Ferry workers in Southampton and the Isle of Wight are currently taking action in a battle over pay. The employers are attempting to break the strike with scab labour. Union leaders must unite the struggles against the bosses and Tories.
For a while, it appeared that all was quiet on the southern front in Britain’s class war. Just as in the rest of the country, however, recent weeks have seen a surge of strikes sweep across the city of Southampton and surrounding areas.
In particular, the militant strike by staff at Red Funnel – a ferry company that goes to and from the Isle of Wight – has seen fresh layers of workers come to the fore.
Around 120 ferry workers, organised in Unite the Union, are fighting back over the question of pay.
The bosses have presented a pathetic offer of a 4.5% wage increase, rising to 6.5% for the lowest paid. Whichever way you look at it, this amounts to a real-terms pay cut, with headline inflation currently over 9%, predicted to reach 13% by the end of the year. Adding insult to injury, most of the workers are only on the minimum wage as it stands.
The Red Funnel workers have been out for four days so far, at the time of writing, but are set to strike for eight more days before the end of August.
This strike has seen picket lines both in Southampton and across the water on the Isle of Wight, as it hits the Southampton-to-Cowes service.
Socialist Appeal supporters have joined picket lines to show solidarity.
Excellent support from the community. Many cars beeped as they drove by. pic.twitter.com/Oy7Al4InYd
— Soton Socialist Appeal (@AppealSoton) August 5, 2022
It is clear that the ferry workers take great pride in their work. They, and not management, are the ones who keep the ferries running to schedule – ensuring slick roll-on and roll-off, so that travellers and truckers alike can cross between the island and mainland in safety, and with minimal delay.
Disgracefully, however, office staff have been used as scab labour to load the ferries. Striking workers have raised genuine safety concerns in opposition to these risky practices, used to undermine the walkout.
As one striker told us: “The RNLI [Royal National Lifeboat Institution] sets the minimum safe crew numbers, which the company takes as the cheapest crew option for a boat. If a fire breaks out on board, there isn’t a vital extra hand.”
Fire at sea is the greatest hazard seafarers face; and a car ferry has more than the normal share of flammable material. But passenger safety clearly comes a poor second for the bosses, compared to the company’s profits.
The use of scab labour in this strike is an important warning in the wake of the recently-introduced anti-union agency law by the Tories. This would see untrained temporary workers brought in on the railways or other important industries during strikes, posing a great risk to the safety of passengers and the public.
Notoriously, earlier this year, bosses at P&O Ferries sacked staff en masse, replacing unionised workers with low-paid agency labour. This shows the ruthless lengths that fat-cat capitalists will go to in order to maintain their profits.
On the Red Funnel picket lines, strikers also expressed strong opposition towards the anti-union bile being spewed out by the Tory leadership contenders. Liz Truss, for example, has effectively threatened to outlaw strikes in essential industries; raise strike ballot voting thresholds; and increase the minimum notice prior to a strike from two to four weeks.
Long hours on the picket line have also provided a great opportunity for discussing working class history – including the question of a general strike; and how the Tories could wind up facing a defeat similar to those suffered by the Heath government in the 1970s.
In 1974, for example, the Tory Prime Minister Ted Heath brazenly went to the country with the slogan: “Who rules Britain?” The deafening response in the ensuing general election was: “Not you!” Such a scenario could well be repeated in Britain today.
Unite the struggle
We heard from the ferry strikers that oil tanker workers, also organised by Unite, have requested to be rescheduled so that they do not have to cross Red Funnel picket lines. This shows the instinctual drive towards solidarity among the working class.
Red Funnel picket this morning in East Cowes. The banner had been inadvertently left out since Monday. This is significant, as it was left there for two days without being defaced. pic.twitter.com/XhXFOTstc9
— Soton Socialist Appeal (@AppealSoton) August 3, 2022
This yearning for collective action should be given concrete backing by the unions. The fight that Red Funnel workers face over pay is the same as workers across Britain.
Already, a summer strikewave is hitting the railways and other industries. And many more workers are set to move into action in the autumn.
It is therefore vital that trade union leaders organise militant coordinated action to unite all these struggles.
With anti-union threats coming from both Tory leadership candidates, and further attacks on living standards set to come, such mass action must not only be over the question of pay, but also to take on this big business government and the boss class that they represent.