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8 March 2018

Woolwich ferry workers win automation campaign

A Unite member

The news has been filled with reports about the robot future and while it gets the odd mention, there has been relatively little detail reported about the impact on workers - save for the occasional sensational headline warning of a robot take over.

Unite the Union has correctly given the matter priority attention and produced informative reports. More importantly, Unite members working on the Woolwich Ferry in London have shown how to take the matter on in the workplace. This October will see the delivery of new, hybrid boats. The technology involved will make a number of jobs on the ferry no longer necessary - mainly in the onsite workshop. The employer put forward a reorganisation plan, which involved compulsory job losses and pay cuts.

The union responded by uniting workers in order to deal with a challenge that will be increasingly common as automation advances. This challenge, where older groups of workers may wish to take the opportunity of a retirement or redundancy package but where equally there are workers who cannot afford to leave and want to fight for their conditions, requires a campaign that takes up the demand of both groups.

To the immense credit of union members on the ferry, this is what was agreed and on this basis, a ballot for strike action took place with 98% of members voting for strike action on a turnout that also beat the threshold set by the latest anti-trade union legislation. This forced the employers into serious negotiations where the union held the line that both sets of workers' demands must be met.

The leverage from the strike ballot forced the employers to agree a no-compulsory-redundancy process, a three-year pay protection arrangement for those moved jobs where nearly all workers will receive 100% pay protection, enhanced redundancy terms for those who do volunteer to leave now, a pay increase this April and the option of enhanced redundancy terms for workers who do not accept voluntary redundancy at this stage but who are unsuccessful when applying for a job later on in the process.

Clearly, there is a bigger picture whereby the unions must nationally be calling for automation to benefit workers, with more leisure time without loss of income and alternative employment. The victory won by the Woolwich Ferry workers, building on the campaign they won last year against sexual harassment and breaches of health and safety, shows that campaigns can be won at a local level - and should be used as examples for a national response.

This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 8 March 2018 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.

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