Letter concerning the struggles over the oil price in Britain
»Looks as though we've got ourselves a Convoy«
C.W. MaColl's; Country 'n' Western Truckers hit song.
... It came out of the blue: a sudden eruption of direct action on the motorways and around the oil refineries in Scotland, Wales and England by truckers and small farmers in early September 2000. After the 1990s - the worst years these islands had experienced in centuries on the industrial strike/urban rioting front - finally, something was happening. That »something« which people everywhere felt in their own perception of what was happening also tended to change the shifting character of this raw protest. A welcome drift was taking place.
It didn't fit into existing categories, and that disturbed all those who love socially descriptive paradigms and from where one can hurl abuse: »petite bourgeois entrepreneurs«, »small business people«, »anti-ecology numbskulls« etc. Really though it was more than abuse that was delivered by all the leftist/liberal news media; it was downright rubbishing. They were either right wing French Poujadists - the fascist inspired small shopkeepers and what have you - from the mid 50s or, like the Chilean truckers who helped topple Allende bringing in the military dictatorship of Pinochet. Essentially, they were thick, stupid, St. Georges' flag-waving, asylum-baiting anti-union, greedy, planet-polluting animals - no more notoriously illustrated than by The Guardian's pet leftist, Steve Bell, the cartoonist who got his spurs satirising P.M. Major's Tory years. The traditionally right wing press did support the protestors - the Daily Mail, Daily Express, Daily Telegraph, The Times, and Sun after having slammed the French actions of the previous week as typical gallic excesses well in need of another Waterloo-style trouncing. There was a lot of typical opportunism here though because they got decidedly more nervous in their support of their »this England« interpretation of the rebellion once events threatened to get out of hand.
Behind the rubbishing though, there was an old familiar theme in English society: people who work with their hands are among the lowest of the low only doing such jobs because they don't possess the intelligence to do any other. It's not an attitude so common in France, America or Germany. Here, it's still a marker to the incredible class prejudice and rigidity which remains even if you've managed to make enough dosh to purchase your own rig and climbed up the scale a bit to the status of »small businessman«. You are still nothing but a »counter jumper«. Big Deal!
However, let's stand back and look at a few hard - very hard - facts. The enormous defeat of the working class here and crucially the destruction of the miners in 1984/1985 among the bitter and often violent disputes of the '80s including urban insurrections, was to have a huge international ramification, especially in terms of the rapacious de-statification of the Russian and East European economies by a rip-off, free market gangsterism. Internally, it meant the State here with its now gung-ho, economic neo-liberalism was viciously out to punish everybody (famously described by the butcher Thatcher as »the enemy within«) who'd dared question it. Appropriate terms were used »dinosaur« etc for those who didn't embrace this new shift in capital. Except that dinosaurs may prove to have more longevity if there isn't a social revolution, now that capital for the sake of profit, ist quite prepared to set fire to and drown the planet both at the same time.
With the asset stripping destruction of a lot of factory-based production, aided and abetted by financial concerns in a triumphalist City of London, side by side with the tendency towards hollowed-out companies in building, engineering and what have you and who no longer had many permanent workers on their pay roll, many laid-off workers were FORCED (more or less) to become self-employed; to acquire the services of an accountant, to buy their own fixed capital (trucks, small workshop and what have you). Well, it was either that or welfare and the prospect of constant harassment and punishment disguised as ridiculous pseuso-job training or slightly more lenient forms of workfare than experienced in America. It was basically Hobson's Choice. This mini-mass of intentionally pseudo-individualised people became a veritable army of »reluctant entrepreneurs« as we began to call them. It marked the petite-bourgeoisification of the proletariat. Or so it seemed...
