The furore over the oil tankers’ dispute shows what workers are up against in today’s capitalist system. The workers are fed up with the working conditions imposed on them by the oil companies and the contracting agents they use to hire them. They frequently have to work extremely long hours, which is a dire threat not only to their own safety but the safety of many others given the volatile nature of their cargo. There have also been serious attempts to cut their wages.
But because of the key role they play in the economy – the 2000 employed tanker drivers supply up to 90% of fuel to UK gas stations – this potential conflict has immediately been transformed into a national political scandal by the intervention of the government and its vilification by the press, opposition politicians and union officials.
First the government, faced with a possible strike over Easter, made it known that troops would be called in to ensure that oil supplies were not disrupted. Then we had Francis Maude’s ‘jerry can’ speech which instantly provoked panic buying and fuel shortages around the country, while fears that this would lead to real fire hazards were almost immediately vindicated by the horrible 40% burns suffered by a woman trying to decant fuel in her kitchen.
The trade unions often tell us that the conflicts they are given to manage are industrial and not political, but the response of the government made nonsense of any such claim. A worried Daily Telegraph blogger, ex-Telegraph editor Charles Moore (i.e a Tory!), even brought to light a private memo from Tory MPs to constituency associations which announced the government’s very political intentions in this dispute:
“This is our Thatcher moment. In order to defeat the coming miners’ strike, she stockpiled coal. When the strike came, she weathered it, and the Labour Party, tarred by the strike, was humiliated. In order to defeat the coming fuel drivers’ strike, we want supplies of petrol stockpiled. Then, if the strike comes, we will weather it, and Labour, in hock to the Unite union, will be blamed.” http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/conservative/9176237/Even-Im-st...
It’s debateable whether the main target of the government’s strategy was the Labour party rather than the working class, but in any case, in terms of short term political gains, they have made a real mess of things, since people are now much more likely to blame the government for fuel shortages than the Labour party or the tanker drivers.
On the other hand, the government’s panic-mongering has certainly had a ‘positive’ result as far as dealing with the workers is concerned, because the Unite union has now announced that it will not be calling a strike over Easter. No doubt the union bureaucracy is feeling relieved about being able to return to the negotiating table where it feels most at home, but the workers themselves must have been confused and intimidated by the huge wave of propaganda directed at their (potential) struggle, making them hesitate about taking action which would immediately make them the target of a hate campaign orchestrated from the highest level.
A strike by oil tanker drivers would certainly damage the capitalist economy more than a strike in most other single sectors. But the class struggle today is fought out on the political terrain even more than on the economic. In this dispute, for all their blunders, the bourgeoisie has won an initial victory against the workers on the political level before the workers could even make use of their ‘economic weapon’. For the oil tanker drivers as for any other sector, there is no substitute for waging the struggle as part of a general movement of the working class against the bourgeoisie and its state.