'When we act together, we win'

UniteLive hears from striking Liverpool dock workers as Unite GS Sharon Graham joins the picket line

Reading time: 9 min

It was only the second full day of strike action for Liverpool dock workers on Wednesday (September 21), but the atmosphere was already jubilant.

Hundreds of dock workers were joined on the picket line by general secretary Sharon Graham, confident that their ironclad solidarity will, in the end, triumph.

The more than 500 striking workers, including port operatives and maintenance engineers employed by Merseyside Docks and Harbour Company (MDHC), are fighting for a fair pay rise at a time when inflation has exceeded 12 per cent.

While they see their living standards disappear before their very eyes, MDHC – owned by Peel Group, a company based in an Isle of Man tax haven – made eye-watering profits last year of more than £30m.

The dockers are now simply fighting for a fairer share of the wealth they create, explained Unite senior shop steward Tommy Jennings (pictured below).

Unite rep Tommy Jennings

“It’s a huge kick in the teeth when the CEO is quoted in articles saying the company has made record-breaking profits, then we learn that the CEO and others are getting huge bonuses and shareholders are getting millions in dividends – and they can’t even bring themselves to give us a decent pay rise,” he told UniteLive. “We’re not asking for the world – we’re only asking for an above-inflation pay rise that the company can well afford.”

Their fight has become ever-more urgent now as the cost of living crisis continues to accelerate.

Unite rep John McHugh (pictured below) said the crisis was “hitting everyone hard” and that he and his family have seen their gas and electric bill skyrocket from £90 a month to more than £260.

Unite rep John McHugh

“Our food shopping bill has gone up by 20 to 30 per cent and when you’ve got a young family to feed, it’s a real struggle,” he said.

Unite member and shiphand Steve Gerrard, 25, (pictured below) only began working at the Liverpool docks seven months ago, and in that time he’s also felt the pinch.

“I live with my partner and I’m seeing what the real world is all about – it’s been really hard seeing all our bills keep going up and up,” he said. “For families with small children it will be even harder.”

Unite member and shiphand Stevie Gerrard

Tommy highlighted that many dock workers commute from places such as Ellesmere Port, the Wirral and even as far as Wigan, which has really hit them hard.

“Even just getting to work has become unaffordable,” he explained.

All the dock workers UniteLive spoke to emphasised that strike action for them was the very last resort.

 “We don’t want to be here,” Tommy, who has been working on the docks for over two decades, noted. “We want to be in there doing what we do best – supplying the port. You can see the support we have here today. We’re here because we believe we deserve more.”

Steve agreed.

“We’d much rather be in there making money,” he said. “No one wants to be outside. But the company has forced us into this position.”

For many, the decision to back strike action came only after a long and demoralising process of being let down by management time and time again.

“We worked throughout the pandemic as key workers,” Tommy noted. “We did our bit. When, for example, the NHS needed urgent medical supplies we proudly worked to bring those supplies in.”

Despite their efforts, bosses offered a derisory pay offer last year that was unanimously rejected by the workforce. Management then promised to introduce a new progressive pay structure by April 1. But, Tommy recounted, April came and went with promises left broken. Last July, the company said they would pay workers a bonus – and again nothing. Pay talks this February were yet again met with dithering and delay.  

“They’ve gone back on their word so many times – it’s totally broken any trust we had in the company,” he said. “So when they finally put forward a below-inflation offer this year, and then we learn about the huge profits they’ve made – we’d had enough. It’s not our fault inflation has gone through the roof. But if we accept anything below inflation, it’s a pay cut, plain and simple.”

Workers are especially angry, reports John, that the company is now spreading falsehoods about their pay to the media, claiming that they earn on average over £43,000 a year.

“If I earned £43,000 a year, I would not be walking out today,” John said. “The starting wage here is less than £25,000. I myself earn a basic wage of £30,000. Many of us are on less than £15 an hour with some on little as £11 an hour. For the skill set that we have – and for the safety risks involved in the job and the unsociable hours we work – these aren’t sustainable wages.”

The striking workers are now taking a decisive stand – a full two weeks of strike action commenced this week, with Unite members determined to extend the strike if management doesn’t come to the table and negotiate in good faith.

Unite member and ship hand Ian (pictured below) told UniteLive that this was his first ever strike.

Unite member and ship hand Ian (R) and colleagues

“It feels a bit mad to be honest – the last time there was a strike here was in 1995 and I wasn’t even born then!” he said. “But it feels great. The support we’ve had from Unite has been fantastic. Everyone is out here supporting each other. We don’t know how long this is going to last so we need to stick together. The more we stick together, the better it’ll be for us.”

The striking workers were joined by dozens of people from the local community who likewise came to show their support.

Unite member Maureen Delahunty (pictured below), who herself worked on the docks when she was a teenager, as did many members in her family, was among those who came to show their solidarity.

Unite member Maureen Delahunty

“It’s a bit surreal being back here on the docks but I felt it was very important for me to come here and show my support,” she told UniteLive.

“I think everybody has just had enough – it’s across the board,” Maureen added. “We’ve all got to stick together and stand firm. We shouldn’t have to be working just to survive. What workers are asking for isn’t extraordinary – it’s just a decent wage and we aren’t getting that at the minute.”

 It wasn’t just the local community who came to give their support – representatives from international unions also attended, including the ITF’s Enrico Tortolano.  

Speaking to the crowds of dock workers and their supporters, Enrico said, “All we want is a fair day’s pay, for a fair day’s work – and we’re not going to move from that position.

ITF’s Enrico Tortolano

Enrico (pictured above) added that the striking Liverpool dock workers were “inspiring not just dockers in Liverpool, or England or the UK” but that “[dockers in Columbia] are supporting you, and in Argentina, in Brazil, in New Zealand and Africa. They’re all watching what’s going on here.”

Unite regional officer Steve Gerrard (pictured below) told the striking Liverpool dock workers that the support they will receive throughout their dispute will be uncompromising.

Unite regional officer Steve Gerrard

“When were 100% united together, we don’t fail; we win – and we’re in this to win this,” he said.

Highlighting how “times have changed” since the last Liverpool dock strike in 1995, Steve said that now the striking workers can count on a union and a general secretary that will back them to the hilt.

“Since [Unite general secretary] Sharon Graham was elected, she’s more than demonstrated what she’s made of, and what she’ll do to defend our members,” he said. “She rolls up her sleeves, gets the gloves off and gives the bosses a full-on scrap.”

The thronging crowd of dock workers and their supporters eagerly gathered to hear Sharon Graham speak as she outlined the unwavering support Unite will give its members in their dispute.

Unite general secretary Sharon Graham

“It is not militant to demand that profits are used to give a decent pay rise; it is not militant to ask that your wages are on a level pegging,” she said. “You’re here fighting for your families and I will fight with you.”

Emphasising that Unite is already preparing to mobilise all its resources if the strike escalates, Sharon added, “When we act together, we win.”

“We will protect your pay,” she went on to say. “I will be with you every step of the way.”

By Hajera Blagg

Pics by Mark Harvey

You can find out more about the Liverpool dock workers strike, and how you can support their fight for fair pay on our campaign page here.

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