Pauline Bradley (RCN and RISE) outlines the emergence of the notion of Social Justice during the Liverpool Dockers campaign and how the Tories have attempted to hijack the term.



Social Justice banner on Liverpool Dockers' March
Social Justice banner on Liverpool Dockers’ March

Social Justice is a concept which has been stolen from the left and distorted beyond belief. Iain Duncan Smith’s Social Justice strategy has devised many “new” schemes to attack the poor such as universal credit which abolished income support and other benefits. Cuts, bedroom tax, benefit sanctions, food banks, increased poverty, misery and despair under the guise of Social Justice have become the norm to poor, working class people. The kind of double think in George Orwell’s classic 1984 and Tracy Chapman’s song “Talkin ‘bout a Revolution;” where

“Love is hate, War is peace, No is yes and We’re all free”

are good examples of capitalism’s dualism and deceptive language. We can now add

“Social Justice is Injustice,” to that list.

However the truth is that “Social Justice” has a proud history of class struggle and the Tories have stolen our language. People can be forgiven for not knowing the origin of the words “Social Justice” because the momentous struggle which gave birth to this idea was highly censored by a Tory government who were terrified that people may give support and solidarity to the workers who were waging this struggle. These workers were 500 Liverpool Dockers who were sacked in 1995 for refusing to cross a picket line, and who fought back until March 1997 with support from Dockers and other workers right across the globe!

In Hidden Agendas, John Pilger wrote that in September 1995, Dockers working for a private subsidiary called Torside were ordered to work overtime at a disputed rate. They protested and were sacked on the spot, followed by the entire workforce of 80 men. Three days later they mounted a picket line at the gates of the parent company Mersey Dock and Harbour Co (MDHC) and all 329+ men who included fathers and uncles of the Torside men, refused to cross. They too were dismissed.

Within 24 hours their jobs were advertised in the local press, it was the end of the bloodline. Men like Jim Campbell whose dad was killed on the docks, had 40 years service. Shock waves hit more than 8,500 men, women and children. Pat Dooley said “It was like someone had died in our house.”Few doubted they’d walked into a trap. Under Thatcher’s anti union laws, MDHC claimed it was “entirely independent” of Torside, so the Dockers “secondary picketing” was deemed to be illegal.

Support groups for the 500 sacked Torside and MDHC Liverpool Dockers sprung up all over Scotland, UK and the world. I lived in London and became involved in the London support group.

The London Support group was a very diverse group of people ranging from Labour party activists, Workers International activists, Workers Liberty, Socialist Outlook, Workers Power, trade unionists from NATFHE, Unison, ASLEF, CWU, TGWU, RMT, UCATT, AUT, Turkish and Kurdish comrades from DayMer and individuals who were political refugees from Iran and Africa, Pay day men’s network, Wages for Housework Campaign, Campaign for Human Rights in Turkey who formed during the dispute with the help of the Liverpool Dockers, among others. Meetings were weekly and very heated at times! They were always most productive when one or more of the Liverpool Dockers or the women’s group Women of the Waterfront (WOW) attended.

Support groups did tasks such as organising labour movement and union meetings for Dockers to attend, organise benefit gigs, fundraising of many kinds, demonstrations, posters, mailings, buses for demonstrations in Liverpool, writing articles to get the word out to try and beat the deliberate censorship of news of the dispute by the UK media.

This censorship was due to the ruling class’s awareness of the potential power of the Dockers. Tremendous acts of international solidarity happened several times during the dispute. As Docker Micky Tighe said “Bosses can move a factory if they don’t like workers organising, but they can’t move a port.”

For example in January 1997, 105 ports across the world were involved in solidarity with 500 sacked Liverpool Dockers, which hit shipping in 13 countries. Picket lines were set up and Dockers (or Long Shore workers in the USA, Wharfies in Australia etc) refused to cross that picket line. In the USA from Los Angeles to Seattle, all Oregon ports including Portland were shut down, Long Beach, San Francisco, Oakland, Tacoma, Dutch Harbour (Alaska) too. Also in Canada, Japan, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, Germany, France, Greece, Israel, Australia, New Zealand, Dockers along with other workers closed their ports for a day, sometimes several days in support of the sacked Liverpool Dockers. Hundreds of thousands of pounds were lost by shipping companies when these actions happened. Support groups would organise demonstrations and events to support these international dock strikes. However little was seen in the media due to the governments “D Notice” which is sent to media editors banning them from publishing certain “sensitive” stories.

