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source: The Guardian (London) 23/11/96


By John Pilger

The Liverpool dockers have been on strike for 14 months. Yet the dispute is scarcely reported, is ignored by the politicians and not even officially recognised by the union. 'The bad old days' of casualisation have returned in docks all around the country. Merseyside is the last line of resistance in a battle begun in 1889. Liverpool does not suffer from historical amnesia. Although its pantheons of the slave trade and the industrial age have been made fit for tourists, the cobbles restored and made litter free, the past remains defiantly the present. As a keeper of the secrets of the blood, sweat and tears of ordinary people, Liverpool has few equals. That is why it excites such prejudice, even hatred, and why the unfashionable resistance of its people endures. In an age of the cynical, the greedy and the clay-footed, the following is a story of uncelebrated heroes.

As a young reporter, Liverpool was my first assignment in England more than 30 years ago. Dockers and their families were then being 'decanted' into 'new towns': lunar landscapes of jerry-built boxes where window frames had already burst free and the damp had already risen by the time the first key turned in the door. On my first day I walked along the miles of docks my grandfather had described as 'a man-made wonder worked by stoic men'. In his sailor's log, which he called With Folly On My Lips, young Richard Pilger was in no doubt of Liverpool's place of honour in a people's history. He was a Cape Horner, who took the fully-rigged tallships around the Horn and into the gales of the roaring Forties. Born in Germany, he regarded English ships as his own and Liverpool his home port, which he loved and probably hated, too.

'My stock of sovereigns had become exhausted,' he wrote in September 1889. 'It was a Saturday night and into the bar-room burst Old Tom [a local scout for crew], shouting, 'Do you want to ship in a four-masted barque going to Sydney? If you do, you'll have to go straightaway. She is lying out in the stream and the tug is waiting at the pier head. It will be a pier head jump.' I said goodbye hurriedly to Lottie [his Liverpool love], and made haste for the docks.'

The ship was the fully-rigged Province, laden to the Plimsoll-mark with locomotive boilers for the new railways of New South Wales. They had been loaded, he wrote, 'by fully subscribed members of one of the world's first trade unions, the National Union of Dock Labourers'. Formed in February of that year, and supported by his own fledgling union of seamen, the first permanent union of the Liverpool dockers barely survived the shipping companies' efforts to destroy it. 'Christian gentlemen,' he wrote in 1890, 'had made fortunes from the trade in slaves, headquartered in Liverpool, so it was not at all surprising when they objected to us paid slaves at sea and on the docks wanting our fair rights.'

The leading seaport of the world's greatest maritime nation had worse poverty and generated greater profit than almost anywhere in Britain. An incredible £237m worth of cargo passed through Liverpool in 1905 - the equivalent of several billion pounds today - in a city of preventable disease and shoeless children. In 1911, the General Transport Strike paralysed Liverpool, initiated by the seamen and with the dockers the last to go back. It was, wrote Philip Gibbs, the Times correspondent, 'as near to a revolution as anything I have seen in England'. The employers had wanted more work for less pay under worse conditions: the unchanging demand of laissez-faire capitalism, which Thatcherism revived. Its trademark was casual labour, known as 'the evil'. People in Liverpool still call it that.

For the docker, the ritual was unrelenting: you went to the waterfront before dawn where you were put in a pen and waited for a man in a bowler hat to pick yo u out. 'You'd be fighting and climbing over each other's backs to get the boss to take your book and hire you,' one remembers. If you were picked, you worked that day for a pittance. If not, your family went hungry. Exclusion was often due to age or religion, or a reluctance to endanger your life or grease the boss's palm. Men worked from seven in the morning often until ten at night, and in all weathers; many slept on the docks rather than miss 'getting first on the stand'.

'I was brought up with it,' said Doreen McNally. 'My dad was a docker. My husband's dad was a docker. So casual work, and everything it stood for, is within living memory. I remember it as a child. I'd be playing out on the street and Tommy, my dad, would come home and say to my mum, 'Nothing on today'; and I'd remember other days when my mum would say, 'Oh Tommy's all right for a job today, because Ernie Roberts up the road is the ship's boss and he'll pick Tommy because he knows he's a grafter.'

