Unofficial strikes involving thousands of construction workers on sites around Britain last week showed both the anger and the contradictions at the heart of the industry.
The strikes were sparked by a walkout on Monday of last week at the Milford Haven gas terminal in Wales.
The workers there complained that the contracting firm Hertel had taken on Polish workers at the company’s South Hook works, breaking a commitment to hire workers locally.
Over 2,500 workers then walked out in sympathy at sites including the ConocoPhillips and Lindsey refineries in Lincolnshire, the Fiddlers Ferry power station in Cheshire and the Aberthaw power station near Cardiff.
The dispute showed the power of rank and file action, with large protests and secondary picketing.
But it also showed the dangers of targeting “foreign workers” or non-local labour.
The strike ended in a “victory” that involved 40 Polish workers being forced out of work to be replaced with “local workers”.
The construction workers involved in the dispute have largely dropped the slogan “British jobs for British workers” which dominated many unofficial construction strikes earlier this year.
This is in part because of concerns over the media coverage of the earlier strikes. Some are also concerned that the slogan has been taken up by the fascist British National Party which has tried to piggyback on discontent over the recession.
The slogan may have gone, however, but many of the same political problems remain.
Many of those involved in the strikes are keen to stress that they are not racist. They say they are defending “local jobs”.
So one of the workers at the Lindsey site told Socialist Worker, “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 we want to get jobs first.”
But the logic of focusing demands on the question of who gets the jobs is pitting “British” or “local” workers against “foreigners”.
It divides workers who should be allies in fighting against the bosses’ attacks.
This actually makes it harder to fight over the many important issues facing construction workers—including the system of outsourcing that allows
contractors to trample over workers’ rights and forces people to compete against each other.
One construction worker involved in the dispute told Socialist Worker, “There’s a lot of fear around at the moment from the workers in general.
“Unemployment is going up and up and the bosses still insist that through the European Union agreement they can bring foreign labour into our local areas.
“We are asking people to listen, because Peter Mandelson and the government are not listening. People think it’s to do with racism but it’s got nothing to do with racism.”
Some have a worse stance. One worker at Aberthaw said, “All around the power stations, Poles are coming in and taking the jobs.”
Some of those who struck believed the Polish workers at South Hook were being used to undermine pay and were on a lower rate than local workers.
There has been no confirmation as to whether this was the case and it didn’t form part of the strikers’ demands.
If it was true, it makes it even more important to see the Polish workers as allies in fighting for one rate for the job. Disputes that force “foreign workers” out break the possibility of this sort of unity.
It is of course right to fight for jobs and to take on the poisonous system of sub-contracting that is used to make workers compete against each other.
It’s right to demand that everyone is paid the proper rate and that there’s no undercutting of national agreements.
But the answer is not to argue about hiring a quota of British workers.
And it is certainly not to argue that only British subcontractors should be used, as some in the union leadership do.
These are the same contractors—big and small—who for years happily ran a blacklist to exclude trade union activists.
If the idea is allowed to spread that it’s “foreigners”—or immigrants, or black or Asian people—who are to blame for the jobs crisis, it will be a disaster for the whole working class.
It will encourage every racist and fascist and it will make it easier for the bosses to ram through attacks.
The last thing workers need is division at a time when we need unity in action to fight back.