Issue 245 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 2000 Copyright Socialist Review

News

Review

   

FUEL CRISIS

Sixty days to shift New Labour

For the ruling class the protests are double edged
Running on empty: a reflection of the Blair government
Running on empty: a reflection of the Blair government

The Financial Times described Tony Blair as being 'wounded' by the fuel crisis. It might have added 'humiliated'. Blair lost. Public anger is increasingly being directed against the oil companies which tried to hike up petrol costs still further and then had to back down.

For the ruling class the protests were double edged. The Daily Telegraph, Mail and Express--all pro-Tory and anti- Europe-- welcomed the protests as a way of damaging Blair, but the bosses were clearly worried that the popular support for the protests might lead to workers using similar direct action to fight for their own demands. Both the Financial Times and the Economist took a hard line against the protests. The Tories themselves were effectively bypassed by the action. The possibility remains that workers could use French-style tactics because people see that direct action gets results. We need to start campaigning for the working class to fight for its own demands.

Meanwhile we have a prime minister who has loved up to big business and appointed oil bosses like Baron Simon to the government, but when he appeals to the oil companies to move supplies they refuse. Similarly, the police refused to break the protests. This underlines the disaster of a Labour government trying to pander to the capitalists and pay homage to the market.

The fuel protests were widely supported because they were an expression of the social bitterness in Blair's Britain. Unfortunately, in the absence of any lead from the unions--who will not break with Blair--hauliers and farmers seized the moment. These are people who represent sections of the middle classes affected particularly severely by the crisis, but who have traditionally been hostile to the labour movement and have repeatedly broken picket lines. In any big social movement sections of the middle classes will be involved and sometimes lead the protests. But their demands will tend to reflect more the individualism of the middle classes than the collective demands of workers, and they will define themselves in narrow terms (against Europe, for example, rather than for international solidarity). More importantly, they find it hard to take independent action without relying on one of the two major classes in society. Here they relied at least partly on the goodwill of the oil companies.

The protests therefore caught the popular mood, but there was no collective working class action involved and the movement did not try and target the oil companies responsible for the vast bulk of the fuel price increases. The actions of Labour and trade union leaders did nothing to try to break from the bosses. The unions will not initiate any serious challenge to Blair. There is growing alienation from New Labour and established parliamentary politics.

The Labour Party and the unions denounced the protests, calling on their members to break them saying that the protesters had helped break the 1984-85 miners' strike. But in supporting Blair's attempts to use the very institutions of the state used to break the miners' strike, the ACPO police control centre and the civil contingencies unit (which would be used against the unions with gusto when necessary), the union leaders failed to connect with the popular mood.

The TUC lined up with Blair. But socialists should in no way support the government. Despite the middle class nature of the protest leaders they won popular support because working people want to see a fightback.

There is also the possibility that the left can build a fightback on the model of the poll tax protests. Even the Financial Times was moved to editorialise, 'If petrol duties come down in the November pre-budget report, the protesters will have won --just as in France. Every other special interest group in Britain will understand the lessons. Mr Blair must be prepared.' It is, however, also possible that in the absence of any lead from the unions new, more virulent, right wing, populist movements can emerge in future. We have to fight within the working class for workers to use the methods of protest, not the politics.

We have 60 days before Brown delivers his budget. The working class needs to fight to ensure we do not carry the costs of the fuel crisis. In particular we can target the oil companies.

We should demand that the multinational oil companies, which have doubled their profits to record levels in the last year, should be taxed, and the money used to cut public transport fares and for an investment programme in public transport. The extra revenue Brown is coining in from North Sea oil, together with the budget surplus he is sitting on, should be used to increase pensions and benefits together with the winter heating allowance for pensioners. An increase in oil prices will lead to general price rises as transport costs are passed on to us. We should be calling for union action employing French-style tactics to win increases in wages.
Chris Bambery


