By Nick Clark
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Relying on the law won’t win at P&O

This article is over 1 years, 8 months old
Most of the mooring gangs are in the RMT, so they don’t have to tie the ships up
Issue 2798
Ten P&O strikers march behind a banner saying "Boycott P&O"

Backing P&O workers in Dover. Boycotts or legal moves won’t be enough. (Pic: Socialist Worker)

Sacked P&O ferry workers protested again in Dover, Liverpool and Hull on Saturday—just days before a crunch deadline imposed by bosses.

Hundreds marched in Liverpool, and over 100 protested in Dover, holding up traffic on the road into the port. The workers have until Thursday this week to decide whether to accept an “enhanced” redundancy package. P&O bosses hope that workers will sign up—and effectively accept their sackings.

They say the “enhanced” packages include compensation for their refusal to consult workers and trade unions on the redundancy plans. But they threaten to leave workers with only the bare minimum statutory redundancy payments if they don’t accept the package in the next few days.

It’s effectively blackmail designed to force workers to give up the fight to get their jobs back—and get around the law.P&O chief executive Peter Hebblethwaite taunted unions and the government on Thursday when he admitted in parliament to ignoring the law.

He said there was “no doubt” that P&O should have consulted unions before announcing the sackings. But he said he decided not to—and that he would do so again—to force through a new crewing structure to save bosses’ profits.

Sacked workers at the protest in Dover were furious. “What I would say to Peter Hebblethwaite is he needs to find a mirror and have a word with himself,” one told Socialist Worker. “If there is an abyss that you could get to the bottom of, he’s achieved it.”

MPs also reacted with anger—with even Tory transport minister Grant Shapps calling on Hebblethwaite to resign. But Hebblethwaite’s admission undercuts the unions’ reliance on the law to get workers’ jobs back. 

RMT and Nautilus union leaders hoped the government would intervene to force P&O to reinstate the workers. But the most the law could force P&O to do is to pay workers compensation—something Hebblethwaite says is included in the redundancy package. In other words, P&O bosses have calculated that they can factor in the cost of breaking the law and get away with it.

Tories knew in advance about P&O’s savage cost-cutting

Grant Shapps said the government planned to bring a package of measures to parliament next week in response to P&O’s actions that would “force them to U-turn.”

The Tories are furious that P&O bosses embarrassed them by brazenly admitting to ignoring the law. Yet minutes of a meeting between Shapps and P&O bosses in November reveal he essentially agreed bosses would “need to make changes.”

All that Shapps has actually promised is legislation to force P&O to pay its workers the minimum wage while at sea. In a meeting with RMT union officials on Friday, P&O bosses refused to say this would make them reconsider employing a new, lower paid crew. And in any case, the sacked workers shouldn’t have to accept a huge pay cut to get their jobs back.

As Lee Davison, a sacked worker and secretary of RMT Dover Shipping branch told Socialist Worker, “I’m a seafarer 30 years. Why should I accept minimum wage? What we do is not a minimum wage job.”

Some workers on the demonstration insisted they wouldn’t sign up to the redundancy package. Others said signing up wouldn’t mean the end of the fight. But just a handful of workers were on the march. And the Financial Times newspaper reports that some 500 of the 800 sacked workers have already accepted redundancy terms.

“I can’t blame anyone if they do sign these packages,” said one worker. “All I can say is that they’ve been bullied into it.” And Lee said the union was looking into ways of challenging the redundancy package through the law. “Our legal team are looking at avenues about whether they’re legit, whether we’ve been forced to sign under duress,” he said.

“People were shocked at what happened last week, then all of a sudden they’re told you’ve got to sign this in ten days or you’ll get nothing.” But, he added, “the clock is ticking.”

Stop the ships, blockade the ports

It all underlines how unions urgently need another strategy to hit P&O’s profits—one aimed at stopping the ships from sailing and blocking the ports. More workers could sign up to the redundancy packages if the RMT doesn’t mount a fight that offers real hope of getting their jobs back.

So far, only one P&O ferry service is still sailing, from Liverpool to Dublin, where the crew is employed under Dutch law and unaffected by the sackings. Every other P&O ferry is stuck in the docks as bosses desperately try to train the new crews—costing the company millions every day. But the unions say the new crews are undertrained, and their shift patterns unsafe. And in a sign of P&O’s vulnerability, authorities on Saturday blocked the P&O ferry connecting Larne and Cairnryan on safety grounds.

The Maritime and Coastal Agency detained the European Causeway vessel “due to failures on crew familiarisation, vessel documentation and crew training”. “The vessel will remain under detention until all these issues are resolved by P&O Ferries,” the agency said. “Only then will it be reinspected.” Rather than relying on parliament, the workers can look to their own action—and solidarity from other workers—to drive home the pressure on P&O.

Some workers on the protest in Dover were hopeful that dockers could stop P&O ships from sailing. Dockers in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, reportedly refused to load a P&O ferry staffed with a skeleton crew that was bound for Hull.

“I reckon there’s a chance to stop the ships from sailing,” one told Socialist Worker. “It’s crucial now. They’ve got to get into Calais yet. And what are the French dockers going to do?”

The Nautilus union also reported on Thursday that large numbers of the agency workers that P&O recruited to replace the crew have already walked off the job. As union officials point out, if P&O gets away with the sackings, bosses at other ferry companies will follow suit. Lee told the demonstration that P&O bosses were considering extending their attacks to shore staff and making more cuts.

That’s why unions should at the very least call on their members in the docks and other ferry companies to join the P&O workers’ demonstrations. Acting together, they can effectively shut down the ports. One member of the Dover Shipping branch who works for the Port of Dover told Socialist Worker, “Most of the mooring gangs are RMT, so they don’t have to tie the ships up. If they can’t land in the port then they can’t trade. 

“The French and the Dutch won’t tie them up so we have to take a leaf out of their book. To prove a point to P&O this is the way it’s got to be.”

RMT national secretary Darren Procter told the rally in Dover, “The next few days are going to be pivotal. “The one thing we need is for those ships to be up against the wall until such time as our members are put back on them, and as much pressure to be put on the Maritime and Coastal Agency and the politicians to make sure that that happens.

“Take this fight to the street if that’s where it needs to be. And if we need to back this motorway up as far as it needs to be then we’ll do it.”

If there’s any hope of getting workers’ jobs back, the RMT leadership needs to turn those words into action urgently.

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