It equally marked the proletarianization of the petite bourgeoisie. A lot of these who were forced into this position weren't that enamoured of it from the word go and actually quite fearful of the step. They had reason to be. They often had to work a lot harder, were »on call« with a mobile ringing day and night, worried into sleeplessness over insurance liabilities and costs if anything happened which previously their employers would have assumed responsibility for. Weekends spent on learning and doing maintenance to your machinery because you didn't want to spend the spondoolies on getting it serviced by a company or by another working stiff like yourself etc. Then, no sick pay, no holiday pay and no perks like staying at a hotel when engaged in »out« work - expenses which you once could have fiddled. Though you'd get more money (and often, over short periods, a lot more) if things went well, at other times you were up shit creek without a paddle and with debts mounting up, on the brink of a nervous breakdown. At best, compensations for the lack of any real life you might have once hoped for, sublimated in endless package holidays and the aestheticisation of domesticity with the repro antique clock in the right place on the mock Adam fireplace (»A Dam« fireplace as George put it in the »George and Mildred« TV series.) It's not much compensation for an absent life.
We have an engineering friend who was employed by an American multinational. The company with one hand gave him the sack and with the other offered him bits 'n' bobs of their own, long term, contract work. It suited them particularly as regards reduced insurance liability if anything happened subsequently (e.g. machinery breaking down after servicing etc). For them, it probably meant a little more for share holder dividends in terms of a hike in the profit margins. Our good and decent friend had always gone on about »the workers« in a somewhat hilarious demagogic way - bashing his fist on pub tables when a bit drunk etc. So, as a joke, we'd wind him up, saying: »businessman now, eh«. He'd go ape shit bashing his fist down even harder on the table retorting: »I'm still a fucking worker«!
Another instance and probably more to the point. In the 1980s we once worked on a building site in London where a fair proportion of the guys were hill farmers from Wales. They were good at their trades having learnt them mostly out of necessity in everyday maintenance of their small holdings. Things like carpentry, roofing and brick laying. Inevitably, we got talking as you do during moments and lunch and tea breaks. A fair amount of the conversation was about their farms, the long hours, starting before daybreak and finishing well after dark - often working during the night - for very little hard cash. In the end they said they liked the outdoor life and the hills but if they didn't periodically work on the buildings in London over winter, they just wouldn't survive. Their wives and sons looked after their spreads while they were away. They chatted away openly and pleasantly and weren't at all uptight. Well, apart from the foreman but then that's a foreman for you. The subcontractor was also a hill farmer but somewhat better off than the others and though he was making money out of all of us regardless, there was a point of overlapping friendliness between him and the others from the hills. In fact you got the impression the subby was a wily guy who was creaming it and he'd go bright red with pleasure cum guilt if he'd particularly done a nice fleecing job on you rather like he did but more mechanically shearing his sheep back home. He even told all of us that if we got the job finished on time we'd all get long free visits to a prostitute. Somehow like the rests of his fancy incentives we'd all gawp at it as it never materialised! We'd have been too embarrassed anyway. A few years later and suddenly we saw some of these hill farmers on TV. The sub-contractor, chameleon-like, had turned rebel leader for the mo' and had organised a protest against a visiting Tory Minister of Agriculture and had been accused of splattering him with eggs. Oh, come on guys, Che Guevara was also President of the Cuban State bank!
So let's say in the blockades of early September 2000 there was something of all of this in the mix of people involved but with the addition that some were reasonably sized business people, though the really big trucker firms like the Eddie Stobarts', it seemed, didn't get involved. It was a liquorice allsorts, a rag tag army, a Pandora's box of expectation defying accurate description. True, some had been strike-breaking truckers as the TUC said, itself hiding behind its own, far worse, brutal strike-breaking intent. Equally, some had been involved in »The Winter of Discontent« and more than a few, with the closure of the pits, were ex-miners, heirs of that great, aborted insurrection. And it's probably because it was such a mix with an undefined, though clearly palpable, »worker« element that truckers on the outside were able to make friendly and instant contact with tanker drivers on the inside of the depot - many of whom also weren't employed directly by the oil companies either!
