November 1996


Sending a Strike Message in a Bottle

by Greg Dropkin

Ever since they refused to cross a picket line on September 28, 1995 and were immediately sacked, workers at the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company in Liverpool, along with their wives and partners, have fought for reinstatement. They have:

  • turned up in Le Havre without an interpreter and won support from skeptical French dock workers;
  • occupied cranes in Montreal and Cardiff;
  • taken their children to deliver a birthday cake by candlelight to a Mersey Docks director's home and sung Christmas carols on a scab's doorstep;
  • picketed the Stock Exchange;
  • convened two international conferences of dock workers;
  • spoken in Stockholm on International Women's Day;
  • provoked industrial action in ports around the world;
  • addressed 5,000 meetings in Britain;
  • sustained morale at home with weekly mass meetings;
  • picketed the Liverpool docks daily; and
  • faced the hesitancy of their own union and the embarrassed silence of a Labour Party awaiting office.

These actions broke many conventions of labor-management relations. Using the Internet as a component of their efforts, the workers were to break still more.

Port shop stewards' secretary Jimmy Davies told the dockers international conference in February, "Basically there's been a media blackout in the United Kingdom on our dispute. We go to places like London, and people there say 'we didn't even know you were on strike.'" Apart from Lloyd's List, the Financial Times, and the Liverpool Daily Post and Echo, press coverage has been sporadic. After a good deal of initial sympathy, editors have mainly lost interest or actively supported Mersey Docks. "So how do we expect people throughout the world to know?" Jimmy asked. He concluded, "We're going to use that Internet to broadcast our dispute."

Not a Magic Wand

The Net, however, has not proved to be a magic wand. Since June, the most extensive industrial solidarity action has been taken in Gothenburg, where members of the Hamnarbetarforbundet (Swedish dockworkers' union) have imposed a 12 hour delay on vessels calling in Liverpool. Their action followed a visit from two of the sacked dockers. The Hamnarbetarforbundet made no use of the Net, though they intend to get connected. They keep in touch with Liverpool organizers by fax.

The Net also does not replace the picket line, mass meeting, occupation, leaflet or collecting bucket. Try standing in a shopping center asking people to go home and type!

No one will see a Web site without access to it, and no one will risk their job just because they read an appeal on a computer. Terry Teague is international co-ordinator on the stewards committee. "Information helps but action depends on personal contact, which we've pursued by delegations. The Internet is not a magic bullet but it is a channel of communication."

Without the dockers' long record of solidarity and their decision to pursue international industrial action, their Web site would have gathered dust. It has come to life during a complex and long-running dispute in an industry which is inherently international, as shipping lines cross the seas and dockers face common problems of casualization world wide. Even in this favorable context, the technology has limited access both in terms of global spread and within any one country.

But the readership of the Liverpool Web site and Net bulletins goes beyond the head offices of transnational corporations and top trade union officials. The Net has proved itself in making new contacts and keeping interested activists up-to-date, and as a research tool.


The dockers' Net project has developed in phases. "It was brand new to us, except possibly one steward. " says Terry. "Two or three weeks into the dispute we saw the need for international publicity. Greg Coyne at the Merseyside Trade Union Centre offered to show us the Internet; Mike Carden and Bobby Morton went along and saw the value."

Appeals were placed on several labor orientated mailing lists beginning with Union-d and a return email address was posted for responses. These appeals were picked up and forwarded into various labor conference networks particularly LaborNet in the US.

An Australian socialist newspaper, The Guardian, picked up the appeal and contacted the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA). "We immediately contacted Liverpool and invited Terry Teague and Kevin Robinson to visit," explains Jim Donovan, Joint National Secretary of the MUA. "But we were surprised they came out; now we understand why they did. We had already raised $30,000 at that stage."

"By the time we arrived," adds Terry, "they had already read our leaflet."

Before Christmas, a Web site was established through GreenNet after a local journalist asked the dockers where he could find it! GreenNet started a new LabourNet service especially for the new Web site. Our first news report was a brief eyewitness account of a pre-dawn picket in Sheerness, the Kent port owned by Mersey Docks.

The site soon became a (free) news service including photographs and an online edition of "The Dockers' Charter", the dockers' newspaper (produced monthly, on average). Frequent reports posted immediately on a range of lists and conferences are passed to the site from time to time.

When four Liverpool dockers occupied Montreal gantry cranes in June, appealing to the longshoremen for support and paralyzing CAST shipping line, I interviewed them on a mobile phone link to the occupation. The piece, Mersey dockers occupy Montreal crane, went out that night on Labournet. The Guardian (London) was not interested as the action lasted "only 4 hours." The next day LabourNet used the Net to find and download coverage in the Montreal Gazette and fax it to the dockers in Liverpool.


Who reads it? "We originally thought we'd be speaking to the big organizations via the Net," says Terry Teague. "Later we found we were talking to rank and file stewards." In Canada, Terry and Tony Nelson met International Transport Workers' Federation inspectors and Albert Batten, President of the Checkers and Cargo Repair ILA local 1657. "They turned up with a dossier of documents off the Net about our struggle," says Terry. "They'd read it. It was accurate. Batten is a working docker, has a computer at home, and switches on to our Web site. The Syndicat des Debardeurs (Montreal longshoremen's union) uses our Net info to update their leaflets which are printed in French and circulated to the rank and file."

Michel Murray, President of the Syndicat des Debardeurs, relates his experience in Net communication: "A 14-year-old friend of mine uses the Net. He sent you a message 3 weeks ago requesting all statements from the international conference in February; you haven't responded yet! But the Net is a great tool, and the union is going on line soon. Meanwhile a local bar in Montreal has computers; I go there to play pool and surf."

