The P&O warning

March 17th 2022 will now always be synonymous with P&O as far as trade union activists are concerned, with the vicious assault on the workers’ jobs and contracts carried out on that day. The company informed 800 workers by zoom that they were being instantly made redundant, without notice or consultation. To back this up, they employed security guards to forcibly remove workers from ferries, consciously using brutal ‘shock and awe’ methods. There are reports that some of the hired security guards had handcuffs and were wearing balaclavas. P&O had already lined up a new workforce on exploitation wages of less than £2 per hour.

The sacked workers and their unions, the RMT and Nautilus International, launched an immediate campaign of protests and demonstrations, particularly at the ferry ports of Dover, Hull, Liverpool, Larne and Cairnryan. Most of the workers had signed up to the enhanced redundancy by the March 31 deadline. Nevertheless the struggle continues, for reinstatement and more generally against the super-exploitation of seafarers so that the industry bosses are not able to benefit from P&O’s brutal tactics.

But this is also a struggle for the whole trade union movement as the economy shows signs of faltering after the initial post-Covid recovery. The first stage of the Covid pandemic saw a severe contraction which was exploited by a whole series of companies to impose worse pay, terms and conditions through vicious ‘fire and rehire’, which rapidly became the favoured weapon of choice for the bosses during the pandemic. Disgracefully, this included the New Labour council of Tower Hamlets, which triggered a dispute with Unison members. British Gas workers took 43 days of strike action in a bruising battle which ended with their annual income cut by over £10,000.

P&O’s sackings are an even more brutal variant of this or as one protestor labelled it, ‘It’s not fire and rehire but fire and f**k off!’ There will be many other bosses looking to see how this pans out when considering what new methods to use to cut costs to protect their profits.

This is the most vicious strong-arm management attack on workers for a whole period, joining the likes of billionaire Ineos owner Jim Ratcliffe when he held the whole Grangemouth workforce ransom in 2014, the ex-Ford car workers in 2009 when Visteon declared bankruptcy and shut three plants, and Gate Gourmet who in 2005 sacked nearly 700 low-paid airline workers by megaphone. Older union members will remember Murdoch’s assault at Wapping and Eddie Shah in Stockport and of course the 2,400 P&O workers sacked in 1988 that, as with the print workers, triggered a long and bitter dispute.

In many of these instances, the Tory governments of the time tried to pour responsibility on to the workforces, while New Labour in office did nothing on their watch for the Visteon and Gate Gourmet workers. But such was the brutality of P&O and particularly the brazenness of CEO Peter Hebblethwaite, even Johnson and his minister Grant Shapps have been forced to react. In a parliamentary committee meeting, Hebblethwaite freely stated that the company had knowingly acted illegally because they knew that the unions wouldn’t agree to the imposition of new terms.

In an unprecedented step, the Tories demanded that the workers be reinstated on their agreed contracts and rushed through new legislation that seafarers would earn at least the minimum wage. But this wasn’t some act of sympathy by Johnson’s government or even respect for the law. Shapps had to admit that P&O had tipped him off the day before the sackings! At the same time as P&O bosses ignored employment legislation, the police were serving penalty notices to ministers and No.10 officials for flouting Covid rules over ‘Partygate’.

Johnson’s government has also stood by during the brutal wave of fire and rehire. A junior minister talked out Labour MP Barry Gardiner’s private members bill last October that would have given some protections against fire and rehire – although, as Barry Gardiner admitted, the bill would not have completely stopped it because it sometimes may be necessary to prevent companies collapsing!

But such was the outrage at P&O’s actions and in particular Hebblethwaite’s comments, the Tories were forced to react. This was an echo of a previous Tory prime minister Edward Heath, who in 1973 criticised the dealings of mining company Lonhro and its chief executive Tiny Rowland as “the unpleasant and unacceptable face of capitalism”. In the same way, P&O’s methods risked exposing the brutal realities of big business and embroiling the Tories as well.

However, even for a Tory government, the old maxim of the workers movement applies: ‘you can’t control what you don’t own’. P&O management effectively ignored Shapps’s pleas. But that doesn’t mean it was impossible to force the government to intervene.

When their general capitalist class interests are involved, and especially those of a crisis-ridden government, even a Tory government can take measures that appear to go against their so-called free market principles. In 1971, Heath’s government brought in emergency legislation in order to nationalise Rolls Royce’s aero-engine division, when it faced liquidation.

A year later at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders in Glasgow, the Tories were again forced to intervene but this time as a result of mass struggle. The workers refused to leave the shipyard and staged a ‘work-in’. Over 80,000 trade unionists marched in Glasgow to support their fight.

On some of the ferries, workers initially refused to leave the vessels. The RMT rushed members to the ports and put the call out to the wider union movement for solidarity. This saw impromptu protests on March 17 and bigger demonstrations the next day and over the following week. But once the workers disembarked, there wasn’t the crucial focal point and leverage.

