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From P&O rout to rail strikes—are new forms of workplace activism emerging?

This article is over 1 years, 8 months old
Mark O’Brien, a socialist and trade unionist based in Liverpool, gives his view on developments in the class struggle.
Issue 2817
picture of people protesting the job cuts at P&O with placards which read resist all P&O job cuts

P&O workers and their supporters march in Dover in March 2022 (Picture: Guy Smallman)

There is a very welcome rebirth of activism in the trade union movement, inspired by the RMT union’s confrontation with the rail bosses and Tory government.

The three days of rail strikes in June were immensely popular, with one poll showing 58 percent of people thought they were “justified”. They inspired solidarity on the picket line from other trade unionists and campaigners, and marches, protests and rallies in towns and cities across Britain. And, in some places like Liverpool activists brought together a solidarity network of rail workers and trade unionists from across the city.

Alongside the rail and BT workers’ national fights over pay, we’ve also seen wildcat strikes at Amazon, Cranswick Continental Foods in Greater Manchester and Alufix in Clapham, south London.

This resurgence of confidence among activists makes it important to understand unions’ industrial power and their limitations in the face of employer offensives. And, we have to look at the role of the trade union bureaucracy in disputes.

Why is it important to understand all the dynamics of the trade union? Because how we understand them has consequences for how activists orient themselves in the industrial battles happening now, and in those ahead of us.

There is, for example, still a yawning gap between the RMT and CWU strikes and any potential industrial action by other large groups of workers in the autumn. And, within the rail and BT disputes, there are questions about what would constitute a victory on pay as inflation soars near 12 percent. The union bureaucracies have suggested below-inflation pay rises could be acceptable—not something rank and file members should accept.

The rout of the unions in the P&O Ferries dispute earlier this year—which also involved the RMT—is useful to understand the dynamics of trade unions.  

P&0—the battle that never was

The sacking of 800 P&O ferry workers on 17 March sent a shock throughout the British trade union movement. Bosses summoned crew members on board ships to watch a pre-recorded video of HR director Andrew Goode. He said they’d be made redundant with immediate effect, and notified them of the company’s plans to replace them with low-waged agency crews.

The workers were given until 31 March to sign a severance deal. This included a gagging clause preventing them from ever talking about having been employed by P&O Ferries, along with a financial settlement.

The following day emergency protests saw hundreds marching at each of the English ports in Hull, Dover and Liverpool. In Hull protesters banged on the doors at the P&O Ferries terminal, demanding to confront company managers. Later in the day, others gathered outside the London offices of parent company DP World.

RMT union general secretary Mick Lynch and Nautilus union general secretary Mark Dickinson told sacked workers to remain on the ships.

A call for solidarity went out via the International Transport Workers Federation (ITWF). At the Rotterdam Europort, Dutch dockers refused to load freight onto the Pride of Rotterdam. At Hull, dockers refused to release the Pride of Hull. Hundreds marched at the ports again on 19 March.

There was further anger when handcuff-trained security staff arrived at the ships. Crew on The Highlander at Cairnryan in Scotland were sworn at and told they had ten minutes to disembark. A few days later, sacked workers from The Pride of Kent coming to collect their personal belongings found them in bin bags next to skips. Protests continued periodically over subsequent weeks. On 23 March at the Liverpool Port, activists briefly blockaded the gates causing lorries to back up within minutes.

Despite this wave of anger, over the following days the two unions put out no wider call for solidarity beyond the port protests, important though these were. It soon became clear there would be no strike ballots, let alone any immediate industrial action.

Instead, the RMT and Nautilus International would be taking legal action against the company. Given the company’s deliberate disregard for labour law, the futility of this strategy for saving jobs was plain. So was the hollowness of the rhetoric from the unions’ national officials.

By the 31 March deadline, all but one of the sacked workers had signed the company’s redundancy agreement. They took the financial package to soften the blow of sudden unemployment given the absence of any major trade union response. It was not so much that the fight was over—rather it had hardly begun.

