Britain: Lindsey refinery, Workers show their strength

Strikes repel attacks on jobs and conditions

Shades of the miners’ strike – mass protests, car park meetings, loud hailers that don’t work. Not so much flying pickets as flying texts and emails leading to spontaneous unofficial walkouts and ‘illegal’ strike action. The anti-trade union laws have been brushed aside without a thought.

Each day brings news of more power plants and construction sites walking out. There’s a feeling of: “We must strike while the iron’s hot. Enough is enough. If we don’t win this we’ll be signing on for the rest of our lives.”

Out of the frenzy of activity comes improvisation and initiative. National trade union leaders who were secretly holed up in a four-star hotel were tracked down and forced to accept strike committee representation in any negotiations.

So far we can’t make direct contact with the Italian workers that have been bussed in and accommodated on a barge in Grimsby dock, rumoured to be a prison ship. They are fenced in by security. The strikers need to reach these workers and leaflets have been produced in Italian.

But an Italian TV station did an interview with strike committee members which will go out in Italy and be seen by the Italian workers on the ship.

There’s massive anger against the companies like Total and subcontractors Jacobs and IREM. There’s anger against the EU and their directives and court rulings but mostly against Gordon “Thatcher” and “On yer bike” Mandelson.

There’s a real sense of betrayal by Labour. The BNP have been bounced off from this site and not been back. Yes, there are one or two union jacks and Brown’s promise of “British jobs for British workers” is reflected in some home-made hand bills. But nearly all the strikers will tell you it’s not about the foreign workers, it’s about the national agreement. It’s about jobs, pay and conditions, about trade union strength and stopping this race to the bottom.

The Lindsey oil refinery strike committee issued a call on Monday 2 February to spread the strike into an all-out strike to force the government and employers to concede the demands.

In the first meeting with the strike committee, Total said there would be no negotiations until the strike was called off and the workers returned to work. 48 hours later, on 4 February, they capitulated.

They initially conceded that UK workers could have 60 (40 skilled, 20 unskilled) workers on the IREM contract.

In addition some other concessions were promised. Socialist Party member Keith Gibson recommended rejection of the company’s proposals to a mass meeting on behalf of the strike committee. The meeting discussed them for half an hour and overwhelmingly rejected them as not enough.

The company then made an offer which means half the jobs will be filled by UK workers, parity with IREM’s own workforce. They have also agreed that all the workers will be paid according to the national agreement. The unions will be able to see the details, so they can ensure that national agreements are being complied with.

No Italian workers will be laid off, only 100 of whom are in Lindsey as yet. All the Italian workers are a core workforce for IREM so will still be employed by them.

So, as The Socialist goes to press, the strikers could be on the verge of a significant victory. The new proposals will be recommended by the strike committee to a mass meeting on 5 February.

But the strike committee know this is only the beginning of the campaign nationally. There’s a meeting of the national shop stewards forum on 9 February to plan where to go from here. There’s already a big demand for at least a march on parliament.

Socialist Party members and supporters have influenced the strike around a clear set of demands:

  • No victimisation of workers taking solidarity action.
  • All workers in UK to be covered by the NAECI agreement.
  • Union-controlled registering of unemployed and local skilled union members with nominating rights as work becomes available.
  • Government and employer investment in proper training/apprenticeships for the new generation of construction workers. Fight for a future for young people
  • All immigrant labour to be unionised.
  • Trade union assistance for immigrant workers, via interpreters, to give right of access to trade union advice – to promote active integrated trade union members.
  • Build links with construction trade unions on the continent.

History of the oil refinery action

Organising real trade unionism

Keith Gibson, GMB, personal capacity. elected onto the unofficial LOR strike committee.

A ninety day redundancy notice was issued around mid November 2008 at Lindsey Oil Refinery (LOR) to the workers employed by Shaw. This meant that by 17 February 2009 a number of Shaw’s construction workers would be made redundant.

The day before the Christmas holiday Shaw’s shop-stewards reported to the men that a part of the contract on LOR’s HDS3 plant had been awarded to IREM, an Italian company. The stewards explained that Shaw had lost a third of the job to IREM who would be employing their own core Portuguese and Italian workforce, numbering 200-300.

Stewards and union officials asked to meet with IREM as soon as possible after Christmas to clarify the proposal – would IREM employ British labour?

Shaw’s workforce were told that the IREM workforce would be housed in floating barges in Grimsby docks for the duration of the job, they would be bussed to work in the morning and bussed to and from the barge for lunch.

Stewards were told that IREM workers would be paid the national rate for the job; to date this has not been confirmed. After Christmas the nominated shop stewards entered into negotiations with IREM.

Meanwhile, a national shop stewards’ forum for the construction industry held a meeting in London to discuss Staythorpe power station, where the company Alstom were refusing to hire British labour, relying on non-union Polish and Spanish workers instead.

It was decided that all ‘Blue Book’ sites, covered by the National Agreement for the Engineering and Construction Industry (NAECI), should send delegations down to Staythorpe to protest against Alstom’s actions. The workforce on the LOR site sent delegations.

Workers’ solidarity

Then, on Wednesday 28 January 2009, Shaw’s workforce were told by the stewards that IREM had stated they would not be employing British labour. The entire LOR workforce, from all subcontracting companies, met and voted unanimously to take immediate unofficial strike action.

The following day over a thousand construction workers from LOR, Conoco and Easington sites assembled outside LOR’s gate to picket and protest. This was the spark that ignited the spontaneous unofficial walkouts of our brother construction workers across the length and breadth of Britain.

