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(‘Five Minutes Experience Is Worth Fifty Years Of Reading’)
A drama made for British television of a real life struggle
against dismissal and betrayal

Review: John Henry Bohanna
26 July

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If we are consciously involved in class struggle and battles for equality, we often hear that recollections are best gathered from our own personal involvement: “five minutes of experience is worth fifty years of reading”. When it is another person’s struggle we have to learn – hopefully – from their particular accounts.

So we read, we attend plays, we sing songs to keep our memories alive and try to act collectively. We attempt to understand the past to make sense of the present and ourselves. And we watch the limited – sometimes stunningly performed – drama/documentaries made primarily for British television.

A number of those drama/documentaries, representing struggles of working class people and their history, find a home in the ’halls of fact’ and slowly drift into folklore.

Films such as ’Cathy Come Home’ ’Jubilee’ and ’Road’ are examples, as were Jim Allen’s ’Big Flame’ made at the end of the 1960’s and Alan Bleasdale’s three part drama ’The Boys from The Blackstuff’ at the start of the 1980’s.

Allen and Bleasdale used the Liverpool waterfront and dock-land as their background for stories of working people’s confrontation with the forces of capitalist domination, change and unemployment. A third drama written by sacked Liverpool dock-workers and their families is considered by some Merseyside people to have joined their respected ranks.

Using the Liverpool riverside again, this story is based on the twenty-eight months of struggle for re-instatement by dock-workers and their families, who suffered and discovered both hardship and strength as they fought against dismissal by the Mersey Docks & Harbour Company (MDHC). The writers allowed their own ’five minutes experience’ – which was in truth over twenty years of direct employment – to be shaped and structured by the well known TV scriptwriter Jimmy McGovern into a television drama. Here was a unique opportunity for a group of workers to write and show the nation their own story of defeat and its reasons, in dramatic form. The script and interpretation of what they eventually agreed to show are quite impressive.

“Dockers” was shown on Channel 4 on 18th July, a Sunday evening. It deserves all the accolades the TV ’luvvies’ can bestow at their annual ’million dollar pat on the back bash’, and our applause to everybody who helped with this piece of television history.

My own ovation and praise to Jimmy McGovern’s ability and skill at bringing out the talents of people whose lives had been fundamentally regimented toward a singular pattern of work, whether that be at the waterfront or in the home, compares with the most complimentary views. But it may sound a little muted later as I question some inclusions and missing pieces of the drama.

How was it made? An agreement by the dock-workers for a history of their struggle in book form was undertaken by a member of the Workers Educational Association (WEA) who was also a fierce supporter of the Dockers. An idea to form a WEA writers’ class to develop dock-workers proficiency and competence in the writing of their own fight was considered. Around the same time Jimmy McGovern wrote to “The Observer” declaring his support for the Liverpool dock-workers and attacking both the MDHC and the General Secretary of the Transport & General Workers Union, the dock-workers union.

This led to an approach to develop the issue for Channel Four television.

Ultimately Jimmy McGovern became engaged with the WEA as a part time tutor in the dock-worker writers’ class. Immediately before the transmission of “Dockers” we were given a ’fly on the wall’ insight into that class and the scripting of the drama, through the documentary ’Writing the Wrongs’.

During that extraordinary and brilliant film Jimmy McGovern defines drama as being “about human beings that want something. About making choices but obstacles are in the way and how people overcome these and attain or fail to attain those goals”. ’Writings the Wrongs’ was a drama in itself, full of choices and obstacles as to what should or should not be portrayed (particularly in the illustration and characterization of a scab) and in the emotional turmoil some of the writers experienced as they told their story. The plot is developed around a fictional family (the Waltons) loosely based on the Mitchells, who take part in the writing class. We saw the first reading of part of their script superbly played by student actors which gave us a real taste of what was to come. Viewers who skipped ’Writing the Wrongs’ missed a valuable piece of history and much information left out of “Dockers” itself.

We also saw almost in perfection how an adult educational class/workshop should be managed with initial guidance and discussion of aims and purpose, then pulling apart and re-construction of those aims leading to the active participation by all attending the class. Referring at one stage to the quality of TV drama, Jimmy McGovern stated quite rightly “It is wrong to pick the brains of people who have been through hell” and stated that all writers (I assume he means professional) are ’vultures’. Perhaps Jimmy was more ’owlish’ than ’vulture’ as his wise arguments and knowledge of his craft won the contentious quarrel over depicting a scab almost as the centre-piece of the drama.

“Dockers” opens by showing the severe bad tempered working conditions on the water-front and the dismissal of young male dock-workers employed by a company, Torside, which operated under the MDHC umbrella. Many of the Torside employees were sons or relatives of the MDHC dock-workers. The inept management systems and callous indifference of the MDHC towards dock-workers’ families is shown as they wrongly inform Tom Walton’s wife that he was absent from a night shift. The Torside dispute escalates as Torside workers mount a picket line on the main dock entrance of the MDHC.

