Energy Construction Workers’ Strikes in Britain - A First Response to the Economic Crisis

The Causes

As the recent “wildcat” strikes by workers at the Total oil refinery have spread, so have the images of them holding up placards with the slogan “British Jobs for British Workers.” The media have covered the story as a racist backlash against foreign workers, but the real situation is far more complex.

The slogan itself is a direct quote from Gordon Brown’s speech to the Labour Party Conference in November 2007. At the time there was a wave of panic over immigrant workers from Eastern Europe which Brown was trying to address. Even the Conservative leader, Cameron, mocked it for its xenophobia and its pandering towards the neo-fascist British National Party (although the slogan was originally that of its predecessor the National Front).

The strikes themselves have their origin in events late last year when an Italian firm, IREM won a sub-contract worth £17 million (out of the main contract of £200 million) for construction work. IREM stated that it would bring in part of its own permanent workforce to carry out the “specialised” work, and at the end of 2008 over100 Italian workers were brought to the nearby seaside town of Cleethorpes, where they are accommodated on a ship moored in the North Sea. 300 more workers from Portugal are expected to join them on two more vessels soon. There are a number of things that are not clear since the terms of the actual contract are secret. Although Total denies that wage-cutting is involved it seems strange that IREM would go to the expense of hiring floating accommodation when there are thousands of skilled construction workers lying idle locally. Unemployment in Lincolnshire has risen 47% in the last few months, and currently in the UK 2500 workers are losing their job every day (unemployment is now near 2 millions and rising fast) and 600 small businesses a week are closing. Construction is naturally one of the hardest hit since financial speculation and inflated house prices went hand in glove.

What seems to have been the last straw for the workers on the site was that a British sub-contracting firm called Shaws was told in the New Year that it would lose one third of its work. The workers, with a certain degree of logic blamed, the IREM contract for this loss of job opportunities, and that provoked the walkout.

The Widening Strikes

Since then the number of wildcat walkouts has multiplied with 400 walking out at the ConocoPhillips refinery in South Killingholme and a further 300 at the same firm’s power plant at Immingham. This were followed by 100 at Dimlington gas terminal, Yorkshire, 700 at the INEOS gas terminal at Grangemouth, Scotland (the same workers who struck to defend the pensions of all workers last year), a further 500 at three power plants in Scotland and 200 more at power plants in Cheshire and South Wales. On Monday 2 February 800 construction workers at Sellafield (British Nuclear Fuels) also voted in a mass meeting to walk off the job in solidarity with the Lincolnshire strikers. They were joined later that day by 400 workers at Longannet Power Station in Fife. This impressive show of solidarity in so short a time is partly due to the nature of the work. These workers are used to going from contract to contract and there is a grapevine in which they contact each other about work. A text message or phone call soon alerts mates who are working on other sites as to what is going on. However there is no doubt that Unite, and the other union involved, the GMB, started the whole thing off as the glossy printed posters Unite provided from the start shows. They had to maintain the fiction that the strikes were “wildcat” ones, out of their control to avoid the charge of breaking the law.

Not surprisingly the Labour Government has condemned the strikes, but they have very mixed feelings towards it. On the one hand strikes are bad for business, and they don't want British capital to lose out on the chance of cheaper labour, but on the other hand they have worked hard ever since they took office to promote a sense of national identity and to get workers lining up behind the Union Jack. What's more New Labour has always been the promoter of finance capital and Brown has been the chief architect of this alliance. Brown has ignored the fact that the workers (or rather their unions) are using his own words and called the action “indefensible”. Lord Mandelson, the Business Minister and well-known accepter of “gifts” from the rich, has argued that Total are perfectly within their rights under European law and that the strikers are putting the jobs of British workers abroad at risk. And given the nationalist element, the ruling class media has never been so full of sympathy for wildcat strikers. They have been given the oxygen of publicity like no other strikes in 25 years. The Daily Mail for example published a photo allegedly of an Italian worker giving one finger to the strikers (but was probably aiming at the British press!). Sniffing around it all, like rats on a midden, are the British National Party who smell recruits and votes in all this. They have already tried to get involved in a similar dispute (still ongoing) which began last autumn at Staythorpe Power Station in Nottinghamshire and there is no doubt that there are some elements involved who are receptive to their lies. Their latest trick is to set up a “British Wildcats” website to try to cash in on the Brown slogan the unions have used. Then of course, there's the unions. 'British jobs for British workers' has been a long standing mantra, and the placards being waved were handed out by Unite and the GMB. For all the flag waving, though, many of the strikers have no nationalist sympathies. Many have themselves worked overseas, and most of those that have talked to the press, or signed up to blogs, generally stress that they are not against foreign workers but foreign bosses who deny them work.

The Real Issue

And this is closer to the real issue. The EU is the biggest free trade area in the world ... for the bosses. When they talk of the “free movement of capital and labour” this means that freeloading capital can exploit the cheapest labour so that everywhere they can drive down the price of labour power. The EU’s “posted workers directive” is supposed to prevent the social dumping of cheap labour anywhere. However in Britain the contracts (like IREM’s) are secret and there has been no attempt by any British Government to check them.

As Seumas Milne put it in The Guardian (30.1.09)

“The reality is that EU directives and, even more so, British legislation have encouraged employers to exploit deregulated labour markets to play off one part of the workforce against another and drive down employment costs. Now that jobs are at a premium, organised workers in Britain are no longer prepared to put up with it and are ignoring anti-union laws to make their voice heard.”

At the same time billions have been thrown at bankers who created this economic slump in the first place. Total made £20 billion last year and the shareholders got their dividend but those who created the wealth face job cuts. Workers for too long have passively accepted the decline of their pension rights (which are under even greater attack today) the decline of their standard of living and the increasing job insecurity which has gone with so-called “globalisation”. The construction workers might have the wrong slogan but are giving the right response to the further attacks which the capitalist class are preparing.

A working class fightback is necessary. But not under the slogans of narrow nationalism. If we end up blaming those who face exactly the same problems as we are, we are playing the bosses game. Divide and rule is the order of the day ensuring wage levels will be driven down for everyone. Fortunately most of these construction workers have not bought the nationalist message. This is because they too have had to travel to other countries like Dubai, Germany, and even Kazakhstan, to find work. Our slogan is the internationalist one, and is valid for workers everywhere and that is that all workers should join together and refuse to pay for the capitalist crisis.

In terms of organisation, wildcat strikes are a way forward. Strikes that really do go beyond union control and which instead are run by mass meetings who elect coordinating committees that can be recalled are a model for workers elsewhere. But it will take more than a fight in one sector to hold back the tide of attacks. And far from scapegoating each other British, Italian, Portuguese, Polish, Greek, Latvian... the whole of the working class throughout Europe, and the world, will need to take up the gauntlet capitalism has thrown down. In the months ahead workers of the world really will have to unite to win this one but not under slogans devised by bosses and union leaders.