BETWEEN THE LINES

  • Sir John Browne, chief executive of BP, is paid 1.45 million a year, with 900,000 shares. Mark Moody-Stuart, the chairman of Shell, owns 500,000 shares, and has just had a 52 percent pay rise, taking his annual salary to 969,872.
    Shell
  • When Gordon Brown suggested a windfall tax on North Sea oil, the oil giants responded by threatening to pull out of the North Sea. Brown backed off.
  • Middle East oil producers will earn $200 billion from oil sales this year. This is the equivalent of the combined GDP of the world's 20 poorest nations, including Ethiopia , Cameroon and Oman. It is also three times the value of exports for the whole of Africa.
  • Nearly 200 factory workers are being sacked every day under New Labour. Research from the GMB union says more than 250,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost since Labour came to power in 1997. John Edmonds has pointed the finger at the right target: 'Ministers blaming workers for poor productivity is like the captain of the Titanic blaming the iceberg for colliding with his ship.'

  • Under pressure: the problems pile up for Blair

    The reports of the 'crisis meetings' between Blair and Co and the oil company chiefs have been greeted with profound merriment in the corridors of oil power. The prime minister and his deputy--not to mention the ruthless home secretary, Jack Straw--were widely reported to have issued 'stern warnings' to the executives about their duty to the public, and even threats that unless they got the oil moving they could all be in serious trouble.

    The merriment arises from the fact that no section of British industry has provided more of New Labour's business initiatives than oil. The best example is Nick Butler, who is so senior in BP that he can't afford to be a cabinet minister. Butler has been an ideological pillar of New Labour ever since he wrote a book with Neil Kinnock in 1987 trying to persuade people to vote Labour because the party had changed its attitude to shareholders and had been converted to the case for making money for nothing. Butler was not available for comment after that first tense meeting with the prime minister--indeed, in the interests of a free press, no oil executive would appear in any media until the dispute was almost over.

    Butler's squeamishness about taking a ministerial post was not shared by Lord Simon, former chairman of BP, who was Blair's choice as his first minister for Europe. Somehow Simon managed to take his new post without sacrificing a penny of his vast shareholding in BP, and without batting an eyelid when his company's association with the drug barons of Colombia was exposed.

    The Simon connection did not last long, but there are plenty of other associations between oil industry bosses and the Labour government, many of which are set out in the 22 September issue of Private Eye. In 1998, during his brief career as trade secretary (before he was sacked for borrowing nearly 400,000 from the government's paymaster general to buy an appropriate London mansion), Peter Mandelson set up an oil price 'task force'. Its task was to keep the price of oil up in defiance of the market, and its force included the managing directors of Shell, Texaco and BP Exploration.

    Other bizarre appointments of the same kind include: Shell chairman Mark Moody-Stuart to chair the renewable energy task force; Jyoti Munsiff, Shell's company secretary, as a member of the government's sustainable development education panel; Bryan Sanderson, BP's managing director, as chairman of the Learning and Skills Council; Stella Earnshaw, former regional finance chief for Shell, as a member of the Funding Agency for Schools; John Hastie (Shell) and John Morgan (BP) to the Oil and Pipelines Agency which oversees bulk transportation for the Ministry of Defence. (These appointments could be embarrassing if the government sends in the army to sort out the oil crisis.) As for the NHS--which health secretary Milburn put on 'red alert' during the crisis--did anyone hear a word of protest from Bryan Grote, an influential member of the government's public services productivity council, set up by new Labour 1998 to deliver improvements in productivity and efficiency'? Mr Grote is executive vice-president of BP.
    Paul Foot


    FUEL DUTY

    Taxing times for the poor

    The demand for a cut in fuel tax was led by those who care little for the environment and want to champion the 'motorist' at the expense of everyone else. In any case, the big increase in petrol prices has come from the oil companies, not from taxation. However, the deep government unpopularity over the tax is of its own making. It has followed the Tories in racing to cut income tax and refuses to raise National Insurance payments for the better off.

    These direct taxes are the fairest because they are related to income and by and large the richest pay most. Instead taxes have increasingly become regressive--hitting the poor hardest. These include taxes on cigarettes and tobacco, on insurance, air travel and VAT. All of these take a much bigger proportion of poor people's incomes than those of the rich.

    In fact under Labour the overall burden of tax has risen, not fallen. The fuel tax is defended on environmental grounds but this is dubious--just as the richest countries can pay to pollute at will, so can the richest motorists, and the tax is relatively inefficient at getting people out of cars and onto public transport, largely because of the inadequacies of public transport.


     

    No spare wheels

    The fuel crisis had the effect of making the traffic in London and other major cities bearable. It gave a glimpse of how much better life would be with fewer cars.

    But the public transport, which saw dramatic increases in usage, was unable to cope. Connex South Central, which operates commuter services into London, stopped carrying bicycles because its trains were too crowded. There is no spare capacity on the tube, bus or mainline rail services to cope with the increase in demand. And the prices remain prohibitively high.

    Real costs of motoring have remained more or less constant over the past two decades, despite the high cost of petrol, while those of public transport have risen sharply.

    Now is the time to argue for substantial investment in the tube, rail and tram services, plus cuts in fares which would bring more people onto public transport.

     


    OIL PRICES

    Liquid assests for the billion dollar men

    The oil price rise means that Opec producers will earn $250 billion this year
    Increaed Saudi revenue payes private debt
    Increaed Saudi revenue payes private debt

    The crisis over the rising price of oil and its effect on the economy is another example of the instability in the world system. The price of oil has remained relatively low for nearly two decades now (with the brief exception of the 1991 Gulf War). In part this was because the major western powers and their associated multinationals wanted cheap raw materials. However, economic problems within the Opec countries themselves has meant the oil price has tripled in the last 12 months to over $30 a barrel.

    The most immediate beneficiaries of this will be the oil multinationals. Recent large increases mean they will make record profits of well over 30 billion this year alone. Texaco's profits increased 51 percent this year and Exxon Mobil made profits of $7.03 billion in the first six months of this year alone, compared with Shell which made $6.27 billion in the same period. But increased revenue will also go some way to help alleviate some of the problems that the Opec countries face, although this could be at the expense of other parts of the system.

    Surging unemployment throughout the Middle East has recently threatened to destabilise the whole region. It has reached over 20 percent in Iran and 15 percent in Saudi Arabia. The oil price rise means that Opec producers will earn $250 billion this year, up substantially from $160 billion last year and $116 billion in 1998.

    However, the revenue from the sale of oil will not be spent on alleviating the problems of the poor. Rather it will go to honouring defence contracts and improving the standing of Opec countries on the financial markets. The Saudi government is using a large amount of the increased revenue to pay back debt to the private sector, and to build up foreign reserves which improve Saudi Arabia's foreign credit rating, allowing it to borrow from overseas markets.

    High oil prices have also helped Qatar which has the third largest gas reserves in the world. The country was threatened with being downgraded by rating agencies two years ago, which would have weakened its ability to borrow money. But more money from oil, alongside the fact that the government has imposed a 3.5 percent cut in the wages of state employees, means its standing has improved. In Iran the majority of the increased revenue from the oil price rise will go on alleviating the country's debt.

    But if the price increase means Opec countries have healthier finances, this will only be at the expense of increasing pressures in other parts of the world system. Part of this has been expressed in the growing protests we have seen throughout Europe against the oil price rise, but there is also concern about the effect this will have on inflation. Bosses will try to protect their profits, and so will pass on the effect of increased oil costs in the form of price rises to consumers. In turn this will put pressure on governments to increase interest rates to try to dampen the economy, but this increases the possibility of firms going bust and tipping the economy into recession.

    Nowhere is this more strongly felt than in the world's largest oil consuming country, the US. Here the price of petrol now exceeds well over $2 a gallon, a price unheard of a few years ago. This is producing increasing problems for the US economy. On top of this the US now faces a serious shortfall in heating oil stocks and electricity. This resulted in huge power cuts in California's Silicon Valley earlier this year, when supplies were cut to more than 100,000 users. A recent study by the University of Houston says that the energy structure of the US is now 'greatly weakened'. The study cited the lack of a national policy to address fundamental problems, 'starting with our ability to produce and transport oil but spreading also to stable and adequate supplies of oil products such as heating oil and gasoline, natural gas and electric power'.
    Peter Morgan


    FORD

    'This is what we have all been waiting for'

    No closure

    'If we strike we can stop Ford Europe--you can then tell Fords when they can open.'

    So said Tony Woodley, the TGWU chief negotiator, to a meeting of stewards at the Ford Dagenham plant in Essex, who met to discuss the threatened closure of the factory.

    One Ford worker told Socialist Review, 'This is what we have all been waiting for. Fords are very vulnerable. We supply engines to all Ford plants across Europe. If we go on strike we can shut every Ford plant across Europe in four days.'

    Stewards representing 6,500 workers voted to hold a strike ballot to keep the plant open. All three sites and all the unions are supporting the call for strike action and will be balloting their members. The unions now plan to hold mass meetings across the plants to campaign for an all-out strike. If the members agree, the unions will hold a strike ballot.

    This is a major step forward in the campaign to save Dagenham and reflects the growing anger on the shop floor. Just one week after the workforce returned from its summer break there were two short unofficial 'sit down' strikes. These were about working conditions, but in both workers demanded better union representation.

    Stewards' elections were recently held in the Engine Plant. A prominent socialist stood and won the election with a two to one majority. This was despite the fact that management and senior union stewards led a witch-hunt against him, calling him an 'IRA supporter' and threatening that if he got elected there would be no overtime. This victory is another indicator of the mood inside the plant.

    The day Woodley met the shop stewards' committees there was a two-hour unofficial walkout, which went on to lobby the meeting. When workers heard that there was going to be a strike vote, a large group held a parade around the plant, chanting, 'Shut down Fords.'

    There is no doubt the recent fuel protests have given Ford workers confidence to fight. There was an attempt by lorry drivers at the plant to blockade the factory during the fuel crisis. Some drivers wanted to see action to save the plant while others wanted to show their support for the road hauliers.

    Many Ford workers feel that there has never been a better chance to take on this major multinational company. A strike at Ford would inspire millions of workers who feel New Labour has betrayed them.
    Martin Smith


     

    Production power

    One of the big casualties of the fuel crisis was just in time production. As petrol supplies dried up, so there were food shortages and imminent layoffs in workplaces. The Financial Times commented. 'The best analogy is that of a company that decides to stop buying insurance policies. Profits rise in most years but when something goes wrong, losses are heavy.'

    The just in time methods have led to huge increases in productivity but they are costly when things go wrong. They also give workers in industries from cars to supermarkets immense power, since they can immediately have an impact if they take action. Cost cutting in the oil industry has led to reducing the number of drivers. As an oil analyst put it, 'The system works perfectly as long as nothing goes wrong, but there is no slack in it.'

     


    PUBLIC PROJECT

    From Concorde to the Dome

    Design flaws
    Design flaws

    At first glance there is little to connect the financial crisis over the Millennium Dome with the Concorde crash in Paris. Yet these two disasters have a lot in common. Both were 'prestige' projects, both were forced through in the face of widespread opposition, both were the responsibility of Labour governments--and both involved the waste of vast sums of our money.

    It's hard to get a measure of exactly how much has been spent on the Dome. The quoted figure is usually 750 million, and the apologists for Blair argue that this is lottery money--as though this meant it did not come out of public funds. In fact, of course, the 750 million figure is a gross underestimate. The Jubilee Line Extension, essentially built as part of the project, has cost around 3.5 billion, all public money, and large sums have also been spent on services intended to supply the supposed 'new town' that was planned for Greenwich. Further millions are now being spent on keeping the Dome open.

    In reality the best the government can hope for now is that a private business takes over the site. The selling price is likely to be around 100 million--a small fraction of what the project has cost.

    Concorde, like the Dome, was conceived as a project that would symbolise Britain's place in the world as a technological leader, in this case in collaboration with France. Originally the cost of Concorde was estimated at 175 million. By the time the plane was ready to fly, several years late, the cost was estimated at 900 million--more like 9,000 million at today's prices, and that was just the British contribution. Yet the project was flawed from the start--and the horrific crash that occurred was no accident but inherent in the aircraft's design.

    It was built to fly at unprecedented speed and at an unprecedented height for a passenger plane. Weight was at a premium and the designers were desperate to exclude any unnecessary luxury. However, it was only ever going to be a plane that the wealthy could afford, and the airlines insisted on all the trimmings, caviar and champagne. Each extra kilo in weight demanded an extra kilo in fuel, and the only place for the fuel was in the wings. But the only place for the four giant engines was also slung under the wings, right next to an undercarriage that was extremely vulnerable to tyre bursts caused by the high speed take-off required.

    Concorde was claimed to have an excellent safety record, but this was only because so few were built and flying hours were so short--18,000 hours compared to 100,000 or more for a Boeing 747. Potentially disastrous accidents were covered up, and in the end the planes were only kept in the air by cannibalising parts from different aircraft.

    Neither Britain nor France wished to go ahead with Concorde, but neither government was prepared to admit it. In opposition, Labour rightly voiced strong doubts about the Dome, yet ended up pouring money into a bottomless pit. Concorde and the Dome are both monuments to vanity and pigheadedness, but also monuments to a system built on waste.
    Dave Beecham


    ABORTION

    Two tribes leads to double standards

    Some 50,000 women from the North have had abortions in Britain since 1967
    Campaigning on the streets is the best way to win better rights to abortion
    Campaigning on the streets is the best way to win better rights to abortion

    At freshers' events across these islands students will be assaulted by the dreadful images of anti-abortion groups. Although the parliament elected in May 1997 is, on the face of it, the most pro-choice in history, the cowardice of New Labour on the issue has given new confidence to the anti-abortion movement.

    The cowardice is seen clearly in New Labour's attitude to the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland. When Tony Blair offered Mo Mowlam's head to the Unionists and set her on the road out of politics, she wrote a goodbye article in the Belfast Telegraph. In it she said her one regret was that she had been unable to find the opportunity 'to do something for the 2,000 women who go to England each year for abortions'.

    This was hypocrisy. The entire time Mowlam was Northern Ireland secretary, she refused to meet any pro-choice groups in Ireland or Britain. It was reported that she told a pro-choice MP not to raise the issue of abortion in Northern Ireland because it would 'stir up the tribal elders'. Blair's flunkeys told others not to raise it because it would 'hurt the peace process'. Any piece of British legislation can be extended to the North by a simple Order in Council and a maximum one hour's debate in parliament. Mowlam found the opportunity to introduce the cuts in lone parents' allowance, abolish student grants and bring in tuition fees. But for some reason her powers failed when it came to abortion rights.

    Some 50,000 women from the North have had abortions in Britain since 1967. Opinion polls in 1993 and 1994 showed three out of four people supporting abortion being available here. Labour refuses to listen to the voices of the majority and instead hears only the shrill bigotry of a small, well organised and funded minority.

    Labour's failure to extend the act has given real confidence to this minority. Precious Life (PL) was set up because its members believed the new government would actually implement Labour policy which, since 1987, has been to extend the act. Members of PL's sister organisation in the South, Youth Defence, came to 'train' them in the kind of intimidation they had learnt in America. In spite of very small numbers, they picketed the homes of volunteer counsellors with the Ulster Pregnancy Advisory Association. When the UPAA's office in Belfast suffered an arson attack, most of the counsellors were afraid that their family homes would be next and the UPAA closed down.

    While saying it exists only to oppose abortion, PL also pickets the Brook Advisory Service and the Family Planning Association on a regular basis. It has promised to 'close Brook, close Family Planning', and declared that 'sex education is ruining our young people's lives'. Precious Life runs stalls on the streets, in church-based youth clubs and some schools. All its literature is full colour, glossy and believed to be paid for by US anti-abortion groups. When it became clear that Labour would not extend the Act to the North, PL took this as proof that its tactics work. The group has now set up in Scotland and plans offices in London and Manchester.

    Its tactics include trying to shock people with bloody photos of fully formed foetuses. It says, 'If women knew the truth about abortion, they wouldn't have them.' But PL does not tell the truth about abortion. Its propaganda is all about late abortions. Yet 90 percent of abortions in Britain are before the 12th week of pregnancy, about 80 percent before ten weeks. This is because abortion is relatively easily available in Britain--often, though not often enough, on the NHS.

    The figures for Northern Ireland are depressing, with only 78 percent of abortions before 12 weeks, 62 percent before ten weeks. And throughout the 1990s women from Northern Ireland were three to four times more likely to have an abortion after 20 weeks than women from any other part of the UK. This scandal is due entirely to the difficulties working class women face in getting the information and money to reach a clinic in England. In the assembly Ian Paisley's DUP said keeping abortion illegal 'controls' the number of women having abortions. It does--many working class women can't afford an abortion.

    The anti-abortionists talk about methods for late abortions, which are distressing. But they never ask why women have abortions so late. No woman wishes to have a late abortion. Long NHS waiting lists are the main reason one in every 110 abortions in Britain takes place after 20 weeks. And the anti-abortionists never talk about the very simple methods used today for early abortion. The reason the Daily Mail's hated 'lunchtime abortions' are possible is that early abortion has become safe, quick and easy. For early abortions, a local anaesthetic and a simple syringe are all that is needed. As for medical abortions using the abortion pill RU486, you will hear nothing at all about that from the anti-abortion groups.

    One experience gives the lie to the idea that if women knew the truth about abortion, we wouldn't have them. In Germany, to get an abortion women have to have a certificate to show they've had counselling. The Catholic church ran 270 counselling centres from 1997 until 1999, when the Pope closed them down. The bishops admitted that only a quarter of the women who came for counselling decided to continue the pregnancy. They heard all the arguments, saw all the photographs, but still knew it was their right to decide whether to continue the pregnancy.

    For decades the South lagged behind the North in matters of sexual freedom. Over the last 20 years the changing role of women and the implosion of the Catholic Church's moral authority in relation to sex has changed all that. The North is ready for a similar transformation. The moral authority of the old totalitarians has been hollowed out here too--for many of the same reasons and as a result of similar changes in society. This may not be immediately apparent if you look at the North solely from a perspective of Orange and Green, Nationalist and Unionist.

    But the Good Friday Agreement encourages people to see everything from exactly that perspective. Every decision taken by the executive is examined to see which community has gained advantage over the other. The 'best' that is expected is for them to strike a 'fair' balance.

    If, instead of this approach, Sinn Fein ministers Martin McGuinness (education) and Bairbre de Brun (health) were to put their authority behind the class demands of education and health workers, the sectarian divide would be undermined. Vicious bigots like Johnny Adair wouldn't be able to argue that all Protestants must unite against the other side. Instead McGuinness refuses to pay term- time workers during school holidays while de Brun closes hospitals and pushes the Private Finance Initiative.

    Abortion:Never again

    The abortion issue is a prime example of how society in the North could be divided in a different way. It unites people from Catholic and Protestant backgrounds who want a more open society that faces up to the reality of today's sexual behaviour and to its consequences--one of which is abortion. It also unites Catholics and Protestants who want to see women back in the home, and sex only in the marriage bed. It divides us into those who welcome the sexual freedom young people enjoy today and those who want a return to the repression of the 1950s.

    The majority of people in the North, as in the South, want young people to have all the information and access to contraceptives they need to help them make safe choices around sex. The bigots want to keep them in ignorance. Campaigning on the streets, an increasing number of people who are personally anti-abortion concede that abortion should be available for women who want it. No one can see how the abortion debate would disrupt the peace process. Rather, they agree, it connects with a reality of life that transcends the sectarian division.

    Most trade unions organising in both Britain and Ireland support abortion rights. Last year, MSF's Irish Conference voted overwhelmingly to campaign for extension of the 1967 Act. Campaigns like this within the unions can support an alternative to the 'two tribes' view of the North and thereby help to expose the role of New Labour in perpetuating sectarianism through its cowardice on class issues.
    Goretti Horgan


     

    THE WALRUS

    Old jobs in new containers

    Those of a post-industrial mindset must have been a bit taken aback to hear that the London docks are about to be rebuilt, on a truly stupendous scale, only a few miles up-river from the current site at Tilbury. In the last few years the old docklands on the Isle of Dogs and in Newham have provided an ideal habitat for property sharks. The more recent up-river site at Tilbury was reduced to a minimum following wholesale redundancies in the late 1980s.

    News of the giant new container terminal was announced by P&O in September. The facility is to be set up on the site of the former Shell oil refinery at Thurrock, will cost an initial 100 million, and is expected to be up and running within two years. The new port is going to need rather a lot of working class types to keep it going--the early estimates are that it will need a total workforce of around 10,000. This is more than are currently employed at Ford Dagenham and a good two or three times the size of the old workforce at Tilbury.

    The whole concept reeks of industrialisation on an awesome scale. The Thurrock site has a number of advantages for P&O. It will be able to accommodate the new generation of super container ships or liners known as 'post-panamax'. These vessels are too big to get into Tilbury and can carry between 6,000 and 8,000 containers each. A vessel capable of carrying 6,000 TEUs (20-foot equivalent units) has the containers stacked in 18 rows across the deck, 55 times the length of the ship and 6 tiers high.

    These ships are so vast that each of the cranes used to load and unload them is also enormous. To get 2,000 containers off a ship within 24 hours takes four cranes each, with a reach of 13 containers width in one direction and 18 in the other. Because shipping is a very high bulk and low profit margin industry, the main concern of the companies that run the ports is that containers are moved off the ship, through the port and on to their final destination as quickly as possible. For this they need a state of the art computer to manage what is going on in the entire terminal.

    They also need more space in and around the terminal for container storage than is often available in built-up areas. The post-panamax ships are very expensive to build and the current industry wisdom is that they can only be run at a profit if they are 'turned around' in next to no time and the number of ports of call they make is reduced to a minimum. Hence the idea of establishing key intermodal or 'hub' ports, which are located so as to allow direct and rapid access to key markets.

    The way P&O sees things, the new port at Thurrock will provide one of the key 'intermodal' links in Europe, so situated as to provide 'just in time' delivery of containers to manufacturing and assembly plants, increasingly on the rail network. The new Eurotunnel rail terminal at Ebbsfleet is very close to the Thurrock site. For P&O, the next hub port will be Antwerp in Belgium, where it already owns three major berths, and where 12 main international rail routes in Europe reach their destination. Apparently oblivious to the end of industrialisation, an estimated 250 fully loaded goods trains come and go in Antwerp every day.

    From Antwerp a new link is currently nearing completion on a line known as 'Iron Rhine', a track which links Antwerp with Duisport, the largest inland port in Europe. Built on the site of the former Krupp steelworks in Duisburg-Rheinhausen, Duisport is linked by river, rail and road to all key points within Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Spain, Switzerland, Scandanavia and the new markets in central and eastern Europe.

    All this, let us remind ourselves, not much more than a decade after a nasty combination of rampant Thatcherism, postmodern pecksniffery and spinelessness in the leadership of the TGWU had effectively reduced Tilbury to a skeleton. Then the story went that things like docks and dock workers were a historical relic. The boss of P&O--once Jeffrey, now Lord, Sterling--was always one of Thatcher's enthusiastic backers. He played a key role in the smashing of the National Union of Seamen in the late 1980s and has a consistent record of anti-unionism. No surprise then that Lord Sterling's recent plans for expansion at Antwerp and Duisberg were backed up by Tony Blair in correspondence with the Belgian prime minister, Guy Verhofstadt.

    The Walrus

    But, by a heartening irony, Sterling may not be too chuffed to find that among the few hundred dockers who stayed on the books at Tilbury during the 1990s, after collective bargaining rights had been abolished, a new agreement for full union recognition has just been signed. Brass neck or no, it was announced with a flourish by the TGWU on May Day 2000.

     


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