Britain: Construction workers’ strike scores victory at Lindsey oil refinery

Lessons of the dispute

The deal between the Lindsey oil refinery strike committee and the Total oil company, the refinery owners, has set the benchmark for dozens of other sites throughout Britain and, in fact, throughout Europe. This heroic struggle by 1,000 plus construction engineers in the refinery (supported by walk-outs in 20 plus other sites. as well), who were working on different contracts throughout the site in north Lincolnshire, has resulted in a victory for the workers.

It was a victory against the bosses of Total (the French oil company that owns the site) but also against the whole neo-liberal regime that operates across the EU. In the process, it exposed the anti-union laws as irrelevant when the mass of workers move into struggle.

The workers have been guaranteed 102 of the 198 jobs that are available in that part of the contract operating inside the refinery that was building a new chemical facility (HDS3).

As Keith Gibson in his article in last week’s The Socialist explained: “The original contractor Shaw’s, had been told that they had lost part of the work to an Italian company, IREM, who would bring in their own workforce from Italy and elsewhere to do the job”.

As a result, Shaw’s had told the shop stewards on the site that some of their members would be made redundant from 17 February to make way for the Italian workers.

What was crucial in this was not the fact that they were Italian or Portuguese but that they would not be part of the “national agreement for the engineering and construction industry (NAECCI)”. Why? Because under the EU directives, backed up by the European Court of Human Rights, this would be seen as a "restraint on trade" and therefore against the freedom of movement of labour and capital enshrined in the EU capitalist club’s rules and regulations.

It does not take a rocket scientist to work out that this is a bosses’ charter and nothing else. The bosses like nothing better than to have full freedom to do what they like without the trade unions interfering (in this case the British trade unions but it goes for any Europe trade union, as well).

The press gave prominence to the slogan “British jobs for British workers”, which was displayed by some of the strikers at the mass meetings. It failed to see (and how could you expect the rabid capitalist press to do anything else?) that the strikers’ case was simple; they were being excluded from jobs on the site by the sleight of hand of the bosses under the cover of “the right of labour and capital to be shifted without restriction to any part of the EU.”

As we said in last week’s ‘Socialist’ editorial, “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."

The existing one-sided EU laws and directives give the bosses complete carte-blanche to bring in workers to work on less pay and worse conditions in the “host country” as long as the minimum conditions of their home country is applied.

They do not have to be in a union and it was clear that the IREM workers were not in a union, Italian or otherwise. The Italian union confederation CGIL leader, Sabrina Petrucci, told the Morning Star (6 February) that IREM is a notorious non-union firm.

But the struggle was more even than this. It was a struggle for control of the workplace by the workers themselves. If the Total managers, as owners of the site, and the Italian contractors, IREM, had their way, they would have driven a huge wedge into these elements of workers’ control that had been wrested from the management on the site over the whole previous period.

Part of the deal, and a major breakthrough, allows for the shop stewards to check that the jobs filled by the Italian and Portuguese workers are on the same conditions as the local workers covered by the NAECI agreement. (The Lindsey oil refinery is what is known as a ‘blue book site’ and all workers on it are covered by the NAECI agreement).

This means in practice that, on a day-to-day basis, the union-organised workers will be working alongside the IREM-employed Italian workers and will be able to “audit” whether or not this is the case.

This was a fundamental demand of the strikers when they adopted a central list of demands at the mass meetings, including “all workers in UK to be covered by NAECI Agreement and all immigrant labour to be unionised.”

As an extra safeguard to maintaining trade union organisation on the sites, the strikers also accepted a demand put forward by the strike committee of the need for “Union-controlled registering of unemployed and local skilled union members”

This is exactly what the capitalists do not want and, from their point of view, it is indeed a “restraint on trade”, i.e. their right to exploit their workforce without the union having any say in it.

Built into the agreement, as well, is that the shop stewards on the site will be able to keep the Italian company in check by regular liaison meetings.

In the 1970s, some of the best organised workplaces were in effect closed shops, either pre-entry or post-entry. What the Lindsey strikers are demanding quite correctly is a form of pre-entry closed shop. That means that if the contractors on site need more labour then they have to go to the union for this labour, from its unemployed register. In other words, you have to be in the union to be on the register.

The alternative to trade union control over “hire and fire" is the bosses having that right instead and, in this case, who will they give jobs to? Not to the trade union activists! As is too often the case, a bosses’ black-list is widely used in the industry. The fight for this demand to be put into practice will be part of the ongoing struggle between the workers and the bosses over who controls the workplace and, therefore, in whose interests will the workplace be run.

