Thursday, 17 March 2022

Against P&O's Union Busting

800 P&O workers sacked, just like that. Fired by a pre-recorded Zoom recording, workers were told their jobs were terminated with immediate effect. They would be welcome to apply for their jobs again via the agency who were now contracted to provide staffing, but as far as the business were concerned they "had no choice".

It's rubbish. In the early days of the Covid crisis, P&O warned they were in dire straits and, then, "had no choice" to cut workers' pay. This was despite the company troughing on furlough payments and, awkwardly, having transferred out £270m in dividends to its UAE-based parent company, DP World. And if P&O are in trouble because Brexit or Covid or whatever, how is it rival firms operating from the same ports, such as Denmark's DFDS, are doing well? The problem isn't the workers, it's incompetent management and rapacious owners. P&O's employees are entitled to take the bosses' excuses with a pinch of salt.

In firing hundreds without notice, P&O are in complete violation of the law. But thanks to decades of governments alternating between conservative and conservative-lite these protections are barely worth the paper they're written on. In the case of collective redundancy of more than 100 employees, under statute a boss must undertake a 45-day consultation with the workforce and its representatives. This has not been done, so can the book be thrown at them? No. The workforce now have the right to take P&O to an employment tribunal for unfair dismissal where the company can be forced to cough up, at a maximum, a year's salary. Additionally, because they have flouted the law on consultation employees can each be awarded up to 90 days' pay. The only part of the law P&O have stuck to is their notifying the transport secretary Grant Shapps, which they did last night. It's obvious that the company has calculated any loss they'll make from tribunal actions brought by former workers can be offset by savings from replacing them wholesale. What's a cost amounting to no more than a few tens of millions versus a lower wage bill in the long run? It's pure profit-seeking from an underhanded and cynical management, and they know the pitiful legal remedies open to workers benefits them. Labour law is capitalist law, after all.

But it appears the company might have miscalculated. Both unions representing seafaring staff, the RMT and Nautilus, advised staff to stay aboard their vessels, leading to scenes of masked security guards being used to handcuff and remove workers while bussing scab labour in. Other ships sealed themselves up to prevent P&O's hired thugs from boarding, while ports have seen protests and roadblocks in response - with more to come on Friday. Politically speaking, there's a rare moment of unanimity in favour of the workers. Speaking on Humberside local radio, Keir Starmer condemned P&O in language not customary to him. Nicola Sturgeon has done likewise. I suppose their support might have been expected, but Tories too? Wheeled out in Shapps's stead in the Commons earlier, his bag carrier Robert Courts criticised the firm's behaviour as "completely unacceptable." Natalie Elphicke for Dover, not known as a friend of workers' rights, said "I don’t accept their argument they need to do this to safeguard the future of the ferry." And just before tea time, Downing Street issued a press release saying "We do not agree with the practice of fire and rehire and would be dismayed if this is the outcome they were seeking to achieve." I mean, the Tories could show how much they disagree with it by outlawing it.

With services suspended in some places for up to 10 days, unanimous political backing, and the prospect of shortages in Northern Ireland, it's difficult to see how P&O's position can stand - especially as public sympathy for the workers is likely to be high as well. Perhaps the management thought with eyes focused east and the Tories in power, they'd be able to get away with it. But P&O have found some support - from The Telegraph. Matthew Lynn, author of the cringingly-titled Death Force series of thrillers, criticises the company for its "crassness", but reserves his ire from the workers themselves and, of course, the RMT. We should be grateful for a rare outbreak of honesty in the Telegraph's pages as he notes this is less about cost and more about breaking the union. Bringing in new workers offers the company more flexibility, he claims. Presumably, the current shift patterns of one or two weeks on board followed by one or two weeks off are unreasonable when scab labour can spend more time at sea and less time recuperating on land. Not that Lynn appears to have any knowledge about terms, conditions, or industrial relations at P&O. But his article shows he does know about the RMT and the London Underground, and those militant lefties in the Universities and Colleges Union striking too. The PCS and Unite are at it as well, and another new 1970s looms. Concluding, he suggests "quite a few commuters" will be cheering P&O on if they defeat the RMT. Witness the class spite of the typical hard right hack, happy for seafarers to lose their jobs because, in his head, it would own the hated London Underground staff.

At present, however,the centre of gravity on this issue is far from the would-be union busters in P&O HQ and their press cheerleaders, and with hundreds of workers who've been stripped of their livelihoods and made to suffer the indignity of firing by pre-recorded message. The unions are doing the right thing to have recommended occupations and protests at ports. With the Tories seemingly blindsided too, effective street and workplace action combined with public support could not only force P&O to retreat, but begin unravelling the whole edifice of anti-trade union, anti-worker legislation.

Image Credit


david walsh said...

Disgraceful, of course and local RMT members employed on the Teesdock - Europoort run are affected and will be getting what support I can give from a wheelchair, but let's not forget the RMT advised its members to vote for Brexit, saying the EU allowed such actions which would never happen in a brexited UK. Total Bollocks of course.

Michael Carley said...

Worth noting that this has happened before, in the EU. In 2005, Irish Ferries tried to replace 543 crew with agency workers and reflag its vessels to Cyprus. Despite a massive public campaign in support of the workers, the company got its way, with some concessions to the crew unions. The law will be no help here: this is a labour dispute which will only be won properly through sustained action against P&O.

Alan said...

The crews have lost leverage, I fear, by leaving the ships. If only they'd left the dockside, anchored in the harbour entrance, and promised further action if any attempt was made to repossess the vessels.....

Anonymous said...

Socialist Worker is concerned that the scabs may comprise foreign Labour so they have immediately called for working class solidarity between the strikers and the scabs. The scabs should be unionised and an appeal should be made to them across class lines. For SW this appears to be the most important aspect of this dispute. Given their pivot towards ID politics over the past few decades this is hardly surprising. Obviously it is a non starter politically and is almost as laughable as their support for "Brexit but with Open Borders" nutiness of 2016.