Liverpool dockers' strike (1995–98)

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Liverpool dockers' strike
DateSeptember 1995 - January 1998 (850 days)[1]
MethodsStrike action, International co-operation
Parties to the civil conflict
Liverpool Dockers
Lead figures
Jimmy Nolan
Jimmy Davies
Trevor Furlong

The Liverpool Dockers' strike was a lengthy dispute between dockers their employers Mersey Docks and Harbour Company (MDHC) and Torside Ltd, which lasted for twenty-eight months between 1995 and 1998 in Liverpool, England. Although referred to as a strike, it was strictly a dispute as the employers, MDHC, sacked the dockers for breach of contract when they struck alongside their sacked colleagues. The dispute was never officially recognised by their union due to a ballot not being undertaken prior to the walkout, although the union did offer support financially and helped towards settlement negotiations.

Various celebrities and high-profile figures, including Robbie Fowler and Noel Gallagher, expressed and showed their support during the dispute, either through public awareness or financial support. Despite the election success of a Labour government in 1997, this did not help towards ending the dispute, given the new administration failed to reverse anti-trade union legislation enacted by the former Conservative administration.

The dockers had previously been described by Lloyd's List as "the most productive workforce in Europe". Various settlement offers were made by MDHC and subsequently rejected by the dockers during the course of the dispute. By the time a settlement was negotiated and accepted in 1998, the conflict had become one of the longest disputes in labour history.

Background history[edit]

The MDHC had been adopting an aggressive stance regarding its relations with the dockers, with regulations being introduced towards the end of the 1980s requiring dockers to be available for work at all times, including days off.[2] Many of the dockers felt their lives were restricted by the unstructured working hours, which may have involved little to no notice requirement to work during the night. Surveys of the time showed that the new procedures were taking its toll on the workforce and affecting morale, whilst over 85% were concerned about the longer working hours. Of those surveyed, over half felt that standards of health and safety were severely compromised, as rates of accidents increased.[3]

As dockers retired, their jobs were often replaced by sub-contracted workers under different working conditions, typically with Torside Limited. Between 1989-1992, around 80% of dockers left the industry, whilst the number of employees between 1989-1995 fell by over half, from 1100 to 500.[3] Whilst docker numbers decreased, the volumes handled by the port were increasing, from around 20 million tonnes in 1988 to over 30 million tonnes in 1997. The number of dockers employed was in stark contrast to the 1960s, when around 12,000 were employed in the dock workforce, although this had dropped to 6000 by 1980. Workers who wanted to enter the dock trade, which often included the sons of those established dockers, had to do so via sub-contracted firms due to the lack of jobs available. The conditions of these jobs would ultimately create the conditions that resulted in the dispute.[4]

Sequence of events[edit]

Dispute origins[edit]

On 25 September 1995, sub-contractor Torside Limited were in dispute with its workers regarding overtime pay, which resulted in the company dismissing all 80 of its workforce who in turn set up a picket line.[5][6] Dockers directly employed by MDHC refused to cross the picket line in support of their fellow dockers and were similarly dismissed from employment.[7] Some dockers were offered new contracts, yet all contracts were subject to alteration by the MDHC thus the dispute began. As the dockers had not held a ballot, their union declared it as unofficial strike action[1] with the dockers in breach of contract, resulting in MDHC terminating contracts and advertising for replacement labour within 24 hours, albeit at lower rates of pay and under different contractual conditions.[5] An offer was made by MDHC the following month for £10,000 which was rejected.[6] Lloyd's List had previously described the dockers as "the most productive workforce in Europe".[1]

Support and public campaign[edit]

Official portrait of Bill Morris

Within 3 months, the leader of the Transport and General Workers' Union, Bill Morris, expressed a desire to support the dockers by voting to establish a hardship fund and welcomed promises by foreign unions to boycott ships using the Merseyside terminals.[8] In December 1995, three sacked dockers formed a picket line in New York which local workers refused to cross.[6] The timing of the dispute co-incided with the emergence of the world wide web, with dockers amongst the first to embrace the technology to communicate their plight beyond the restrictions of national media.[9] After 14 months, the dispute had been running longer than the miners' strike of 1984-85.[10]