The Left

To their shame, some on the Left were completely taken in by the headlines in the capitalist press during the dispute, which highlighted the “British jobs for British workers” elements of this struggle. What they did not realise or refused to face up to was that the whole previous period had led to this battle. If this dispute developed a year ago, it is likely that it would not have developed as it did. What was new in the equation was the rapid onset of mass unemployment threatening every worker in Britain and across much of the globe.

The economic crisis has created a fear amongst workers not just for their jobs today but what jobs will there be for their children in the future. In the previous period, it was possible for the workers to get jobs on other sites.

A feature previously was the blacklisting of union activists on different sites, which led to localised battles in the past in the ongoing class struggle over who runs the sites – the management or the unions?

Now the whole workforce of some 25,000 who specialise in skilled construction engineering on major projects, such as oil refineries and power stations, are becoming increasingly aware that things are changing. In fact, some 1,500, at least, are unemployed.

Recently, the trade unions were preparing, through shop stewards organising on a national level, to take on the bosses. But the whole thing was precipitated suddenly, as Keith Gibson explained in last week’s Socialist newspaper, when Total gave a contract to IREM before Christmas (or at least gave it to an American company, which, in turn, sub-contracted out to IREM).

The timing of this was not an accident. The Total bosses were using the downturn in the economy to give the work to a contractor who did not have to bother with trade unions, as most of the British contractors on the major building project were forced to do under normal circumstances.

The capitalist politicians, like Labour Business Minister, Pat McFadden, bleated that the principle of free movement had been breached by the deal. He meant “freedom” for the bosses to move labour across the continent, hiding under the EU laws backed up by the courts (and against the interests of .workers, everywhere) to undermine trade union organisation.

This “freedom” has indeed been breached by the strike which has in the process struck a blow against the ‘race to the bottom’ and has introduced a more level playing field.

What it opens up now is the need for much more co-ordination amongst all the European unions and particularly the shop stewards organisations, at site level but also at national and indeed on an all-European level, as well to come together in a massive campaign to spread the victory of the Lindsey oil refinery workers across the whole country and the EU.

Socialist Party member, Alistair Tice, adds:

Pressure had been building due to Alstom’s refusal to employ any UK labour on Staythorpe Power Station construction site. Several protests have taken place, including delegations from LOR.

Confirmation that IREM would not employ any UK labour was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The shop stewards recommended that they stay in procedure but a meeting of Shaw’s workers demanded immediate action and voted to walk out.

This meant that the unofficial strike began without any leadership and without any clear demands. The vacuum that existed in first 2 or 3 days was filled by home-made posters downloaded from a construction workers’ website and called for ‘BJ4BW’ [‘British Jobs for British Workers’] – throwing Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s words back at him. Although this slogan was never a demand of the strike the media seized on it, to present the strike as ‘anti –foreign labour’.

This misrepresentation of the strike in the media caused a reaction amongst the strikers who made clear in interviews and conversation that the strike was not racist or against migrant labour but against the exclusion of UK labour and against the undermining of the national agreement. The BNP [far right party], contrary to media reports, was not welcome on the picket line

The active intervention of the Socialist Party (CWI England and Wales) was an important factor in the outcome of the strike. SP member, Keith Gibson, who was not a steward, was elected onto the strike committee that was set up last Friday and by that afternoon had become its spokesperson. This was due to Keith’s reputation over many years as a militant trade unionist. One worker was overheard saying: “Gibbo’s up there now. He’s top-drawer. He’ll get it sorted.”

The Socialist Party distributed nearly 1,000 leaflets to strikers last Monday, which stated that the strike was not against foreign labour but to stop the ‘race to the bottom’, and “Trade Union jobs, pay and conditions for all workers” should be the slogan and not ‘BJ4BW’. Also proposed was a clear set of demands which Keith got adopted by the strike committee and was carried at a mass meeting. Keith’s speeches always emphasised the common interests of all workers against the bosses.

By Tuesday and Wednesday, although still a couple of union jack flags were seen, all the BJ4BW posters had gone. In their place were placards in Italian appealing to the Italian workers to join the strike and another which stated “Workers of the World Unite!” (as commented on by Seamus Milne in the Guardian newspaper).

What this shows is the mixed consciousness that exists and the effect that the conscious intervention of socialists can have in bringing forward class demands and pushing back any reactionary ideas that exist, as a result of years of little struggle and the absence of class politics.

Ultra-left critics of the strike (and of the Socialist Party) never engaged in discussions with the workers. They preferred to believe the capitalist press reports and so dismissed the strike as reactionary, racist or xenophobic. If the Socialist Party had not participated actively in the dispute, there are dangers that such attitudes could have strengthened. Instead, a marvellous victory was achieved that lays the basis for unionising foreign workers and strengthening class unity.

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February 2009