Wildcats and migrants and oil (oh my!)

Note: this was written fairly casually and as such does not represent any kind of formal “position” so much as a reflection on events so far.

This Friday saw workers at oil refineries and a range of other sites around the country downing tools and walking out on strike in protest at their treatment by their employers. The actions were provoked by the use of migrant workers – predominantly Italian and Portuguese – at a power station in Lincolnshire, but have spread around the country, encompassing a range of oil refineries, nuclear power stations and other energy infrastructure. The actions have created a great deal of controversy, due both to their unofficial nature and the nationalist element perceived by many.

Much of the latter controversy has centred around the slogan “British Jobs for British Workers.” The slogan – used by Gordon Brown and adopted by some strikers during protests – has led to criticism of the strike from some quarters as simply racist. A deeper examination of the issues yields a different picture, however. As quoted by the Guardian on Friday, interviewing a striker:

“I was laid off as a stevedore two weeks ago. I’ve worked in Cardiff and Barry Docks for 11 years and I’ve come here today hoping that we can shake the government up. I think the whole country should go on strike as we’re losing all British industry. But I’ve got nothing against foreign workers. I can’t blame them for going where the work is.”

While far-right, nationalist and racist groups have tried to co-opt these actions, they have been universally rejected and kicked out by the workers.

The issue is class, not race.

Solidarity actions continue to spread, while strikers at the original oil refinery have agreed the following program:

No victimisation of workers taking solidarity action.

All workers in UK to be covered by National Joint Council for the Engineering Construction Industry Agreement.

Union controlled registering of unemployed and locally skilled union members,with nominating rights as work becomes available.

Government and employer investment in proper training / apprenticeships for new generation of construction workers – fight for a future for young people.

All Immigrant labour to be unionised.

Trade Union assistance for immigrant workers – including interpreters – and access to Trade Union advice – to promote active integrated Trade Union Members.

Build links with construction trade unions on the continent.

The perception of events as being largely or exclusively about nationalism is one which has been enthusiastically promoted by the media, as can be particularly noticed in this video clip. In it, a clip from one BBC news broadcast shows a striker claiming that he “can’t work with” the foreign contractors. In the second, the same interview is shown, yet the striker clarifies that this is meant in a literal sense – their work force is segregated.

Similarly, an article reporting on a walkout at Langage Power Station managed the following:

600 WORKERS have walked out in a wildcat strike at Langage Power Station in protest at the use of foreign workers.

Jerry Pickford, regional officer for Unite South West, said the workers had walked out in support of similar action across the rest of the UK.

The union, which says it does not condone the unauthorised strike, says the entire workforce, including hundreds of Polish workers, is unofficially on strike today.

While the strikes began as unofficial actions by workers acting independently – in part due to union laws prohibiting secondary strikes – many unions have issued statements and taken involvement with the strikers. In particular, Unite has issued a three point plan for dealing with the dispute, as follows:

1. Resolve the immediate problem that exists at Total’s Lindsey oil refinery. Reach an agreement which gives fair consideration for UK labour to work on the contract.

2. Carry out an investigation into the practices of contractors and subcontactors in the engineering and construction industry. Follow by action from the government which will insist that companies applying for contracts on public infrastructure projects, sign up to Corporate Social Responsibility agreeements which commit to fair access for UK Labour.

3. Overturn European legal precedents which allow employers to undercut wages and conditions. A European Court of Justice precedent gives employers a license for ‘social dumping’ and prevents unions form taking action to prevent the erosion of UK workers’ pay and condition (see notes to editors).

These strikes, regardless of the nationalistic language used by many, are a manifestation of very real concerns over unemployment and poverty at a time when jobs are being cut around the country.

Further, as described above, the participation of “foreign” workers in the strikes and calls for migrant workers to be unionised point to a complexity in the situation which goes beyond the simple “local vs foreign” concept portrayed by the media, and identifies the more fundamental issue – the employed and the employer.

Capitalism places workers in competition with one another based on a variety of criteria, one of which – alongside race, sexuality and gender, among others – is nationality. Yet we are strongest when we work through these boundaries. In many cases, the use of migrant workers is seen as desireable due to being able to offer lower pay and working conditions, and the knowledge that these workers are often less likely to unionise.

At the centre of the dispute is the Posted Workers Directive. As pointed out by BBC News:

What is interesting to me is not that the compromise plan proposes half the jobs going to British workers, but that the Italian company has accepted that all its workers on this job will get the standard terms and conditions as negotiated in the past by British unions. The company says they were anyway, but few of the protesters believe them.

European case law suggests that the company could be allowed to pay the Italians below the going rate. The European Court of Justice established that precedent in the Laval judgment.

The Latvian construction company, Laval, had been hired to build a school in Sweden. The EU rules say that companies must obey the minimum standards of the host country, such as maximum working hours and the minimum wage. Sweden has no minimum wage, and all such standards are set by agreements between unions and employers. Laval was expected to sign up to these conditions but refused. After a strike and many twists and turns the ECJ ruled the unions were in the wrong. Ever since then the European trade union movement has been asking for the rules to be rewritten, so that foreign companies are made to respect union agreements in host countries, or in that unlovely phrase “an end to social dumping”.

Efforts to organise unions on an international scale, and to bring migrant and local workers together on the same level, offer a real chance to work past the boundaries used to keep us apart and move push for common interests together.

This strike – with its militancy, energy, confidence and speed – is, however imperfect, an inspiration.


1 comment so far

  1. […] oil, politics, strike, union, wildcat | Workers at the Lindsey oil refinery, scene of recent wildcat strikes, have voted to end the strike: Striking workers at Total’s Lindsey oil refinery voted on Thursday […]

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