Sacked P&O ferry workers and their supporters marched and blocked the road at ports across Britain on Wednesday, one week after bosses threw them on the scrapheap.
People protested at ports in Dover, Liverpool, Hull, Cairnryan and Larne, taking to the roads and briefly blocking entrances to the ports.
In Dover, up to 100 people marched from the RMT union’s office along the road towards the port, chanting “Whose ships? Our ships” and blocking traffic as they went.
Instead of anger, trucks and cars beeped their horns in support. Another 100 people blocked the road to the port for about an hour in Liverpool. And a reported 150 people protested in Cairnryan. Workers there were boosted by supporters bussed in from Glasgow by the RMT.
The protests—many organised at just a day’s notice—come ahead of what the RMT hopes will be bigger marches on Saturday.
Union leaders want to use the protests to pressure the government to intervene and stop P&O ships from sailing on safety grounds. They say the shift patterns of P&O’s new, undertrained crew—eight weeks on, eight weeks off—are dangerous and will cause a maritime disaster.
They also say P&O broke the law by sacking workers—and want legal action to get them reinstated
RMT national secretary Darren Procter told protesters in Dover, “If the government don’t intervene on safety alone and detain the vessels, blood will be on the hands of those ministers on the front bench and the government as a whole.”
Yet even RMT officials are frustrated at the lack of action from the government and politicians.
“The political pity and the political negligence that’s being shown—not one of them has said what are they going to do, and how they are they going to do it,” said Procter.
“If we haven’t got ministers who are putting people at the heart of the maritime industry if we haven’t got MPs that are going to support the local people, and if we haven’t got MPs who are going to support the local economy then we might as well give up now.
“The only way we’re going to make P&O and the politicians sit up is to have thousands on the streets marching through the streets.”
There’s a huge danger that this reliance on politicians—and the frustration that comes with it—will fuel pessimism among sacked workers.
One worker in Dover told Socialist Worker that the hope of being reinstated was “dwindling.”
“We hope the government will do something,” he said. “All of Keir Starmer’s questions in parliament today are supposed to be about P&O, so hopefully there is traction in that.”
Nearly a week after they were sacked, many workers are still in shock. “We’re devastated for ourselves and our colleagues,” the worker added. “We’re numb, nobody has been sleeping properly. There are younger guys with families, people with mortgages. It’s criminal what has happened.”
What’s more, P&O bosses have told workers they have to agree to a severance package by 31 March to get an enhanced payout. If workers don’t sign, bosses will instead leave them with the bare minimum redundancy payment of just a week’s wages.
Lee Davison, RMT branch secretary for Dover Shipping branch, who was also sacked by P&O, told Socialist Worker, “They said some people will get a £100,000 payment—but there isn’t many of them. Most people, the lowest paid on the ships, would just get around £15,000.”
Lee added the campaign wouldn’t stop after 31 March. “This isn’t going away,” he said. “Even if we have to sign these agreements on the 31st we will be campaigning,” he said. “I’m 30 years a seafarer. I want to go back on my ship, to my job, with my salary and my pension contributions, my sickness entitlement and my paid leave.”
Yet workers could still accept the redundancy packages if they don’t see a fight that can win their jobs back. Workers were wary of giving their names or quotes to the media, as bosses threaten they’ll lose their package if they speak out.
“They’ve got us by the balls at the end of the day,” another worker in Dover told Socialist Worker. “The RMT are hopefully helping us to get our jobs back. I don’t know what we can do—I just show my support for my fellow workers. Everyone is in the same boat at the end of the day. We’ve been shafted.”
The workers are still ready to block the roads outside on protests—but the RMT has so far encouraged this only as brief stunts on demonstrations. “We can only block the roads for a certain amount of time,” one worker told Socialist Worker.
But the workers have the power to do much more than that—and they can rely on widespread support and solidarity from across the union movement. As RMT officials point out, if P&O gets away with the sackings, bosses at other ferry companies will be encouraged to do the same.
Winning means a fighting strategy focussed on blocking the ports, stopping the ships sailing, and on solidarity action from other workers. That means breaking free of the focus on parliament—and being prepared to defy the law.
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