JOHN DICKIE: When solidarity matters most

I had an uncle who was a seafarer; he spent his life on all kinds of vessels, writes John Dickie.

By Graham Tebbutt (Edited by)
Thursday, 31st March 2022, 1:55 pm
P&O Ferries has been criticised for suddenly sacking 800 staff
P&O Ferries has been criticised for suddenly sacking 800 staff

During World War Two he worked on tugs right through the Blitz, hauling cargo vessels up the Thames estuary to the London docks.

After the war he returned to his home town of Stranraer and worked for the rest of his life on ferries between there and Larne. He was a donkeyman, or more commonly a greaser, and his job was to keep the engines running all night.

In those days the boat was waiting at Stranraer harbour for the arrival of The Northern Irishman (‘The Night Paddy’) from Euston. It was my delight most summers to travel in the guard’s van – a wee curly heided wean – to be handed over to Uncle Hennie and his bag of smuggled Irish butter and sausages and then home.

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He worked on two boats: the Princess Margaret and then the Caledonian Princess. He was keen for me to join the merchant navy, and thought I could become a competent purser; an officer if not quite a gentleman.

In those days working on a ferry was a secure if somewhat dull job. It had its dangers, of course. The sister ship to the Margaret sunk in Loch Ryan, in full view of the town, and many lives were lost. It was only by good luck that Hennie’s brother, Geordie, who was due to sail on the Victoria that morning, was prevented by an engagement the night before with a Mr Johnnie Walker.

The reason for this long preamble is straightforward. Those ferries were owned not by a dubious company somewhere in the Persian Gulf, but by the British people. The ferries were owned by British Rail, the state- owned railway company.

The men and women who worked on the boats, while perhaps not the best paid in the world, had proper contracts, employment protection and, above all, rights protected by law.

Those rights were hard won by the trade unions. Oddly enough, although working on a boat, Hennie was a proud member of the NUR (National Union of Railwaymen).

All that proud history of public service, of loyalty to the company and their workmates has been trashed by a greedy company and their self-serving management.

P&O seems to think a wad of bank notes can make everything go away. Compensation with conditions has been offered to folk who have given 30 or 40 years of service to that company; all they get for loyalty is a few minutes’ notice and a video redundancy statement.

I’m delighted to see some Tory MPs are outraged by this cynical return to Victorian values and employers who make Gradgrind seem like a very model manager!

What we all need to understand is that if this heartless bunch can get away with simply sacking 800 workers with no notice, how many others will think that tactic is OK ?

The response needs to be sharp and immediate. It needs the trade union movement to demonstrate solidarity immediately; already dockers worldwide are taking action. Shipping is worldwide; the response needs to be worldwide too.

The government can do its bit as well. Instead of wringing their hands and howling crocodile tears, the first thing it can do is cancel all contracts with this rogue company; the free ports they want for a start. If they can impound the odd oligarch’s boat, then P&O vessels would be a doddle.

I’ve just had a thought. All those oligarchs’ seagoing boats... I can think of many skilled seafarers (well about 800) who could start up some luxury ferry services.