Unite - or Divide? The Aftermath of the Lindsey Oil Refinery Strike

Nationalism and the Unions

In the aftermath of the Lindsey oil refinery strike, the Unite General Secretary (for the ex-Amicus bit), Derek Simpson was pictured (between two models) on the front page of the reactionary Daily Star holding a Union Jack with the “British Jobs for British Workers” on it. The Daily Star later ran an article claiming that they had won the strike with their support for “Britons First”. All this is a pack of promotional lies. It was the solidarity and self-activity of the rank and file workers that won the struggle. And the truth of the matter is that the vast majority of the workers who took part in the strike rejected the nationalist agenda which the press and the unions tried to impose on it. As the strike ended, the strike committee finished with the call “Workers of the World Unite”, and was greeted with cheers by the workforce.

However, the battle here is not over. The union adoption of Gordon Brown’s “British Jobs for British Workers” sound bite was no accident. Simpson, the union boss is engaged in a fight for his job within the union and the union, like unions everywhere, has no qualms about playing the nationalist card. Simpson, a former Communist Party of Great Britain member, is, after all, now a member of the Labour Party. He is at one with Brown on this. It was therefore no surprise that the union responded to the anger that had built up at Lindsey when several workers were sacked by the sub-contractor by immediately (indeed surprisingly quickly) issuing glossy banners with the Unite and GMB logos on them announcing that the aim was “British Jobs for British Workers”. From the start, the workers involved were defending themselves against the idea that they were narrow-minded nationalists (one of the strike committee was himself half-Italian). And the worst thing is that although the strikers won 102 new jobs there are plenty of other disputes around the UK where the same “Britons First” agenda can be used by the union. At Staythorpe Power Station (Nottinghamshire), the main contractor Alstom refuses to use local workers and a picket has been in operation for months. A similar fight was going on, until yesterday, at the Isle of Grain Power Station owned by EON. Here it was discovered that Polish workers were getting about £10 an hour instead of the nationally agreed £14 an hour. On top of that, they were having to pay for their own protective equipment (again banned under the industry national agreement). This sort of information was not available at Lindsey, as the bosses are trying to keep it secret. Once it became public Alstom quickly caved in and now have officially demanded that the Polish sub-contractors (Remak) on the Isle of Grain site implement the national agreement (this is of course another pretence, as if Alstom did not know what was really going on). The good news is that means the same pay levels for Polish workers and is not just a case of Britons first.

The real problem about this playing of the nationalist card by Unite is not with construction workers but with the wider working class, since the media are able to claim workers as “protectionist” and “nationalist”, which a few undoubtedly are. In the long run, though, the aim of our rulers (and this includes the unions) is to divide and rule. If they can get workers of different nationalities (or even regions) at each other’s throats then driving down wages will be easier. And, as our bosses get more desperate in the face of this crisis, there will be more tricks like this.

We should not forget that the unions have supported every war the British government has entered. They have called for no strikes and signed agreements to stop them. They are the policemen of the class struggle in the national interest. But the national interest is the bosses’ interest. It is the same set of interests which are now demanding that we accept job cuts, wage freezes (now cuts) and cuts in the social state.

The appeal to nationalism is not unique to the British trade unions. It is common to trade unions throughout the world. In the United States, the AFL-CIO is campaigning for a “buy American” provision in the economic stimulus bill proposed by the Obama regime. Leo Gerard, head of the US United Steelworkers union, went further. He called for Americans to “assert themselves as economic patriots” and attacked US businesses for “wanting to spend the tax dollars of unemployed Americans to create jobs in China and Indonesia, Korea and India.” The same thing happened over the threatened closure of Opel where the German union leaders spoke to mass rallies. They did not blame capitalism, or the management of GM-Opel, for the projected layoffs, but the US workers who were being “protected” by the US government.

Cowley Workers Sold Down the Thames

In part, a lot of the union nationalist rhetoric is also to disguise their past failures to defend their members. British workers don’t suffer because Britain is in the EU (although the nationalists from Labour to the BNP campaign act as if it was the case). In actual fact the British workers suffer because successive British governments offer less protection for workers than any government in Western Europe. This was one reason for the strike at Lindsey Oil Refinery.

It was further underlined by the sacking of 850 BMW workers at Cowley (Oxford) on 16th February. Those abruptly sacked were mainly agency workers, working on the Mini line. Many of them had worked at the plant for years. BMW could not have got away with this in Germany where agency workers enjoy greater employment rights (since the British Government has refused to implement an EU directive on giving agency workers the same rights as permanent staff). Thousands have recently lost their jobs in the British car industry but the Cowley workers could be forgiven for not seeing this coming so quickly as BMW made massive profits last year on Mini sales. These workers were sacked because they were the most vulnerable.

The company also did not tell the workers until the end of their shift (as they feared sabotage if the workers were warned). It was left to the Unite union officials to explain what was going on. But their explanations only angered the workers more since it was revealed that this decision was not so sudden. Apparently the union had been involved in negotiations for several weeks and were aware of management’s intentions, but had concealed this from their members. Naturally, this outraged many of those present and they demanded to know why the union had not told them it wasn’t defending their jobs. One union steward apparently told the meeting that they did not dare tell the workers for fear of getting the sack themselves! This inflamed the meeting more and workers demanded their union dues back saying that it was a waste of time and money. Others pelted the officials with fruit (the meeting was in the canteen), one taking a shot of it for YouTube.

The Unions Fight is Not Our Fight

What these strikes demonstrate in different ways is that no group of workers wanting to fight the various attacks which the capitalists are and will be launching can rely on the unions. With their bloated bureaucracies which are unaccountable to the membership, with their acquisition of millions of union dues which they don’t spend on strike pay but do spend on the pensions funds of their officers they are no longer the unions that were set up in the nineteenth century to fight wage cuts, etc. Unite pays two general secretaries about £200,000 each, and last year lost £11 million of their members’ money in the stock market. We don’t have to go much further to demonstrate that they support the system. In the months ahead, capitalists will tell workers in struggle that they will have to be realistic. This is already being echoed by the unions (as in the deal fixed up by Unite at Toyota for a year long 10% pay cut). But capitalist realism means asking us to pay for their crisis. Workers who want to resist will have to rely on their own efforts. They will need to set up strike committees independent of the union and these strike committees will have to seek solidarity one with another in order to defeat all the manipulations of management, the Government and their union allies.

Some, sadly, still put their faith in electing really militant union leaders, but history shows that it is not a question of individuals. Simpson was supposed to be the real militant to replace the Blairite toady Sir Ken Jackson. Now Simpson follows exactly the same line in putting the national interest before our class interest. And it has been the same with every union leader ever elected because the nature of the beast is that they become the agents of the state in negotiating worse conditions for labour. Our solidarity is our weapon and we cannot let anyone else undermine it. This is why our slogan is still “workers of the world unite”: not behind reactionary union slogans, but in solidarity with the fight of all workers in all lands.


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