By Phil Mitchinson, September 13, 2000
What an answer to all the cynics. In a matter of days a magnificent and largely spontaneous movement of truck drivers, farmers and cabbies has brought large parts of the country to a virtual standstill. This movement represents the biggest national unofficial strike action seen in Britain for decades. The ruling class are quaking in their boots. The leaders of the TUC meeting in Glasgow meanwhile are oblivious to the real meaning of the movement. In reality the union leaders were caught totally off guard. Bill Morris for example writing in the Sunday Times Magazine (10/9/00) comments that he always listens to the Farming programme on Radio 4 early in the morning in order to keep in touch with the issues affecting the 40,000 agricultural workers who are members of the Transport and General Workers Union. He evidently missed the episode discussing the effects of petrol prices. Labour's Scottish Secretary John Reid meanwhile confidently announced that Britain would not copy France because "the people of this country do not resort to the French way of doing things." The myth of a calm and peaceful society at ease with itself in Blair's new Britain has been shattered.
Never again Blair told us would there be a winter of discontent. That was Old Labour. In some parts of the country today there is rubbish left uncollected in the streets, no fresh food in the shops, ambulances restricted to 999 services and mile long queues outside the one petrol station with supplies for sale. Such crises are not caused by Old Labour or new, but by capitalism and the failure of Labour leaders to break with the market and adopt bold socialist solutions. The TV news and, shamefully, Labour politicians are claiming the movement is endangering peoples lives, and that pickets are using violent means to intimidate drivers. This is utter nonsense. Firstly from the beginning the lorry drivers and those blockading the refineries have been in favour of allowing essential supplies for the emergency services to get through. The drivers themselves are refusing to cross picket lines not out of fear but out of support for the movement.
The immediate cause of the protests is the steeply rising price of petrol. Small farmers, road hauliers and taxi drivers are particularly affected by this. Seeing the movement in France they promptly followed suit. However, the movement didn't simply fall from a clear blue sky. There have been protests staged and organisations mushrooming up over the last two years. The press however ignored them, so they went largely unnoticed. Indeed even at the beginning of this movement in Britain the right wing press were still busily spewing forth their usual attacks on the French for "spoiling" British holidaymakers' journeys, only suddenly and belatedly realising that once the movement started here it had widespread support which they would need to opportunistically tail end.
This is not a usually militant section of the population. Some are small business people, some middle class. Many are self employed, although these days, of course, many self employed people are just workers on contracts rather than properly employed. Drivers in the big haulage firms are not only workers but they are also unionised. However, they are all working people, in many cases with their futures precariously balanced, their livelihoods invested in a rig, a small piece of land or a cab. They are at the immediate mercy of the vagaries of the world market, the power of the monopolies and the policies of the government. The petrol price and tax rises literally threaten to destroy them. For many this is the first time they have ever been involved in any kind of protest. Clearly a line in the sand has been crossed. At the same time they have provided us with a glimpse of the power of the working class, so prematurely written off by so many 'experts.'
Farmers in particular are not usually seen as militant. Yet they are being forced to draw conclusions from their struggle to survive in a world dominated by big monopolies. One such figure interviewed on TV was told by the reporter that his protest was like the miners' strike. The farmer agreed, pointing out that he hadn't supported the miners at the time, but that in hindsight "Arthur Scargill was right. They were defending their industry, now we're defending ours." The problem for small or even medium size farmers, for independent hauliers and so on is that there is no way they can compete against the power of the monopolies. In reality, their problems cannot be solved by capitalism any more than the workers' problems can. Therefore ithey are natural allies. The only forces these people can rely on are those of the working class, and the only secure future lies in the struggle for a socialist society.
That such a small section of the population can bring the country to a virtual standstill is proof of the power of militancy. Imagine then the power of the organised working class. Imagine what the TUC could achieve were the leadership to raise their little finger. Yet nothing terrifies union bureaucrats more than militancy, and the threat it poses to their comfortable lifestyles.
The rise in petrol prices has two main causes. Firstly there is the reliance of Blair and co. on indirect taxation to raise funds. This universal tax is grossly unfair having a hugely disproportionate impact on poorer workers than on rich fat cats. These tax rises have been covered with the veneer of trying to cut car usage to protect the environment. In the first place the privatisation, deregulation and consequent destruction of the public transport system forces people to use their cars. Secondly the real polluters are big business, and heavy industry. The answer to that isn't to go back to living in the dark ages as the Greens would have it. It requires democratic control, investment in research and cleaning up manufacturing. All that costs money, money the profit hungry capitalists are not willing to spend. In the end the only answer lies in ownership and planning, in other words a socialist solution. To tax petrol more and more is simply to tax workers, while letting the real spoilers of the planet carry on unhindered.
At the same time Blair blames the market. The market has forced up the price of oil. In passing we note that when the price of oil was falling there was no corresponding fall in the price of petrol as the monopolies simply used their power to rake in more profits. Now Blair blames the market for rising petrol prices. He has already blamed the market for job losses, for Fords, for Rover, for the loss of jobs in shipbuilding. The market is to blame for everything according to Blair. Of course, he's right the market is to blame. Therefore it's about time the Labour government broke with the market which is doing all this damage and introduced socialist measures in the interests of all working people.
