Back to the Future?

Last Friday, I attended a protest called by the RMT union against the summary dismissal of 800 workers by P&O ferries. As others have commented, this mass sacking was a stark warning to all workers and a bleak reminder of past times. The goon gangs ushering workers off ships were reminiscent of Pinkerton agents in 19th century America. My own thoughts turned to the early 1980s and industrial disputes that prepared the ground for years of post-industrial capitalist retrenchment by attacking the living standards of the working class. P&O could be the boldest example yet of COVID-era restructuring in which the boss class use the pandemic and war as a pretext for reformulating global finance over the graves of millions.

There was a lot of fighting talk at Friday’s demo, but what happens over the next week or so could be critical to deciding whether the P&O case becomes a defeat on the scale of the miners strike in the 80s, or the start of a real fightback. There may not be another opportunity so ripe for the whole labour movement, led by the TUC, to finally break the chains that have fettered union activities since Thatcher. It’s not every day the Archbishop of Canterbury describes an employer’s actions as “sinful” and even Tory ministers are compelled to fake outrage about a flagrant breach of employment law. Even the question of “secondary action” has been disturbed by the general approval of dock workers refusing to handle Russian ships in solidarity with the people of Ukraine. As my uncle – himself a dock worker – said to me about 30 years ago, eventually people say “No” and maybe this is the moment when the UK’s anti-trade union laws can be challenged.

But there are problems. Some of them were illustrated at Friday’s protest when, from about a dozen speakers, there was not one woman or person of colour. Somebody asked me how many full-time officials were there. I don’t know, but I would guess about 20 from an attendance of about 100. The “star speaker” was Jeremy Corbyn, who, of course, nailed it. But there was no sign of his replacement and such events only perpetuate the sense of a movement looking backwards for leadership and failing to recognise important social and political shifts. For example, there have been several vibrant and successful disputes of hospital cleaners in London recently, where most of the workers are non-white immigrants, not institutionalised by union bureaucracy. It would have been easy to invite them to speak last Friday. As well as more ethnic and gender balance, they may have injected a bit of energy into what was, in every sense, a static protest. My time in New York City last year has given me a new appreciation of the value of dynamic protest – a movement that moves! Many of the many protests I attended included blocking a road, occupying a building or in some other way engaging wider society in what was going on. On Friday, infuriatingly, there wasn’t even a public address system (not even a megaphone!), intensifying the feeling of a movement talking to itself.

The role of the Labour Party and wider trade union leadership remains a major impediment to any revival of union power. Not only was Sir Keir Starmer not at Friday’s protest, it’s impossible to even imagine him being there. Of course, workers fighting for their rights don’t need permission or endorsement from politicians. But the Labour Party is moving in precisely the opposite direction of the rank and file membership that created and sustain it, to a point where even an attack on workers as egregious as P&Os is likely to evoke nothing more than huffing and puffing. And the Labour Party is also highly compromised on the subject of “hiring and firing”, when local councils it controls, like mine in Tower Hamlets, have been involved in exactly that shoddy practice.

Ultimately though, the P&O case is about much bigger forces. It’s almost a perfect distillation of crisis-driven global capitalism, where environmentally ruinous trading patterns, hyper exploitation and despotic government collide, all with an economy that’s holed beneath the surface. Attacking workers’ pay and conditions is an inevitable response. It’s become increasingly clear to me that the dispute I’m currently involved with as a member of the University and College Union (UCU) is really about crushing the union, so the employers can stagger on to the next level of neoliberal nihilism. It’s up to us to reject a world without meaning. There will be no rescue boat.

Outside the London offices of DP World, owners of P&O, Friday 18th March.

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