Sunday, June 15, 2008

Lorry drivers, empty shelves and a vicious strike

Is there such a thing as a right-wing strike?

September 2000. Lorry drivers are on strike against rising fuel prices. Britain's at a standstill. The scenes on TV are evocative of 28 Days Later: panic buying, mental queues at petrol stations, empty supermarket shelves and anxious old ladies moaning that their local Tesco is running out of supplies. I remember seeing my old university teacher, a staunch leftie Hullite by the name of Shaddy. "Militancy is back, Shaddy", I went, "surely it cannot be a bad thing? These people are taking a stand against the government". I must have sounded like such a naïve prick.

Shaddy shook his head. "Nooo", he said. "You know how I feel about New Lerh-bah, but this time they're doing the right thing not giving up to the strikers". I was taken aback. "What they're doing is seriously reactionary", he continued, explaining why bringing the country to a standstill in the name of lower tax for their own exclusive benefit was wrong. "It's not the Government they should go for", he added, "instead it's the speculators, the big oil companies, they control the lion's share of the oil price and make zillions out of it".

Eight years later, and I can finally see what Shaddy meant. Those eerie scenes are back. Hauliers are on strike across Europe. They've just kicked off in England again and last week, in Spain, they were at the helm of one of the most vicious blockades in history. "La huelga", that's how the Spaniards call it, ground the country to a halt. It brought empty supermarket shelves, mile-long motorway queues and - above all- one dead, dozens injured and hundreds of damaged lorries and trucks. A group of lorries that were not on the picket line were set alight, leaving the driver with 25% of his body severely burnt.

How is that right-wing? The right to strike is sacrosanct, and it goes without saying that if hauliers have resorted to such extreme measures, they must feel pretty desperate indeed. But there are two aspects that should make us feel instinctively unsympathetic to their cause.
One, the way they went about it. The notion that "if I can't eat, then nor will you be able to" is simply vile. You cannot stop a nation from functioning. By all means, go on strike, make your employers feel the pressure, but you shouldn’t directly and intently punish innocent people, let alone the whole country. The Spanish blockade was incredibly aggressive. Those who didn't stop straightaway at picket lines were attacked, their load chucked out and their tyres slashed. The entire nation was literally brought to a standstill. With roads jammed up, hospitals or old people's homes started running out of supplies. Bear in mind lorry drivers are not the only ones who are feeling the pinch with prices -fuel in particular- going up. And until the situation goes back to normal, the short term effect is more expensive grocery items. The hauliers' action affected the most vulnerable people twice over. Can you imagine if each and every category struggling to make ends meet started doing that?

Which begs the second point. The lorry drivers' industrial action was selfish, instinctively anti-society and totally devoid of logic. We all look after number one, but they really took the piss. This vague "blame-the-Government" exercise carries dangerous consequences. Asking the Government to lower their taxes, and impose "minimum tariffs" just for them shows how lopsided their view is. Fuel taxes may not be pleasant, but are essential, both for environmental and redistributive purposes. In any case, especially in the wake of fuel prices shooting up, V.A.T. on fuel is only responsible for a tiny percentage of the price. None of those hauliers, none of them, denounced those who are truly responsible for the current hike: oil companies and oil speculators. How about a boycott of the oil companies who refuse to lower prices? They're the ones rubbing their hands with joy as we all - equally- share the burden of the cost of living going up.

With Euro 2008 under way, has anyone noticed the name of the Bern stadium? Wankdorf, it's called.


Anonymous said...

And this has the effect of making the people support a heavy-handed action of Government against the strikers...which would be a despot's wet dream. Don't think the truckers have thought this through.

Anonymous said...

Exactly, anonymous. When you strike an important factor is the notion of public support. Look at the Firemen in the UK a few years back.