'Once, when my dad was being hoisted up by the crane, the belt snapped and he fell into the ship. He was off two years. Then, when he returned, four bales of cotton smashed into his back. Experience like that ought to be known today, because it's come back, in different forms and with different names, but it's back, and not only on the docks but all over this country. Working lives are being impoverished everywhere, and it's time once again to do something about it.'

Doreen did something about it the other day. She went to the Job Centre, known locally as 'the joke shop'. Two strike-breaking manpower firms, contracted by Mersey Docks and Harbour Company, had advertised vacancies on the dock more than a year after the sacking of almost 500 dockers, many with a lifetime of service. 'I waited outside until I saw these young lads going in,' said Doreen, 'then I spoke to them: 'Excuse me, those jobs on offer already belong to men who've put their whole lives into the docks. My Charlie was sacked after 29 years' loyal service. These jobs on offer were fought for by our fathers and uncles and grandfathers. Look, I'm a picket line, just me.' They said, 'Don't worry; we won't pass your picket line; we understand.'

I first saw Doreen doing something about it on September 28 at the Pierhead. The heroic architecture of the Liver Building reared up behind her to a watery sun; a flock of seagulls rose and fell until a hooter sent them flapping back to the Mersey. On the spot where my grandfather had leapt on to his clipper bound for Sydney, an extraordinary crowd gathered to hear her and others speak.

'It's one year today,' she said. 'We've had our hearts wrenched when a son tells his mother to sell his bike to pay the electricity bill; and we've disguised our feelings with laughter. Our spirits have soared when we've looked around and seen the support from compassionate working people all over the world. We know we are telling the truth, but where is the union, where is the TUC?'

On September 25 last year, dockers working for a private contractor, Torside, were ordered to work overtime for a disputed rate of pay. They protested and were sacked. Within a day, the entire work force of 80 men was sacked. They immediately mounted a picket line, and all 329 men employed by Mersey Docks and Harbour Company, including fathers and uncles of the Torside men, refused to cross it. They, too, were summarily dismissed.

Indeed, they were got rid of so quickly that within 24 hours their jobs were being advertised in the local press. It was the end of the bloodline. Men like Jimmy Campbell, whose father was killed on the docks, had almost 40 years' service. Shock waves hit thousands of men, women and children. 'When my husband received his P45 after 28 years' working in the port,' said Pat Dooley, 'it was like someone had died in our house.'

Few doubt they were set a trap. Because the overtime dispute was not theirs, the dockers' refusal to cross the Torside picket line was illegal. Mersey Docks and Harbour Company claimed that it was 'entirely independent' of Torside. This meant that, under Margaret Thatcher's anti-trade union laws, the dockers could be sacked for 'secondary' picketing. But to the dockers, Torside was merely a device that allowed the principal company in the port to disassociate itself from labour practices that echoed the past.

In a study of the dispute to be published next month, Liverpool University sociologists Michael Lavalette and Jane Kennedy conclude that 'one of the more distasteful aspects of the company's campaign against the dockers has been to deny any responsibility for the Torside dockers or to include them in any discussions aimed at resolving the dispute'. The Torside workforce 'were part and parcel of Mersey Docks' labour force: they were recruited at interviews held in Mersey Docks' premises, were trained at Mersey Docks' training sessions, worked on ships brought to the port by Mersey Docks ...' The evidence, they say, clearly indicates that the company simply wanted to get rid of the old, secure workforce and to introduce casualisation in order to increase profits.

The company denies this. 'We have never employed casual labour and have no intention of doing so,' said Eric Leatherbarrow, the public relations director. Yet, when the dockers tried to return to work ten days after they were sacked, they found a contractor had filled their jobs with cheap, casual labour. This was PDP Services, whose workers' contract stipulates an hourly rate of £4 for 'all hours'.

Employment can be terminated 'when the contractor determines'. There is 'no obligation on the contractor to provide the worker with a guaranteed number of working hours in any day or week. There will be periods when no work is available ...'

This contractor 'is no longer on the docks', said Leatherbarrow. When I asked him if he understood the depth of fear of casual labour, he replied, 'That's a red herring.We're protecting a major employer and wealth creator in the region [whose] presence created as many as 80,000 jobs.' His statement reflects none of the appalling reality of long-term unemployment in Liverpool and its waterfront.