This worker solidarity is against the ‘conscious blacking’ of British construction workers by company bosses who refuse to recruit skilled British labour in the UK. The workers of LOR, Conoco and Easington did not take strike action against immigrant workers. Our action is rightly aimed against company bosses who attempt to play off one nationality of worker against the other and undermine the NAECI agreement.

The BNP should take heed, UK construction workers will not tolerate any racist attempts to sever fraternal relations with workers from other nations.

Response from Italy

Christine Thomas, Lotta, CWI Italy

The strike is big news here in Italy. Inevitably the press and media are portraying it as an “anti-Italian strike” – a strike for “British jobs for British workers”.

The anti-immigrant Lega Nord, who are in the government, are ‘warning’ that similar ‘anti-foreigner’ protests will soon break out in the north of Italy.

But Giorgio Cremaschi, a left leader of the metal workers’ union Fiom attacked neo-liberal “social dumping” policies that try to foment a “war amongst the poor”.

“If the Italian workers are being paid less than the British workers and their conditions are worse, this strike is a just one” he said. “We have to fight for equal conditions”.

We have translated the Socialist Party strike leaflet and posted it on our website. It’s also on the website of Controcorrente (a group on the left of the Prc – Party of Communist Refoundation).

Staythorpe power station

“It’s all about money”

Steve Score

Construction workers at Staythorpe power station, near Newark, Nottinghamshire walked out on strike on 2 February. But there have been regular protests outside since September. At the time of writing, some of those who walked out on strike have been threatened with the sack. I spoke to workers on the picket line.

Unite branch secretary, David Smeeton, said: “They plan to bring in 800 foreign workers and the contractors are refusing to even consider local workers for the job, yet there are hundreds of local people who could work. We built the last two power stations here.

“I have been out of work and campaigning here for six months. There are skilled welders which the Jobcentre wants to retrain as fork lift drivers, yet there are none of those jobs available.

“You can’t blame the foreign workers, we might do the same, it’s the employers.

“The reason for this is that they want to cut cost. It is all across the industry. Yes they may say on paper that they are paying the same wages.

“But we know they will get it back off them one way or the other: deductions for accommodation, deductions for buses, etc. We have no way of checking what they will really be on.

“Even though there is a recession in this industry there are plans to create thousands of jobs over the next 20 years, for nuclear plant decommissioning, new power stations and so on.

“Employers want to cut labour costs on those.

“There have even been proposals they want to get through the European Union that contractors can bring their own national conditions and health and safety rules.

“It’s all about money.”

The diary of a striker

Colin Trousdale, an unemployed blacklisted electrician, involved in some of the recent protests, sent us a diary of the last few months:

  • 30 July. Employed on Ferrybridge power station.
  • 31 October. First round of redundancies. Remaining workforce given assurances that their jobs are safe until Christmas and beyond.
  • 8 December. A chosen few of redundant workers brought back, ‘out of scope’ of the agreement, purportedly to do commissioning works.
  • 12 December. Made redundant, ‘out of scope’ workforce doing our work, same situation at Fiddlers Ferry.
  • 15 January. Meeting at Haydock with Derek Simpson, general secretary of Unite. He asked us to attend the mass protest at Staythorpe, which was picked to be centre of protest by union leaders.
  • 19 January. Set out at 2.30 am to travel to Staythorpe. Arrived 6.15 am in torrential rain. Upwards of 200 protesters and I counted 45 police, plus dogs and horses. They corralled us in on a grass verge at the side of the road. Union officials arrive two hrs 15 minutes late at 8.15 am.
  • No loudhailer, no platform, no real means of addressing assembled protesters. Thoroughly drenched people tried to leave, only to be prevented by police with dogs. Protest broke up about 8.45 am.
  • 28 January. Set out at 2.30 am to travel to Staythorpe. This time union leaders arrived at same time equipped to address the lads, upwards of 200 again from all over the country.
  • Crowd addressed by various union officials and one beautiful old Scottish firebrand who called for us to take urgent unofficial action.
  • As he did so a mobile phone rang in the crowd – the Lindsey oil refinery had walked!
  • Travelling home, the radio and our phones kept us informed as others joined the fight. It warmed our hearts.
  • 31 January. North west Labour Party meeting in Preston. 50 protesters. Admonished by area union official for altering my placard to ask Unite the union to stop slavishly funding the Labour Party.
  • Collected a couple of hundred signatures for the petition to ask that the employers honour our national agreement, including a few MPs.
  • Although I couldn’t get the MPs to sign my Campaign for a New Workers’ Party petition. You would be surprised how many signatures I got from Labour Party members attending the meeting.
  • 2 February. Heysham, Fiddlers Ferry and Sellafield join us.

Striking at Fiddlers Ferry

Christian Bunke and Andy Ford

The 70 construction workers picketing Fiddlers Ferry power station, Widnes, were clear about the reasons for the action. European directives on ‘posted workers’ allow sub-contractors to pay below the union and national rates for the job, driving down pay and conditions in the race to the bottom.

They said: “This dispute is not racist. It is to do with big companies ripping up agreements. They sign them and rip them up. Every industry has had its contracts ripped up, and new ones imposed – always to the workers’ detriment. The workers have had enough. It has to stop, no more rhetoric. And the union leaders should lead, and lead by example!”

There can be no ‘level playing field’ while companies pay workers working abroad the (lower) wage rates of their home country. It’s not about discriminating against migrant workers, they need to be unionised and on the union rate for the job. Steps the unions have taken in this direction need to go further.

The lone BNP-er at the picket was politely but completely ignored by everyone else. Six copies of The Socialist were sold, every picket took our leaflet, and we will continue to support the workers in this and the related disputes arising from the construction companies’ onslaught on jobs, pay and conditions.

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February 2009