Much ideologically was made (up) at the time (in the TV and press) that the drivers »trapped« inside the refineries were union and those on the outside were non-union trying to create a calculated separation which just couldn't hold water. Thus, TGWU representatives were shown hard at work persuading drivers to get the oil supplies moving to the garage forecourts, spurred on by TGWU boss Bill Morris at the annual TUC conference venomously condemning the protestors mouthing on about »anarchy cannot rule« etc (Interestingly, a month or so later, some anarchists would object to the paid-up, bureaucratic role of Bill Morris and the TUC, but in both viewing the protests as reactionary, there wasn't much difference between them). For a brief moment, something else started to unfold. Possibly, some TGWU aide or subscriptions officer tapped Bill on the shoulder and said something like: »Hey man, cool it, some of these truckers in the blockades are union members. Remember, they use our legal services because the Labour Government abolished legal aid for salaried people plus other basic shit. I mean, hell, you wanted to modernise the TU movement and now we've got no choice but to go along with that. Hey, and incidentally, we don't want to lose any more members just when membership is on an upturn because where'd our secure salaries be if we fucked our members out. I mean, hell, we're not fat cats but shit it would be nice to be one.« Sure, they would not have talked »American« like this, but this is the American executive style they would like to imitate having nothing in common with the workaday world of the American working stiff. Suddenly their bad mouthing, along with more enlightened members of the Labour Government, e.g. Minister of Transport, ex-Trot, Gus »Lord« McDonald, became more subdued, and some of these protestors acquired first names.
The week of protest rolled on. Traffic was visibly disappearing from the roads. The streets of Manchester during the day were errily empty apart from buses. It looked beautiful. London was like having a permanent Sunday on the roads and the air smelt so much cleaner. If this was an anti-eco protest, as the leftists would have it, in immediate practice it wasn't turning out like that.
On the same week, Reclaim the Streets had a meeting in London to discuss preparations for S26 in Prague. A good friend went along to see what RTS were saying about the blockades. It seems it wasn't even mentioned, even though this was by far the biggest thing since Poll Tax in '89/'90. There were a few passing comments in the pub later but it had the aura of the typical »petite bourgeois« slant, which, to be sure, could spark off something more authentically radical - but later! The whole Pandora's box of goodies and baddies simply escaped them and »hope« - the last surprise in the box - certainly wasn't the last thing to leap out. Surely, wouldn't this have been the time to proclaim a big instantaneous street party seeing everybody was getting on their bikes as well as chatting to each other about what was taking place? The social/psychological carapace was being broken again, and adding a more intense bit of communication - like throwing a street party - could perhaps, in such moments, rapidly help in further defrosting growing isolation and real, real silence. If it's supposedly anti-eco because in immediate terms the protest was about the price of fuel, why not add an unequivocally clear and ringing eco dimension?
In other ways - and hard facts again - you could say RTS can't distinguish global from global. Though this was the first international strike across Europe, it was also a revolt by a threatened farming community against globalisation in agriculture. Farming now has moved on from simple agri-business to vast ranching administered by agronomists, seed and fertilizer specialists with close links to powerful bio-tech multinationals like Monsanto and owned by huge financial bodies mainly ensconsed in the City of London and Wall Street. Make no mistake about it, these ranches are well in the wings in these islands. These vast ranches worldwide will inevitably compete with each other, and one thing is for certain: it's the final curtain-call for the folkloric sodbuster of Hollywood mythology. Shane and Jo Starrett have finally lost the battle between cattle rancher Ryker backed up by Jack Pallance as that »mean lean gun-slinging sun of a bitch, Wilson«. Generally for ecos though, peasants in India burning GM conditioned rape seed are OK but small farmers from the south west of England using the issue of fuel on which to hang their many grievances are merely reactionaries, possibly racist little Englanders or basically only worthy of some such other charming description.
Perhaps though, the most remarkable aspect of the blockade (on the streets though, people actually referred to it as a »strike«) were the growing permanent roadside meetings and encampments which developed around the refineries. Although assembly is perhaps too strong a term, they nevertheless daily grew in number in many parts of the country as people joined them from all walks of life. People who were simply fed up to their teeth and wanted to see something happen.