The truth is that the number of dockers' jobs has spiralled dramatically down to about 300, a tiny fraction of the figure a few years ago. As for 'wealth creation', profits have soared from less than £9m in 1989 to more than £31m last year - the year the company jettisoned its dockers.

Indeed, Mersey Docks and Harbour Company is the very model of a Thatcher-era 'enterprise'. Having grown out of a public body, the company has been the beneficiary of the Thatcher government's abolition in 1989 of the National Dock Labour Scheme, which had been intended to end the scourge of casualisation for ever by giving dockers the legal right to minimum work, holidays, sick pay and pensions. Uniquely, the docks are the only public utility still partly in public ownership and - if you discount the arms industry - still prospering on a cushion of public subsidy.

It was taxpayers' money that floated Mersey Docks and Harbour Group in 1970, and taxpayers' money that wrote off £112m in loans, and funded up to £200m worth of redundancies, and paid out £37.5m for the regeneration of the dock area. Add to this £76m of City Challenge funding.

Since 1989, the company has received some £13.3m in European Regional Development Funds. According to the Liverpool Echo, 'directors of Mersey Docks have received phenomenal grants to create employment' - while unemployment has gone up.

Inexplicably, the company's literature boasts of its success in something called the 'free market'.

During the heyday of this 'free market', in the Eighties, hundreds of miles of waterfront and docks around the country were handed over to bankers, financiers and speculators. On the River Medway in Kent, Medway Ports, a privatised company, replaced all its dockers with casual and contract labour. The dockers were said to have 'sacked themselves' when they objected to new contracts that meant longer hours and worse conditions. This was a workforce that had an exemplary record of industrial peace for more than 25 years.

When the Medway ports were privatised, the dockers had been persuaded to join a management-employee-buy-out; but, when they lost their jobs, the terms of their contracts obliged them to sell back their shares - for just £2.50 each.

Speedily on the scene was Mersey Docks and Harbour Company, which bid for Medway Ports, paying £37.25 a share. Medway's chief executive, Peter Vincent, who had bought the ports from the Government 18 months earlier for one-seventh the price, scooped up his sacked dockers' shares at their old knock-down price and made £12m on the deal. Vincent described the sale as 'a very fair deal'. The sacked dockers sued the accountancy firm which had put such a low value on their shares, and have since won an out-of-court settlement.

In the meantime, the Government, which owned 20% of Mersey Docks, had stood by while the value of its 'gold share' - the taxpayers' stake - fell to less than 14%. 'It was odd,' mused chairman Gordon Waddell, at the time, 'that a company with a government shareholder should be buying a privatised port.'

When I raised this with Mersey Docks' Leatherbarrow as a striking example of 'wealth creation', he replied, 'We're not in the business of calming prejudices of individuals against what other individuals may achieve in their lives.' One such achiever is his colleague, Mersey Docks' managing director, Trevor Furlong, who took an £87,000 pay rise just before the company sent 329 men to the dole. Furlong's 38% increase brought his earnings to £316,000 a year. He also has a £293,000 share option over the next two years.

Leatherbarrow said directors' salaries were decided by a 'remuneration committee ' - of other non-executive directors. If Furlong required such a generous reward, the dockers' remarkable productivity clearly did not. Last July, a House of Commons Employment Committee was told that in September 1995, the month they were sacked, the dockers handled the highest tonnages ever recorded in the Port of Liverpool. The shipping industry newspaper Lloyd's List described them as 'the most productive work force in Europe'. Indeed, three years earlier, in the Liverpool Handbook and Directory, Furlong himself eulogised the dockers he was soon to sack as 'men who appreciate the value of cargo', and contrasted their 'professionalism and performance' with the 'lack of professional commitment' in other British ports now operating casual labour.

