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Sunday, 9 September 2018
TUC 150th anniversary: Dockers sacked for refusing to cross picket line create hub to help workers in need
What emerged from the dockers loss, in the form of that three-storey Hope Street building, is a soaring testament to defiance, enterprise and communal solidarity
The TUC marks its 150th anniversary at its annual congress this weekend.
Since its founding in Manchester in 1868, the Trades Union Congress has backed workers and fought attempts to undermine their rights and pay.
Today it represents five million people. This week the Mirror looks back at some critical points in its remarkable history.
Hope Street in Liverpool has history seeping from every pore.
Towering over its south end is the world’s fifth largest cathedral, Giles Gilbert Scott’s Anglican masterpiece, while at its north end, built on the site of a poor house, is the largest Catholic cathedral in England.
In between, you’ll find the Medical Institution, where slavery abolitionist William Roscoe was born, and The Everyman Theatre, cradle of world-class writers Willy Russell and Alan Bleasdale.
Then there’s the Philharmonic Hall, bearing a plaque to its musicians, who played on as the Titanic sank, and the art school where John Lennon met Stuart Sutcliffe, which is next to The Institute School where Paul McCartney met George Harrison.
But nothing typifies the radical, ground-breaking spirit of this extraordinary street more than an ordinary three-storied building called The Casa.
In 1998, the semi-derelict shell, once a drinking den called The Casablanca, was bought by sacked dockers who had lost jobs that had been in some families for generations, after one of the longest disputes in UK history.
Sacked for refusing to cross a picket line – a principle that resides deep in Scouse DNA, and one they thought worth fighting for to the bitter end.
Sadly, not every-one, including the Transport & General Workers’ Union leaders, and later the New Labour government, shared the stomach for the fight.
Hardly anyone but the dockers themselves thought they would win and, like most landmark disputes of the last century – General Strike, the Miners’ Strike – ultimately they lost.
But those dockers never gave up the hope or the fight. And what emerged from that loss, in the form of that three-storey Hope Street building, is a testament to defiance, enterprise and solidarity.
They simply turned defeat on its head by building a social justice hub which became a monument to their principles.
The 850-day dispute started in September 1995 when Bootle-based docks firm Torside sacked 80 workers for refusing to accept the imposition of what we now call zero-hours contracts.
Those dockers – holding a banner saying “Save The 80: Say No To Casuals” – handed leaflets to workers arriving at Seaforth container terminal and 329 workers employed by the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company refused to cross their picket line.
Despite being described by Lloyd’s List as “the most productive workforce in Europe” they were all immediately sacked.
The MDHC said: “The striking men are in breach of their contracts and we have therefore terminated them.”
The dockers, well used to scraps with management, believed it would quickly be resolved, but they miscalculated.
It began to look like a carefully-laid trap to smash the unions’ influence on the docks and employ cheaper, casualised labour. And it worked.
The dockers had not held a ballot, so the strike was declared unofficial by their own union, the T&GWU.
New Labour made it clear if they were elected they would not reverse any of the Tories’ anti-trade union legislation.
In theory, the dockers were on their own. But not in practice.
The support for their 28-month battle to be re- instated was incredible – and global.
On one International Solidarity Day, workers in 52 countries came out on strike to back them.
American longshoremen and Australian wharfies brought their nations’ ports to a halt. Later, every Japanese docker stopped working, and in South Africa all ports were closed “in solidarity with the Liverpool dockers who stood by us during apartheid”.
Youngsters from protest movement Reclaim the Streets went to Merseyside to occupy the offices of the MDHC.
Liverpool star Robbie Fowler was fined £900 by UEFA for unveiling a mock Calvin Klein T-shirt supporting the dockers in a goal celebration.
Comics Jo Brand, Mark Steel, Jeremy Hardy and Lee Hurst, and musicians such as Noel Gallagher did fundraisers.
At the 1998 Brit Awards Chumbawamba changed the words of Tubthumping to “New Labour sold out the dockers, just like they’ll sell out the rest of us”, and singer Danbert Nobacon famously poured a bucket of icy water over Deputy PM John Prescott, saying: “This is for the Liverpool dockers.”
Wives, girlfriends, aunts and mums joined Women of the Waterfront. They went on speaking tours, organised all-women pickets and marched on No10.
In January 1998, after 28 months out of work, the dockers reluctantly accepted £28,000 each to end their dispute. It was not the end of the story.
They poured some of their pay-off money into retraining workshops, one of which involved a creative writing class, where Jimmy McGovern and Irvine Welsh gave tuition.
Out of that came an agreement, brokered by McGovern, that they would make a film about their struggle.
There were two conditions – the dockers had to write it, with McGovern “editing”, and they would receive all the proceeds.
Channel 4 bit their hands off, and in 1999 the TV movie Dockers hit the screens, starring Ken Stott, Crissy Rock and Ricky Tomlinson.
The dockers wanted to leave a lasting legacy to the spirit of collectivism.
So they used the £127,000 they received from Channel 4 to buy and renovate The Casa, turning it into a community hub run on not-for-profit, socialist ideals.
Downstairs became a bar and function room for parties, charity fundraisers, meetings, recitals, dramas, or rallies to promote progressive political causes.
The floor above became an IT training centre, which helped people gain computer skills and find work.
The third floor became a welfare advice centre offering free, expert help from professionals about benefits, debt, employment, asylum and health, or simply on how to fill out a form.
Over the past 18 years it is estimated that more than £15million worth of free advice has been given out here to people in desperate need.
Both my grandads were Liverpool dockers who died long before that landmark dispute.
I occasionally try to imagine, when I’m in The Casa, what they would make of the willingness of men who followed them to lose their livelihoods through a refusal to cross a picket line, and the monument to that principle that they built in a street called Hope.
I’m sure they would both be proud. Because the dockers’ story says that no matter what you throw at working-class people, when they stick together and fight relentlessly for what they believe in, they won’t be beaten.
A founding TUC principle everyone involved with it would do well to remember on its 150th birthday