Workers protesting at the Lindsey Oil Refinery in Lincolnshire returned to work on Monday of this week after management promised an additional 102 jobs would be made available to “British” workers.
Unions had recommended a deal brokered by Acas, the conciliation service, under which “British” workers will be offered 102 jobs, including 67 skilled welders, electricians and platers previously earmarked for Italian and Portuguese workers at the plant.
None of the existing Italian workers have lost their jobs, though some of those living on a former prison ship in Grimsby harbour claimed to reporters that they could not leave it without being attacked.
Early in the dispute, protests took place outside the ship demanding the Italians go home. The Italian workers will still be housed the ship.
Phil Whitehurst, GMB union steward at Lindsey, welcomed the outcome but predicted that more protests would soon flare up at other sites over the issue.
“It was an excellent decision. We have now got the chance to go back to work but the fight does not stop here.
“We have got the MPs worried. I think we have got Gordon Brown worried. I don’t think they know how to deal with us. We are not trying to bring the government down, we’re just trying to get them to listen.”
Tony Ryan, a shop steward for Unite said, “We’ve agreed to go back to work because we’ve reached our objective. We didn’t want British labour to be excluded and now they are not going to be.”
Some 6,000 workers across over 20 construction sites at power stations and oil refineries took unofficial action as part of the dispute.
But the poisonous slogan, “British jobs for British workers” – which Gordon Brown used at the Labour Party conference in 2007 – was disarming.
It narrowed down the anger behind the dispute into simply being a question of the number of foreign workers on sites.
Lindsey workers argue that the dispute will make it easier to involve the Italian workers in the union.
However a group of 40 Portuguese workers at the Lindsey site have already returned home “for security reasons”. The Portuguese subcontractor said it intended to send them back to Britain.
However, Cesar Rodrigues, one of those forced to return, denounced Britain as racist in comments to reporters at Lisbon airport.
“I worked for several years in the Netherlands and in Germany, often among skinheads, but I never encountered racism – in contrast to my experience in Britain where I could not last for more than a week,” he said.
The Nazi British National Party (BNP) has picked up on the slogan. At some of the picket lines the Nazis got a hearing, although workers chased them off others.
One of the protestors at the Lindsey site told Socialist Worker, “I hate the BNP and everything they stand for. They hate unions and trade unionists should hate them.
“I’m not protesting about foreigners. I am fighting for a job and a decent job at that. But I don’t think there is anything wrong with saying British jobs for British workers.”
Many workers insist that the strikes were about defending trade union rights and conditions against their undercutting by unscrupulous employers, importing cheap labour.
Workers across the industry are furious at the mounting job losses and the constant attack on working conditions.
John, an electrician, told Socialist Worker, “Jobs are going everywhere. We need to do something about it.
“The big sites are where we have to use the organisation that we have, otherwise they will use the recession to massacre us.”
Behind the rash of strikes in the construction industry lies a concerted attempt by multinational construction companies to tear up hard-won agreements covering the safety, wages and conditions on multi-million pound sites.
The Financial Times reported building bosses admitting to using the subcontracting system to try and hold down militancy in the industry.
That’s the real reason groups of workers are being shipped in – the competition of the subcontracting system.
Workers have a habit of talking to each other, which is why any worker familiar with national agreements is kept off the sites. It’s not because they’re British, it’s because they might know their rights.
The engineering construction sector lost more than 22,400 days to unofficial action in the last year to November.
This equates to almost one day’s action for each of the roughly 25,000 workers. This is about 32 times higher than the average rate of strike action for the British workforce as a whole in the same period.
The employers’ worst nightmare is illustrated by what happened at Cottam power station in 2006. Workers started comparing pay slips with the Hungarian workers that German multinational RWE had shipped in via an Austrian sub-contractor.
Of course the Hungarian workers weren’t on anything like the national agreement. They joined the union, demanding the rate for the job, and were promptly sacked and sent back to Hungary.
One Hungarian worker, Barnabas, hitch-hiked back to Cottam and spilled the beans – sparking an unofficial strike.
The employers learned from this experience. But the union didn’t. Now, as shown on the Lindsey site, subcontractors are making sure the workers they ship in do not mix with anyone who knows anything about the terms and conditions.
The answer is not to argue about hiring a quota of British workers, like Unite has done at Lindsey.
It is to demand that all construction workers are paid the rate for the job and to fight against the subcontracting system that is driving down pay and conditions across the industry.