Wednesday, 8 March 2017

BBC News rewrites Zeebrugge disaster story of March 1987

The BBC news this week rewrote history in its coverage of the events of 7 March 1987 when the ferry 'Herald of Free Enterprise' overturned in the Belgium port of Zeebrugge and 191 passengers and crew members lost their lives. According to the state broadcaster the deaths were the result of a crew member failing to close the bow doors as it departed from the port. This led to water flooding in to the ferry and overturning it.

So no mention of the fact that the ferry owners, P&O, had ruthlessly reduced the turn around times between docking the ferry and its return to Dover with crew members forced by management to work to an almost impossible time schedule. All, of course, designed to cuts costs and boost profits. The ferry — and others operated by P&O - often departed with its bow doors closing rather than departing after the doors had been fully closed. The result was a tragedy in which it should not be forgotten that many crew members — including plenty who died as a result — were heroes as they ignored their own safety to rescue as many passengers and fellow crew members as possible. The BBC coverage must have left those crew members who are still alive today extremely hurt. It left me feeling very angry. 

P&O, of course, expressed regret for the tragedy but nevertheless pushed on with trying to maximise their profits by cutting jobs, lengthening the remaining workers hours and cutting their pay. On 6 February 1988, 2,300 seafarers, all members of the National Union of Seamen (NUS) began strike action against a company that had just announced record profits of £51.7 million. For almost two months P&O ferries lay idle. But when the National Union of Seamen leadership were threatened with an injunction of the union’s funds if they balloted all its 21,000 members for strike action they climbed down. 

Then at Easter 1988 the company announced that it had de-recognised the NUS and was pulling out of the Industry's National Maritime Board agreements. Sealink NUS members in Dover, recognising that this was an attack on the union in general and the rights of seafarers to defend themselves, decided not to cross the P&O picket lines.

It was thus Sealink management who took the NUS to court for secondary picketing as NUS Sealink members across the country escalated their actions and all Sealink ships came to a standstill. The key now was to stay out and get others out. Flying pickets were needed to take the message to all ports throughout the country.

The courts ordered the sequestration of the NUS assets. At first, with his members supporting him, NUS leader Sam McCluskie threatened defiance and the potential for mass defiance of the anti-trade union laws opened up.

But after just 9 days, and only 3 days after a 2,000 strong supporters' march in Dover, the union purged its contempt and ordered Sealink workers back to work. Sealink workers reluctantly agreed, leaving P&O workers on strike on their own. The workers were not prepared or able to disobey their union leadership.
Ultimately this was the key point in the strike, a threat to all ferry operators in Britain became replaced by a dispute between an increasingly isolated workforce and a confident anti-union international employer supported by the Government, Police, Media and Courts.

Strikers continued picketing, money continued to be raised for families and to maintain the support kitchens operating in the Dover area, speakers continued to raise the issues at meetings and demonstrations. Yet the strategy to win the dispute remained absent, indeed many strikers seemed reluctant to even ask 'how to win?' as the dispute dragged on until it was formally abandoned by the NUS after 16 months. A few years later in 1991, the P&O executive chairman, Sir Jeffrey Stirling, was made a Baron in Margaret Thatcher’s resignation honours list. He still sits today in the House of Lords. 

Mark Metcalf

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