Even in a slump, strikes and occupations can get results
A revolution is taking place in industrial relations, the Confederation of British Industry claims, courtesy of the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. A new “solidarity of employers and their employees” has taken hold, John Cridland, the CBI’s deputy director-general enthused this week, as managements and staff roll up their sleeves to take the “difficult decisions” needed to survive the slump.
If so, news of the new understanding clearly hasn’t reached Lincolnshire, where hundreds of engineering construction workers at the Lindsey oil refinery burned dismissal notices on Monday after they were sacked for going on strike – and thousands walked out in sympathy across the energy industry for the third time in five months.
The latest dispute began nearly a fortnight ago, when a subcontractor for Total, which owns the refinery, made 51 workers redundant while another contractor was hiring 61 staff on the same project. After hundreds stopped work in protest and unofficial strikes spread by text and flying pickets across Britain, 647 workers were summarily sacked on Thursday night.
By any reckoning, this was surely a provocative and self-defeating move. Not only had the same workforce already demonstrated its capacity to shut down the site – and significant sections of the wider industry – if it believed agreements were being undercut. But the layoffs were in direct violation of a deal to settle an earlier dispute. Perhaps the idea was finally to bring to heel what one manager described as an “unruly workforce”. But after point-blank refusals to negotiate until the workers had applied for their jobs back, the contractors blinked once again and were back in talks on Tuesday, now due to be resumed .
This was, after all, the same group of workers whose unofficial strikes stopped refineries and power stations all over the country in February after a Sicilian contractor shipped in a non-union, and apparently less skilled, Italian and Portuguese workforce. That first Lindsey walkout was portrayed as anti-foreigner because of “British jobs for British workers” placards held by some strikers, as to a lesser extent was another strike in May over a refusal to take on locally based labour at ExxonMobil’s South Hook terminal in Wales.
In fact, both walkouts were clearly aimed at halting the exploitation of EU directives and European court judgments to undermine the terms and conditions of all workers in the industry, British and migrant alike – which is why hundreds of Polish workers joined the stoppages. And, crucially, they were successful. In a profitable and highly contractualised industry, a tightly knit workforce has turned a fragmentation designed to benefit employers to their own advantage.
Now, as the unions prepare to ballot 30,000 workers to turn the wildcat walkouts into an official strike, they look set to prevail again – just as Grangemouth oil refinery workers and Shell tanker drivers did last year in battles over pension rights and pay. Success seems to be catching.