Last week, P&O Ferries sacked hundreds of workers, replacing them with agency labour. With this savage attack, the bosses have thrown down the gauntlet to the working class. The trade unions must respond with a call to arms – and prepare for battle.
On 17 March, in a pre-recorded video, and without any prior notice, the CEO of P&O Ferries announced to 800 workers that they were to be immediately sacked, in what the trade union movement is calling a “jobs massacre”.
The company intends to replace ship staff with agency labour, some reportedly on as little as £1.80 an hour.
The RMT and Nautilus unions, who together organise the crew, initially told the workers to stay on board when the news broke – effectively supporting an occupation of the ships.
But P&O bosses had planned for this: private security thugs, armed with tasers and handcuffs, were sent onto the boats to bring staff ashore.
This whole scandalous episode has been met with widespread outrage and revulsion by workers across the country. In solidarity, trade unionists, activists, and local communities have taken to the streets.
Last Friday, the day after the mass sacking, Socialist Appeal supporters attended protests at docks in Dover and Liverpool, organised by the RMT and Nautilus.
There was a palpable sense of anger at both demonstrations towards P&O Ferries and its parent company, DP World, for their callous actions.
There were almost 400 at the Liverpool protest; a vocal crowd involving many different trade unions – all calling for the crew members’ reinstatement.
Flags and banners from the RMT, Nautilus, PCS, Unite, FBU, CWU, Prospect, Unison, GMB, and NEU were all on show.
Similar scenes were on display in Dover, where many were drawing connections with the broader attacks on the working class – particularly the scourge of ‘fire and rehire’ tactics seen in the recent period.
In this case, the bosses have gone one step further. P&O workers were not even offered a worse contract to move on to. Instead of ‘fire and rehire’, it is now simply ‘fire’!
“This is about capitalism”
Speaking to Socialist Appeal supporters at the Dover demo, Labour Mayor of neighbouring Folkestone, Michelle Keutenius, stated that her husband faced similar treatment as a British Gas employee, with the energy monopoly sacking 500 workers in one fell swoop in April last year.
Keutenius was clear in identifying the real culprit for these criminal actions. “This is about capitalism,” the Folkestone Mayor asserted. “They’re not making as much profit as they want to, so the best [way] to do that is [to] target the workers.”
Interview with Labour Mayor for Folkestone, Michelle Keutenius:
As @Michelle4Labour rightly says, “this is about capitalism. They’re not making as much profit as they want to, so the best to do that is target the workers.” pic.twitter.com/0nlRQ8ITWT
— KentMarxistSociety (@KentMarxist) March 18, 2022
In a cynical move, Conservative MP for Dover Natalie Elphicke also attended, opportunistically attempting to show support for the P&O workers. She was rightly met with anger by the crowd, with protestors chanting “your laws allowed people to do this” and “you’re on the bosses’ side”.
Our comrade John is at the Dover protest against P&O. His interview with a local activist was interrupted by Tory Dover MP Natalie Elphicke. Apparently, we should “[not] play politics with people’s jobs”. pic.twitter.com/hRI17hul4o
— KentMarxistSociety (@KentMarxist) March 18, 2022
Alongside this rejection of the Tories’ crocodile tears, those at the demo raised radical demands, calling on the workers to “seize the ships”.
In Liverpool, a number of the speakers pointed to the fact that P&O owners DP World, based in Dubai, made profits of £2.9 billion during the pandemic; paid out dividends of over £270 million to shareholders; and sponsored a golf tournament stumping up £147 million in prize money – all while claiming more than £10 million in state support!
Liverpool stands firmly behind the RMT, Nautilus International and the 800+ staff who are being told that they’re losing their jobs at P&O Ferries.#SaveOurSeafarers #pando #solidarity #Liverpool #merseyside #rmt #nautilus pic.twitter.com/kI2VeYjp92
— Liverpool MarxSoc (@LivMarxSoc) March 18, 2022
Further protests have subsequently been held outside DP World headquarters in London, and outside Parliament.
