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Deceptive denigration of Lindsey strike
Lindsey refinery: workers show their strength, photo Keith Gibson
The strike by the Lindsey oil refinery construction workers at the end of January and beginning of February was an inspirational struggle against the 'race to the bottom'. It was supported by thousands of other construction workers who took supportive strike action at the same time, including hundreds of Polish workers on a Plymouth power station construction site.
Not since the heady days of the 1970s and 1980s was there a strike wave like it. The result of the strike was a massive victory for those who took part and it gave heart to tens of thousands of others who saw that it is possible to fight back against the growing threat of unemployment.
Yet there is a concerted attempt by some on the left, particularly the Socialist Workers Party, to rubbish the strike and what it achieved, by concentrating on negative elements that were undoubtedly present but that were not the dominating feature of the struggle, nor influential in its eventual outcome.
Their criticisms stem from the fact that some of the strikers used the slogan "British jobs for British workers", which was partly a reaction to Gordon Brown's 'promises' in 2007 when he used the same phrase. Some of the strikers took the slogan from "BearFacts", a construction industry website.
As strike committee member Keith Gibson explained in The Socialist, this came about as a result of a lack of leadership when the strike started. The shop stewards' committee, perhaps following instructions from their union Unite, had resigned to stop the union becoming legally liable for the unofficial strike action of their members, leaving a vacuum.
However, this was rectified when an 'unofficial' strike committee was elected and Keith became its chief spokesman. The committee agreed a set of demands which included:
● All [engineering construction] workers in the UK to be covered by National Agreement in the Engineering Construction Industry (NAECI)
● Union controlled registering of unemployed and local skilled union members, with nominating rights as work becomes available
● All immigrant labour to be [trade union] organised
Other demands included calling for the repeal of the 'posted worker directives' of the European Union which allow non-UK companies to be exempt from industry-wide collective agreements such as the NAECI. Their workers do not have to have the same wages and protected conditions as the UK trade union organised workforce.
Public meeting on lessons of the Lindsey oil refinery strike with Keith Gibson (speaking) and Jerry Hicks, photo Paul Mattsson
However, at the end of the strike, the strikers had won the right to make sure that workers brought in from abroad are employed on NAECI agreed pay and conditions. Also, the French oil company that owns the site, Total, was forced to open more of the jobs up to unemployed construction engineers, many of them from Unite's own unemployed register.
Under the leadership of the strike committee, this was not a strike against the employment of foreign labour, but was against the use of the capitalist EU laws which allow workers to be brought in from abroad without being part of the national 'blue book' site agreements. The workers knew that this was the real issue and not the use of foreign labour per se.
But it seems that, since the strike, the SWP and some other groups on the left are doing their level best to undermine its achievements by focussing on the issue of 'British jobs for British workers' (BJ4BW).
The SWP has even produced a pamphlet entitled Why BJ4BW Won't Solve the Crisis, of which only two pages are devoted to the strike itself. The pamphlet mentions that the final deal meant that of the 198 construction jobs involved, 102 would go to local previously unemployed construction workers, but does not mention that none of the foreign workers (Italians, etc) would lose their jobs for IREM, one of the companies contracted to carry out the work.
It also approvingly mentions an Acas report that found "no evidence" that the contractor companies had "broken the law in relation to the use of posted workers" and that gave assurances that the contractor companies will abide by the NAECI agreement. But the law on posted workers only entitles them to 'minimum' labour standards, not NAECI standards, and this Acas report containing assurance of abiding by NAECI standards was only produced following the pressure of the workers' action.
Unite has produced evidence that Polish workers on an Isle of Grain construction site, brought in by a Polish subcontractor, have been getting up to £8 an hour less than the trade union negotiated rate.
Race to the bottom
In the case of the Isle of Grain, and the Staythorpe site in Newark as well, the jobs were advertised in local job centres but not a single local worker applying for them ever got an interview. Why? Because the jobs had already been filled by overseas contractors, bringing in their own workforces en bloc. It was a ruse by the bosses to get around equal opportunity employment laws, and everybody knew this. That is why there was so much anger, sometimes unfortunately and completely wrongly aimed at the overseas workers by a few.
In the case of Lindsey, it was when the UK-registered contractor Shaw lost part of the contract, that Italian contractor IREM was allowed to bring in its own workforce to fill the jobs, in the process stopping anybody else getting a look-in, including those made redundant by Shaw.
It is not only wages that are important. The importation of workers who are not part of national union agreements, or even members of any union (IREM is a well known anti-union employer in Italy), is a real threat to trade union organisation on these sites.
If it had been allowed to continue without opposition, this could have fatally undermined all that the highly unionised workers had fought for. This was the gut understanding of the unionised workers themselves.
The concerted attempt by the SWP to muddy the waters seeks to feed on the very real fears of migrant workers and others when they see the media's promotion of the slogan 'British jobs for British workers'. Migrant workers and others justifiably fear that such a stance, if it was in reality adopted, would be at their expense.
The Socialist Party has consistently opposed the BJ4BW slogan and has never closed its eyes to the dangers that exist if slogans of this nature become predominant.
But after decades of neo-liberalism and attacks on trade union organisation, is it any wonder that there is confusion in the minds of many workers as they see the looming threat of mass unemployment? As a result, some, especially when they don't see a progressive alternative, seek to blame immigrant workers.
It is the responsibility of socialists in these circumstances to put forward demands that clearly identify the real enemy, the bosses of the major construction companies, to cut across any turn to racism and nationalism and not allow workers to be divided. This was the role played by the Socialist Party alongside others.
Every struggle, after the period workers have been through, will contain elements of confusion, including wrong demands. But the job of socialists is to see what is primary and what is secondary. The SWP rightly gives full support to the struggle of the sacked Visteon workers despite the flying of nationalist flags by some of those workers, but draws a contrived line of division between the Visteon workers and the Lindsey workers.
The SWP has chosen to 'big up' the BJ4BW slogan as the main feature of the Lindsey strike, seemingly for sectarian reasons because of the central role of the Socialist Party in that strike. To suit this purpose, Martin Smith, the author of the SWP pamphlet, exaggerated the presence of the British National Party (BNP) in the Lindsey dispute in an article in Socialist Review.
He wrote: "You don't have to take my word for it - Tony Woodley, the joint secretary of Unite union, told the Financial Times 'The British National Party are seriously and sizeably involved'". Since when have the words of Woodley been gospel, a 'leader' who has not organised the might of his union in support of the Lindsey or Visteon workers, and who has kept his own distance from their struggles?
The racist BNP did attempt to intervene in the construction strikes but they were ignored or chased off the picket lines. If it had been left up to Martin Smith and his party then indeed the BNP might have been able to make some headway, but the conscious intervention of the Socialist Party and other left trade unionists elevated the need for workers' solidarity in struggle, and that is what came to the fore.
The SWP leaflet given out on the Lindsey picket line said: 'Those who support this strike are playing with fire'. What could this mean, except 'don't support the strike'? Yes, unfortunately they got it wrong, and all that they say now is a result of their wrong position from the beginning.
In The Socialist 15 April 2009:
Stop the slaughter of Tamils
Socialist Party election campaign
Socialist Party workplace news
Youth fight for jobs
Marxist analysis: history
Socialist Party editorial
Socialist Party campaigns
International socialist news and analysis