By Nick Clark
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2799

Union leaders’ strategy allowed P&O jobs fight to go down

RMT union leaders calling for mass demos to shut down ports in Liverpool and Dover could have made a huge difference
Issue 2799
P&O workers and their supporters march in Dover, they carry SW placards reading Resist all p&o job cuts

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

P&O bosses are to face criminal and civil investigations after sacking some 800 workers on the spot two weeks ago. Yet the announcement, by the Insolvency Office, came less than a day after all but one of the sacked workers signed bosses’ redundancy agreements.

The agreements were effectively a blackmail tactic designed to get workers to accept their sackings—and let bosses get away with it.

P&O bosses told workers they had until 5pm on Thursday to sign the agreements, which included “enhanced” redundancy payments. They said anyone who didn’t sight by the deadline would only get the bare minimum statutory redundancy entitlement.

The agreements also included a gagging clause to stop workers speaking out publicly against the company. In a sign that workers saw no alternative, all but one of them signed up. “I ended up signing mine,” one sacked worker told Socialist Worker. 

“There was no other option. We had a gun against our heads for two weeks—sign it or lose out on a hell of a lot of money. People have got bills to pay, mortgages to pay, young children. There’s only one guy I know who’s not signed and wants to try challenging it legally.”

After the deadline, the officers’ union Nautilus said P&O “has gotten away with it.” The RMT union, which represents most of the sacked workers, said it would keep fighting. But it is placing all its hopes on legal action and intervention by the government and the authorities.

But the sacked worker said that all there was left to do after signing the agreement was “look for another job.” “We’ll still put pressure on them politically,” the worker said. “But we’re between a rock and a hard place. We’ve all got gagging agreements we’ve had to sign.”

RMT leaders hoped that intervention by the Maritime and Coastal Agency would help scupper bosses’ plans. The agency stopped two P&O ferries from sailing on safety grounds as their new agency crews are undertrained.

Union leaders also hoped legal action could overturn the sackings on the basis that P&O bosses ignored legal requirements to consult them first. Yet the most an employment tribunal could order P&O to do was compensate workers—something bosses factored into their redundancy packages. Government ministers threatened legal action themselves, only to back down this week.

And even their plans to force bosses to pay the new crew minimum wage hit an obstacle when port authorities said they wouldn’t enforce it. RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said the Insolvency Service’s new investigations were “clear grounds to detain P&O’s ships while the criminal and civil investigations are completed”.

But that doesn’t get the workers their jobs back. This is the end of a strategy that relied on politicians and the law to shut down P&O, rather than workers’ action. The sacked workers had widespread support from across the trade union movement and far beyond. 

It would have made a huge difference if RMT leaders had responded immediately to the sackings with mass demonstrations aimed at shutting down ports in Liverpool and Dover. 

They could have called on the support of every trade union branch as well as—crucially—other workers in ferries and the ports. As RMT officials pointed out, the sackings will encourage bosses at P&O, other ferry companies, and port authorities, to come for other workers.

Together, those workers could have stopped the ships from sailing themselves, rather than waiting on politicians and the law. And they would have had the backing of every trade unionist. Instead, there’s little sign that RMT leaders even considered it. They allowed bosses to sack 800 workers on the spot and get away with it without a fight.

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