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The P&O blitzkrieg

Echoes of the Irish ferries massacre

20 March 2021

Protest at Larne Harbour over the dismissal of more than 800 P&O Ferries staff.

The P&O blitzkrieg against UK ferry workers represents a new chapter in the offensive against workers’ rights. It is an embarrassment for the Tory government but represents a real crisis for the working class and for the unions and parties that claim to represent them.

On 17th March 800 P&O crew members on the Hull to Rotterdam, Dover to Calais, Dublin to Liverpool, and Larne to Cairnryan routes were told there would be a Zoom call. During this Zoom call a video was played informing them that this would be the final day of employment.

P&O had made the decision that:

‘its vessels going forward would be primarily crewed by a third party crew provider.’ The speaker was therefore ‘sorry to inform you that your employment is terminated with immediate effect on grounds of redundancy. Your final day of employment is today.’
Handcuff trained security guards were in anticipation of protest, as were agency staff to immediately replace the crew.

P&O claim that they are making a massive loss, and have no choice. However, their owner, the Dubai-based DP world, paid out dividends of £270 million in 2020 and P&O claimed £10 million or more of UK tax-payers’ money under the furlough scheme.

The sacking led to expressions of outrage from the Tories, Labour and the unions but there was little in the way of concrete proposals that would reverse company policy or head off the future use of such tactics by other employers. In the North of Ireland representatives across the political spectrum express outrage, all with equally vague nostrums when it comes to action.

Two Tory ministers wrote to the company. The seriousness of their concern can be judged by the fact that they wrote to a director who had left P&O and threatened legal action that was likely not open to them.

Robert Courts (Under-Secretary for Transport) complained about the insensitive way P&O has behaved. Yet his government recently reviewed fire and rehire practices and decided to do nothing. Johnson is begging Dubai for extra oil and has no interest in workers’ rights.

Fire and rehire essentially gives companies the ability to unilaterally change the pay and conditions of the workforce. P&O have now extended this to fire and replace, opening up a further catastrophic collapse in living standards.

A major issue is that of flags of convenience, used to argue that the government cannot step in. Vessels that operate in the North Sea and the English Channel, are flagged to Cyprus for ‘accounting and operational’ purposes

It should be noted that the only routes affected are UK routes. Legal protections for EU workers are stronger. So much for the worker's paradise that would arise from Brexit.

What about the Labour Party? The dreadful Starmer has said he will fix things when he is in government. The desire of Labour to out-Tory the Tories makes them useless to the working class.

And the Unions?

The fact Is that this has happened before. In 2005 workers occupied Irish Ferries after a hire and replace deal. This was a much stronger movement as it involved occupation of the ships, however the deal with the unions saw the main elements of the scheme go ahead with the mariners sacked and increased redundancy payments. The attack on worker's rights has gone on ever since, with flags of convenience a useful way to avoid regulation and legal constraints.

There are three routes that are usually followed by union bosses which will apply here.

Political unity: The main demonstration at Dover saw a Tory MP, Natalie Elphicke, on the platform, much to the displeasure of the workers.

Parliamentary action:  The RMT have announced a rally at Parliament on the 21st.

Legal action: The RMT have also announced that they are bringing the issue to the courts.

While all these steps make sense, on their own they don't amount to a winning strategy.

It has emerged that the government knew in advance of the sackings and said nothing. Calls for legal change can rattle around parliament, with politicians crying salt tears, and with little change. The courts cannot restore jobs. They can levy extra payments, but if P&O offer an enhanced settlement even that will not apply.

There are three steps that would bring change.

Expropriation: The seizure of ships, as in the Irish Ferries occupation, gives muscle to a worker's fightback

Secondary Action: Twisting the arm of the bosses can't be successful if they can limit the struggle to one particular area and outlaw it elsewhere.

Global linkage. The companies can shift production and labour from place to place, driving wages down. A living international collaboration is needed to unite the workforce on a global scale.

The thing is, the main actions are illegal involving the seizure of union funds. Either the unions transform themselves or we need new illegal and irregular organisations that can carry forward the fight.

At the end of the day workers need political organisation. The failure of Corbyn, the corruption of Starmer, tell us that we need a new, revolutionary, party.

That's a long way off, but we can start to make progress today.  It may take a while for it to sink in, but if industrial relations reduce to having your collar felt and being expelled from your job by a security thug, then the days of barbarism have returned.

Employers generally are watching carefully. The Daily Telegraph has already tut-tutted the action, but noted that if it breaks the power of the RMT then good can come from it.

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