A spokesperson for Nautilus International summarised the situation perfectly, “P&O has gotten away with it. There’s no fine, there’s no legal action, there’s only words and hot air”.

What might have been different?

The industrial paralysis of the two trade unions involved in the P&O Ferries debacle was bewildering to activists. Nautilus International, founded in 2009 with members in Britain, the Netherlands, Holland and Switzerland, wasn’t known for its militancy. However, more might have been expected from the RMT.

Quite possibly, events might have unfolded differently. Large protests could have been called every day at each of the P&O Ferries terminals at Hull, Liverpool, Dover, Cairnryan and Larne. With an appeal to all unions for solidarity, such protests could have led to sustained port-gate blockades.

Sympathy action by dockers could have been sustained. The sacked workers—encouraged by the movement at the ports, and in constant social media contact with the protesters outside—might have continued occupying the ships.

International protests and sympathy action would also likely have grown at Calais, Rotterdam and Dublin. The unions could have encouraged this through the ITWF, Nautilus International’s membership in other countries, and the RMT’s links with the CGT union federation at the French ports and the SIPTU union at the Irish ports. 

Just as in the 1993-96 Liverpool dockers’ dispute, international maritime solidarity could then have had an important impact.

Furthermore, a national demonstration called by the TUC union federation would have brought huge numbers of trade unionists and supporters onto the streets. This is what happened in 1992 over pit closures and in 2011 over pensions. 

All this is not fanciful speculation. In the weeks following the sackings, a campaign by the unions along these lines could have been successful. The Tories were on the back-foot, and the courts would have been unable to act—for a time at least. During the last two weeks of March, the unions had the upper hand for this kind of action.

It was an advantage they threw away—and were always going to. Why is this? And what would an alternative strategy have required?

What are the union officials afraid of?

At root, union leaders’ inaction flows from a drive to compromise. Understanding the social position of the bureaucracy is key to understanding its conservatism. The union bureaucracy is removed from the workers it represents and officials are neither bosses nor workers.

In Marxism and Trade Union Struggle, socialists Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein explained that the bureaucracy “is a distinct, basically conservative, social formation” and called union bureaucrats “managers of discontent”.

Their job is to negotiate between capital and labour and reach a settlement in disputes. The union laws brought in during the 1980s were designed to take power out of the hands of the rank-and-file, empowering union officials.

Trade union behaviour in Britain is shaped by many pressures. There are two that are directly relevant here, and are structural to our problem.

First, there is a plethora of restrictive controls over balloting and time-frames for industrial action mandates. It is underpinned by the threat to union finances and assets, premised upon the liability of national officials. This bolsters union officials’ caution of their members, who may breach statutory requirements in the anti-union laws in actions that run out of their control.

Such breaches can require the national officials to explicitly “repudiate” the actions of members if they’re to avoid legal sanctions blocking official industrial action, and possible financial penalties. Indeed, union leaders tend to be wary of the potential for a court injunction against industrial action even where there are no actual grounds for it. This often results in an exaggerated wariness of the law and a tendency to “play-safe”, remaining well within the legal limitations for industrial action.

Second, where ordinary members of a union take unprotected action reacting to a provocation, they may lose their jobs, and be thrown into an unforgiving employment environment and a vicious benefits system.

This makes union officials cautious for their members, and careful not to lead them into taking such risks.

Once, in an earlier industrial relations era, a gesture from the official would be enough for workplace stewards and reps to lead unofficial walk-outs and go-slows. But these structural changes mean there is no place anymore for that type of surreptitious communication. The “nod-and-a-wink’ has disappeared from the world of British trade unionism. 

However, we need to look at something else to understand contemporary trade union behaviour.

While successive governments have been pushing the door closed against strikes, they have been opening another for the unions. Finding the “strike option” increasingly fraught with risk, trade unions have resorted to alternatives laid out for them by legislation introduced since the 1990s.

