Liverpool dock picket line Liverpool dock picket line

Tayo Aluko reports on struggles past and present on day two of the Liverpool dockers’ strike

George Breen is a dying man. Aged 57, the dockworker has been undergoing treatment for brain cancer at Clatterbridge Hospital for a while, but it is now understood and accepted that his days are finally coming to an end. And yet, on the second day of the dockworkers’ strike at the Port of Liverpool, George was brought to the picket line to show his solidarity with his fellow workers. Breen, described as a highly respected union rep in his time, was clearly loved, as was demonstrated by the spontaneous applause that greeted him as he was pushed in his wheelchair into the bosom of his comrades. Puffing away on his cigarette, he was immediately ribbed by his former mates for “looking like f**king Don Corleone,” before they lined up to shake (and in one case, kiss) his hand.

Photo: Tayo Aluko

Contrast that with what was said about someone else who should have stood with the dockers in the over two-year-long 1995 strike. According to speakers from the podium Bill Morris, the General Secretary of the TGWU which merged with Amicus in 2007 to form Unite, didn’t lift a finger to help his members then, robbing them of victory. “And where is he now?” Steve Gerard, Unite’s regional officer asked, “Falling asleep in the House of Lords.” Today’s General Secretary, Sharon Graham on the other hand, is cut of a wholly different cloth. Just over a year into the post, she has given her comrades the confidence to know that they will not be betrayed this time, and when in her rousing speech she repeated her invitation to the port bosses to meet with her across the negotiating table any time, it was clear that this was another union boss that would have the Establishment quaking in their boots.

Dan Carden MP recalled standing there in 1995, at the age of eight, brought by his father Mike, who sadly passed away in December. One of the leaders of that strike, he would be proud, his MP son said, of the workers, and was with them today. A minute’s silence was held in honour of him and others who had also passed on.

Such respect, such love, such gratitude for service and camaraderie must have been so satisfying for Carden Jr. and George Breen to feel, and one suspects that Bill Morris, regardless of whatever titles he shares with the Russian oligarchs and others in that sleepy house in Westminster, knows in his heart of hearts that he will never enjoy. As I begin to draw this piece to a close, I can’t help wondering whether the apparent absence of a single Black person on the picket line might be part of his legacy, but may be a matter to be examined elsewhere.

For now, better to enjoy the growing feeling that, as Sharon Graham and other trade union leaders remind us, the battle for the workers will be fought and won on the streets. Better too to pay tribute to those still alive and dead who understood, like the late Harry Bridges, President of the American dockworkers’ union, ILWU, said: “the most important word in the working class dictionary is solidarity,” or Woody Guthrie, whose song speaks of the likes of George Breen: “part of the union till the day I die,” or Paul Robeson, who popularised the story of Joe Hill, the union man executed on trumped up charges, but still reminds us that “I never died, says he.”

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