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P&O Ferries: A picketline report

In the aftermath of major protests and government panicking about P&O Ferries’ decision to knowingly break the law while sacking hundreds of staff, a writer for Liverpool Anarchist who was on the ground in the city reports on how a month of fighting back has gone – and what potential there is for pushing further.

On March 17th, P&O Ferries sacked 800 workers without notice over a Zoom call. The next day around 300 people gathered outside the Port of Liverpool (in Seaforth, Sefton). This was a huge show of support, given the location is difficult to reach and the short notice. However, the opportunity was wasted, mainly being used to listen to speeches. Despite a sense of camaraderie, with traffic into the port continuing as normal it was hard not to feel like the only thing we were demonstrating was our impotence.

In contrast, on the morning of the 23rd, demonstrators took direct action at the port. A small number of people were allowed into the port to demonstrate at the P&O terminal under close supervision, a distraction which allowed the remaining 40 or so people who had gathered to then block the road into the port. The blockade was maintained for about half an hour, with high morale and support from onlookers, before police moved in to push protestors off the road. This unofficially organised action caused long delays and a tail-back of lorries far down the road.

On the 26th, there was a march, around 250 strong, from the Seafarer’s Centre to the port (followed by yet more speeches). On April 2nd at Pier Head, a joint rally with the People’s Assembly only managed to attract around 50 people. On the 6th, around 60 people marched along Princess Way (a dual carriageway leading to the Port), only to be followed by, you guessed it, speeches! That last march at least led to lorries having to queue to get into the port, despite this the drivers showed their support with beeps and raised fists.

These protests have been organised by the RMT and Nautilus trade unions, and they have mainly been attended by trade unionists and socialists. Fortunately, anger has been directed against employers and not foreign workers. There have been many high profile speakers such as mayors, MPs and national trade union leaders. Despite all this, the Liverpool to Dublin line resumed service from as early as March 19th, and it’s hard not to feel that, locally, the campaign is losing momentum. As far as we see it, there are two, conflicting, strategies to secure victory. In broad terms, the first approach is associated with the trade union leadership, while the latter tends to come from the rank-and-file.

The first relies on seeking support from the Tory government, Labour opposition and the mass media. This support is hoped to equate to economic and legal pressure on P&O to rehire the workers, as well as repealing anti-trade union laws, making fire-and-rehire illegal and even nationalisation.

However, it seems likely that P&O knowingly made legally dubious decisions, aware that there might be consequences, and deeming it economically worthwhile (perhaps since, if it had all gone to plan, the workers movement would have been caught off-guard and unable to act). It’s hard to view support from the Tories with anything but cynicism, especially since they knew about the mass dismissals beforehand and did nothing. However, the Labour Party is no better. In Coventry, their local council have shown the true colours of all holders of state-power, hiring scabs and misleading the public to crush a bin strike. Media coverage about P&O has been sympathetic, but how long can weekly demonstrations make for good news articles? And if they seem ineffective how long will people keep attending?

The second strategy is that of a persistent campaign of direct action. Without agency staff informing crews that they were going to be replaced (and then refusing to work), the Hull crew occupying their ship, and road blockades in Dover, it’s possible that this could have all blown over without a fuss (afterall, mass dismissals are part and parcel of capitalism). Since the first week following the dismissals, this approach has quietened down, with the exception of sympathetic action from overseas workers. But secondary picketing, road blockades, sit-ins, a concerted consumer boycott, and sympathetic strike action (most of which are illegal) could breathe life into the campaign, and make these protests seem worthwhile.

“The State was never and never can be anything other than the political apparatus of force of the propertied classes to ensure the economic exploitation of the broad masses of the working people.”
~ Milly Witkop

This article first appeared in the April issue of Liverpool Anarchist

Pic: Protest against the P&O job cuts (author not pictured) by Guy Smallman

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