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FOR A week in September, fuel protests and pickets almost brought Britain to a halt. The protests though stirred up much controversy, with the government accusing the protesters of colluding with the oil companies and Tories. The report below shows the contradictory nature of this movement. But it also shows that the Socialist Party was correct to support this struggle as the forerunner of bigger movements against New Labour's pro-capitalist policies.
The movement which stopped Britain
TWO SOCIALIST Party members drove to Cardiff docks on 10 September to see if anything was happening there. At the dock gates were about ten pickets. We introduced ourselves as Socialist Party members joining the protest against fuel charges.
The picket organiser said that tanker drivers had refused to cross the picket line. 60 tankers were stranded inside the docks but drivers had told them that oil companies would try and move them next morning (Monday).
We returned on Monday at 4am where the Texaco tanker drivers' steward met the pickets and explained they wouldn't cross the line. The core of the pickets were haulage contractors, their drivers and self-employed drivers. Some drivers worked during the day and slept in their cab on the picket line. The original picket organiser was given time off by his boss to organise it.
The organiser had been involved in the previous Friday's blockade of Pembroke Dock, where the police gave tickets to lorries. The whole convoy stopped and refused to move until the tickets were revoked. A senior officer was flown in by helicopter to rip up the tickets.
At Cardiff the police realised there was little they could do to stop the action and adopted a 'softly, softly' approach.Many pickets were owners, probably Tories at some time. During the miners' strike many haulage contractors crossed the NUM picket lines in the huge coal convoys outside the steelworks.
But the fact that some of them might have crossed picket lines was no reason not to intervene. The dispute showed the power that lorry drivers have and they have to be won behind the working class.
While the Tories opportunistically took up the fuel tax issue, most pickets didn't support them. Some haulage contractors and especially self-employed drivers were being driven out of business by high fuel prices. This movement could go either to the right or the left, but was tending towards the left. We needed to try and link this struggle to the labour movement and to raise socialist ideas as far as possible.
This was a strike, with unionised tanker drivers taking secondary action to support the haulage contractors. The oil companies didn't put too much pressure on the drivers - any threat of disciplinary action would have led to a complete walkout, but there was no evidence that they colluded with the protesters.
They tried several tricks to get the tankers out of the depot. A fitter was told to take a tanker to an MOT station, where a supervisor told him to leave the tanker and get a taxi. The fitter refused and drove the tanker back into the depot.
BY TUESDAY virtually all South Wales service stations were closed and there was talk of emergency services running out of fuel. The pickets had always let fuel get to the emergency services but New Labour's claims that pickets were hitting emergency services made the situation very serious.
Socialist Party members contacted the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and the ambulance convenor. Representatives came to the picket line.
A very successful meeting between the FBU and ambulance convenor and the four picket organisers, was followed by a press conference where trade unionists confirmed the supply of fuel and declared support for the dispute at a time when trade union leaders were attacking the protests.
By Wednesday support was growing. An eight-car cavalcade of ordinary working-class people arrived from Pontypridd. Other visitors were arriving by the hour. A 50-strong taxi protest arrived led by the transport union TGWU taxi organiser (a regular buyer of The Socialist).
Some government ministers accused the pickets of being manipulated by the pro-hunting, pro-Tory Countryside Alliance. While the Alliance poked their noses into the dispute, their effect was to sabotage the action.
David Hanley from Farmers For Action, with Tory connections, turned up on Tuesday offering the Countryside Alliance's professional facilities. Hanley returned with a police officer early. on Thursday morning. By then there were predictions that the economy would grind to a halt on the Friday.
The Daily Mail's front-page headline called for the picket to end the same day. Hanley said Avonmouth had finished the blockade and that a conference in Birmingham had been organised for Thursday morning, so all pickets in the country were standing down.
This information, together with fatigue and fear of losing public support led the picket leaders to call off the protest.
A few hours later they saw they'd been conned. The 'conference' in Birmingham was a farmers' rally in a Staffordshire farmyard. Avonmouth had been told that Cardiff was standing down.
A MEETING between picket leaders and Socialist Party members discussed further action. Firstly, a Cardiff leadership committee was formed, including a Socialist Party member. They would attempt to create a national co-ordinating committee.
The public meeting publicised for the Friday had about 50 present. There was a Socialist Party and Communication Workers' Union speaker, an FBU speaker and the original picket organiser. The rest of the platform was all truck drivers.
The mood of the meeting swung from one side to the other. Our speaker supported the pickets as well as raising wider points on the environment and got warm support. Then an environmentalist supported higher fuel taxes and the meeting swung the other way. After a Socialist Party member made another point it swung back, and so on.
The FBU speaker reported to loud applause that his members had been at a funeral but they said they would all be down to support the pickets next time. The drivers agreed that the campaign should be continued, including reimposing even bigger pickets in 60 days if Brown didn't drop fuel charges.
The protest had many of the effects, although not the features or scope, of a general strike. These remarkable events have completely vindicated the Socialist Party's ideas and methods. As we outlined in last week's crisis special supplement, they show how mass struggles can quickly develop in Britain.
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