After they were sacked, some of the dockers were offered individual contracts which imposed new, harsh conditions. A 'final offer' by the company of £25,000 redundancy and just 40 jobs was balloted and rejected overwhelmingly. Men with only months to go before they retired voted against it and stood to lose everything. 'Our fathers and grandfathers fought and died for jobs that we could be proud of,' said Jimmy Campbell, aged 60. 'I did it for the young ones.' The dockers are represented by the Transport and General Workers' Union, one of Britain's biggest trade unions, whose leaders have maintained that because the dockers' action was technically against the law, the union cannot make the dispute official. But had the TGWU launched a national campaign challenging the circumstances and the justice of the dockers' dismissal along with casualisation, it is likely the battle would have been won there and then. As it turned out, the union's failure to act unceremoniously closed more than a century of struggle to achieve civilised working conditions on Britain's docks. Moreover, the company is clearly delighted with its 'good relationship' with the union and boasts that it runs 'the only unionised port in Britain'. 'We show the TGWU far more respect than the [sacked] men.'

It is hardly surprising that, at Transport House, the TGWU headquarters in Liverpool, the dockers use a bust of Ernest Bevin, the union's pre-war general secretary and pillar of the right wing of the Labour Party, as a coat-rack. For much of its history, the TGWU has been, as one labour historian wrote, 'an encrusted, complacent, bureaucracy' which, in containing the anger of its ordinary members at the injustices imposed on their working lives, has served the aims of the British establishment. An enduring attitude of union officialdom was summed up by John Magginnis who started on the Liverpool docks in 1951. 'We worked in dirty, unhealthy, dangerous conditions,' he said. 'But if the men had a grievance and sent for the delegate [trade union official], he would walk round the sheds, straight into the office, come out, walk past the men without saying a word and you would find out later from the employer's representative that nothing had changed. The favourite phrase of delegates was, 'My hands are tied. What can I do?''

The big unions, like the TGWU, are still absurdly portrayed by the Tories and much of the media as a potentially dangerous fifth column in the body politic. Yet without the timidity and inaction of some of the famous union 'barons', the legislative attack on trade union rights in the Eighties probably would have failed, along with the devastation of the steel and mining industries, and the privatising of the docks.

This perspective on the unions has always been something of a taboo. It was considered so threatening during the early part of Thatcher's reign that a 1982 television series by Ken Loach, Questions Of Leadership, for the fledgling Channel 4, was withdrawn and then drastically cut. Consider the opening sequence of the Loach films. Over archive film of a mass meeting of trade unionists during the Thirties Depression, the sound-track begins to play the chorus from Gilbert and Sullivan's Iolanthe: Bow low ye lower middle classes; Bow, bow ye tradesmen; Bow ye masses ...

As the mockery continues, the pictures dissolve to a parade of earnest young men, standing on platforms, exhorting the masses. Then they grow older, florid, comfortable, and become portraits of self-satisfaction, dressed in the ermine of the House of Lords. They are Joe Gormley, Vic Feather, Richard Marsh, all former trade union leaders (soon to be joined by Lord Len Murray). The commentary says, 'There are some trades union leaders who have in their own person achieved the harmony of the classes.' Rank and file trade unionists speak about the meaning of 'democracy' within the big unions, referring to 'small bureaucratic, centralised groups of people ... that prevent individual members from playing a role within the union and the general direction the union is going'. Were these not the familiar media words of right-wingers complaining about the 'militants' infiltrating their 'democratic' institutions? Yes, but in the Loach film the voices came from ordinary trade unionists analysing the hold of the trade union establishment on the organisations and fortunes of millions of ordinary people.

The fate of the Liverpool dockers and their community exemplifies this.

When the National Dock Labour Scheme, regarded as the last protection against 'the evil' of casual labour, was abolished in 1989, the opposition from the TGWU was famously ineffective. While three readings of the abolitionist Bill went through Parliament, there was no sustained attempt to challenge it. Two ballots for a national strike were overwhelmingly approved by the membership of the union, but when the strike was finally called by the leadership, it was too late. The employers could now use non-registered dockers in the ports. Not surprisingly, the strike collapsed.

The Liverpool dockers were the last to go back. Taking their cue from the miners in 1985, they marched back. Throughout the country the scale of the defeat was all too evident. An independent study four years later found that most of the docks had fallen to casual labour. More than 5,000 jobs had been lost nationally, with a 41% saving on wages going straight into profits. The accident rate had leapt by more than a third, because, said the report, training for the new-style 'temporary dockers' was now 'rare'.