Several solidarity marches happened too, such as one in April 1997 in central London. Liverpool Dockers had requested that the London Support Group organise a march and we set about to do this. We all wanted the march to show that the Liverpool Dockers struggle was everyone’s struggle. Liverpool Dockers had a proud history of supporting other struggles and were a highly class conscious group of workers, the London Support group reflected this too. Campaigners such as Incapacity Action, Crossroads Women, Magnet Strikers, Pay day Mens Network and Homeless campaigners came to our group to link with the Liverpool Dockers and get solidarity for their own struggle. In this spirit we wanted to invoke the memory of the Chartist movement who devised a People’s Charter or list of demands in their struggle for ordinary people to have a democratic vote in 1836-1841.

We had long discussions about what to call the march e.g. “March for Justice” was discussed but thought too legalistic. Eventually, with the Dockers approval we decided that it should be “The March for Social Justice”. We set about organising the march, devising our own Charter for Social Justice written by the groups mentioned above, Dockers and London Support group. This Charter for Social Justice transformed itself into individual pendants made up by Ed Hall, with some of the demands written on them including “Victory to the Liverpool Dockers” of course, “Repeal the Anti union laws”, “Abolish the Monarchy”, “Troops out of Ireland”, ”Defend the Welfare State”, “Fight Racism”, “Save the Planet,” “The Right to Work”, “Workers of the World Unite,” along with a banner which said simply “Social Justice”.   Reclaim the Streets who had organised many occupations of roads to highlight the wasteful car culture, took part in the march in big numbers.

On the day of April 12th 1997, a long banner with “March for Social Justice “carried by Dockers led the march, The Murton Colliery band were close behind. Dockers, WOWs and their children dressed as Chartists, some wore kilts and played bagpipes. Virtually everyone who had a grievance against capitalism was there, some wore red bandanas in solidarity with Japanese workers who were on strike. There were banners from Disability Action Network, Euro marches, Magnet Strikers, Hillingdon Hospital Strikers, DayMer Turkish and Kurdish Centre, Wages for Housework, Pan African Freedom Fighters Asylum Campaign, FBU, Unison, TGWU, WOW, ASLEF, NUM, Reclaim the Streets, Edinburgh Support the Liverpool Dockers, Japanese Dockers, Seaman’s Union of Ireland, Communist Party, Socialist Party and SWP  . There were also several dragons, a wolf, people on stilts, musicians and cyclists. About 200,000 were on the march. The police were there in large numbers too.

There were many good speakers including the late Tony Benn, Jeremy Corbyn MP, Magnet strikers, Jimmy Nolan Mersey Side Port Shop Stewards, Doreen McNally, Chairperson of WOW, and John Bird, founder of The Big Issue. The march did get some much needed media publicity but typically this focussed on the small violent element at the end of the march.

Sadly, the Liverpool Dockers didn’t win their dispute. They held out for two and a half years, hoping that the newly elected labour government in May 1997 would use their share in MDHC to intervene. Blair’s labour government didn’t do that but sold their share back to MDHC.

So the history of the term Social Justice should be known by all working class people as a proud, unifying concept of solidarity and struggle for human rights and human dignity. We need to reclaim our history, our language, words’ solidarity and our unity! Now is the time to reclaim Social Justice for ourselves!


Hidden Agendas, John Pilger

Another World Is Possible, How the Liverpool Dockers Launched a Global Movement – Edited by Pauline Bradley and Chris Knight


also see Pauline Bradley, author of Another World Is Possible – How the Liverpool Dockers Launched a Global Movement, being interviewed about the Liverpool Dockers Strike at:-








  • Comrades

    There is an issue of accuracy here – the concept of “Social Justice” is right wing in origin specifically from the Catholic Church. It forms part of the Church’s effort to deny the very existence of the class struggle and combat the growth of the left particularly in Germany. It first comes to prominence in the Papal Encyclical Rerum Novarum of 1891 by Pope Leo XIII which is an effort to both hold the line among the Catholic workers and attack the German SPD. It later turns up more notoriously in Pius XI’s “On Reconstructing the Social Order” of 1931 which paved the way for the deal between the Catholic Church and the Nazi Party. So in that sense the term belongs to the right not the left.