What an answer to all the cynics. In a matter of days a magnificent and
largely spontaneous movement of truck drivers, farmers and cabbies has brought
large parts of the country to a virtual standstill. This movement represents the
biggest national unofficial strike action seen in Britain for decades. The
ruling class are quaking in their boots. The leaders of the TUC meeting in
Glasgow meanwhile are oblivious to the real meaning of the movement. In reality
the union leaders were caught totally off guard. Bill Morris for example writing
in the Sunday Times Magazine (10/9/00) comments that he always listens to the
Farming programme on Radio 4 early in the morning in order to keep in touch with
the issues affecting the 40,000 agricultural workers who are members of the
Transport and General Workers Union. He evidently missed the episode discussing
the effects of petrol prices. Labour’s Scottish Secretary John Reid meanwhile
confidently announced that Britain would not copy France because "the
people of this country do not resort to the French way of doing things."
The myth of a calm and peaceful society at ease with itself in Blair’s new
Britain has been shattered.
Never again Blair told us would there be a winter of discontent. That was Old
Labour. In some parts of the country today there is rubbish left uncollected in
the streets, no fresh food in the shops, ambulances restricted to 999 services
and mile long queues outside the one petrol station with supplies for sale. Such
crises are not caused by Old Labour or new, but by capitalism and the failure of
Labour leaders to break with the market and adopt bold socialist solutions. The
TV news and, shamefully, Labour politicians are claiming the movement is
endangering peoples lives, and that pickets are using violent means to
intimidate drivers. This is utter nonsense. Firstly from the beginning the lorry
drivers and those blockading the refineries have been in favour of allowing
essential supplies for the emergency services to get through. The drivers
themselves are refusing to cross picket lines not out of fear but out of support
for the movement.
The immediate cause of the protests is the steeply rising price of petrol.
Small farmers, road hauliers and taxi drivers are particularly affected by this.
Seeing the movement in France they promptly followed suit. However, the movement
didn’t simply fall from a clear blue sky. There have been protests staged and
organisations mushrooming up over the last two years. The press however ignored
them, so they went largely unnoticed. Indeed even at the beginning of this
movement in Britain the right wing press were still busily spewing forth their
usual attacks on the French for "spoiling" British holidaymakers’
journeys, only suddenly and belatedly realising that once the movement started
here it had widespread support which they would need to opportunistically tail
This is not a usually militant section of the population. Some are small
business people, some middle class. Many are self employed, although these days,
of course, many self employed people are just workers on contracts rather than
properly employed. Drivers in the big haulage firms are not only workers but
they are also unionised. However, they are all working people, in many cases
with their futures precariously balanced, their livelihoods invested in a rig, a
small piece of land or a cab. They are at the immediate mercy of the vagaries of
the world market, the power of the monopolies and the policies of the
government. The petrol price and tax rises literally threaten to destroy them.
For many this is the first time they have ever been involved in any kind of
protest. Clearly a line in the sand has been crossed. At the same time they have
provided us with a glimpse of the power of the working class, so prematurely
written off by so many ‘experts.’
Farmers in particular are not usually seen as militant. Yet they are being
forced to draw conclusions from their struggle to survive in a world dominated
by big monopolies. One such figure interviewed on TV was told by the reporter
that his protest was like the miners’ strike. The farmer agreed, pointing out
that he hadn’t supported the miners at the time, but that in hindsight
"Arthur Scargill was right. They were defending their industry, now we’re
defending ours." The problem for small or even medium size farmers, for
independent hauliers and so on is that there is no way they can compete against
the power of the monopolies. In reality, their problems cannot be solved by
capitalism any more than the workers’ problems can. Therefore ithey are natural
allies. The only forces these people can rely on are those of the working class,
and the only secure future lies in the struggle for a socialist society.
That such a small section of the population can bring the country to a
virtual standstill is proof of the power of militancy. Imagine then the power of
the organised working class. Imagine what the TUC could achieve were the
leadership to raise their little finger. Yet nothing terrifies union bureaucrats
more than militancy, and the threat it poses to their comfortable lifestyles.
The rise in petrol prices has two main causes. Firstly there is the reliance
of Blair and co. on indirect taxation to raise funds. This universal tax is
grossly unfair having a hugely disproportionate impact on poorer workers than on
rich fat cats. These tax rises have been covered with the veneer of trying to
cut car usage to protect the environment. In the first place the privatisation,
deregulation and consequent destruction of the public transport system forces
people to use their cars. Secondly the real polluters are big business, and
heavy industry. The answer to that isn’t to go back to living in the dark ages
as the Greens would have it. It requires democratic control, investment in
research and cleaning up manufacturing. All that costs money, money the profit
hungry capitalists are not willing to spend. In the end the only answer lies in
ownership and planning, in other words a socialist solution. To tax petrol more
and more is simply to tax workers, while letting the real spoilers of the planet
carry on unhindered.
At the same time Blair blames the market. The market has forced up the price
of oil. In passing we note that when the price of oil was falling there was no
corresponding fall in the price of petrol as the monopolies simply used their
power to rake in more profits. Now Blair blames the market for rising petrol
prices. He has already blamed the market for job losses, for Fords, for Rover,
for the loss of jobs in shipbuilding. The market is to blame for everything
according to Blair. Of course, he’s right the market is to blame. Therefore it’s
about time the Labour government broke with the market which is doing all this
damage and introduced socialist measures in the interests of all working people.
