Several hundred construction workers from sites all over Britain protested at the Olympic site in east London last week.
They demanded nationally agreed terms and conditions for all workers, an end to the use of blacklists against union activists, direct hiring of labour rather than the present system of subcontracting, and trade union control of recruitment.
These demands should be strongly supported by everyone. Several sites were forced to close around the country, including BP Dimlington in Hull and the Lindsey oil refinery, as workers walked out unofficially to join the protest.
After massing outside the site, the protesters went to parliament where they held an impressive lobby.
Activists were at pains to stress that the demonstration was not aimed at foreign workers. Owen Morris, a construction activist from the London Unite union, said, “This protest is about making sure everyone on this site is covered by the national agreements that ensure all workers get the proper rate for the job.”
There is growing pressure for a national construction strike against the use of blacklists and against wage-cutting.
Jerry Hicks, who recently did well in the general secretary election for the Unite Amicus section, told the protest that “unions should be organising for action, not abandoning you to the dole”.
Formally the dispute was not about “British jobs for British workers”.
And when a few people displayed posters with this toxic phrase on them, other workers persuaded them to put them down. But politically these protests remain on a knife-edge.
Nobody seemed to think it problematic that there were, at best, only a handful of workers from the Olympic site itself on the protest. This made it easy for the media to characterise the protest as being against the employment of “too many” foreign workers on the site.
And there are many workers who do think this is the problem. Some speeches fed this sentiment.
Local Respect councillor Abjol Miah claimed, “Tower Hamlets residents now count for only 2 percent of employment on the Olympic site.
“Even that is exaggerated as the figures do not distinguish between long-term residents in the borough and those only living here while they are working on the site.”
It is no good then adding – as he did – that he is not against foreign workers.
In truth many workers have contradictory ideas, with a typical view being, “We want all workers to get the same rate of pay no matter which country they are from, but they cannot undercut people and we must protect the British workforce.”
Such a view can be directed towards a united struggle against blacklists and to enforce national agreements, or it can lead to “anti-foreigner” feeling.
The destruction of building jobs is not about “foreigners”.
It is about a raging capitalist economic crisis, the lowest rate of house building since 1924, the virtual elimination of council house building, and rapacious companies seeking to cut wages and break unions.
It is absolutely right for socialists to be part of these construction protests, to seek to widen the action against the blacklist and to push for national action.
But this has to be coupled with continual arguments against blaming foreigners.
The model should be the dispute at the Isle of Grain site in Kent in March. Pay rates for foreign workers were increased after unions threatened industrial action.
Subcontractor Remak was found to be paying its workers £4 less than the nationally agreed rate.
A contract handed to the GMB union by one of the Polish employees in question was passed onto the coordinators of the project, the multinational Alstom, who was forced to enforce £14 an hour.