With the Dock Labour Scheme scrapped, relations between Mersey Docks and its men deteriorated - although as Leatherbarrow pointed out, relations with officials of the TGWU hardly missed a beat. A campaign of demoralisation followed. Hours lengthened, workloads increased and a gruelling 21-hour shift rota was introduced. As Jimmy Nolan, chairman of the shop stewards, remembers, he had fought 30 years ago to end ten hour shifts and now it was '12 hours or the sack'.

Men were placed 'on call' during their days off. 'The company intruded in our family lives with daily phone calls and changing shifts,' wrote the dockers' wiv es. 'Sometimes they had only been home four or five hours. If the company couldn't contact them by phone, they'd send them hand-delivered messages, ordering them to return to work.

The men were quizzed about their whereabouts 24 hours a day.' Discipline for petty offences became common; men with a lifetime of service found themselves under a constant threat of dismissal, including 'a final warning for life'.

Others were disciplined for not answering the phone on their days off.

'Jimmy's 60 now,' said Irene Campbell. 'Almost 40 of those years were spent as a loyal, hard worker. Not long ago he could run marathons. But when they increased the intensity of work, with the men there all hours, seven days a week, I watched the deterioration in him. Before he was sacked, he'd be working, at the age of 59, from seven in the morning to ten at night, when his shift should have ended three hours earlier. All he could eat for dinner was a sandwich. Like all of them, he felt the job had to be done regardless of the reduced workforce and the lack of holiday relief. You see, those jobs had been fought for and you couldn't give the company the excuse to abolish them. Men like Jimmy were given no choice but to look out for each other and work themselves half to death.'

Five years ago, the company began to 'de-recognise' elected TGWU stewards who refused to sign what were in effect loyalty pledges to the company. Bizarrely, Mersey Docks demanded that the workforce vote on the issue in a secret ballot. When the dockers voted with the stewards, the company responded by taking out advertisements in the Liverpool Echo calling for applicants to replace the entire workforce. In a city of 13% unemployment, some 2,000 unemployed young people thronged the company offices in a chaotic scene reminiscent of pre-war days when men begged for work at the port gates. None was offered a job. Their hopes had been raised by what the dockers saw as a ploy to force them to accept new draconian contracts under which 'all existing jobs including your own are to be eliminated with new jobs being created which fit into the new working system'. An editorial in Lloyd's List commented, 'One does not have to be left-wing to have sympathy for the sacked dockers of Liverpool, who now find themselves effectively victims of a markedly macho management.'

What the Liverpool University study reveals is that the company's 'macho management' and the TGWU's determination to maintain a presence on the docks at times converged in an unspoken sweetheart arrangement. This led area union officials to act as 'industrial policemen', says the study, 'dissipating workers' anger, refusing to take industrial action and threatening the dockers that if they did not comply with management they would be sacked'. Shop stewards who did not 'keep the lid on' - as a service to the company - were out.

In the current dispute, the sacked dockers have called on the TGWU to investigate why an offer by the Torside managing director, Bernard Bradley, to re-instate his men had not been passed on to them. Bradley told the Commons' Employment Committee hearing last July that he had made the offer to a regional official of the union. Had they been told, the men say they would have returned to work immediately, and there would have been no picket line and no pretext to sack the entire workforce. So far the union's enquiry into this has been 'referred up'.

In his speech to the Labour conference at Blackpool, Tony Blair said, 'No more bosses versus workers. We are on the same side, the same team.' The dockers understand the irony of his words.

Five months after the dockers were sacked, TGWU general secretary Bill Morris, who has refused to make the dispute official, came to Liverpool and made an emotional speech. 'I am proud to be with you,' he told the men and their families. 'Your struggle is so important that our grandchildren will ask, 'Where were you at the great moment?' and you will either stand up with pride an d say, 'I was there,' or you'll hang your head in shame, without an answer.' He went on, 'There can be no turning back and no backsliding until victory is won.' He pledged that the union would 'keep going ... until we get this company to understand that a negotiated settlement which gives people their jobs back is the only way.' He added, 'God is on our side.' The dockers cheered him.

Three weeks ago, Morris called the dockers' committee to London and told them, in so many words, that it was the end of the road: that they would have to abandon the principle of getting their jobs back - the same principle, that Morris had said in his speech, was 'the only way'.

