P & O express heading into Belfast. Photo: Rossographer/cropped from original/licensed under CC2.0, linked at bottom of article P & O express heading into Belfast. Photo: Rossographer/cropped from original/licensed under CC2.0, linked at bottom of article

DP World’s callous sacking of the 800 seafarers has caused outrage across Britain, but it also contains lessons for Britain’s workers, argue Richard Allday & Chris Nineham

One is that the law is not impartial; it’s not there to help workers, it’s there to keep us in our place. P&O Chief Executive Peter Hebblethwaite has admitted  the sackings were illegal. The Tories claim to be pursuing criminal and civil investigations into the companies actions and calling for the sacking of P&O’s chief executive Pete Hebblethwaite.

It will however take months at least for any decision to be handed down, by which time P&O will be reaping the profits of operating its vessels with vastly reduced wage levels.

Meanwhile the sacked workers have accepted an increased redundancy offer. So when Shapps, Johnson and the rest cry their crocodile tears, and bluster about what they will do, it is just that; bluster.

What happened at P&O is a warning to us all: if P&O are allowed to get away with it, what security does any worker have, no matter how long they have worked for an employer? As one RMT member said

 ‘This cannot be allowed to stand because it will be a bellwether for the entire corporate landscape. I’m far from a far left activist, just a person trying to make an honest living’

How did we get here? Unfortunately, the workers have been let down by the union leaders. People in general are aware of the importance of the dispute. The fact that the Tories have threatened moves against the company shows they are aware which way the public mood was swinging. Popular support for key workers has been high for a long time now, and vicious attacks on pay land conditions look sadistic against the backdrop of the cost of living crisis.

Workers were prepared to act. Initially ferry workers refused to leave their ships. Dockers refused to handle at least one of the boats. The demonstrations called by the RMT leadership in ports around the country were well supported by trade unionists and others across the country. Workers in some ports, notably Rotterdam are refusing to handle P&O boats in solidarity.

The problem is the RMT never called on its members to take action. They never balloted their members. They never asked for concrete solidarity action from other union members.

Full marks to the dockers, tug crews and pilots who have shown solidarity – but they are entitled to expect their union leadership to declare support for their actions, and to promise the full support of the union. This hasn’t happened.

Despite the fact that there was clearly a mood for it in parts of the movement no national trade union body called for action that could win. The unions should have moved quickly and decisively. The RMT should have called action and asked for solidarity. The Unite leadership should have informed reps and members, in the ports and the warehouses, in road haulage and distribution centres to refuse to handle P&O cargo to refuse to haul, load, or unload, P&O trailers or containers. The TUC should have called an emergency conference to back up the action.

Any plausible strategy to beat back this attack and to hit P&O hard enough would have involved secondary action. And union leaders fear that that would involve breaking the law.

At the last Unite rules conference, delegates voted overwhelmingly to scrub the rule that required the union to act within the law. The case for abolishing the rule was put by then General Secretary Len McCluskey; the move was endorsed by the lay Executive, and the delegates voted overwhelmingly in favour. What was the point of that vote, if not to lay down a marker, to say publicly that there are times when morality trumps legality?

The employers, in the P&O case, have broken the law; the prime minister has said so; the minister for Transport has said so; Grant Schapps has said so. Keir Starmer has almost said so. If they can break the law, with effectively no consequence, why should trades unionists respect it?

It is time to confront the issues of secondary action and the law directly. Solidarity is a basic principle of trade unionism not for sentimental reasons, but because it is actually the case that unity is strength. Laws are made for a reason, and the reason for the current trade union legislation that was brought in under Thatcher, was and is to make us impotent.

Be sure there are more attacks coming. We have to do more than talk a good fight. We have to be ready to take concerted, militant action and be prepared to spread it.

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