The most relevant to the P&O Ferries is the TULCRA (1992) law, introduced by John Major’s Tory government. This obligates employers to “meaningfully” consult with trade unions in redundancy situations. They have to demonstrate efforts to avoid redundancies, reduce the number of redundancies and mitigate the effects of redundancies. Where they are in breach of these requirements, trade unions may pursue legal action to exact compensation for their members.

For 30 years, TULCRA (1992) has given union leaders an instrument for their strategies of “legalism” as an alternative to sustained strike when faced with redundancies. This act has served the British state well as a regulator of both employer and trade union behaviour in major company restructures, involving the mass shedding of jobs.

Until now. The P&O sackings destabilised these industrial relations arrangements, which were stacked in favour of bosses and against the unions. It meant there was worry among some within the establishment, alarmed at what this maverick employer behaviour might ignite.

Prime minister Boris Johnson’s and transport secretary Grant Shapps’ condemnations of senior management were strange to witness. Entertaining too was the sight of Natalie Elphicke, Tory MP for Dover being howled down. She turned up at the port and tried to speak on behalf of the sacked P&O Ferries workers.

Less entertaining was the hope of Nautilus International and RMT national officials that politicians’ warm words might provide some leverage against the company. Obviously, as the danger of workers’ action passed, the Tories did nothing. Indeed, within weeks the government was once more signing new contracts with the company.

Informal activist networking—organising at the base 

There is a type of informal trade union activism—this is the “geographical industrial network” (GIN). While its prominence has varied over time, it has never entirely disappeared from the British trade union movement.

There are historical examples of GINs that have been decisive in delivering large-scale worker actions and victories. The Barnsley Miners’ Forum, for instance, involved many left-wing activists. It played a vital role in the unofficial Yorkshire coalfield battles of 1969 and 1970, and in the great strike of 1972 against the Tory government and the National Coal Board.

There are no working class formations today that compare to the combines and liaison committees of the 1960s and early 1970s with their mobilising power and industrial leverage. The background to the GINs of that era were pit and shop-floor victories.

But informal activist networks can also emerge from crises in the trade unions, and frustration with the ineffectiveness of official national leaderships over crucial issues facing ordinary members.

Looked at in this way, a survey of the British labour movement reveals some interesting developments. There are currents of worker activism—born of necessity, and filling the vacuum of leadership created by the failures of the official unions. They are producing new and effective types of organising. These arise from the impasse reached within a union when activists can see no way forward via its official and formal processes.

One example is the health workers’ activist network Nurses United. Emerging from a crisis in the official leadership of the RCN union following a misleading national pay deal, the network went on to involve members of other unions. As part of the wider NHS Workers Say No, it organised the #NHSPay15 mobilisations in towns and cities across Britain in the summer of 2020.

The following year pay, safety and anti-privatisation protests involved a range of activist groups—NHS Workers Say No, Health Campaigns Together, NHS Voices, Nurses United, and Keep Our NHS Public. 

Despite health workers’ anger at their appalling treatment by the Tories during Covid, the government imposed the 3 percent pay deal in England. The union leaders did little more than put out consultative ballots, but with no serious argument for industrial action.

Meanwhile, in the winter of 2021, midwives organised their own protests via the #MarchWithMidwives network. They were campaigning over pay, safety standards and service funding. 

Another example of informal activism is the Sparks (electricians) and their No to ESO (Unskilled Labour) campaign. These activists mounted actions, such as company office occupations and blockades. It was against the introduction of the Electrical Service Operative grade for electrical engineers at the major construction companies Balfour Beatty and NG Bailey, and at Atomic Weapons Establishment, Burghfield. This grassroots campaign prevented the deskilled grade becoming established within the construction industry.

The small, but dynamic unions such as UVW, Caiwu and the IWGB are also significant. They have attracted activists who’ve become frustrated with the more established unions. Unison and Unite union members at the University of London joined the IWGB in 2017 after a disagreement over how to fight for improved conditions for cleaners.

Their strikes and direct actions were successful against the agency employer, Balfour Beatty Workplace. Subsequent strikes achieved the cleaners’ jobs being brought back in-house by the university.

