Friday, August 01, 2008

Liverpool Dockers' Strike 1995-98

David Sinclair
FACT bar, Wood Street (1st-28th August 2008)

Walton-born photographer David Sinclair's exhibition in the FACT bar offers a candid and fascinating look at the long-running Liverpool dockers' dispute of the mid 1990s.

The confrontation began in September 1995, when 329 stevedores refused to cross a picket line mounted by eighty former co-workers, who had been sacked by the Torside contractors. The Mersey Docks and Harbour Company - who sought to crush any resistance to the casualisation of working conditions - then made the 329 redundant. So began a two and a half year campaign for reinstatement, which was isolated and then strangled by the Transport and General Workers Union. The end finally came in February, when the sacked dockers accepted a settlement of £28,000 from MDHC - just £85 per head.

Several themes crop us time and time again in Sinclair's stark black and white images. Not surprisingly, there's a lot of waiting around going on, with grimly determined pickers huddling around braziers and peering through fences. But there's also a lighter side, and pictures shot through with the kind of camaraderie that only collective struggle can bring.

Perhaps the most extraordinary snapshot shows a confrontation between picketer Jimmy Davies Jnr and Birkenhead MP Frank Field, who at the time was a Minister for Welfare Reform in Tony Blair's new Labour government. Some had held out hope that Labour would support the sacked dockers, but instead Blair used the dispute to send an unambiguous signal to his big business backers: he was very much on their side. The photo was taken at one of the very last pickets, at the Twelve Quays development in Birkenhead, and it clearly shows Field's face etched with the desire to escape from one of his constituents; a class enemy of his government.

The twenty-six photos chosen for the FACT exhibition comprise only a tiny proportion of the ten thousand Sinclair captured during the docks dispute. Hundreds more captioned images can be viewed on his Flickr account.
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