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Construction workers walk out over union-busting

This article is over 12 years, 7 months old
Wildcat strikes in construction could spread, reports Simon Basketter
Issue 2156

Workers at Total’s Lindsey oil refinery in Lincolnshire went out on unofficial strike on Thursday of last week after some were threatened with redundancy.

Up to 1,200 workers were continuing the action as Socialist Worker went to press.

If there is no solution the wildcat action could spread. About 140 workers at Fiddlers Ferry power station in Widnes, Cheshire, walked out in sympathy on Monday.

Strikers at Lindsey broke through a police cordon on Monday and held up traffic for 20 minutes in what they described as a “solidarity walk”.

On Tuesday morning they blocked the entrances to the Lindsey site and the nearby Conoco Phillips plant.

The workers walked out last week in protest at a subcontractor cutting 51 jobs.

Lindsey was at the centre of a dispute over Italian and Portuguese workers in February, which prompted unofficial walkouts around the country.

Shop stewards say pledges that there would be no redundancies made then are being broken, and that workers involved in the original dispute are being victimised.

GMB shop steward Phil Whitehurst told a workers’ rally on Tuesday morning, “Total have said they will only talk if we come back to work.

“They keep saying the same thing over and over again. They see this as a normal de-manning process.”

On Monday of last week 61 new positions were created by one subcontractor, RBC: 25 riggers, 16 pipefitters, 16 semi-skilled, and four supervisors.

The following day Shaw, another subcontractor, wrote to 80 workers telling them they were “at risk” and created 51 redundancies – 15 riggers, 15 pipefitters, 14 semi-skilled and seven mech fitters.

One worker told Socialist Worker, “We had been told every­one would finish in a ‘waterfall’ where we would run to the end of the job at full capacity of workers, and would all finish at pretty much the same time.

“But instead they are hiding behind the different subcontractors to get rid of the people they don’t like.”

Mass meeting

On Friday of last week, workers left the site to join a mass meeting in the car park.

The employers would not negotiate through the scaffolders’ shop steward. Instead, scaffolders were addressed directly by managers to the effect that they could resume work or hand in their harnesses and “fuck off”.

Workers told Socialist Worker that the bosses have contrived the situation – most of the 51 redundancies were stewards, activists or union members.

One worker told Socialist Worker, “They want to punish us for being militant. They want to send a message across the industry not to fight back. They are making a big mistake.”

The strike shows just how sharply the battle lines are drawn in the construction industry.

There is no transparency about the work available on the site. Managers promised that the work would be shared equally, and that the end of the job would be handled properly. That is not what has happened.

The employers are desperate to undermine the construction workers’ fight, as their preparations for the planned official national dispute shows (see below).

The problems at Lindsey and elsewhere can only be settled by a national dispute, official or unofficial.

The employers have stated time and again that they are prepared to honour the NAECI “blue book” agreement. But they would like to see the blue book turned into a code of practice rather than a binding agreement.

The employers are attempting to implement a pay freeze. They are also opposed to a register of unemployed engineering construction workers.

They are refusing to make the audit system workable. This would only require putting some transparency into the payroll process to show blue book pay rates apply to all, and giving guarantees rather than agreeing to “guidelines” on travel and accommodation.

The media and the bosses now state that every strike on construction sites is about foreign labour.

Equal pay

That isn’t true. But if the fight in construction is going to gain support from across the movement, it is vital that it is made crystal clear that the battle isn’t just about prioritising “local” workers but is for equal pay and conditions for every worker.

In that fight migrant workers have to be seen as allies in pushing for one rate for the job.

Union demands that local or British workers should have priority for jobs are problematic.

Of course many workers are sick of being blacklisted at local sites and forced to travel long distances to find work. But the solution for construction workers is not to prioritise “local” workers. This can pit workers against each other and result in forcing foreign workers out.

Instead, as the attacks at Lindsey show, the problem is the bosses using the sub-contracting system to attack workers.

The unofficial action has the power not just to win more than 50 jobs, but to transform construction in favour of workers’ rights.


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