These unions recruit large numbers of workers who have never been in a union before. And they have brought vibrant campaigning styles and direct-action methods into the labour movement. They have been involved in a string of successful fights over union recognition, sick pay, working conditions and pension rights.

However, the new unions do not wholly avoid the problems of bureaucracy and sectionalism, particularly as they grow and become more established.

Meanwhile, there have also been strongly membership-controlled disputes leading to victories in recent years.

Examples include the highly successful strikes last year over pay by Bexley refuse workers, which involved networks with other bin workers in neighbouring boroughs.

Another is the six-month UCU union’s jobs fight at the University of Liverpool that involved internal and external solidarity networks. It saw daily morning strike meetings over the majority of the action—more than 90 in all, regularly of around 200. The strikes successfully prevented every compulsory redundancy.

The grassroots organising within these strikes and campaigns show the difference networking can make.

A further example is the UCU Solidarity Movement. It has brought together activists in the long-running battles in higher education over pensions, pay, inequalities, workloads and casualisation. It made possible crucial discussions about strategy and coordination across branches, despite a national leadership that worked hard to undermine industrial action.

The UCU strikes in 2018 also show how activist networks can create “rank-and-file moments”, which affect outcomes in dispute situations. This occurred over 12 to 13 March 2018.

Activists in 40 branches coordinated across their strike meetings—each of hundreds—via the #NoCapitulation Twitter hashtag. They fought to reject a rotten deal, before it had even been formally presented by Acas conciliation service negotiators for consideration by the union’s higher education committee.

Social media communications and new organising tools mean workplace activists typically can be in contact with tens and even hundreds of others. This can take place in various overlapping types of solidarity networks, and across many unions and campaigns in their towns and cities. Up until very recently, they might have known only a handful within their own trade union branches.

The RMT strikes, for instance, inspired some local support groups to spring up. On Merseyside a group of more than 100 trade unionists and community activists came together within days through WhatsApp. They organised picket line support and called a solidarity rally.

They published a public statement in the local press backing the RMT with 160 signatures— including five Liverpool and Wirral Labour MPs, and many trade unionists – all ahead of the commencement of the strikes.

This group has developed into a broad strike solidarity coalition, adding union activists by the day. It coordinates picket line visits, shares information between unions, and organises union recruitment fairs in Liverpool’s main shopping area. Activism, it seems, has never been so networked—making possible rapid, intensive and geographically-focused forms of industrial organising.

The inability of national officials to deliver over problems that require an immediate response can mean that workers, pushed beyond their limit, act on their own. The dozens of Covid-19 health and safety walkouts of March, April and May and then October and November of 2020 showed how this can happen.

There have also been more recent examples. They include the unofficial walkout by refuse collection, recycling, and grounds maintenance staff in Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council. It was against someone they say is a sexist, racist and bullying manager. There’s the unofficial action over payment issues at the Ineos refinery at Saltend in Hull by workers employed by Altrad. And the wildcat strikes over pay by maintenance workers employed by TotalEnergies and Bilfinger UK on oil rigs in the North Sea.

New orientations of struggle?

Confronting the Tories and bosses requires us to think about new forms of worker activism and new types of networks. They can bring together activists in local solidarity actions across different groups of workers in a town or city.

These need to include lay officials who are prepared and able to reject demands to “repudiate” unlawful worker actions. And they must include activists who are working deliberately towards a culture of rapid response to sudden employer attacks.

We need many more organised socialists, who look to workers’ self-activity, in the unions. What a difference a few more socialists—arguing for occupations—could have made on board the P&O ferries.

Socialists have to bring politics into the workplace and workers’ struggles, not just agitate on the economic issues.

Political radicalisation and movements outside the official channels of the labour movement can build confidence for workplace struggles. For example, in 2019 the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vest) movement in France helped energise union activists in France, leading to militant strikes.

We are still a long way from what we need in terms of rebuilding worker organisation. However, there are trends towards informal activist cultures and signs of new formations. The question is, can we maximise solidarity, increase activist numbers, and build worker confidence as they emerge?

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