Tony Nelson and Bobby Morton traveled to the US west coast in April, having ignited solidarity on the east coast when ILA longshoremen refused to cross their picket line in December." In San Francisco, ILWU Executive member Jack Heyman had told longshoremen about our dispute but Robert Irminger, a young lad from the Inland Boatmen's Union who does the local run from Fisherman's Wharf to Alcatraz, is really into the Net and knew everything about us," Tony explains. "He showed us the site. This was the first time we sat down and looked at it.

"In LA, Ray Famila is a young ITF (International Transport Workers Federation) Inspector. He has the Net at home. Joe Cortez, ILWU leader in LA, would just tell Ray to get the latest on Liverpool, Ray would go to the Net and produce a leaflet.

"Young dockers tuned into the Net were trying to convince officials of its importance. They used printouts in meetings, which saved us having to go through the whole history. It enabled an exchange of info and debate on tactics."

The Maritime Union of Australia is planning to go online. "Any communication tool is useful for the development of genuine workers organization," says Jim Donovan. "Some officials, especially younger ones are online. They read the dockers Web site, but I don't know if any rank and file dockers see it directly."

We don't know the full extent of the dockers' readership. Japanese dockers sent an email message "announcing a 1 million Yen donation before we'd made direct contact," says Terry. "Now we are in touch by fax." Labour MP Tony Benn informed a dockers' demo that workers in Bombay had picked up their story on the Net. When the ITF celebrated its centenary in London, many international delegates were familiar with the dispute from the Web site. "Being up-to-date is one factor in their decision to seek an international day of action," Terry thinks.

Shipping companies scan the Net too, or at least their lawyers do. There's a rumour that CAST discovered the international mass picket of Mersey Docks in February from our online article, On the Waterfront of the World, and intend to exhibit it when they sue the Syndicat de Debardeurs in the Canadian Labour Relations Board over the crane affair.


We can scour the Net for international press coverage of the dock industry and other data of potential interest to the stewards committee. For example, forward planning of shipping movements of all vessels serving North America is listed on We can find press reports about current ILWU and ILA contract negotiations, Los Angeles truckers, the Limon (Costa Rica) general strike, and other information.


Terry Teague reckons, "Publicity does upset Mersey Docks. Recently Terry Malone, Chairman of the Port Users Committee, said the problem was, 'the rest of the world believes Liverpool is a strike-bound port.'

"Up-to-date information is important internationally. For example, rumours of a possible settlement or hints that support is crumbling have to be countered right away. Circulars from our union, the T&GWU, about "unconditional talks" to end the dispute were issued without consultation with us. These reports had to be nipped in the bud.

"In the run-up to our February conference, the ITF said that because negotiations were leading to a ballot, other trade unionists shouldn't act. We knew from our mass meetings that there would be an overwhelming rejection, so we didn't want a period of inactivity. So it was important to keep our international network informed. This did upset the bureaucracy, and we did still suffer from their attack: Antwerp and Rotterdam unions didn't attend our conference because of the ITF statement."

Who Does What?

The Net project involves three people outside the stewards committee. Greg Coyne, who introduced dockers to the Net, receives incoming messages on Union-d and passes them to the stewards. My reports are emailed or phoned through to Chris Bailey of LabourNet along with research queries. Chris places reports onto various conferences, updates the Web site, and searches the Net.

The original idea that dockers would provide copy on disk to Union-d proved impractical for a news service. The dockers were simply too busy. They have a fax machine but no computer. I have no modem.

A Better Approach?

"The system whereby articles have been written for us and placed on the Net has worked well, and we don't want to change it now," says Terry, "The coverage has been positive about our fight. It concentrated on the highlights and never missed any main events. The level of detail is useful. Research, about shipping movements for example, shows a potential which we want to pursue.

"But in retrospect, if we had had our own computer linked to the Net and people trained in its use it would have been preferable. We would have made time for that, and perhaps would have made better use of it. If we were able to update daily, more info could have gone out. We didn't do this because we felt overawed by the technology. Now we feel that we would like training, but after the end of the dispute."

Tony Nelson disagrees. "I think it's better having an outside view, an overview rather than our own partial views, which is what you'd get if someone was delegated from the stewards to do the job."

Clearly, the dock workers and their supporters would benefit from having a computer and many would enjoy learning to use the Net. Aside from the technology, there's the journalism. Men and women who can occupy cranes or address crowds in another country can also write articles, and a Web site does not have to run news stories though I think the dockers' page is stronger for attempting to do so.

The problem is that keeping a site up-to-date is a fair amount of work, and in the midst of a very fast moving dispute it simply falls off the agenda unless someone makes it a priority. Apart from everything else involved in fighting the lockout, the dockers had to field enquiries from the media, give interviews, hold press conferences, write leaflets, and keep an eye on "The Dockers Charter". In that context, some outside help was needed.


The coverage of the docks dispute has encouraged other trade union organizations and individual activists to send in both requests for information and reports and appeals from other disputes to LabourNet. Such communications have come from the US, Canada, Australia, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Norway, Sweden and the Ukraine. The labour movement world-wide is clearly beginning to realise the potential of the Internet.


Information is important. During the formation of independent trade unions in South Africa until the launch of COSATU when the subject finally hit the media, lots of work went into alerting the UK trade union movement to the existence of these new organizations and reporting on their activities. That task would be a little easier today, using the Net.

Greg Dropkin is unemployed, lives in Liverpool, and has been active in the Mersey docks dispute since it began. He has previously been involved in solidarity work with South African and Namibian trade unions and has produced a number of labour videos. He can be contacted through Chris Bailey (

Copyright © 1996 by Greg Dropkin. All Rights Reserved.

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