship I experienced from the Dockers and WOW’s soon made these events something exciting to look forward to.

In the first few months I learnt a huge amount from people I’d never met before e.g. hundreds of Turkish and Kurdish comrades, some of them who had been imprisoned and tortured, told me that solidarity = love, and that’s how I grew to feel about the Dockers WOWs and the movement I was involved in.

I was not brought up to be political, my dad was in the RAF and my parents are working class Tories. I lived in Doncaster for 10 years which included the 85 Miners Strike, when the town was virtually under siege from the police. I became more politicised at this time and I saw at first hand the devastation of peoples lives caused by the brutal destruction of the mining industry. I reluctantly moved to London for college, where my life’s distress was uncontained and my tutor (a power hungry trainee psychoanalyst) was more interested in my sexuality than getting me through the course – a series of crisis ensued. Therapy (with a trained woman therapist from the Women’s Therapy Centre) has helped me through, but the Dockers’s dispute has been far more meaningful and allowed me to move on in my life.

Since the WW2 and particularly through the Major and Thatcher years, people have become more and more fragmented, isolated and in Marxist terms – alienated. This leads to a whole number of states of mind which can be labelled by psychiatrists (i.e. schizophrenia, manic depression) but generally means that one feels like shit, and can be prone to self harm, self neglect, lack of motivation and loosing touch with reality. As a society we’re yearning for a unifying experience, the mass grieving of Princess Diana was, I think, an attempt at gaining one back. However, for more thought out political people the Liverpool Dockers Dispute provides this with much more wide reaching conclusions for the future of humanity.

The first year of the dispute was really painful for the Dockers, as there was felt to be a conspiracy of silence by the British Media. However the Dockers kept their dignity and their non violent picket line (exceptions being violence from the Operational Support Division of the police and some scabs who had burnt down the Dockers caravan several times and had been violent towards sacked Dockers. However, other alienated and disaffected people became inspired, notably young environmentalists like Reclaim the Streets (RTS).

On the first anniversary of the dispute, international action took place around the world and, in the UK, a major effort was made to get the dispute publicised. Dockers, RTS and others demonstrated and occupied gantries and the roof of the Mersey Dock and Harbour Co.. Again it was emotionally momentous for me, I felt great pain at the efforts having to be made to move the dispute forward. In therapy this was likened to memories of child sexual abuse being suppressed and my efforts to warn other children and communicate to those who might help, being thwarted.

The dispute moved from strength to strength. The March for Social Justice in April ’96 led by the Dockers was inspired by the Chartists who demanded the vote and more control offer their lives. It brought 35,000 people on to the streets and united trades unionists, women , black people, Irish groups, lesbians, gays and disabled people, chanting slogans like “The Dockers fight is our fight”.

The Dockers have had to deal with real hardships and changing roles. I too have adjusted my life to the needs of the dispute. I may not have got the boundaries absolutely right, given previous problems in this area, but every thing is dealt with in a comradely way.

The Dockers and WOW’s are used to hardship and are full of history, determination and imagination, they’ll never give up, even though their union the TGWU ( which was formed by the Dockers) may try to dump them. This isn’t just a struggle for jobs, its a struggle for human dignity, for the right to show humanity/solidarity to other humans and not to be controlled simply by the needs of the capitalist system (casualised).

I’ ve already had my personality split in two, have tried to end it, but been put back together by the NHS and my therapist. It’s not necessary for this to happen any more and we have a real chance to end things forever. Battle lines are being drawn, the media will try to demonise the Dockers as they did with the Miners. In future years people will ask: “what did you do during the Liverpool Dockers dispute?” – what will YOU answer?

Part Two May 2000

The dispute has ended; the Dockers sadly lost. They were unable to sustain the dispute after two and a half years with no strike pay. They never got the full backing of the Trade Union leadership and the New Labour government didn’t use their 14% golden handshake to resolve the dispute, but sold it instead. The ending was a difficult time for me. I had a little crisis and took about two weeks off work. Still I had to confront painful issues like how it feels to be thwarted. I also used homeopathic remedies which I had found very useful, (on this occasion I used sea salt for grief). In the past I have used hydrogen for when I ‘ve gone high ( the psychiatrists have called it manic depression). The homeopaths describe it as “going out” of my body. The remedy helps bring me back in.

Tragically, only a few weeks after the ending of the dispute, a young man called Simon Jones was killed on the docks in Sussex. He was killed by heavy machinery and had been sent there by the local Job Centre with no proper training. This bears out what the Liverpool Dockers stood for – proper apprenticeships and no casualisation. Though they lost the dispute, the experience for me was life changing and catalysed lots of good changes in me. I still have the Dockers and WOWs as friends and they have me – no one can take that away.

In work I have changed specialisms to Children and Families, a real challenge to see if I can help abused children – like I was. I’m also the shop steward – I’ve learnt lots of techniques from the Dockers on being a good union rep. We had a dispute over terms and conditions in the council which we won after striking for three days. I led the workers in my office; we only had four scabs out of one hundred workers. Trotsky once said that a victory heals the hurts from previous defeats and this one did. I feel very strong now, in my office, stronger than some managers. I’ve ended therapy and have got into Revaluation Counselling which has a liberation philosophy to it.

I believe it is part of the human condition to struggle to improve our lives, our children’s lives and our environment. I/we must continue to do this for our own survival. My personal struggle has made me more effective in the wider struggle. I thank the Dockers, WOWs and all my friends and comrades for this.

In love and solidarity.