To take such a step as effectively occupying a ship in such a fast-moving situation is far from straight forward. An occupation of a ship could be characterised as mutiny and the Tories would have been far more likely to penalise this law-breaking while of course doing little about P&O’s illegal actions! Some on the left have criticised the RMT for not convening a strike ballot but the union and the workers had to make critical decisions in hours or even minutes not weeks. Even while still on board, they were effectively ‘locked-out’ and therefore only decisive unofficial and militant action would have been effective.

In 2009, the Belfast Visteon car workers occupied their plant after the company went into administration. It totally transformed the struggle, inspiring their fellow workers in Enfield and Basildon to do the same. But the company had been threatening bankruptcy for years, so the Belfast senior stewards had been discussing occupation for some time. There was no warning at P&O. Also, the Visteon workers were facing statutory redundancy of about £10,000 maximum each. While they fought to keep the plants open, they were able to win far bigger pay-offs than they were initially in line for. The P&O workers were being ‘offered’ enhanced redundancy payments on condition of leaving the ships. While this was a big factor in them leaving, an occupation with an appeal for solidarity which would have attracted massive support indicated by the size of the protests, could have totally changed the situation and put huge pressure on the Tories, particularly if a clear call was made to nationalise P&O.

After the on-board workers were forced off the ships, the ferry port protests would have needed to be turned into blockades to up the stakes. This did happen in Hull a week later, when the roads were blocked for hours on a demonstration called by the trades council, with Socialist Party members and National Shop Stewards Network supporters prominent. Such action could have been the platform to call for solidarity action both in the UK and internationally, such as was seen by Dutch dockers who refused to load the Pride of Rotterdam.

As we go to press, the campaign continues and more demonstrations are planned. The seafaring unions will continue to expose the exploitative realities that face maritime workers. This is especially important as the Tories move forward with their Freeports plans, that they claim will lead to the creation of many new jobs in low-tax ‘enterprise’ areas for businesses. But given that the likes of DP World are likely to be involved, the events of the last few weeks only fuel unions’ concerns that this will be yet another vehicle to try and undermine union agreed contracts.

It wasn’t lost on the P&O workers that at the same time that the Tories were reduced to pleading with the likes of Hebblethwaite who ignored them, Johnson was seizing assets of Russian billionaires linked to Putin. No wonder protesting workers and their supporters were chanting ‘Seize the ships’ of P&O, whose bosses were acting like oligarchs.

P&O pleaded poverty, ‘forcing’ them to act against the workers. They claim that they are losing £100 million a year, blaming the pandemic and now inflation and spiralling fuel prices. But in 2020, while pocketing nearly £5 million in furlough support from the government, the parent company DP World paid £270 million in dividends to shareholders. Behind DP World is the ruling elite of Dubai who effectively own the conglomerate. Its billionaire ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum has been ordered to pay half a billion pounds in a divorce settlement to his ex-wife.

Compared to these sums, the £36.5 million enhanced redundancy pay, shared around 800 workers doesn’t appear so ‘generous’ but actually show that workers, their families and communities are so much small change not just to this rich owner but big business in general. The workers know full well that these pay-outs will be a fraction of what they will have earned during their working lives on the union-agreed contracts.

That has to be the bottom line, not the Tories’ ‘minimum wage’ which only serves to further undermine the union-negotiated contacts. Moreover, it has highlighted the slave labour pay and conditions that permeates much of the maritime industry. Successive Tory and New Labour governments have turned a blind eye to the scandal of major companies sailing under ‘flags of convenience’ that enable them to pay not just non-union contracts but far below the UK minimum wage.

Any workers employed by P&O must be members of the seafaring unions or immediately join them and must be on the contacts collectively agreed by them. The RMT and Nautilus International should especially demand that the Labour councils of Hull and Liverpool intervene in their respective ferry ports to impound any P&O ships that don’t comply with this. The same should apply for the SNP Scottish government with regard to Cairnryan.

The battle with P&O is but one of the massive challenges facing the RMT. They face huge confrontations on the rails as the employers go on the attack, nationally and on London Underground, where the union has already stopped the capital in their strikes at the beginning of March.

The Socialist Party and our members have been prominent in the protests to support the sacked P&O workers and will continue to be so. But the lessons of this brutal battle must be taken on board by the whole labour and trade union movement.

The Covid pandemic has intensified the class struggle, and now with the added consequences of the war in Ukraine. Never more apposite has been Trotsky’s words of ‘sharp turns and sudden changes’. The initial severe slowdown in the economy because of lockdown saw the employers go on the attack, which was met by some bitter strikes of resistance. The re-opening of the economy has seen workers in some sectors emboldened by the changed balance of forces due to shortages of labour and stretched supply lines. We now have soaring inflation and a cost of living squeeze of historic proportions. Closures of workplaces and large-scale redundancies, on the lowest terms, can be posed very quickly as more bosses claim that they ‘have no other option’.

Issues can be posed point blank and the most militant action needed to save jobs and defend working-class communities. At the same time as maintaining the fight against P&O, union activists across all sectors have to prepare for the next confrontations, absorbing the lessons from this bitter struggle.

Rob Williams