The capitalist press has cynically attempted to deflect attention and anger elsewhere by stoking the flames of chauvinism – highlighting the fact that the underpaid agency staff brought in to replace the sacked ‘British’ workers are generally from overseas.
By doing so, P&O bosses can use maritime laws to only pay these non-unionised workers wages equivalent to those in their native countries.
In other words, right-wing papers are disgracefully blaming this ‘jobs massacre’ on migrants – and not on unscrupulous bosses who are using legal loopholes to drive down pay and conditions across the board.
RMT general secretary Mick Lynch has spoken out against this, however, correctly stating that the response to the bosses use of super-exploited migrant labour is for the unions to organise these workers as well.
In fact, there is already a clear feeling of solidarity amongst a layer of these agency workers. Several are reported to have resigned in protest at the sackings, refusing to replace those made unemployed.
Attempts to point the finger at migrant workers, meanwhile, have failed to gain any echo.
Elsewhere, some – including those on the left – have tried to lay the blame on Brexit. The implication is that such a brutal and instant cull of jobs would not have happened were Britain still in the EU, with workers ‘protected’ by European legislation.
For starters, however, this is factually incorrect. The Tories have not yet made any changes to employment law since Brexit. Workers’ rights, therefore, currently remain the same as when the UK was in the EU.
Furthermore, it is highly likely that the sackings are unlawful anyway, given that there was no consultation with the unions beforehand. If this is the case, P&O could face fines. But this would be small change for a company making super-profits.
Workers’ rights must be fought for and defended. But the labour movement cannot rely on the courts – be they in Brussels, London, or anywhere – to do this. Workers can trust only in themselves to fight back against the bosses’ attacks.
Under capitalism, legislation is little more than words on paper. In reality, the bosses behave however they please, whether in the EU or not.
Similarly, the Tory government is not – and never has been – on the side of the working class. Calls for them to intervene are therefore misplaced.
The defence of workers’ rights is the task of the organised working class: a task that can only be achieved on the basis of unity, solidarity, and militant action.
The labour movement has unanimously demanded the reinstatement of the P&O workers. Every last one must be given their job back, with no loss of pay, and no undermining of terms and conditions.
This struggle must be backed up with industrial militancy. Ultimately, the courts belong to the capitalists. Workers must rely on their own strength.
As part of this, the RMT and other unions in maritime and transport should organise solidarity strikes and secondary action to bring docks to a standstill and shipping routes to a halt. This would hit the capitalists where it hurts: in the profits!
The bosses, acting in their interests, have shown complete disregard for employment laws. It is only right for the working class to respond in kind, by smashing through anti-trade union laws in order to defend jobs, pay, and conditions.
Line in the sand
This assault is the thin end of the wedge; a harbinger of the bosses’ onslaught that lies on the horizon, as the capitalist class look to make workers pay for their crisis.
The labour movement must therefore prepare for similar battles across the economy. The gloves are well and truly off. The ugly face of capitalism has been revealed for all to see.
The capitalists have thrown down the gauntlet. It is vital that the trade unions seize the moment, and mobilise to meet this attack head on. This means fighting fire with fire. Any and all action must be considered.
A cross-union campaign should be built to make it clear that the bosses have crossed a line in the sand. This is the only message the bosses and their representatives in Parliament will understand.
P&O Crisis @RMTunion calls for four-point plan to protect jobs, services and basic employment standards.
UK govt knew of intention to sack workers and disrupt services but failed to act 1/x pic.twitter.com/BO222lZF5D
— Alex Gordon #JoinAUnion (@alexgordon4me) March 18, 2022
Sink their system
Above all, the unions must link this scandal to the fundamentally rotten nature of capitalism.
Fat-cat bosses have abused and exploited workers before this mass sacking – and they will continue to do so for as long as capitalism remains.
P&O Ferries must be nationalised, without compensation, along with the rest of big business, and placed under workers’ control.
Ultimately, the only way to protect workers is to throw the bosses overboard, sink their system, and bring in a socialist plan of production.
This is the bold socialist programme that the movement must fight for.