The Fuel Protests: A Symposium
says Barry Buitekant
SOME ON the left have argued that we should not have given any support to the recent blockade of the oil depots. They argue that because the lorry drivers involved in the protests did not show any solidarity with the miners or printers in their disputes we should have no sympathy with them.
However, even leaving aside that some drivers did refuse to cross picket lines, we have to remember that the miners’ strike was 16 years ago and the Wapping dispute over a decade ago. Many of the current lorry drivers were still at school or in other industries during those disputes. You cannot blame them for the sins of others.
Furthermore, the critics of the fuel protestors will say that many of the drivers are self-employed or even owners of small haulage firms. Well, yes. But you have to take into account that during the Tory years many drivers were made redundant or took redundancy, then had difficulty finding jobs and consequently set up their own businesses. But it is grotesque to compare these people with the owners of large haulage firms. I suspect that at least a fair number of self-employed drivers have retained their union membership. We know that changes in the economy have brought about casualisation of the workforce, but there seems to be no understanding on the left of the shift to self-employment.
A major contribution to the success of the blockades was the support of the tanker drivers organised by the TGWU. How do the critics of the blockades explain this? Intimidation, they may say. But this doesn’t wash. It was obvious from the news reports that the tanker drivers are also car drivers and are consequently affected by price rises. The other argument put forward is that the oil companies were in collusion with the tanker drivers. But most tanker drivers are not employed by the oil companies – the work has been contracted out. So the oil companies had less of a leverage. Why cannot we accept the fact that an important section of unionised workers did support the lorry drivers and farmers?
But to get to the question of the price of fuel. Every time the oil companies put up the price of fuel, the amount paid in tax goes up at the garage. The tax rate remains constant, but obviously there is an increase in the total amount paid. And who suffers from this most? Not the rich, who are always able to afford fuel, but the self-employed such as lorry drivers and the millions of workers who have cars. And it is the least well-off of these workers who are hit hardest. For many working people, having a car is not a luxury but is essential to get to work or to ferry their families about.
Of course, we can say that public transport should be improved. But to convince people to use cars less you have to improve public transport first – both in the regularity and reliability of services and by lowering fares. To think you can price people out of buying petrol is just naive. They will still buy petrol but become increasingly resentful. And the Labour government for all its talk has not improved public transport to any noticeable effect.
As far as freight is concerned, of course more should go by rail. But even if you trebled the amount, there would still be considerable amounts going by lorry. However much the railway system is improved and enhanced, it is inconceivable that the majority of goods will ever be carried by train again. I am not saying we should learn to love the lorry, but whether we like it or not the lorry is here to stay.
What we should be doing is campaigning against drivers being forced into working longer hours than legally allowed and against lorry owners skimping on maintenance. Of course, we should argue that the large haulage firms be brought into public ownership, as indeed should the oil and railway companies.
Another aspect of the dispute was its international nature. Just a week before the blockades began, British drivers were condemning the French drivers. The message got through. The French were successful. So then you heard British drivers saying they would follow the French example – only they would do it better! As well as France being affected, so were Belgium, Germany, Holland and Spain. Are we seriously going to argue that this was the result of a conspiracy of the international oil companies? Or, rather, was it groups of mainly self-employed people from working class backgrounds being inspired by each other’s actions?
Going back to the unions, it appears that the TGWU was instrumental in getting the Grangemouth tanker drivers to seriously consider breaking the blockade, and this prospect hastened the decision of the Stanlow protestors to withdraw. But the unions are only cutting their own throats by such action. The Labour government is not exactly going to rush to reward them, as we can see from the proposal to introduce legislation that would force oil tanker drivers to deliver oil during disputes. (Then again, perhaps the government may show its gratitude to the union leaders, and we may see Bill Morris transformed into Sir William Morris or even elevated to the House of Lords.)
I would argue that the unions should have supported the dispute and utilised it to press their own demands. With the TUC meeting in the middle of the blockades, what a golden opportunity was lost! However, I’m sure the dynamics of the blockades will not be ignored by rank and file activists in the unions.
