Rank and file workers urgently need to organise to deliver industrial action in the face of P&O’s disgraceful sackings, argues John Westmoreland
The sacking of 800 P&O workers last Thursday is the most important issue facing trade unionists today. It knocked coverage of the war in Ukraine off the front pages. It has moved MPs from all parties to denounce the parent company, DP World, for accepting lavish cash handouts of some £30 million during the pandemic, and then dumping the staff that have served them.
While Tory ministers are wringing their hands and protesting how unfair it all is, we know this is just for show. The anti-trade union laws have shackled the unions and helped the bosses force down wages. The Tories have supported companies using fire-and-rehire tactics to weaken trade union organisation, tear up agreements and rake in more profits.
In the face of mounting anger, bosses at P&O are refusing to meet the unions. They are relying on the Tories to do nothing.
Shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh managed to get it right when she told the Commons:
“What have cabinet ministers actually managed to do? They have written a strongly worded letter to the wrong person, and signposted workers to the job centre.
“The central calculation of DP World, that this government would not lift a finger to stop them, has so far been proven right.”
Labour MPs are turning out for rallies in support of the sacked workers and are calling on the government to withdraw its support for the company, prosecute them for their “criminal activity” and get tough.
But this is way short of how the Labour movement needs to respond to the crisis. This has been coming for a long time, and every corporate vulture is craning its neck to see if the trade unions falter and they can join the carnage.
This is a pivotal moment, perhaps an Orgreave moment, that holds great danger and at the same time the potential to launch a meaningful fightback. The response of Hull’s dockers and river pilots stands in sharp contrast to the legalistic approach of Labour and the TUC.
Hull dockers are refusing to handle the re-crewed Pride of Hull ferry. Although the dockers are saying they are doing this on health and safety (legal) grounds it is nevertheless action in support of other workers.
In addition, the cooperative of Humber Pilots is raising professional objections to handling the vessel if it is crewed with agency staff, which means the ferry can’t get out of the Humber.
This is exactly what we need – and a lot more of it.
Workers are wising up to the corporate shenanigans of far distant employers using management hatchet men to wreck lives, while the government looks the other way. Solidarity has to become meaningful. Now is the time for dock workers and transport workers to consider how to deliver the industrial action that can rescue the situation.
The power lies with the rank and file. The Tories know it and we know it. Hull port workers are giving the lead we should be following.
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John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.