The Workers Who Built Boaty McBoatface Are Fighting for Their Jobby McJobs
Collage by Marta Parszeniew
Remember Boaty McBoatface? That cultural moment when the entire country could barely stifle its collective mirth at the most #epicbanter of all time? Namely: trolling a public vote to name a £220 million research vessel destined for the Antarctic by voting for "Boaty McBoatface"? Looking back, that might have been the real last gasp of culture when the public sphere wasn’t yet dominated by onrushing civilisational collapse. Before Trump and Brexit, we just called boats silly names, or something.
Boaty McBoatface ended up being called the RRS David Attenborough, the fifth choice name in the public vote. And in an even less banterous turn of events, the workers who built Boaty McBoatface are now fighting for their jobs.
Cammell Laird, the Merseyside shipbuilder that won the Boatface contract, was planning on celebrating Christmas this year by attempting to make 40 percent of its workforce (about 300 workers) redundant.
The shipyard bosses claimed that it was a choice forced on them out of economic necessity. There was a lull in work planned at the yard in the new year, and bosses said this made redundancies inevitable. Maybe they forgot that they made almost £6 million in profit in 2017 alone.
The workers and their unions (Unite and GMB) decided that they weren’t going to go quietly, so the Boatface-builders went on strike. A mass walk out on the 23rd of November was the start of a programme of rolling action. Every day, different job roles were out picketing on the gates. One day it was labourers, the next it was fitters and welders, and so on. Despite 80 percent of the workforce being at work (and getting paid) at any one time, the strike was crippling the yard. Ross Quinn, Unite’s regional officer who represents the strikers, estimated that productivity was below 20 percent.
The strike was so effective that the Cammell Laird bosses took to the press to moan that they’d haemorrhaged £1.5 million in the first week of action. But they weren’t backing down – if anything, the bosses were upping the ante. On day three of the strike they decided to officially issue "at risk" notices to some of the striking workers, telling them individually that their job was in the firing line. That didn’t do much to calm the situation, and nor did John Syvret, CEO of Cammell Laird, saying that even more job losses were imminent as a result of the strike.
The three weeks of strike action were initially intended to end on the 14th of December, but the refusal of the yard bosses to consider Unite's alternative plans for getting over the gap in work without redundancies led to the union announcing a further month of action over Christmas and the new year – with strikes scheduled to continue until the 18th of January, 2019.
At this, the bosses cracked, and agreed to suspend the redundancies for at least four weeks if the workers would go back to work. Now, everyone will have a job over Christmas.
But the fight isn’t over. This strike was just the first round. Other shipyards around the UK have seen a decades-long deterioration in working conditions – to the point that now, in many shipyards, only 25 percent of the workforce is directly employed. Everyone else is an agency worker or on a zero hours contract. Quinn fears that this could happen at Cammell Laird: "Our real concern is that if 50 percent of the manual workforce are laid off, they will be replaced with insecure workers, and the impact of that on the local economy, which is already struggling – it's horrible to think about. We're trying to defend the jobs while we've got them rather than complain about the situation when it's too late."
The Merseyside community is aware of the impact redundancies could have on an already struggling community; 34 percent of children in Birkenhead are in poverty. Deindustrialised areas often suffer huge social consequences when core industries contract. The effects of those job losses are felt by the community for decades after. The fight for these jobs doesn’t just matter for the workers involved.
That’s why groups like Fans Supporting Foodbanks, an initiative set up by Liverpool and Everton fans, have been on the picket line. For the workers facing redundancy, the threat of a future reliant on the already-notorious universal credit is haunting them. Fans Supporting Foodbanks have said they are worried that they will end up collecting food for Cammell Laird workers if these redundancies go ahead. At the Everton/Liverpool derby, fans in both ends displayed banners supporting the strike.
For Quinn, this struggle has a wider significance: "100 years ago, in the same place, workers were held in pens. Then the bosses came and told them if there was work that day or not. We're heading back towards those conditions."
And yet, if the striking workers manage to defend their jobs and conditions, they could yet create a historic moment of their own. Preventing what Quinn claims is a return to Victorian hardship, from the wreckage of late-capitalist dominance comes the era of Strikey McStrikeFace
VICE contacted Cammell Laird for comment but received no response.
- boaty mcboatface