I say union activists, as it is clear that there are political differences on the left over their attitude to the fuel protests. The Morning Star invoked Chile 1973 and the 1984-5 miners’ strike as a way of attacking the blockaders. But the Star is most interested in preserving its influence amongst trade union leaders. At least most of the Trotskyist groups have been able to see the positive sides of the dispute.
says Mike Calvert
I HAVE BEEN amazed by some of the responses of the left to the September fuel crisis. Some experienced comrades have defended the protests, stating that there are progressive aspects to the petit bourgeoisie being in turmoil. They dismiss with the wave of a hand the danger of reaction.
I am not defending Blair and the Labour government, but those who led the protests are the same people who cheered on the likes of Tony Martin and support the throwing out of asylum seekers. At the core of the movement have been elements from the Countryside Alliance, Road Haulage Association etc.
From start to finish, the whole thing has been entirely reactionary. The "blockade", such as it was, was led by people who own medium-sized haulage firms or 16,000-acre farms. Sure, owner-drivers and small farmers were undoubtedly involved, but not on the same scale.
More important, I think, is what lies behind the protests. Without seeing everyone involved in the events as dupes, there was something else going on here as well. What was really interesting was the attitude of the oil companies. They don’t seem to have lost any sleep over the fact that their fuel wasn’t going out to petrol stations – they shrugged their shoulders and said there was nothing they could do.
If they were against the protests, they could have increased deliveries from refineries other than the one or two then being picketed. Odder still is that the petrol companies did not put the haulage firms under pressure to move their fuel, for example by taking out injunctions against these firms to force them to honour their contracts. None of this happened.
In addition, there were only very small numbers of "pickets" at the refineries – it was hardly a mass movement. At most refineries, the police said that nothing was stopping the tanker drivers from leaving, as the gates were not blocked, and that it was the drivers who had chosen not to leave.
Most fuel tanker drivers work for small, medium or large haulage firms. They were encouraged in a majority of cases not to cross "picket" lines by their employers and in fact were still being paid their wages. When was the last time your boss paid you not to work?
For these reasons, I’m convinced that the whole movement was reactionary. As for the left supporting the protests, it is my view that this is just nonsense.
The actions of the protestors, according to the press, seem to have been popular, with a large majority supposedly supporting them. It is certainly true that fuel prices are excessively high, though not that much more so in Britain than in other European countries if other road charges such as tolls are taken into account. Essentially, Labour and the Tories before them have been putting up fuel duty so they can cut income tax.
However, anger and protest shouldn’t be tailed by the left just because it exists. You have to analyse each event according to its class content not by the volume of noise. It isn’t enough to see something that looks militant and then latch onto it as if it is necessarily progressive. That is where the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) went wrong. At a London meeting of the Campaign for a Fighting Democratic Unison, Candy Udwin of the SWP made frequent references to the anger people are exhibiting and claimed that the fuel dispute shows it. But it wasn’t working class anger!
Trying to give an independent working class perspective to the events, the SWP and others on the left have argued that if the militant direct action of the fuel protests were replicated across the land in trade union bodies this would be a step forward. Well, yes! But that’s just a fantasy – seeing things as you want them to be and not as they really are. An independent working class perspective doesn’t involve getting into bed with a bunch of reactionaries.
is proposed by Terry Liddle
THE BLOCKADE of oil refineries and fuel depots by fewer than three thousand small farmers and self-employed truckers and cabbies caught the government on the hop. Within days the petrol pumps had run dry, schools were closed, emergency services threatened and shops were rationing essentials such as bread and milk.
In Churchillian mode, Blair emphasised that there would be no concessions. If we cut fuel taxes, he said, then there would be more NHS cuts. Gone was the pretence that high fuel taxes – Britain has the highest in Europe – are to pay for environmental improvements. Blair was echoed by Gordon Brown, although senior Treasury officials dropped strong hints that there would be concessions in the November pre-budget review. Blair’s keynote speech at the Labour Party conference was far more contrite, almost Old Labour in parts. Berating the fuel protestors, he asked who will speak up for those who can’t protest? One could hear the voice of millions of pensioners, the disabled and single parents crying – not New Labour, that’s for sure.