Instead of meeting with the protesters, Blair met with the privy council to
discuss the use of emergency powers, even the possible use of troops. Blair,
Straw and co. make disturbing noises about democratic rights. Lord MacDonald
said that obviously people have the right to protest but they should not have
the right to prevent the free flow of commerce and trade. Surely that means the
right to strike. Instead of defending the people who elected them, ordinary
workers, Blair and co. are doing the bidding of the city of London and the big
monopolies, in this case the oil companies, who have made a sizeable profit out
of the current crisis.
The widespread level of public support that this movement is getting despite
the obvious inconvenience it is causing, suggests that there is something a
little more profound here than a protest against fuel prices. It is true that
since almost everyone has a car, rising petrol prices affects most people
directly. At the same time everything is not as calm as a superficial glance at
the surface of society would indicate. There is a simmering discontent just
beneath this tranquil veneer. Disillusionment with the actions of Blair and co.,
perhaps even a questioning of the very system itself. This movement is not
confined to Britain nor did it begin here. It has spread like an oil slick
across the continent. Protests have spread across Italy, Belgium, Ireland and
Germany. In Brussels 2,500 or so truckers and taxi drivers protested on the
tenth against a 50 percent rise in diesel prices over the last 18 months. An oil
refinery in Sicily has been blockaded. Several towns across Germany have seen
protests and demonstrations. The movement began in France, of course. Whilst
highly unusual in this country, such protests have long been a tradition across
the channel. Beginning with the protests of the fishermen who won significant
gains, the movement spread to farmers, lorry drivers, ambulance workers and
others. With the widespread support of the population behind them, the movement
won an important victory. The government was forced to back down. Above all it
was not just the French example of militant action, but the fact that their
action was successful which has encouraged similar movements across Europe. No
doubt Blair is acutely aware that if the movement in Britain is successful, then
it can act as a spur to encourage more militant action by workers facing attacks
in every sector.
At the same time, it isn’t possible to see these movements outside of the
context of the protests in recent years against the WTO, IMF etc. There is a
malaise in society being expressed in many countries in different ways. The more
traditional movement of the organised workers has been blocked by their own
leaders. Yet this discontent will always find an expression somewhere. The
initiative seen in the movement to date in Britain, the blockades, the slow
moving traffic, the pickets organised by mobile phone are all a foretaste of
future movements of the working class in general.
The methods being used are very much those of the workers. The blockade of
Shell’s Stanlow terminal in Ellesmere Port in particular sounds like a textbook
example of workers’ democracy in action. 100 or so farmers, hauliers, taxi
drivers, postal workers and even some unemployed people meet to discuss which
trucks can and cannot go out, which cases are emergencies and which are not.
They discuss and they vote. Incidentally what a mockery this makes of the anti
union laws. For years the union leaders have used the threat of their use,
sequestration and so on, to hold the movement back. Where are the anti union
laws now? There are mass pickets, unofficial action. The anti union laws should
be trampled underfoot by the organised workers like the pieces of paper that
they are. Labour leaders should not be discussing new attacks on our rights they
should be abolishing the Tories’ old ones.
Instead the union leaders are even more frightened than the government. This
is a golden opportunity for the unions. An immediate recruitment campaign could
draw these drivers and workers into the organised labour movement. Instead Monks
launches an attack on them. Bill Morris, suddenly not so concerned with the
issues facing his members in farming, goes so far as to call for the arrest of
the protesters. "This campaign has crossed the line from democracy to
anarchy. If they are breaking the law, the protesters should be arrested,"
he commented at the TUC, while inside the hall delegates were discussing
training and partnership with business. A layer of the middle class could be won
over to the side of socialism, if the unions were to rally behind this movement.
However that would mean a leadership willing and able to lead. In the long run
through initiatives like this inspirational movement the more traditionally
militant workers will take initiatives and create a new leadership too.
What about the left? They seem to be either in hiding or even worse
condemning the movement. Livingstone? The Mayor of London appears to be more
concerned with getting into Tony Blair’s good books than supporting this
protest. The rump of what used to be the Communist Party, in an attempt no doubt
to not upset their friends the General Secretaries of the trade unions, have
condemned the movement and called for the end of the blockade. Their comments
reported in the Morning Star are simply echoes of the remarks of UNISON’s Rodney
Bickerstaffe and Steve Pickering of the GMB.
Those who argued that the nature of the economy had fundamentally changed
because of the internet and globalisation should take note of what we are seeing
here. Oil still plays a decisive role in lubricating and fuelling the economy.
Without it, very much like the working class, nothing moves. The price of oil
has long had a major impact on developments in the world economy. Those who
today write it off as no longer relevant could be in for a major shock. The
present boom cannot continue indefinitely, and it could well be an oil crisis
that pushes the economy into a new slump.
Above all those who wrote off the working class will have to think again. The
power in the hands of ordinary working people has been demonstrated by just a
small and rather unexpected section of the population. Once the majority of
workers take such action no force on the planet could stop them.
To begin with we have to give full backing to the just demands of the current
movement, beginning with lower fuel prices. In the unions we must condemn the
response of Monks and co., and point out the need for militancy. In the Labour
Party at every level we must protest against the actions of the government, and
demand the following:
- Lower petrol prices. Labour must immediately remove the tax hikes they’ve
brought in since 1997. Tax the fat cat millionaires instead
- Nationalise the oil industry. Take ownership, management and control of the
oil industry out of the hands of the greedy monopolies and into the hands of the
- For a socialist transport plan. Nationalise the railways the buses and the
big hauliers. For a fully integrated public transport system controlled and
managed by transport workers.
- A plan for freight to be drawn up democratically by transport workers and
lorry drivers in the interests of the workforce, the environment and efficiency.
- Such a plan to form the core of a democratically drawn up and implemented
socialist plan of production.