In the last week of January 2009,
industrial action began at the Lindsey refinery in Lincolnshire. Swiftly the
strikes spread to Grangemouth in Scotland, Wilton in Cleveland and all over the
country. By Friday January 30th 3,000 skilled workers were out from
11 plants. On Monday February 2nd thousands more joined the action. Sellafield
workers at the nuclear reprocessing plant in Cumbria, Didcot power station,
Longannet, Staythorpe, Milford Haven, Selby, Warrington and Aberthaw have all
walked out. The Times headlined it as the “Dawn of new age of industrial
unrest.” This is a well-organised, co-ordinated movement, which is unofficial
and completely illegal under UK anti trade union laws.
The movement has been part of a wave of
protest that has been sweeping Europe since the latter part of 2008. Greece has
been convulsed by action by school students and a sequence of general strikes.
Riots and demonstrations have occurred in almost all East European countries –
in Latvia, Ukraine and Hungary, to name just three countries where workers’
anger has exploded in 2009. In Iceland the government has just been forced to
resign. And in France millions took part in a general strike against cuts and
austerity on January 29th.
The basis of this mood of anger is the
rising awareness of the way the consequences of the current crisis is likely to
impact on the jobs and conditions of ordinary working class people. In Britain
it is no different. As we have pointed out elsewhere, this consciousness
necessarily develops unevenly at first.
As a news item, the dispute has been
highlighted by pictures of workers carrying placards with the slogan, ‘British
jobs for British workers.’ This, of course is the very phrase Gordon Brown used
in 2007, purloined from the fascist BNP. We condemned the slogan as racist at
the time. It remains a racist slogan. We do not support workers displaying
these placards. We are for the unity of all workers against the strokes and
manoeuvres of the bosses
Most of the workers on strike are aware that their enemy is the employer,
IREM in the case of the Lindsey refinery. That, after all, is who they are
striking against. One striker is quoted in the Times (30.01.09), “The argument
is not against foreign workers, it’s against foreign companies discriminating
against British labour,” he said. “This is a fight for work. It is a fight for
the right to work in our own country. It is not a racist argument at all.”
But it is also true that the BNP and other fascists are creeping around the
fringes of this action. They should be told very firmly to get lost. In some
places they have indeed been kicked off the picket line. Fascists have never
been friends of the labour movement.
Gordon Brown has now denounced the workers’ action. In doing so he has to in
effect repudiate his own racist dog whistle slogan. ‘British jobs for British
workers’ is not just divisive. It quite simply can’t be delivered under the
rules of the European Union, which commits all member states to ‘free movement
Does that mean the workers’ action is
misguided and futile? Not at all. The situation at Lindsey, a situation
replicated all over the country, is that construction work around these sites
is subcontracted out. Lindsey is owned by the US firm Total, which contracts
engineering work out to Jacobs, which in turn has hired IREM, who employs
Italian and Portuguese labour. The reason is not far to seek. Average monthly
wages in the construction sector in the UK are £2,160; in Italy they are
£1,386; and in Portugal just £614 a month. These foreign workers are being
accommodated in barge hostels moored in the North Sea, described as ‘Soviet
style’ in standard.
The British workers are fighting to
maintain wages and conditions in the industry. Though we don’t support the
slogan, ‘British jobs for British workers,’ we support their fight. British
workers are in effect being excluded from consideration for the job through the
operation of the subcontracting mechanism. IREM will bring in their entire team
to do the job. The job vacancies will not be advertised in Britain. In the
relentless search to drive wages to the bottom, British workers are effectively
being discriminated against by IREM. If that is not illegal, it ought to be.
There is a ruling class offensive against
workers taking place through the institutions of the European Union. The
European Court of Justice has issued a number of hostile judgements in
interpreting the application of the Posted Workers’ Directive (which deals with
workers’ conditions when working abroad) as narrowly as possible. Socialist
Appeal will return to this bosses’ offensive later, as it has important
implications for all workers within the EU. Basically the Court has given the
green light to employers to shop around the European labour market in order to
drive down living standards throughout the continent.
Through the morass of subcontracts they hope
we cannot impose the responsibility bosses have to honour standards and
conditions that have been collectively agreed. They aim to divide us in order
to rule us. Our response must be to maintain standards by fighting for the rate
for the job for all workers, British or foreign.
One of the ironies of the situation is that
the repressive Tory anti trade union laws have been kept on the statute book by
New Labour. As a result the action is unofficial and Brown and co. can’t appeal
to the naturally cautious trade union leaders to rein the movement in.
For their part the trade union tops are
furious with New Labour for their supine acceptance of the EU-wide bosses’
offensive until it has blown up in their faces. The unions have been raising
the dangers posed by the Posted Workers’ Directive for years, and got an
agreement from the government in 2004 at Warwick to legislate to defend
workers’ conditions. Unfortunately New Labour was too busy grovelling to the
bosses to do this.
Paul Kenny, general secretary of the GMB
union, comments, “Understandably UK workers are angry that they are excluded
from jobs simply because they are British. The Labour government has been made
aware of this issue and had promised to sort it out, but they have failed to
keep their promise.”
The workers’ action is actually aimed at bosses
who use the thickets of subcontracts to tear up national collective agreements
that British trade unions have campaigned for decades for to maintain standards
in the construction industry. The workers are involved in a just struggle that
should be supported. It will only succeed if the movement is based upon the
principle of working class unity.