This was especially true of Stanlow, south of Liverpool in Cheshire and Grangemouth on the west coast of Scotland. It was at first a trickle of people which got bigger daily and could possibly have become a flood if the blockade hadn't been called off so quickly. Families turned up (the kids enjoyed larking about), taxi drivers, builders, women kiosk caterers, unemployed people, the odd toff and business person as well as those welcome but nutty eccentrics you always get on such occasions. Most importantly - once at the roadside assemblies - no matter what - anybody who was there regardless of status, job or gender - was given the right to vote on immediate practical proposals like should tankers be let out for essential deliveries to such and such a place, should we contact so and so, should we ask for blankets, should we stay, should we ignore police directives etc? A magician at Stanlow between odd bouts entertaining the assembly with his tricks was also occasionally putting up three to five hands when voting.
In many ways this was the most remarkable aspect of the strike-cum-blockade. This type of ultra-egalitarian, direct democracy hadn't taken place in these islands for a long, long time and probably before trades' unionism existed in what can loosely be called »an industrial dispute«. Perhaps the last time was in the late 18th century? Who the hell knows? And does it matter? Although, during »The Winter of Discontent«, there were lorry driver blockades, if you weren't a transport union member you wouldn't have been allowed to vote in the ad hoc raodside meetings. Thus, the city of Hull in East Yorkshire in the winter of '79/'80 was effectively blockaded by striking lorry drivers who themselves decided what provisions/services etc could or couldn't enter the city. It was terrific. It was memorable. But would these truckers have allowed anybody to turn up and have a say in their decisin making if they didn't have a TGWU union card? Even though this was rank 'n' file unionism at its best, potentially pointing to the transcendence of the union form, would these drivers, in the inspirational cold of that snow bound winter and which now seems so long ago, have made such an imaginative though necessary leap?
It was precisely this ultra-open, assembly form that looked as though it was beginning to get out of hand - and very quickly. And there's the rub. There was nonetheless a contradiction between the hauliers/farmers and the meeting itself: finally, hauliers and farmers because they had rightly acquired such prestige through an authority based on audacity, were able to call off the protest and without a great deal of fuss. Their authority was beginning to hamper the flow of that drift they had themselves set in motion. Basically, they'd got scared of their own power and recoiled before their strength. Possibly they saw how small in number they were - 2 to 3 thousand actual truckers and farmers at most - yet their success had begun to throw up in days a situation of dual power which was hovering dimly on the horizon. Who wouldn't be scared by such responsibility? They perhaps could feel these meetings/assemblies, particularly the big ones, were beginning to take on a rhythm of their own: the hot heads (from where and who knows and who cares) were beginning to let fly with their tongues.
They capitulated and how! At one stroke they exposed their own naivity and lack of experience using all the old, time-honoured, foolish arguments about moral high grounds, good will via a placebo »breathing space« of 60 days etc. They snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Even the most wooden of trade union strike proceedings wouldn't have left it like that. No agreement; no piece of paper with some signature; no nothing!
It's the one thing you can't do when faced with the blood thirsty UK state, especially when it concerns outright protest and direct action from below. The Dracula State here with its fangs still dripping with the life blood of miners, seafarers, dockers, urban rioters and anybody else who simply wanted to be really different and authentic, simply isn't going to recognise goodwill. All it recognises and suppers on is WEAKNESS. Interregnums merely give it time to go in for the kill. Many an old lag from the old battlles shook their head in disbelief. Hadn't some of the protesters said during the blockade that they now realised something of what the miners had been through in '84/'85 and from unlikely quarters such as Essex truckers? Sure enough, apart from a few soothing, mealy-mouthed words, the only thing the State is actively doing is making certain, with the assistance of the Confederation of British Industry, Police Chiefs and the TUC, that no such event must ever take place again, even if it means destroying the livelihood of every rebel trucker and small farmer. And they'll do that through the way they know: fines, expropriations and debts rather than jail and martyrdom. That's the modern way. The way of money.
Dave W., London, late October 2000