I have tried repeatedly to elicit a comment from Morris, or from anyone at TGWU headquarters. It has been an instructive, if farcical exercise. When I phoned Morris's office and asked for an interview, his assistant discussed a time and place. But when I said that it was about the dockers, I was passed to a press officer, who said, 'Bill Morris cannot legally speak to you.'

I asked him for the names of the lawyers advising Morris not to speak. 'They don't want to be bothered by journalists,' he said.

'What law prevents the leader of one of Britain's biggest union from speaking out on an industrial dispute concerning his members?'

'This is not a fruitful line to take ...' 'Doesn't this secrecy strike you as ridiculous?' No answer.

Finally, Morris agreed to take questions from me in writing.

So I wrote to him reminding him of his 'God is on our side' speech and the 'extra mile' he had pledged to walk on the dockers' behalf, and asked him what he had done to honour this. I got no reply.

I then phoned the Trades Union Congress. As it happened, John Monks, the general secretary, had made a ringing speech in Liverpool that weekend about moral values. 'You cannot have a moral society,' he had said, 'when people feel they can be treated like dirt by their employers.'

I asked to speak to Monks. 'What's it about?' said a TUC press officer.

'The Liverpool dockers ... As Mr Monks was in Liverpool and talking about the morality of treating working people badly, I thought ...'

'Sorry, John never comments on disputes, and that one is far too sensitive for him to be involved in.'

Britain was a founder member of the International Labour Organisation, an arm of the United Nations. Year upon year the ILO has condemned the British Government for the laws that deny working people 'the most basic right' to defend each other by refusing to cross a picket line without endangering their own jobs. The Government has refused an ILO challenge to have this resolved at the International Court of Justice, where it would surely lose.

'You've got to ask,' Jim Donovan, the Australian Maritime Union leader, told me, 'why a powerful union like the TGWU is not challenging anything. They should be saying, 'We've had enough of this. We're standing up to bad laws. Come and sequester our funds.' They've had plenty of time to get them away. We face the same attacks on jobs, and our funds are no longer in Australia. If you wait for Blair to be elected, you'll find nothing will change. We've been through that here. Only the will is needed. The public will support it: they know it's gone too far now.'

At six o'clock every morning, regardless of the weather, a group of dockers are always huddled outside the port gates around the traditional brazier to greet the scab labour now occupying their jobs. Those on duty often can count more than a century of service between them.

At least once a week, the picket is all women, some of them with young children. These are organised by WOW, short for Women on the Waterfront: partners, mothers, sisters, aunts and cousins, and mostly from traditional households. 'The young men were never a problem,' said Doreen McNally. 'You could say they were already socialised. At first the older men used to laugh: 'Oh them bloody WOWs.' I think the men expected us to organise the Christmas party, you know women's things, but we soon changed that. We have our own mass meeting every Wednesday.' Doreen's husband, Charlie, 29 years on the docks, says, 'Now I ask her about what's going on in the dispute.'

Fourteen months ago, Doreen had never made a speech. At her first rally on the steps of Liverpool's massive neo-classical pile, St George's Hall, she said, 'I am Doreen McNally. I have red hair, blue eyes, flesh and blood and as much right to shelter and nourish my family as you.' She has since made hundreds of speeches all over the country. She and others were at the TUC and Labour Party conferences.

'Bill Morris told us his hands were tied,' said Doreen.

'The women,' said Mike Carden, one of the strike committee, 'have been like a hurricane of fresh air blowing through the union.' They have been to 10 Downing Street and occupied the London boardroom of one of the firms providing scab labour on the docks. One of their specialities is candlelight vigils outside the homes of the directors of Mersey Docks.

'We sing', said Doreen, 'and the kids sing. We found out it was Trevor Furlong's birthday. He's the one who got an £87,000 pay rise the other day. He was 60 something. He's the one who said a docker was too old to work at 50. We had a birthday card and everyone signed it, and a cake made by one of the girls - not too nice a one - in the shape of one of the ships that were then staying away from the port because of the dispute, just to remind him; and we knocked on his door and sang happy birthday Trevor. You know what he did? He phoned the police.'

