For many who work for the free Woolwich Ferry service – which has been in operation for 127 years – it’s in their blood. Just ask Unite member Gemma Drury, whose father was a ferry captain for decades. Now, Gemma (pictured below) helps direct traffic onto the ferry.
“I’ve got so many memories of the ferry – my mother actually asked us to stop talking about it, we talk about the ferry all the time. It bores her now,” Gemma laughs. “If I were a boy, I’d probably have started working on the ferry earlier.”
Gemma loves her job, as does Unite member Bob Balkwill (pictured below), a two-decade Woolwich Ferry veteran who, like Gemma, works in traffic control.
“You get to make real friendships with people,” he said. “If I’m on early shifts, I know the guy in the white Fiesta is going to turn up at 10 to 7 in the morning and offer me a cup of tea – I can set my watch on it. And I know the guy in the black Fiesta always comes in and moans about something. You see these people on a daily basis. You develop real bonds.”
But management has now cast a pall on the historic service, loved by so many, which shuttles about 2m passengers and vehicle drivers across the Thames each year.
The service is no longer safe, staff working on the ferry have warned. Dozens of Unite members who are taking the first day of a 12-day planned strike action today (January 27) have warned that operator Briggs Marine bosses have failed to properly maintain the boats. Fire-fighting equipment isn’t sufficient and workers have found toxic E.coli bacteria in the vessels’ water tanks.
But perhaps most disturbingly of all, management have turned a blind eye to a staff member who’s allegedly been sexually harassed for years.
Unite member Colleen*, who has been working for the ferry service for nearly 24 years, says it all started with what at first glance might appear as an innocent comment here and there from a person in management. But then he persisted.
‘It frightened me’
“It made me seriously uncomfortable – it frightened me,” she explained.
Although she had told him repeatedly his advances were not welcome, they’ve continued for years, and like so many women who are harassed by their superiors in the workplace, she’s suffered in silence out of fear.
“It was so hard because all these people are above me. But it got to the point where it was seriously making me ill,” she said. “So I finally decided to speak out.”
Thanks to Colleen’s bravery and the support of Unite reps and her colleagues, she put in a detailed grievance, but management has so far failed to address the issue.
In solidarity with their fellow worker, Unite and GMB members are now standing by her as they take strike action.
Unite regional officer Onay Kasab highlighted how proud he was of the show of support.
“We’ve got this group of mostly men, who are willing to come out and take strike action in support of their female colleague,” he said.
Unite member Barry Smith (pictured above), who has worked for the ferry service for over 30 years, said he was shocked to learn of Colleen’s treatment.
‘Stand by her to the end’
“This sort of thing in this day and age should not be happening at all – it’s totally unacceptable,” he said. “We will stand by her to the end.”
Kasab explained that in addition to management failure to protect the colleague from harassment, along with health and safety issues that put staff and passenger lives in danger, management is also failing to abide by various agreements, which stipulate what staff get paid and when. He noted, too, that a culture of bullying by management has become totally entrenched.
“We’ve lost complete trust and confidence in Briggs Marine,” he said. “What we are saying to Briggs is that they need to bring in an entirely new management team and get rid of this lot here. Transport for London too needs to intervene. They have got some responsibility because the service is run on behalf of TfL. We will keep taking strike action and we’re not going to stop until the employer does the right thing.”
Further strike days are planned for each successive Friday until mid-April – action that Kasab argues is necessary to make Marine Briggs bosses see sense.
“We want the strike action to be effective,” he said. “This isn’t about one day where we just let off some steam and go back to work the day after. This is about making sure changes actually happen. Our member has been sexually harassed for years and she’s now off sick. Management refused to suspend the individual who sexually harassed her despite putting in a very clear and detailed grievance – this is unacceptable.”
Unite member Tony Kane (pictured above), who’s worked for the ferry for nearly 40 years, urges passengers who might feel inconvenienced by the strike to understand their plight.
“I’ve worked here a lifetime – and this is only the second time we’ve taken strike action since I’ve been here,” he said. “This shows we don’t take strike action lightly. This isn’t about money. It’s about standing up for the dignity of our colleagues and the health and safety of passengers and staff alike.”
Kasab warned that bosses must commit to dealing with the issues Unite has presented head-on and explain precisely how they’ll do so.
“If and only if they do so, will we suspend the action,” he said.
In the meantime, the Unite members taking action – their resolve as constant as the Thames – have said they will refuse to back down.
“Whatever it is you believe in, you’ve got to stand together and fight for it,” Colleen told UNITElive. “How else is anything ever going to change?”
*Name changed to protect privacy
Pics by Mark Thomas