Socialist Worker

The bitterness that lies behind the wildcat strikes

by Simon Basketter
Issue No. 2137

The anger against the growing impact of the economic crisis broke out last week in Britain.

Some 6,000 workers across over 20 construction sites at power stations and oil refineries have taken unofficial action by walking off the job.

Clearly workers are furious at the mounting job losses in construction and are fearful about what the deepening recession holds for them.

But what is less clear is why the unions, in the face of thousands of job cuts, have chosen to focus their attention on foreign workers on the sites.

The current dispute was sparked at the Lindsey Oil Refinery in Lincolnshire. Work was given to the subcontractor IREM, an Italian company, which the workers say is refusing to hire people from the local area.

Workers walked out in protest on Thursday of last week – and unofficial walkouts soon spread.

The action was taken in defiance of the anti-trade union laws and shows the potential for workers to fight back against the effects of the recession.

But the dominant slogan of the protests, “British jobs for British workers”, directs the anger and frustration over unemployment and job insecurity towards workers from overseas.

One Unite union rep at the Fiddlers Ferry site on Merseryside who joined the walkout summed up the contradictions of the dispute. “This dispute is not just about foreign workers,” he said.

“It is about the breaking of terms and conditions of a national agreement by companies in employing foreign labour at lesser wages than those which they have previously agreed to.”

In a similar vein Danny Melia, a Unite senior shop steward at the South Hook Plant in Milford Haven, said, “This is not a race issue.

“We just want British workers to have a fair crack of the whip.”

Yet he went on to say, “They should exhaust all the available British labour first before turning to foreign workers.”

Many who have come out in solidarity with the Lindsey workers have done so in protest against the subcontracting system.

But too often the focus has become foreign workers. Beneath the cautious statements, there is open hostility to non-British workers on the placards and shouts against foreign workers at the rallies.

This is why the filth of the Nazi British National Party (BNP) have been sniffing around.

Of course they do not win support from many workers – strikers were right to chase the BNP from the picket line in Lindsey.

But it is a warning as to where nationalistic slogans can lead.

They give confidence to every petty bigot and racist on the sites.

But the union has encouraged these slogans in the construction industry.

Unite quite spectacularly refused to fight over the job cuts at Corus, Perkins Engines, Nissan, and others.

In contrast Derek Simpson, joint general secretary of Unite, has been keen for the union to back the current protests and their nationalist agenda.

One Unite union official said, “These foreign workers that they bring in will be sending their money home and giving nothing back to the local economy where they are based.”

Using the cover of Gordon Brown’s poisonous slogan, “British jobs for British workers”, the unions are helping the building bosses along.

The conciliation service Acas has been brought in to resolve the dispute in Lincolnshire. How the dispute is ended is important.

Will it involve the removal of the Italians from the site – something that clearly some, but not all, of the protesting workers want?

The unions used to demand that all workers on construction sites should be taken into direct labour, as opposed to being subcontracted to work for different companies.

But they have now stopped talking about this.

In the current dispute, some protesters have rightly demanded that migrant workers are unionised.

At the same time others have protested outside the Italian workers’ accommodation shouting at them to go back to Italy.

The focus of the unions, disgracefully, has strengthened the conservative elements rather than the more radical.

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