On the day that longshoremen on America's east coast refused to handle ships from Liverpool, the women went from director's house to house, singing, 'New York, New York, it's a wonderful town ...' The most spectacular innovation has been the way the dockers have internationalised the dispute. 'It was clear very early on,' said Carden, 'that one-sided labour laws in this country made it extremely difficult for other workers to join us. So we set out to build a dockers' network abroad, from Australia, to Canada, to the US and Europe. What we discovered was that dockers everywhere faced the same threat of casual labour. But we also live in an age of 'just-in-time' deliveries where exporters and importers expect cargo to be moved efficiently and rapidly across the continents, and if a ship is delayed for 12 hours - which is the case every week in Gothenburg as a show of support for us - then the Port of Liverpool has problems.'

At Newark, New Jersey, they set up a picket line where the Port of Liverpool's biggest customer, the American shipping company Atlantic Container Line, had just docked one of its ships. 'It was 6am on a December morning in the fiercest blizzard for 70 years,' said Bobby Morton, one of the Liverpool dockers. 'We didn't know what to expect. But the longshoremen coming to work knew instinctively. When we told them what it was about, they turned their cars around. We were dancing on the picket line, we were intoxicated, even though we hadn't been drinking.' They maintained the picket line for a week, and as ACL began to lose serious money in delays, it brought pressure on Mersey Docks, eventually suspending its Liverpool operations for a month.

At a longshoremen's meeting in Florida, Morton came away with $50,000 in a carrier bag. In Los Angeles, they set up a picket line at the port and among those who refused to cross it was a convoy of Mexican truck drivers who had no union and are among the lowest paid in the country. In Canada, four Liverpool dockers walked in with a morning shift at the Port of Montreal, climbed a gantry and unfurled a banner announcing that the Canadian Pacific-owned container firm Cast was employing scab labour in Liverpool. When police tried to arrest them, a ring of Canadian dockers protected them until the management agreed to meet them.

The Maritime Union of Australia's Donovan told m: 'In a lifetime as a union official, I have never seen anything like the Liverpool campaign. It's a phenomenon. They've gone to every corner of the earth to seek support, to places they've never been before, and they've done it on their own, with no backing from their union. They've held two international conferences in Liverpool - I've been to both - and they've had 18 countries represented. I took over $A60,000 for them last time. More than 100 years ago, support from Australian wharfies helped to keep the great dock strike going in London, that really gave birth to modern trade unionism; and we'll do everything we can this time. We've blacked a major Liverpool customer, the ABC Line, and the pressure added to its financial difficulties and it's gone out of business. There is a fundamental human right at issue here: the right of ordinary people to secure work at decent rates and conditions.'

In August, the dockers came close to their biggest coup: a blockade of Liverpool ships in Europe. They needed the support of the German and Belgian unions, which had promised to send officials to Liverpool. They failed to turn up. The International Transport Federation (ITF) had stopped them, reportedly because its officials worried that the dockers were setting up a parallel world organisation that would challenge the dominance of the ITF. The dockers are bemused by the suggestion, a tribute to what they have achieved virtually alone.

Yet in Britain few people know anything about what is now a longer industrial dispute than the 1984/5 miners' strike.

One of the first references to them in the national press came more than two months after they had been sacked, in a letter to several newspapers from four Scottish writers, including the Booker Prize-winner James Kelman. They alleged 'a conspiracy of silence' and a 'gentlemen's agreement' between John Major and Tony Blair. It was, they suggested, less the dispute Britain forgot than one that Parliament and the media did not want us to hear about.

To test this, I phoned the House of Commons and asked to speak to David Blunkett, the shadow employment secretary.

His assistant said the dockers 'are not David's area', and I should speak to Stephen Byers, Labour's industrial relations spokesman. I phoned Byers' office and spoke to Monica, his assistant. 'It's about the Liverpool dockers,' I said. Byers was away, then unavailable. She called me back with an absurd statement that said, 'This is not a political issue, but an industrial dispute.'