But not before we witness Jack Dempsey, the dock-workers Trade Union official (said to have had a son working for Torside) warn the Torside men not to go near the MDHC work-front. We also see Dempsey reject an offer of re-instatement of the sacked Torside men, and inform a Torside director, Bradley, that he would not make an appeal for re-instatement on their behalf. Unaware of this astonishing act of treachery and upholding a lifetime of working class tradition and honour, the MDHC dock-workers refused to cross their sons’ picket line.

Letters were sent immediately by the MDHC to a selected number of their employees offering a return to work under a new contract and far worse condition of employment, or dismissal. Some ignored both their tradition and unity and scabbed the majority decision to recognise the Torside picket line. Amongst the scabs (in the film) is Macca, a work-mate and friend of Tom Walton.

On Union advice the MDHC dockworkers attempt to return to work but find they are locked out with police again protecting the employer’s decision- a trap had been laid and sprung.

“Dockers” shows the international solidarity of port workers who refused to service Liverpool ships and in particular the success of American port workers in forcing ACL, a major shipping company and MDHC customer, into withdrawing its trade with Liverpool.

Stories of family stress, division and death, the involvement of dock-workers wives and partners are all interwoven into the performance. So too is support from the famous local born and bred Liverpool FC footballer, Robbie Fowler as he displays a Dockers T Shirt at an important football match, sending dockers into ecstasy.

All through the drama choices are being made but the central ones are Macca’s decision to wear the cloak of a scab, a decision which is flung in his face by his mother after his brother’s death, and Tom’s to respect all he believes in.

Dempsey’s treacherous behavior comes to light, only to be compounded by the deceit, hypocrisy and cowardice of the leader of the Transport and General Workers Union, Bill Morris. The General Secretary speaks of solidarity and standing firm, and then refuses to mount any serious attack on the forces which had initiated the dismissals and on the vengeful ruling class which had instigated the anti-union laws in Britain. All of this was underlined by the blatant manoeuvre at the T&G’s biennial delegate conference, where the Chair declares an Executive motion carried after it was decisively defeated on the floor.

These betrayals are played off against tensions within the family, as Tom retaliates for his wife Joan’s involvement in Women of the Waterfront, seeing it at first as a threat to his manhood when she addresses a meeting of teachers, wins their solidarity and celebrates in the pub while Tom is left minding the house. His son leaves the dispute for a job on a building site, only to discover just what his father had been fighting for: solidarity with his work-mates and his class.

In ’Writing the Wrongs’, Jimmy McGovern said the dock-workers tale was ’such a huge sprawling story’. Therefore I suppose the writers’ class must have confronted the impossibility of pouring a full pint into a half-pint glass, in that countless interpretations of the fight could have been submitted. Yet I think some important elements were missing. And if they could not be expressed in the limited TV time, they should be mentioned elsewhere, particularly with regard to Trade Union representation.

During a period after 1989 MDHC only recognised two representatives on the dock. On two occasions since 1989 the dock-workers sought union protection against bullying and increasingly harsh working conditions, through industrial ballot. They didn’t get it. Why? This could have been brought out to show that the dock-workers had already had enough when faced with seeing their sons sacked. And that the Union was at the least slow in listening to the real possibility of disaster for their members on the Liverpool waterfront.

And it didn’t start in 1989. A life long revolutionary and honored citizen of Liverpool, Bill Hunter, wrote a book titled ’They Knew Why They Fought’. It is a history of unofficial struggles and leadership on the Liverpool Docks from 1945-1989 and should be read to understand the nature of the Liverpool dock-worker. Bill says “on the one side in the post war period there is a sorry tale of leaders whose policies revolve only around their own bureaucratic interests and who are far removed from the feelings, aspirations and traditions of trade union membership. On the other side there is a magnificent story of workers will to fight and workers solidarity”. Will the leadership never change?

Dempsey’s betrayal is explained in the film by reference to his inability to control the Torside men, who would not listen to him. But what of his responsibility to the MDHC dock-workers? And if he was so useless why was he allowed to stay as a serving officer in the T&G until his retirement? On Merseyside we know that Jack Adams the deputy leader of the T&G came to Liverpool within days of the dispute starting, yet his contribution is left unmentioned. After two years telling the dockers he was their friend in the union leadership, Adams delivered the speech on behalf of the Executive at the Biennial Delegate Conference. By contrast Bill Morris had well lost the dock-workers confidence long before.

“Dockers” left us with so many unanswered questions. Why didn’t the T&G act fast in challenging the actions of the MDHC and then be taken to court to argue the case? Why didn’t the T&G challenge the selection of half the locked out workforce for re-employment and why didn’t the T&G give the word to maintain international action and support, instead of actively interfering with it?. And why wasn’t the membership given a lead to support the dock-workers and fight with them? An impression in the film is the T&G wanted the dock-workers to lose. This may be true for much of the leadership, but the attitudes of the membership were much more complex.