Over the two and a half years, the dockers waged a high-profile public campaign for their reinstatement and allied themselves with dockers worldwide and support groups such as Reclaim the Streets.[1] A spokesman for MDHC suggested in July 1996 that the dispute was "winding down" and claimed the new workforce were 30-40 percent more productive than the sacked workforce.[11] Around this time, dockers rejected an offer via postal ballot to reinstate 40 jobs, with a payoff settlement of £25,000 offered for the rest of the sacked workforce.[12]

Robbie Fowler publicly expressed his support for the Dockers

A T-shirt was designed and printed in September 1996 as part of a public campaign to bring attention to the strike by incorporating the Calvin Klein "CK" into the word docker. The wording chosen was "500 Liverpool dockers sacked since September 1995".[13] The T-shirt was worn by many celebrities, most famously by Robbie Fowler during a goal celebration while playing for Liverpool.[14] Some shirts were also sold at music gigs and in total reached sales of nearly 50,000, costing £5 each and helping towards the family hardship fund.[13]

Latter stages[edit]

Mersey Docks' then chief executive, Trevor Furlong, suggested talks towards reaching a settlement were ongoing in February 1997, although suggested the resistance from dockers in not holding a secret ballot was hindering progress talks.[12] Hopes of a resolution were high upon the election of Tony Blair's Labour Government in 1997 given their 14% financial share in MDHC, although the dockers were unaware that the new Government would seek to retain previous economic policies and offer no help towards resolving the dispute.[15] The country's trade union establishment made its expression of contempt clear during the 1997 Trades Union Congress annual conference, suggesting the only place for dockers who had sought support of trade unionists worldwide was "on the pavement outside the hall, with a collection bucket".[16]

In the latter part of 1997, Merseyside Police increased their presence and actions towards dockers picketing, with 13 dockers arrested in the weeks around August 1997, three of whom were shop stewards, whilst other dockers who had previously been arrested were prohibited by bail conditions from being within 25 foot of the picket line.[17]


The MDHC made numerous offers throughout the course of the dispute, which were all voted down by the striking dockers. In October 1997, Morris ordered a postal secret ballot to determine whether the dockers would accept a £28,000 settlement redundancy package (equivalent to £50,054 in 2018); of the 310 ballots counted, only 97 ballots, representing just under a third of responses, voted to accept, with the rest declining. Following the ballot, MDHC made the same offer on an individual basis for a limited period of time, with assurances that it would remain confidential.[18]

In January 1998, the dockers finally accepted a settlement, although this was limited to around two-thirds of the workforce, with the other third receiving financial support from the sale of a music CD titled "Rock The Dock".[13] At a length of two and a half years, the dispute became one of the longest in British industrial relations history.[5]

After the dispute[edit]

Whilst strike failed in its declared objectives, it was successful in providing a modern example of strong Social Movement Unionism in the United Kingdom, with the Socialist Workers Party describing Liverpool as "symbolic of the collective solidarity inside the working class movement". The Socialist Party, known as the Militant tendency prior to 1997, claimed nothing further could have been done, suggesting that "the union needs reclaiming" for the working class.[19]

The Casa on Hope Street, Liverpool

Following the dispute, some dockers bought a semi-derelict bar named The Casablanca on Hope Street in Liverpool city centre, later renamed to The Casa.[1] The bar was purchased using the £130,000 fee received from writing a television drama about the events and was opened as a community hub that offered advice and help for those in need. Between the years 2000-2015, an estimated £10 million worth of free advice was offered to people in desperate need.[20]

Union involvement[edit]

The union itself had not officially recognised the dispute and within 18 months relations between the union and dockers had deteriorated, in particular with Bill Morris, who came under scrutiny for misleading statements.[8] Although the union did not support the dispute, it is believed to have contributed up to £700,000 towards the dockers' hardship fund and supported them with premises towards helping to negotiate a settlement.[21]

