Britain: Oil refinery and power station strikes

Firm strike leadership gains results

The strikes by construction engineering workers on oil refineries and power stations – that have swept across 22 sites in the UK – is one of the most significant strike waves in recent times.

These workers are involved in a struggle to defend their hard-won trade union-organised conditions in some of the most hostile working conditions in the country. They are out in all weathers, often working at great heights. They are keenly aware of the need for proper trade union organisation as the employers put them under great pressure to finish crucial contracts on time.

This trade union consciousness of the need to act collectively led to the outbreak of these strikes. They know that the employers, hiding behind new EU directives and court rulings, are putting in jeopardy all that they have fought for and won on site after site over many years.

In a magnificent dismissal of the anti-trade union legislation, these workers ignored the laws on issues like ballots and picketing, in order to assert their right to tell the government and employers what they think, and demand changes.

The media has concentrated on the slogans of some strikers that said: “British jobs for British workers” (which have partly or even mainly been a reaction to the same nationalistic phrase that was used by Gordon Brown). On the basis of this, some on the left have drawn the wrong conclusion that these are reactionary strikes.

No workers’ movement is ‘chemically pure’. Elements of confusion, and even some reactionary ideas, can exist, and have done in these strikes. However, fundamentally this struggle is aimed against the ‘race to the bottom’, at maintaining trade union-organised conditions and wages on these huge building sites.

Through firm leadership by the Lindsey strike committee, in which the Socialist Party has played a role, the mass meetings adopted a correct class position of ‘trade union rights for all workers’, making this the overwhelming nature of the strike.

The demands taken up include the need for all workers on these sites to be covered by the national trade union negotiated agreements which set out basic pay and conditions, such as proper breaks from work. The EU courts ‘have deemed these agreements as a barrier to trade’ (Guardian letters, 3.2.09).

Responses to the strikes

The government at one time seemed spilt on how to react to the strikes, with a strident Lord Mandelson trying to convince the workers to go back to work by saying that the EU rules are there for their benefit. Whereas health secretary Alan Johnson, the former general secretary of the postal workers’ union, expressed more feel for the situation by referring to the need to curb the worst excesses of a rampant deregulated EU market.

The trade union leaders have been tardy in their reaction, failing to map out a way forward. But the mass meetings at Lindsey called for the strikes to spread, which happened mainly by word of mouth, by text, email and website. Meanwhile the union leaders have, it seems, worked behind the scenes without the knowledge of the strikers, doing who knows what.

The Lindsey strike committee only found out through the management that two national officials from Unite and the GMB were in talks with Acas in Scunthorpe. Fifty strikers set out for Scunthorpe, where the officials were ensconced in a hotel with Acas. When the strikers got there they were blocked from the hotel by police.

Only by smuggling a note past the police did the strikers get the national officials to come out and talk to them. As a result the strike committee forced their way to the table to ensure that no deals are done behind their backs.

Over the last few months these workers have watched as the bosses attempted to bring labour into the construction sites under the banner of the “posted workers” EU legislation. This means that the bosses can ignore any trade union-organised workforce and replace them with unorganised cheaper workers as long as these workers have the same minimum conditions of the country they come from.

This was tested out two years ago when a Latvian building company won a building contract in Sweden and brought in Latvian labour to work it, disbarring in the process Swedish building workers from working on the sites. The Swedish unions took the employers to court but the EU court ruled in favour of the Latvian company.

Stop the race to the bottom

The EU courts in effect have given the green light for employers to replace trade union labour with unorganised labour. This is what was happening at the Lindsey refinery in Lincolnshire and before it at the Staythorpe power station in Newark, Nottinghamshire.

At Lindsey the contract for new plant was taken from a British company, that had to employ union-organised labour, and handed to an Italian company that was able to hide behind the EU rulings and did not have to employ union-organised labour. The Italian company knew that this was going to be resented and that is why they hid these workers on a ‘hotel’ ship off Grimsby.

There is a long and dishonourable history of the employers using the law to cover up their anti-trade union activities to boost their profits. And during strikes, the bosses will often bring in other workers from outside to attempt to break the strikes.

Marx wrote about the attempts by the British capitalists, at the time of a London hatters’ strike in the 1850s, to bring in Belgian hatters to break the strike. The workers’ international, of which Marx was the leader at the time, put out an appeal to the Belgian workers and they responded by refusing to do the London hatters’ work.

The British construction engineers are some of the best organised workers in Britain. They know that it is not the Italian workers who are their enemies but the bosses who seek to divide workers on racial and national lines when it suits their purpose. The Italian government ministers who are complaining of “English racism” are the same ones who are using the police and the army to drive Romany people from the streets of Rome.

As The Socialist goes to press, a significant climbdown by the Lindsey bosses in the face of the determined workers’ action appears to have been achieved (see front page). A victory at that plant would be an important step forward for construction workers in Britain and beyond, and similar gains will be sought by workers at other plants where supportive action has already taken place as well as action on their own similar issues.

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February 2009