The Dockers Dispute of 1995 – 1997, was a monumental battle by a small group of sacked Dockers to fight for their jobs, and their rights after being locked out and sacked by management. In lasting for two and half years it was also one of the UK’s longest running disputes. The sacked Dockers were small in number, but due to their commitment, and their inventive and often inspirational tactics, they punched far above their weight, industrially, politically and culturally. Ultimately they lost the dispute, but their fight has had a much longer social and cultural impact than could have been expected.
I was a supporter of their fight for justice and the return of their jobs. I was on the picket line almost daily, and took part in organising many, many demonstrations, activities and events to support them. I had just returned to University when the dispute broke out, and often found myself dashing away from mass meetings to get to lectures, or spending time I should maybe have been studying to organise support.
The younger sacked Dockers transformed what could have been an isolated ‘traditional’ dispute, into one that had a worldwide impact. By hacking the Calvin Kline logo to create their own distinctive T-shirt, they’d already caught the eye locally. When Liverpool Football Club legend Robbie Fowler pulled up his LFC shirt to reveal he was wearing the sacked Docker’s ‘CK’ underneath during a game being broadcast to millions, it pitched the dispute into the international limelight.
The dispute, from the T-Shirt, to benefit gigs, to an appearance in a KLM video shoot, used cultural activities in ways not often seen by trades unions and workers in struggle. In the final years of the dispute a creative writing group was formed. The idea came about to write the film of the dispute. Over a few months Liverpool writer, and supporter of the dispute, Jimmy McGovern was persuaded to join and oversee the script, along with Irvine Welsh.
I was so proud to be part of that group. Meeting weekly we were, in effect, privileged to take part in a year long masterclass with Jimmy McGovern in the art of script writing. Channel 4 came on board and the script became a film, which was broadcast to 1.6 million people, and went on to be nominated for a BAFTA. An excellent documentary, Writing the Wrongs, was made to accompany the film. It was an incredible time, and one I look back on with immense pride.
But the end of the campaign wasn’t the end of the impact of the struggle. Two major cultural institutions emerged from the end of the dispute – The Casa and Writing on the Wall.
The writing group, consisting of eight Dockers, four of the Women of the Waterfront (all Docker’s wives), Jimmy McGovern, Irvine Welsh, myself and David Cotterill, another of WoW’s founders, were paid over £100,000 by Channel 4 for the film. We all signed it over to help the Dockers set up The Casa and The Initiative Factory. The Casa has become a vital resource for many, many people over the past 15 years, providing an advice service, resources for organisations, and a venue for many events, including Writing on the Wall.
Writing on the Wall was born from discussions amongst a number of people involved in creating the film ‘Dockers’. We are probably one of the only ‘literary’ festivals to have been born from a strike, and we’re very proud of our history and tradition that, like the Dockers during their dispute, and The Casa over the past 15 years, has sought to give a voice to working class people in Liverpool.
The Casa have always been supportive of Writing on the Wall and our events and activities. We know how hard it is to keep your head above water when money is always too tight to mention. We are saddened to hear that The Casa is now in danger of closing its doors, and delighted that Brian Reade, a great friend of WoW who has appeared many times at our festival, has stepped up to organise a benefit concert to raise funds to keep The Casa open.
It would be a tragedy for Liverpool if The Casa was lost, and that is why WoW are making a donation towards their fighting fund, and are urging all our supporters to buy tickets for the benefit gig (Philharmonic Hall 17th April), make a donation, and spread the word to friends, family and workmates to work together to keep this great institution in the hands of the great people who have kept it running since 2000.