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Fuel protests


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From: The Socialist issue 178, 20 October 2000: Don't Pay for the Bosses' Greed

Search site for keywords: Fuel protests - Labour - Farmers - Tax - TGWU - Gordon Brown

Can Brown's "cunning plan" buy off fuel protests?

THE PROSPECT of pickets resuming protests outside fuel depots may have receded following a secret meeting between the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, and the Road Haulage Association. It looks likely that Brown will make concessions to hauliers and people in rural areas to avert another crisis.

Dave Reid

The protests were only called off in September to allow a 60-day period for the government to lower tax on fuel. That 60-day period ends on 13 November and if the government do not make concessions the protests could resume.

Some government ministers are reported to want to stick it out and use emergency measures against protests if they develop.

In the event of a new crisis the labour movement needs to be prepared to intervene immediately all over the country. During the last protests the government played a dirty tricks campaign to stop fuel getting through to vital services in order to discredit the pickets - in many areas this even extended to sanctioning the diversion of fuel that had been let out for the use of vital services. This was a very dangerous tactic that could have led to loss of life.

Some of the farmers' leaders and the Tories behind them have their own agenda, based on discrediting not only the New Labour government but also the Labour and trade union movement. There's a power vacuum in the fuel protest movement that these forces are trying to fill and the labour movement must counteract that.

September's pickets were a spontaneous movement with no centralised organisation. Since September some figures have stepped forward to claim the campaign's leadership and to attempt to direct operations.

One such character is David Hanley, from Farmers For Action and the Countryside Alliance, whose contribution to the last protest was to tour around picket lines and eventually call a number of them off.

During his tours he was trying to get the lorry drivers and taxi drivers to accept the farmers' leadership. He told them that the farmers had access to the best PR in the country through the Tories and the Liberals and that they would put these resources at their disposal if they would work with them.

He also kept promising them that the farmers could provide huge numbers on the picket lines "when the time was right", but politically it was best for them "to stay in the background at present".

If people like Hanley succeed in gaining the leadership then the movement could move to the right and become a 'safe' auxiliary to the Countryside Alliance. This would make it more difficult for the labour movement to win the support of a potentially very powerful section of the workforce.

HOWEVER, THE diverse nature of the movement and the urgency of the situation facing many truck drivers make that scenario unlikely at this stage. If the protests develop then it would provide another opportunity for the labour movement to draw this powerful industry back into its orbit.

The 1979 lorry drivers' strike was organised by the TGWU and other unions and showed the power that organised workers can have in the industry. Employers came to TGWU picket lines to get dispensation to move essential goods during the dispute. Now the situation has become more complicated as more truck drivers are self-employed and fewer drivers are covered by national agreements.

But the fuel protests revealed the enormous power wielded by truck drivers, especially the largely unionised tanker drivers.

Within the labour movement there is an understandable scepticism, even hostility, towards independent truck drivers. Many workers have bitter memories of lorries crossing picket lines, none more so than in South Wales where the police escorted convoys of trucks across the region to supply the steelworks with coal during the 1984-85 miners' strike.

However, trade union militants can also remember courageous action by truck drivers who refused to cross picket lines even when threatened with the sack. This is also a less homogenous section of the workforce than most other group of workers.

In September some truck drivers crossed the truck drivers' picket lines. In the next few years many workers will face truck drivers on the picket lines. Will they be friends or foe?

The question for trade union militants is how best can truck drivers' be drawn into the labour movement rather than shady right-wing organisations like the Countryside Alliance.

The TUC leadership is not concerned in the least about the success of trade union pickets, because they will do their utmost to prevent strikes in the first place.

Bill Morris, general secretary of the TGWU, recently revealed his real attitude towards strike action by his own members. He commented that it is best for all the tanker drivers to be drawn into the trade unions, not to strengthen the unions, but to bring the drivers under the discipline of the Tory anti-union laws that act as a strait-jacket on trade unionists in struggle.

The attacks of Morris and John Monks, general secretary of the TUC, on the truck drivers was not motivated by bitterness against drivers who crossed picket lines, but drew on this scepticism amongst trade union activists to divide them from the truck drivers and bolster support for Blair's government.

At fuel depots across the country rank-and-file trade unionists supported the 'blockades'. The majority of tanker drivers who refused to cross the picket lines were members of the TGWU, Morris's union.

In Cardiff branch officials from the FBU and ambulance workers joined the picket lines to demonstrate their support and contradict the government propaganda. According to opinion polls the trade unionists supported the protests three to one.

Trade union militants should:

Prepare to intervene in the November protests if they take place.
Links should be built immediately between trade unionists in the emergency services and truck drivers.
Liaison committees should be established to ensure that the fuel that the pickets allow through the lines does reach essential services and that the government and management is not allowed to create an artificial shortage in essential supplies.

ACCORDING TO newspaper reports Chancellor, Gordon Brown is thought likely to make concessions to hauliers and people in rural areas to avert another fuel crisis, following secret meetings between Brown and the Road Haulage Association and farmers' leaders.

What Brown is thought to be proposing is that he will make certain concessions on diesel prices and dramatically cut road tax in rural areas; primarily because people are more dependant on cars in rural areas where public transport is poor or non-existent.

The latter proposal has all the potential to cause as much difficulty for Labour as the poll tax did for the Tories. Even now, everyone will be phoning up relatives in rural areas to see if they can register their cars at a rural address. The days of the five car family in rural areas are fast approaching.

More importantly, how will an area be defined a rural and why should the rich in rural areas get away without coughing up for road tax? These and other questions will be aggravating Labour for a long time to come if they go ahead with this half-baked idea.

It is another New Labour attempt to buy off a revolt by making concessions to a small layer in society while ignoring the genuine anger and concerns of the mass of the people who are affected by high fuel and road taxes.

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