Drivers on strike Drivers on strike. Source: Richard Allday

As the economic turmoil starts to bite, Goldstar Transport workers show how to organise to fight back, reports Richard Allday 

As the economic effects of the pandemic start to unfold, and with whole industrial sectors effectively closing down for three months, many with an exceedingly bleak prospect ahead of them for months if not years, the trade unions face a stark choice.

The transport sector is no different. The experience of the 100+ drivers employed at Goldstar Transport’s Woolpit depot in Suffolk is a taster of what workers can expect to see coming down the line.

Road haulage out of the east coast ports – roughly from Boston down to Dover – has been an open shop (i.e. no union) industry for decades. A prime example is Felixstowe, the largest container port in the UK, where not one container haulier operating out of Felixstowe recognizes any union. Goldstar Transport is a significant player in container haulage. As well as their headquarters in Felixstowe, they have another 8 depots around the country, prime among which is their container storage and haulage depot at Woolpit.

A year ago, Unite had 5 members at the depot – out of a driver workforce of around 140. One of them contacted Unite a year ago, citing increasing discontent among drivers over increasing workloads. The branch produced a couple of newsletters, took up the issue of unfair treatment of a popular union member, and challenged the employer over their refusal to pay average pay to drivers taking annual leave. This has been the law for over a decade, but the company had persistently dissimulated and used disingenuous arguments to avoid their statutory obligations.

By Christmas, we had increased membership to 12. Then we won the holiday pay issue. Over the next 3 months, we doubled membership. Then Covid-19 hit. Ironically, with the majority of drivers furloughed, membership soared. A number of issues have contributed to a growing sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’: Lack of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) or – when provided – inadequate PPE; the imposition of a new pay structure (forced on the company by the increase in the Minimum Wage) on their guaranteed weekly pay, which actually left workers worse off than before; the insult of being told they had to take 2 weeks annual leave while furloughed – i.e. the taxpayer picking up 80% of the company’s obligation to pay holiday pay – and the company ‘using up’ dead time at the taxpayers’ expense. We asked the company to sit down and talk to the union formally. The company replied with a ‘Dear John’ letter – i.e. ‘get lost’.

So Unite wrote to the CAC (Central Arbitration Committee) asking for statutory recognition. Within 72 hours, the company wrote to 107 drivers telling them they were going to effectively end haulage operations out of Woolpit (only retaining 5 night and 5 day drivers), make 12 drivers redundant, and offering the remaining 85 jobs on radically different terms and conditions at
Felixstowe, 35 miles down the road.

Remarkably, if the company thought this would cow the drivers, they have been proved wrong. More drivers are joining the union, the process of balloting for strike action is underway, the three Zoom meetings we have held so far each show an increased turnout, and an increased determination.

The drivers have already leafleted the Felixstowe depot, and plans are in place to get the leaflets to our members in each of the other depots (Leeds, Liverpool. Southampton, Tilbury, Felixstowe, Abingdon). Where we have reps in workplaces where Goldstar hold contracts, we are going to contact them. If Goldstar thought Woolpit would just roll over, they certainly know different now.

Nothing is certain. We can’t guarantee that we will win. But this we know: if you don’t fight, you can’t win.

If there had been no Unite members among the drivers a year ago, there would have been no way for the branch to know there were problems. If that individual had not persuaded a couple of workmates to work with him, there would have been little chance of getting a newsletter in. Without the newsletter, individual non-union drivers would not have been aware of how the union could help.

The difference between no members, and the 12 there at Xmas, meant that the arguments over the company’s different strokes met a concerted counter-argument. Without those 12, we may not have won another dozen drivers by March. Having 25 drivers arguing over PPE, furlough, and the new contracts meant a realistic pole of attraction for dissatisfied drivers.

There is a lesson here for the trade union movement: we face one of two choices. We either adopt a defeatist mindset and regard mass redundancies as inevitable and structure our unions to ‘manage decline’; or we organise to resist. There really doesn’t seem to me to be a middle way.

If we organise to resist, we look outwards, to seek allies in a fight to retain jobs, to insist that industry should serve the producers not the profiteers, then we promote solidarity and collective strength. If we organise to manage decline, look inwards, protect what we have and the rest can look after themselves, then we breed isolation and miserablism.

This is not pie-in-the-sky romanticism. The Upper Clyde Shipbuilders’ fight against job losses in the 1970s didn’t have industrial muscle. They were losing their jobs because the company didn’t have the work. They won because they fought. In fighting, they called for solidarity. Without the fightback, that call would have been for sympathy, not solidarity. Because they fought and won solidarity, they created a social, political, and industrial fightback that forced a Tory government to intervene. That victory led to others.

I don’t know if the Goldstar drivers will win, but I do know that they have made the right choice. I hope that any call for solidarity is met in full measure. If they win, we all win.

In solidarity; Richard Allday, Branch secretary, Unite 7055 Road Haulage branch (in a personal capacity)

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Richard Allday

Richard Allday is a member of Unite the Union’s National Executive, a branch secretary and shop steward in road haulage.  A member of Counterfire, his comrades know him better as 'the angry trucker'.