One docker discovered through a discussion with the General Secretary of the Fire Brigades' Union that they had been willing to grant dockers an interest free loan of £250,000 to help towards costs of running the strike, yet the dockers' own General Secretary had blocked it, indicating the disparity in support between other trade unions and the dockers' own union.[10]

Responses to the dispute[edit]

Media coverage[edit]

It took nearly two months after the dockers had been sacked before the news was covered in the national press. The BBC's Liverpool correspondent, Kevin Bocquet, disclosed that he had covered the dispute in only four pieces for television and radio apiece within the first fourteen months of the dispute, suggesting editors found it less than appealing to cover the news by questioning how it affected the economy.[22] Initially, little was published about the dispute amongst the national media, whom tended to portray the dockers as "dinosaurs from another age".[15] The national media did not take notice until international organisations became aware via internet communication channels, who offered their support, whilst observers at the time suggested that British newspapers only started covering the dispute once the international press became aware and converged on Liverpool.[23]

The internet offered a means of allowing dockers to engage with worldwide trade unionists without the need to channel their messages through their own union and government. Dockers realised within the first few months that their best chance to gain support was by spreading their message globally and hoping dockers worldwide supported their plight, such as boycotting ships that were travelling to or from Liverpool. Picket lines abroad were also instigated to work around the legal restrictions on setting up a secondary picket line in Britain.[23]

Until late 1996, ITV show This Morning was broadcast at Liverpool's Albert Dock, yet it failed to ever mention or discuss the dispute or struggles of affected dockers who were picketing just miles away from the studio, with the programme producer suggesting that "people just don't want to know".[22]

Political reaction[edit]

In late 1997, the newly elected Labour Government discarded appeals to its leadership and former hard-left to reverse anti-trade union legislation which had been enacted by the former Conservative administration.[24] Tony Blair himself felt the dockers were responsible for the defeat through an unwillingness to alter their own views and "long-standing abuse of monopoly power".[25]

Worldwide solidarity[edit]

Dockers worldwide aligned themselves in support and solidarity of the Liverpool dockers.[20] Just three months after the start in December 1995, dockers in New York refused to cross a picket line set up by three Liverpool dockers and nearly cost Liverpool the business of US shipping company Atlantic Containers, who threatened in December 1995 to pull out of the port.[6] The shipping company, then one of MDHC's largest customers with an estimated annual value of £4 million, ultimately did pull out of the port in June 1996, citing the sympathy action by American dockers, although resumed services the following month.[11] In September 1997, 30 ports around the world halted work for 24 hours, bringing the US East Cost to a standstill.[24] Elsewhere during the dispute, ports in Japan and South Africa came to a halt, with dockers in the latter stopping their work "in solidarity with the Liverpool dockers who stood by us during apartheid".[20]

Financial impact[edit]

Mersey Docks[edit]

During 1996, the dispute cost Mersey Docks around £800,000 (equivalent to £1,474,976 in 2018).[12] Profits for Mersey Docks fell for the first time in 10 years in 1995, to 31.7 million, down from 33.6 million the year before with the trend continuing into the following year. Previous to this, between 1988 and 1994, profits had increased nearly five-fold.[4] The value of shares in MDHC varied during the dispute, such as the suspension and resumption of ACL services in 1996, the latter which resulted in a share spike of 10 percent.[11]

Picket lines which blocked and restricted easy access to the port cost the MDHC "millions of pounds" through lost labour hours and shipment delays.[24]

Company profits over a ten year period, 1986 – 1996[4]
Year 1986 1987 1988 1989 1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996
Annual profit (£ million) 3.1 5.0 7.2 8.3 10.8 13.2 15.2 20.9 33.6 31.7 29.6
Year-on-year difference (£ million) - 2.1 2.2 1.1 2.5 2.4 2.0 5.7 12.7 -1.9 -2.1


