In 1973 the then Tory Prime Minister Edward Heath, responding to a financial scandal around “Tiny” Rowland at the Anglo-Rhodesian conglomerate Lonrho, said that it revealed “the unacceptable face of capitalism”.
Today, P&O’s sacks 800 of its 4000 ferry workers by email or video message, without any warning; announces that they will be replaced by cheaper “agency staff”, and brings in private security firms to haul workers off the ships after they had shown some reluctance to leave. This has unleashed a flood of words from media and politicians: “unacceptable”, “disgusting”, “outrageous”, “treating their employees with contempt”. In the House of Commons, both Tories and Labour were as united in their condemnation of the mass redundancies as they are of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told P&O bosses that their actions are unacceptable, possibly illegal, and if not, there may be new laws brought in to make them illegal. A Labour spokesperson insisted that “this is not how we treat employees in this country”.
True, this attack on P&O workers is unusually brutal and frank – more or less admitting that the company is sinking, so we have to throw you overboard. But is this really the unacceptable face of capitalism, or simply…the face of capitalism? For decades now, faced with the global economic crisis, the capitalist class – with British capitalists often leading the way – have been trying to reduce labour costs by relocating whole industries to countries where labour power is cheaper, and by making ruthless attacks on job security such as zero hours contracts or “fire and rehire” policies. P&O’s way of dealing with their own profits crisis is an expression of a much more general atmosphere in which working class lives are indeed treated with contempt.
The RMT union has, of course, called noisy protests in the ports of Dover, Hull, and Liverpool, with promises of more to come. But what are they actually proposing to the workers? Not a call for extending the struggle to other workers facing similar, if less overt, assaults on their jobs and working conditions – even if workers from other sectors have already attended the protests in solidarity. The RMT – like the government – is talking about “taking legal action”, as if the law was a neutral instrument which the working class can use in its own interests as a class. At the same time, the unions have played their part in the nationalist narrative being spun around these events. MPs have stressed that P&O is owned by rich people in Dubai. A Hull Labour MP pointed out that one of P&O liners in the local port had the proud record of carrying British troops to the Falklands. Again and again the Britishness of the sacked workers is emphasised along with the foreignness of some of the cheaper agency replacements. The RMT’s slogans of “more local jobs” and "save Britain's ferries" fit harmoniously into the chorus.
The use of “cheap foreign labour” to undercut “native” wages goes back a long way. One of the motives for the foundation of the International Workingmen’s Association in 1864 was the need to counter this practice through the international solidarity of all workers. Today, by contrast, the unions do not go to the “cheap foreign workers” and ask for their solidarity in this struggle, even though some of them have already refused to be used as “replacements” for the P&O workers. Instead, the unions show that they are also part of capitalism by helping to stir the nationalist poison that can only divide workers and undermine their efforts to resist all the attacks of capital, whether open or disguised.