Instead of meeting with the protesters, Blair met with the privy council to discuss the use of emergency powers, even the possible use of troops. Blair, Straw and co. make disturbing noises about democratic rights. Lord MacDonald said that obviously people have the right to protest but they should not have the right to prevent the free flow of commerce and trade. Surely that means the right to strike. Instead of defending the people who elected them, ordinary workers, Blair and co. are doing the bidding of the city of London and the big monopolies, in this case the oil companies, who have made a sizeable profit out of the current crisis.
The widespread level of public support that this movement is getting despite the obvious inconvenience it is causing, suggests that there is something a little more profound here than a protest against fuel prices. It is true that since almost everyone has a car, rising petrol prices affects most people directly. At the same time everything is not as calm as a superficial glance at the surface of society would indicate. There is a simmering discontent just beneath this tranquil veneer. Disillusionment with the actions of Blair and co., perhaps even a questioning of the very system itself. This movement is not confined to Britain nor did it begin here. It has spread like an oil slick across the continent. Protests have spread across Italy, Belgium, Ireland and Germany. In Brussels 2,500 or so truckers and taxi drivers protested on the tenth against a 50 percent rise in diesel prices over the last 18 months. An oil refinery in Sicily has been blockaded. Several towns across Germany have seen protests and demonstrations. The movement began in France, of course. Whilst highly unusual in this country, such protests have long been a tradition across the channel. Beginning with the protests of the fishermen who won significant gains, the movement spread to farmers, lorry drivers, ambulance workers and others. With the widespread support of the population behind them, the movement won an important victory. The government was forced to back down. Above all it was not just the French example of militant action, but the fact that their action was successful which has encouraged similar movements across Europe. No doubt Blair is acutely aware that if the movement in Britain is successful, then it can act as a spur to encourage more militant action by workers facing attacks in every sector.
At the same time, it isn't possible to see these movements outside of the context of the protests in recent years against the WTO, IMF etc. There is a malaise in society being expressed in many countries in different ways. The more traditional movement of the organised workers has been blocked by their own leaders. Yet this discontent will always find an expression somewhere. The initiative seen in the movement to date in Britain, the blockades, the slow moving traffic, the pickets organised by mobile phone are all a foretaste of future movements of the working class in general.
The methods being used are very much those of the workers. The blockade of Shell's Stanlow terminal in Ellesmere Port in particular sounds like a textbook example of workers' democracy in action. 100 or so farmers, hauliers, taxi drivers, postal workers and even some unemployed people meet to discuss which trucks can and cannot go out, which cases are emergencies and which are not. They discuss and they vote. Incidentally what a mockery this makes of the anti union laws. For years the union leaders have used the threat of their use, sequestration and so on, to hold the movement back. Where are the anti union laws now? There are mass pickets, unofficial action. The anti union laws should be trampled underfoot by the organised workers like the pieces of paper that they are. Labour leaders should not be discussing new attacks on our rights they should be abolishing the Tories' old ones.
Instead the union leaders are even more frightened than the government. This is a golden opportunity for the unions. An immediate recruitment campaign could draw these drivers and workers into the organised labour movement. Instead Monks launches an attack on them. Bill Morris, suddenly not so concerned with the issues facing his members in farming, goes so far as to call for the arrest of the protesters. "This campaign has crossed the line from democracy to anarchy. If they are breaking the law, the protesters should be arrested," he commented at the TUC, while inside the hall delegates were discussing training and partnership with business. A layer of the middle class could be won over to the side of socialism, if the unions were to rally behind this movement. However that would mean a leadership willing and able to lead. In the long run through initiatives like this inspirational movement the more traditionally militant workers will take initiatives and create a new leadership too.
What about the left? They seem to be either in hiding or even worse condemning the movement. Livingstone? The Mayor of London appears to be more concerned with getting into Tony Blair's good books than supporting this protest. The rump of what used to be the Communist Party, in an attempt no doubt to not upset their friends the General Secretaries of the trade unions, have condemned the movement and called for the end of the blockade. Their comments reported in the Morning Star are simply echoes of the remarks of UNISON's Rodney Bickerstaffe and Steve Pickering of the GMB.
Those who argued that the nature of the economy had fundamentally changed because of the internet and globalisation should take note of what we are seeing here. Oil still plays a decisive role in lubricating and fuelling the economy. Without it, very much like the working class, nothing moves. The price of oil has long had a major impact on developments in the world economy. Those who today write it off as no longer relevant could be in for a major shock. The present boom cannot continue indefinitely, and it could well be an oil crisis that pushes the economy into a new slump.
Above all those who wrote off the working class will have to think again. The power in the hands of ordinary working people has been demonstrated by just a small and rather unexpected section of the population. Once the majority of workers take such action no force on the planet could stop them.
To begin with we have to give full backing to the just demands of the current movement, beginning with lower fuel prices. In the unions we must condemn the response of Monks and co., and point out the need for militancy. In the Labour Party at every level we must protest against the actions of the government, and demand the following: