After three weeks of strike action at Eastham Refinery, the Suttons tanker drivers have been victorious. From the police being used to cross the picket line; the arrest of demonstrators; and even an appeal to Manchester High Court for an injunction to stop picketing altogether: management threw everything at the workers but they remained unbowed. Suttons tanker drivers, with the support of the labour movement behind them, have fought back and forced management back to the negotiating table.
As we have reported in a previous article, management of Suttons Tankers, based at Eastham Refinery, took the decision to call in the police to try to break the strike. This open provocation - using the police to get tankers across the picket line - was followed by the arrest of three demonstrators.
On the night of Wednesday 24th January this was further used as an excuse to seek out a High Court injunction from Manchester High Court, which sought to stop the union from picketing the site.
Even more scandalously, the union were only informed this was taking place 30 minutes before the injunction was being put in place. As such, they were deprived of the chance to mount a defence. As a diversionary tactic, whilst the injunction was being sought, a “meeting” was called between management and the reps so as to stop them being aware of what was happening.
Kenny Rowe, Unite regional officer, told the Standard, at the time that the union will be “vigorously challenging the injunction”. He went on to say:
“This injunction, which was applied for in the most disgraceful and underhand way, is designed purely to deny workers their rights, including the right of freedom of association.
“Suttons Tankers need to stop hiding behind Eastham Refinery Ltd and to return to the negotiating table in order to resolve this dispute.
“Our members only took strike action after the company’s actions in trying to force a contract on them which slashed their pay, left them with no other option.”
Court injunction defeated – Unite defend the right to picket
In spite of all of these attacks the tanker drivers stood firm. With the backing of the union, they were able to get this injunction overturned. On Thursday 1st February, after the picket line had been down for a week, Unite the Union appeared in Manchester High Court (along with representatives of Suttons Tankers) and took up the challenge.
Although it is common for the police and the courts to be brought in to side with management and attempt to break a strike in such a way, in this instance, the resolve of the workers - and the organisation and backing of Unite the Union - were able to beat back these challenges. There was no case to answer and the injunction had to be rescinded. After a mass meeting and a vote the picket lines were re-established the next day, on Friday 2nd February.
On Friday 9th February a proposal was put forward by Suttons management. This was voted on by a mass meeting of the Suttons tanker drivers, who accepted the deal by a majority. The workers have therefore ended the strike on this basis.
Although the details of the agreement have not been made public yet, the workers and members of Unite have made it known that they’re happy with the result. This is a victory that the Suttons tanker drivers should be proud of - a victory which would not have been possible had they not stood so strong together.
The oil industry: outsourcing the anarchy of the market
This dispute is not just about the jobs of the 33. It affects all tanker drivers across the industry. It is also part of a much wider trend within capitalism of outsourcing companies squeezing their workers for more and more profit and, in so doing, driving down conditions and wages. The most recent example of this, which has highlighted the decrepit nature of the system, is the Carillion scandal.
Eastham Refinery is run by two different energy companies involved in the production of bitumen. This is an important product that is used in the construction industry. Eastham Refinery is one of a few sites in the country that are involved in its manufacture. Nynas and Shell are the international companies, ostensibly competing with one another on the market, who have set up this joint venture (although production has been taking place at the site for decades).
Both oil companies have outsourced the tanker drivers to two different competing firms: Suttons Tankers, who were involved in this dispute, and DHL. As part of this outsourcing, health and safety has been slowly but surely eroded, all in the name of profitability. This attack on wages, terms and conditions itself was justified by the needs of management to save 50p per ton on the production of bitumen. This was all in the name of the competitiveness of Suttons - but it is a process which many workers will recognise from their own industries, whether they be in the private or public sectors.
One site, Eastham Refinery, shows within it all of the contradictions and senility of the current system. It is also in this madness, and in this dispute, that we can see the possible way out for the future.
In the long run, the only way to fight back against outsourcing and in defence of workers will be through a wider political struggle. This dispute emphasises in a very real way the anarchy of the capitalist system and how this is used to force down the living standards of the vast majority of people.
At a certain stage it will be necessary to turn these defensive battles into an offensive movement to challenge the system. This means fighting for the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy under workers control. In this way, it would be possible to end the anarchy of the market and actually plan production based on need.
Solidarity with Suttons’ drivers
On Tuesday 30 January, one of the officers of Unite spoke at a meeting of Liverpool Marxist Society on the dispute, its background, and different ways that our members can get involved in supporting the strike. We had already been down to the picket lines on two separate occasions leading up to this meeting. Based on the enthusiasm that comrades felt at hearing the report, we decided to hold a collection for their strike fund.
At Liverpool Wavertree CLP a Socialist Appeal supporter also put forward a motion in support of the strike. This was unanimously passed. A collection was held in Walton CLP to raise money for the strike fund as well. There were also numerous individuals and groups that made trips to the picket lines, donating wood for the fire and other materials.
Justin Madders, Labour MP for Ellesmere Port; Jo Bird, Labour Candidate for Eastham Ward; and Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite all made trips to the picket lines. Alongside Sefton NUT, they all expressed their open support for the workers involved in the dispute and helped to spread the word.
“We started off thinking it was 31 men on their own. How wrong were we? I, for one, will take the support that’s been offered to us to the grave. And, we will forever offer our support to anyone else in need. Total respect to all from the Eastham 31.” – Ken Mills, Senior Rep for Unite the Union at Suttons tanker drivers, Tuesday 23 January 2018
This is just a small amount of the solidarity that has been built up during the time of the strike. The links that have been made in this struggle will not be easily forgotten by anyone involved. The hard-fought victory, won by the Suttons tanker drivers, is one which should be shared and celebrated widely across the whole labour movement. It is a demonstration that through militant action - and serious organisation - working people can accomplish anything.
It is just such militant industrial action, linked with a wider political struggle, which will be needed in the coming period to defend the gains of past generations of workers - as well as to fight for a society organised in the interests of the many, and not for the profits of the few.