Given the nature of New Labour, none of this ought to be surprising. However, the media blackout - with honourable exceptions - of what, by normal journalistic criteria, is an astonishing story demonstrates the great change in the selection and reporting of national events. Politics are now represented as the preserve of Parliament, where, as a Guardian writer noted recently, 'politicians are keen, even desperate, to secure the imprimatur of the pacesetters in the boardroom'. Because the myths of the 'market' have also become received wisdom right across the media, with millions of trade unionists now dismissed as 'dinosaurs', the dockers' epic story has hardly been told other than as a flickering curiosity of a bygone age. That more than half of all working people are caught up in the iniquities of casual labour, making Britain the sweatshop of Europe, is not considered real news.

Kevin Bocquet, who covers Liverpool for the BBC, told me he had done only four pieces for television and four for radio in the 14 months since the dispute began. 'Great pictures ...' he said, 'you know, the men against the docks in the early morning light, but editors say, 'Who's suffering? How does it affect the economy?'' But was not the spread of poorly paid casual work a critical issue facing millions of people? 'They're casualising at the BBC,' he said. 'That's life.'

In spite of the absence of national publicity, the dockers say they have had public support they never imagined.

'Either it's a bag of groceries on the doorstep,' said Morton, 'or someone pays your bill at the supermarket check-out. We need around £30,000 a week to keep going, mostly to pay something to the families. We get hardship money from the union, but most of what keeps us and our families going comes from overseas and from people who can least afford it. They send us postal orders and fivers in an envelope. There's a pensioner, Mrs Burns, who refuses to give us her address. She has given us literally almost everything she has. The other day she wrote to say she'd sold her fridge for a fiver, for us.' However, like the miners, the dockers can sustain only so much on fivers; more than 90 of their homes are on repossession orders.

On the first anniversary of the dispute in September, another kind of support was vividly demonstrated. Thousands of youthful activists from 'Reclaim The Future' converged on Liverpool: environmentalists and direct-action campaigners.

At first sight, the disaffected young in woolly hats, with dreadlocks, pierced noses etc, accompanied by drums, fire-eaters and street theatre, seemed a world away from the dockers. But many are sophisticated activists, veterans of Newbury and other campaigns, who, having come up against repressive laws such as the Criminal Justice Act, understand well the dockers' struggle. Their alignment with the unofficial labour movement could influence the direction of grassroots action - especially as more and more young people are alienated from the 'gentlemen's agreement', as James Kelman put it, of mainstream politics. Unimaginable a few years ago, their banners, alongside the dockers' traditional union banners, carried messages such as: 'New Labour, new wage slavery'.

Their common cause with the dockers began in 1989 when the waste disposal company Rechem won a contract to dispose of 3,000 tonnes of highly toxic chemical waste from Canada. The Liverpool dockers refused to unload it, forcing the ship to return to Montreal. This was considered a major victory by environmentalists. There is big money in waste disposal, especially for a port company. Rechem is owned by a company called Shanks and McEwan whose non-executive chairman is Gordon Waddell - who happens also to be chairman of Mersey Docks and Harbour Company.

Before the sun was up on the anniversary morning, they had occupied gantries in the docks and the roof of the company headquarters, watched with admiration by snowy-haired dockers and their wives. 'We saw their banners fluttering over the occupied docks,' said Jimmy Davies. 'We didn't see the TGWU, whose officers should have been there. Now we know who our friends are; we welcome the young people's support and idealism.'

Bill Morris, in Blackpool for the Labour Party conference, had another view. 'We deplore the violence and unlawful action that has taken place,' he said. 'The dockers must disassociate themselves [from the environmentalists]'. In fact, the violence came mostly from the Liverpool police, especially the rubber-suited Robocops of the Operation Support Division (OSD). I found it moving to see dockers shielding the young people, leading them to safe houses and guarding them until their buses and trains had left. Their alliance shames those who should have been there and were not.

At the rally that afternoon on the Pierhead, 11-year-old Neil Fox made a speech in which he said, 'I always thought my dad was very brave. He drove a gantry crane. He was so high up in the air, working that massive machine. He sometimes worked 15 hours a day. Our families will not give in; we have been through too much. Thank you for coming to Liverpool.'

In his fine book, Near To Revolution, about other great dockers' struggles on Merseyside, the labour historian Eric Taplin wrote, 'The efforts of ordinary people to improve their standard of life and to secure greater dignity and recognition of their role in society have been evident in British history since at least the Peasants' Revolt of 1381.'

And so they continue.