The impression – which has been remarked upon in a popular Merseyside radio show – was a lack of involvement or support from local people, activists, and rank and file trade union members. That the dock-workers stood alone. While the ’five minutes experience’ the dock-workers and their families underwent could not be felt by others, the agony of seeing them with their backs against the wall and the outrageous treatment they had endured had a profound effect amongst many on Merseyside.

The film drama was about real people, not simply fictional characters, but other real people also saw that the backbone of Liverpool’s history was being broken and it hurt. Support groups were set up in many cities in England, Wales and Scotland as well as Belfast, Dublin, and internationally. Liverpool pensioners often traveled into town to donate into the collecting boxes what they could afford. Unemployed people supported the demonstrations and contributed what they could. And active trade unionists argued in their committees and on the shop floor to continually raise funds and awareness of what had disappeared into a media black hole throughout much of the dispute. The argument against the injustice suffered by the Dock-workers was won in almost all sections of the Merseyside community.

Yet the reality was that industrial action by those remaining workplaces on Merseyside, with the hope of spreading that support, was not possible. Because the same hostile forces which were at work in MDHC were also at work in other industries and underpinned by a similar sort of official union representation and party political determination to support wealth. Some activists were even warned by their management against bringing dock-workers to their factory gate – they ignored that. People did what they could – even in one part of the public sector withdrawing from work for a few hours to join the dock-workers May Day demonstration in 1996. Some MP’s, in spite of Blair, gave more than lip service, they argued for and stood with the dock-workers and some T&G union officers who had felt the viciousness of Morris in the past tried to help.

Ultimately I recognize that it was not enough, and there were not enough, but nevertheless it was missed out entirely in the film. The dock-workers themselves did acknowledge, thank and advertise all the support they received. Also Jimmy McGovern at the start of ’Writing the Wrongs’ said what was happening on Mersey Docks was very modern: casualisation is everywhere and those with jobs are being worked harder and harder and harder. All the more reason to see ’Writing the Wrongs’!

“Dockers” conveyed the unity of the men meeting regularly. But the breaking of new ground and democracy, even in terms of rank & file organization, of openly welcoming anybody who offered support or solidarity and debate was not shown. The dock-workers rank and file leadership wiped out the stifling strangulating sectarianism which has plagued almost every crevice of the left and often carried the means of defeat into workers’ organizations. Equally activists on Merseyside and nationally were invited to attend meetings with an open forum debate for suggestions or advice on winning the dispute. That sort of action was important to record.

International support was prominent but perhaps the effect of that support was missed in not showing at least one vessel, the Neptune Jade which spent months travelling the world unable to unload, because the shipping line was a major customer in Liverpool.

Accepting that you can only write from personal knowledge, for me the attacks upon the vicious vindictive low-life who managed MDHC and why they conspired to inflict misery upon their workers was very low key. Little history was shown. An opportunity to express just what management in Britain were allowed to inflict and get away with, could have strengthened the film.

Making the scab a main focal point in the drama was a very difficult decision for the writers but leaving out any reference to Drake International, a company employed by MDHC to recruit and protect scabs immediately after the lockout was a surprising omission. (The T&G are now said to be recruiting the scabs engaged by Drakes in the Port of Liverpool)

“Dockers” showed how the willingness of international workers to take solidarity action is undermined by the lack of official support at home. It also showed a response within the ranks and in different industries organising. But the managed formula the Trade Unions operate in Britain today needs serious examination by the rank and file.

The writing and interpretation of the dock-workers courage, dignity and anguish in “Dockers” was outstanding. The film drama was the first project of the Initiative Factory, a production by the sacked dock-workers to help overcome unemployment in Merseyside.

The writers scripting under Jimmy McGovern’s tutoring, Sally Hibbens’ production and Bill Anderson’s direction portraying acts of betrayal was more than excellent.

Clare Sparks a radical feminist from Southern California said “The long memory is the most radical idea”. Hopefully “Dockers” will add to that memory, for one thing is certain the ruling class nurture their own memories and defeats.

“Dockers” ultimately was a story – a real life story written by those who took part in it – of betrayal.

Yet I have a twisted doubt of how Morris could betray people he never appeared to have any intention of safeguarding in the first place, and who had lost complete trust in him.

The type of working conditions of decades past which the dock-workers called casualisation, have returned. Doreen McNally, a Woman of the Waterfront and writer of the drama, said during the dispute ’my bills are not casual, bringing up my family is not casual, so what is this casualisation being imposed?’. Equally the dock-workers pride was not casual – in their jobs, their trade unionism and the political party they supported. Yet the executives of all three organisations badly undermined that pride.


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