Many of the dockers faced financial hardship during the course of the dispute, with more than 90 of dockers' homes under repossession orders by 1997. Donations were received from the public either as postal orders or money in envelopes, sometimes anonymously, as well as having grocery shopping paid for or donated to a doorstep.[26] An 84 year old former miner's wife turned up at the picket line in late 1997, offering savings left to her by her late husband to help towards the hardship fund.[24]

By the end of 1997, dockers' families were finding their financial circumstances unmanageable, with the weekly £12 union payments inadaquate (an official strike would have warranted a payment three times that amount). Mersey Docks kept their severence offer of £28,000 available for acceptance, which the most desperateinitially accepted, followed by a stewards recommendation to end the dispute for the sake of all remaining striking dockers. By the end of the dispute, four dockers had died.[27] Celebrities such as Jo Brand and Noel Gallagher also did fundraisers to help towards financial costs and needs.[20]

In popular culture[edit]

British director Ken Loach made a documentary about the strike, The Flickering Flame, in 1996.[28] A group of sacked dockers wrote the script for a film about their experiences, titled Dockers, with the help of Liverpool writer Jimmy McGovern and the author Irvine Welsh. The film was broadcast by Channel 4 in July 1999 and portrayed the union leader Bill Morris as a traitor. Although some lines are taken in verbatim, others are written as real life events experienced by families of the dockers.[21]

Chumbawamba song "One by One" obliquely references the strikes, being released on the album Tubthumping in 1998.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b c d e "TUC 150th anniversary: Dockers sacked for refusing to cross picket line create hub to help workers in need". The Mirror. 4 September 2018. Retrieved 8 December 2018.
  2. ^ Marren 2016, p. 211.
  3. ^ a b Marren 2016, p. 213.
  4. ^ a b c Marren 2016, p. 214.
  5. ^ a b c Marren 2016, p. 215.
  6. ^ a b c d "What was the 1995-1998 Liverpool docks dispute all about?". Liverpool Echo. 20 September 2015. Retrieved 28 January 2019.
  7. ^ "Liverpool docks dispute 20 years on: Part One - How dockers paid with their jobs for refusing to cross a picket line". Liverpool Echo. 20 September 2015. Retrieved 12 September 2017.
  8. ^ a b Marren 2016, p. 217.
  9. ^ Marren 2016, p. 219-220.
  10. ^ a b Marren 2016, p. 218.
  11. ^ a b c "Dockers to continue Mersey campaign". The Independent. 24 July 1996. Retrieved 21 February 2019.
  12. ^ a b c "Docks dispute cost Mersey pounds 800,000". The Independent. 26 February 1997. Retrieved 23 February 2019.
  13. ^ a b c "Talkin about a revolution". The Independent. 4 October 1998. Retrieved 22 December 2018.
  14. ^ "Football: Fowler fined for show of support". The Independent. 28 March 1997. Retrieved 12 September 2017.
  15. ^ a b Marren 2016, p. 219.
  16. ^ Pilger 2010, p. 357.
  17. ^ "Liverpool dockers' fight on after two years". Green Left Weekly. 6 August 1997. Retrieved 23 February 2019.
  18. ^ Marren 2016, p. 225.
  19. ^ "Hard lessons from the Liverpool docks lock-out". World Socialist Web Site. 14 February 1998. Retrieved 4 January 2019.
  20. ^ a b c d "Keeping the spirit of solidarity alive 20 years after Robbie Fowler backed Liverpool dockers". The Mirror. 16 January 2015. Retrieved 19 December 2018.
  21. ^ a b "Union leader is traitor in strikers' film". The Guardian. 2 July 1999. Retrieved 22 February 2019.
  22. ^ a b Pilger 2010, p. 354.
  23. ^ a b Marren 2016, p. 220.
  24. ^ a b c d "No going back at Liverpool docks". The Independent. 21 September 1997. Retrieved 28 January 2019.
  25. ^ Lees 2013, p. 214.
  26. ^ Pilger 2010, p. 355.
  27. ^ Pilger 2010, p. 358.
  28. ^ Milne, Seumas (19 December 1996). "TV review: Loach keeps the fires burning". The Guardian. Manchester. p. 2.


Further reading[edit]

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