The Casa Club in the heart of Liverpool and emerging out of the political heat of the 90s Dockers strike, has for the last decade been developing a space to support grassroots, workers and socialist activity. Terry Tegue from the Club explains what they have been trying to achieve.
How did it all start?
You know about the dispute then don’t you, the Dockers, so that dispute, because it lasted so long and drew in that many groups of supporters. Normally that type of dispute would have been limited to maybe a thousand people at the most, even the biggest industries. But what the Dockers achieved though, they achieved a network of support that went way outside of Liverpool, it went all over the UK, we had support groups in London, Wales, Scotland, and I mean not just support groups in name I mean active support groups. Social Justice rallies, two of them down in London, two of the biggest demos ever seen. They were organised by the London support group. In Liverpool we had six of the biggest demonstrations marches and rallies that our city’s ever seen since the poll tax and before that, the right to work marches. So it was a massive network that built up.
No one knew exactly what was going to happen when we started it, because our view at the time was that we were going to be left isolated, there’d be five hundred Dockers and their families, after that it would be a massive struggle. So the support we got was something which was unbelievable. Internationally it went all over the world. On one international solidarity day of action, I think we had 52 countries all over the world doing something in terms of either solidarity action or going to embassies in various countries to make their protest.
So when it all ended it was a massive shock to your system, one day you’re part of this big global movement, the next day you’ve called it off, some people agreed others disagreed and you’re left trying to pick up the pieces. But there was one thing we always said, and that was for all the good people that supported us, and they came from all walks of life it wasn’t just industrial workers it was the musicians, the comedians who set up down in London, it was the church, everyone from within society helped us at some point. So we said we needed to leave something, a lasting memorial to everything that was achieved during that dispute, So we said look, we need to be doing something, we need to set up something which is tangible, which is always going to be there, and it will reflect on the two and a half years of struggle.
So we set on an idea of having a building, the idea of the building was that it would be run on socialist ideas. It would be run for the benefit of people, a not for profit organisation, and it would be an open house, no barriers for anything, an open house. So it’s easy putting that down on paper, it’s actually being able to find, in a city like Liverpool, finding that type of property. And not just finding it, but to upkeep it. So we’d had the unemployed centre in Liverpool, which was a great landmark, that was in the throes of collapsing because of no financial support and we’d seen community centres start and finish. A friend of ours gave us a lot of great business advice. He said first and foremost you’ve got all your ideas, I mean he didn’t need to tell us about ideas and how we were going to work those ideas out and put them into practice. He said first and foremost what you do need is to be able to consolidate your building once you’ve got it. Because we did have the money to buy it, the money to purchase the building came from what I was talking to you before about the Dockers film. That was a Channel four joint production that went out on Channel 4 and all over the world. That raised about £150,000, and with that this was bought. This has been open now, it was December, Christmas eve in 2000 although we bought the building in 1998 when the dispute ended, but it was two years in the making.
What was the building like?
It was nowhere near like this it was just a shell of a building; it had been derelict for many many years and all our money had gone on the building. So we moved in and you got the shock of your life, you think well that’s all problem solved, and then you move in and you couldn’t even switch the light on it was pitch black. So we had enough money to get a good architect in and a planner. He designed an idea which we wanted, which was downstairs, the basement would be the bistro, what it is now, it could also be used for other functions such as meetings etc. Entrance floor would be the bar, because you need what they call a cash cow. If you’re going to run community based ventures and projects and ventures you’re not going to get any money from them, they’re your non profit side of it, your non commercial. So you do need a form of income coming in all the time. So that’s where we based all our entertainment and all that, was based the bar, that we’d get people coming in, socialising for drinks, socialising for food. The plan was to be open for, community groups trade unions, pensioners anyone in need, but again it would be multi functional, multi purpose. We could have private functions such as, like Wednesday, the first Gay Marriage in Liverpool took place here. The charges that we put on it are very small, If its an organisation, such as the socials forum, they get it for nothing. So we’ve maintained our socialist roots on that. So the idea is that we’d have the first floor and the basement would be used for a trading side. So we set up the Initiative Factory trading company to run the Bar, the Bistro.
Then you’ve got the first floor which we walked past, originally that was set up as a computer suite but no-one could pay for the upkeep of the room. So we made a big decision two years ago that we had to finish with the computer lessons. Now that’s the only part of the building that we have a tenancy on, there’s a trade union that’s moved in there. Sticking with our aims and objectives, sticking with our principles, to me it’s the most radical trade union in the country and that’s the RMT. We had Bob Crow come down to open that, he’s a regular visitor here, so it keeps us tied in with what’s going on in the trade union movement, the problems the workers are facing today. And then the hub of the organisation was upstairs here, what we run from here is general welfare guidance and advice – the Casa advice and guidance service. That will cover everything, benefits advice, lone parent advice debt advice, computer maintenance
So how is the place legally organised?