Although the TUC was in session in Glasgow during the blockade, for several days it remained silent. When it spoke, it did so only to line up behind the government. Where were the demands that Labour carry out the promise in its 1945 manifesto to nationalise inland transport? Where were the calls for public ownership of the oil industry? Where were the plans to ensure that the emergency services got fuel and that the most vulnerable did not go without food? Where was the mobilisation of rank and file activists to counter threats of intimidation?
The police were also strangely quiet during the blockades. Instead of batoning and arresting the blockaders, they were to be seen sharing tea and sandwiches with them. On TV we were treated to the sight of a senior police officer standing in front of a truck parked across depot gates, saying that no offences were being committed. When TGWU tanker drivers told their bosses they would work normally if they were given a police escort they were ignored. What a contrast to the activities of the police during the miners’ strike or the printers’ pickets at Wapping.
At first much of the left welcomed the blockades. Workers were told to get the French spirit. When it became clear that this was not a strike where papers could be sold to pickets, the line was changed. Some went so far as to see it all as a plot to bring down the government, comparing the blockaders to the truckers whose actions helped to destabilise the Allende government in Chile. Tony Blair may be many things but he is no Allende, nor is William Hague a would-be Pinochet.
However, it must be made clear that the blockaders are no friends of working people. Many of them have been mercenary scabs who have smashed their way through picket lines. What they are is part of a class of small proprietors beleaguered by rising costs which they have been unable to pass on to the consumer. Caught between the big capitalists they fear and a working class they despise, they have lashed out at a government they see as taxing them to extinction. In a more severe crisis they could easily become the stormtroopers of fascism.
For the Green Party, currently riding high on electoral success, the obvious widespread unpopularity of high fuel taxes presents a potential major problem. Current policy states: "The Green Party’s financial measures relating to transport are based on the polluter pays principle." It continues: "Cars are currently seen as the primary means of transport by many people. The Green Party would work at all levels to alter this perception." And: "The Green Party would work to reduce the need for people to feel that they need to own their own car."
The problem with fuel taxes as with all forms of indirect taxation is that the burden falls heaviest on the shoulders of those least able to pay. For the fat cats of high finance, 2p on a litre of petrol is of little consequence. For someone on low pay, it can be a disaster. If taxing the polluters is the answer, then it is the oil companies, whose profits run into the billions, who should be made to pay. So too should the big road freight hauliers and airlines whose activities are major causes of environmental pollution.
As people have to travel longer distances to work, and public transport – particularly in rural areas – continues to decline, for many the car has become not a luxury but a necessity. Many families now have two cars – one to take one partner to and from work, the other to take the kids to school and drive to out of town hypermarkets to take advantage of their cheaper prices. As André Gorz has put it: "Mass motoring effects an absolute triumph of bourgeois ideology on the level of daily life. It gives and supports in everyone the illusion that every individual can seek his or her benefit at the expense of everyone else."
People will not get out of their cars onto public transport if the bus or the train is unreliable, expensive, dirty, overcrowded and unsafe. They will not let their kids walk or cycle to school, or walk or cycle themselves, if it is dangerous to do so. They will not abandon the illusion of freedom that mass advertising has associated with the car unless they can find an alternative. Any Green or Green Socialist policy on fuel taxation and car use has to take this fully into consideration.
Modern cities have been built around the car. Poor public transport, the physical distance between homes, workplaces, schools, shops and leisure facilities, and the breakdown of the extended family and of living communities have boosted car use. The deliberate rundown of rail and waterways has put more freight on the roads, as has just in time systems of distribution. An essential feature of the Green Socialist project has to be the reconstruction of small scale communities which maximise human interdependence and minimise reliance on travel. In the countryside there needs to be a restoration of local services and a move away from the ring farm of the industrial revolution towards the farming village based not on machines and chemicals but on human labour and organic methods. We have to look too at growing more food in the cities.
Fossil fuels, of which oil is one, are not only a major source of pollution, including climatic change, which has massive potential for major disaster – they are also finite. Sooner or later they will run out. When they do, cars and trucks will be useless heaps of junk. Whatever policies are adopted in the short term, in planning for a sustainable and socially just future this is something that has to be borne in mind.