When the Herald of Free Enterprise capsized moments after leaving the port of Zeebrugge in Belgium on 6 March 1987, 193 passengers and crew were killed. Newspapers across the world carried the image of the ferry lying on its side. Its operator’s name, Townsend Thoresen, was emblazoned across the hull; the initials ‘TT’ were displayed on the funnel. Shipping bosses swiftly ditched the Townsend Thoresen brand and repainted its other vessels with the name and colours of its holding company, P&O European Ferries. When P&O summarily sacked eight hundred seafarers last Thursday and replaced them with agency labour, largely from abroad, its trading name met the PR catastrophe it was created to avert.
On Christmas Eve 2011, I was laid off as a seasonal sales assistant at HMV. I’d been employed just a few weeks before for the Christmas rush at the chain’s flagship Oxford Circus store, and expected to work until January or beyond. But in December 2011 the company reported losses of £40 million, and ‘extra capacity’ was now considered superfluous. As a ‘special’ gesture, the manager told me, I could work until 31 December. Other casuals – many were migrant workers hoping for a permanent post – got no notice at all: a young Frenchwoman was told she could take an ‘extended holiday’ from the following day.
‘Online intimidation of Tories brings call to curb Momentum,’ a headline in the Timessaid on Wednesday. The article was about a new report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which ‘contains detailed criticism of “fringe groups” that have a big impact on the tone of political debate’. The report doesn’t name Momentum, but the Times is confident the left-wing Labour group is its target. But what about the right-wing press? Yesterday, the Daily Mail attacked a number of Conservative MPs on its front page for voting to give Parliament a say on any final Brexit deal. Most of them were among those branded ‘mutineers’ by the Telegraph last month. Some of them have since received death threats.
The Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that employment tribunal fees are unlawful. They were cancelled immediately, and the government will have to pay back every claimant charged since fees were introduced in 2013. There are different estimates as to how much this could cost, but Unison, the public sector union which brought the litigation, puts it at £27 million.
At the High Court last week, Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), the parent company of Southern rail, failed to secure an injunction against Aslef, the train drivers’ union. On Monday they took the case to the Court of Appeal, which also dismissed it, allowing the first drivers’ strike in the company to go ahead on Tuesday.
In the House of Commons last Monday, the business secretary Sajid Javid said Britain’s steel industry had experienced an ‘absolutely devastating’ few months. ‘Punitive tariffs and sky-high duties always seem like a nice, easy solution,’ he went on, ‘but the truth is that excessive, protectionist trade tariffs simply do not work.’ Conservative MPs voted down Labour’s motion, which called for tougher penalties on the dumping of Chinese steel in Europe, by 288 votes to 239.
In 2002 the first national firefighters’ strike in 25 years was called to demand a 40 per cent pay rise, which would have seen their salaries go up to £30,000 a year. Tony Blair compared the Fire Brigades Union’s leader, Andy Gilchrist, to Arthur Scargill; the local government minister Nick Raynsford said strikers were 'criminally irresponsible' for refusing to co-operate with an independent pay review. The dispute was eventually settled with a compromise pay rise of 16 per cent, tied to changes in working practices. In 2004, not long after the RMT union was expelled from the Labour Party for supporting candidates to the left of Labour in Scotland and Wales, the FBU cut its longstanding link with the party. Gilchrist was ousted as general secretary in 2005. Last month the FBU held a recall conference in Blackpool to decide whether or not to reaffiliate to Labour. The overwhelming vote in favour was heralded by Jeremy Corbyn as a ‘milestone in the building of our new politics and our labour movement’.
In March, Theresa May announced that Christopher Pitchford, a serving lord justice of appeal, would lead an inquiry into undercover policing. It followed a series of revelations about members of the Met’s disbanded Special Demonstration Squad, who infiltrated protest groups and in some cases had long-term sexual relationships with their targets. Just after Pitchford was appointed, a former SDS officer revealed he had spied on members of four trade unions; another officer posed as a joiner to infiltrate the builders’ union Ucatt. The most prominent trade unionist known to have been targeted by undercover police is Matt Wrack, the leader of the Fire Brigades’ Union.
As soon as Ed Miliband was elected Labour leader in 2010, political commentators argued he had only won because of the 'union vote'. (In the final round of voting, Miliband won 46.6 per cent of MPs’ votes, 45.6 per cent of party members, and 59.8 per cent of affiliated union members.) The line was repeated over and over by Tory frontbenchers. In 2013, David Cameron told Miliband that the unions 'own you, lock, stock and block vote', even though John Smith had abolished the union block vote in 1993.
After Ed Miliband resigned, the acting Labour leader Harriet Harman said the system for electing his replacement would ‘let the public in’ to the debate: This is the first time a political party in this country has opened up its leadership contest in this way and I think there will be a real appetite for it out there... We should not be afraid of differences. We should thrash them out.