It was set up as an industrial and provident society. Within the Initiative Factory there’s also a charitable arm called the Waterfront trust. One of our trustees on that is Ken Loach. You know when you go out to seek funding a lot of funders won’t pay anything into an organisation that doesn’t have a charity. Every year we have an AGM because we’re a membership based organisation, we still have the original membership base of 150 former sacked dock workers. Anyone who scabbed it or anyone who was anti the Dockers would never have been allowed into that. Then we have the affiliation, the membership affiliation, that’s about 50 or 60 now, mainly trade unions, community groups.
Did you set up an initiative to retrain unemployed dockers?
It’s just that it never took off really. What we had was the Liverpool Dockers and Stevedores and that was to try to help people who didn’t want to retrain in computers or clerical skills. That’s why we set up the Liverpool Dockers and Stevedores to retrain people to get back into the industry. Our idea was to start training our sons and daughters and other family members who didn’t have jobs to get back on the docks because there’s a tradition on the docks that Father follows son. But again finance and funding and the overheads just crippled us. So what we’ve done is we’ve concentrated now purely on this multi functional centre.
What other advice do you offer?
Legals for Workers, they’ve set up a system where they’ll come here for an initial health test, interview general advice, and if there is an illness or injury related to where they’ve worked then the solicitors will take up that claim for them no fee whatsoever attached to that. So that’s going quite well.
Do you have a policy about setting wages and stuff?
Basically it’s no more than the minimum wage at the moment because of funding. There’s 3 workers and another 4 volunteers; we pay them expenses and three core workers in the trading bit and they’ve got 25 or 20 other casual workers who do the bar rota and stuff.
Can I ask you about the groups that use the place?
Take this week. So, Monday we have the Transport and General Workers Union, they’re in the big room, the venue. Then where you were last night the chess club was in there. Tuesday, which was last night you had the social forum which was in the basement then that belly dancing was in the venue. Tonight Cuban solidarity, they’ll be in the venue tonight. Socialist party will be in on Thursday and they’ll be finishing at seven then the salsa will take over till late. And then on Friday there’s a sixtieth birthday and we’ve got a presentation of a character, a big character from Liverpool who passed away, we’ve got a presentation with his family.
Can you tell us a little bit more about, you know you said you organise with socialist principles?
Anyone who comes in with ant racist behaviour or anything like that, they’re automatically thrown out, they’ll never ever be invited back in, and they’re told there and then. And you don’t need bouncers to do that for you either. And we’ve had these few flash points, coz the Palestinian organisations were using it about six or seven months ago planning for one of their demos. The next minute a crowd came in, broke into the meeting in the back of the venue, coming in supposed to be their supporters but they were Zionists who’d come in and were out to cause as much trouble and commotion as possible. They were removed and told never to come back again. We won’t allow any scabs. Sadly there was a lot of people in Liverpool who did scab the docks, and they’ll never be allowed to ever get a sniff of the door.
Well, the guiding principles are that we’ve never shirked the fact that we’re a socialist organisation, our principles are founded out of the struggle of workers. So that will never change. It’s to help people in poverty, promote education for workers and for people in need. If we ever had to move away from that, I certainly wouldn’t stay here, and I don’t think others would either. I think the place would actually collapse, you’d have to make a big landmark decision because it would be a big change in the whole of the organisation. If it ever reached that point you may as well say ‘well let’s sell it lock, stock and barrel to some big commercial concern’ and make whatever money you want. But it’s not our view, our view is that we’ve kept it, a lot of these places set up on the idea of that they’re going to maintain a socialist belief, social values, but they don’t do it. We’ve actually gone more so. We’ve discovered other things in terms of helping people out, people in need. Our principles are for the GMB pensioner groups to be here, general and municipal workers pensioner groups. The Granby Toxteth Liverpool Ainsley Law Society, let them use the place, no money attached to it, people who need it.
What kind of new projects have you got any more projects in mind?
The main one is to try and get funding to build this welfare advice and guidance service, its to really expand on that coz thats a service that will bring in even more people from Liverpool 8, which is one of the poorest parts of Liverpool.
We’re looking all the time to set up new projects. One of the ideas was to get some films that have real meaning in them, socialist meaning in them, community backed films and that. Start showing one or two but not just saying ‘here’s the film, watch it then go home’ is to finish it up then to start to get into a debate. Things like that could help this organisation, certainly help this part of Liverpool because they might find out, you know there’s many problems we face in the world, but some of the problems could actually be solved by people watching a film and then talking about them.
The Casa is at 29 Hope St, Liverpool, L1 9BQ. Tel 0151 709 2148.