Saturday, January 31, 2009

The slogan is wrong, but the workers are right

IN a week that has seen demonstrations over the economic crisis in Russia, and a general strike in France, while Britain's former 'Labour' prime minister Tony Blair told assembled capitalist leaders in Davos what a marvellous system free-enterprise capitalism was, British workers have staged a wave of walk-outs and demonstrations at major plants across the country.

It started at the £200 million Lindsey oil refinery site in Lincolnshire, owned by Total, where an Italian contractor has brought in Italian and Portuguese workers, who are being housed on converted barges. By the end of the week the workers were out at Grangemouth oil refinery in Scotland, Milford Haven and the Abbotsthaw power station in Wales, and refineries on Teesside. Workers at the Sellafield nuclear plant in Cumbria were set to join the action, and there was a talk of a march on Downing Street.

This is no ordinary strike. The Grangemouth refinery workers showed their strength last year in their battle for pensions. But this is a new stage in struggle. Some of these workers fear joblessness as the recession bites, some are already unemployed. For those on the Left who were saying we needed more strikes and militancy, this should go some way to suffice. These are no obscure backstreet firms that suddenly hit the news, they are major strategic points which the government can't ignore. Union leaders, used to saying they can't organise solidarity action, were this week catching up with the actions taking place.

(Incidentally, for those media, politicians and middle class tossers who have tried to arouse regional rivalries and antagonism between the UK's nations, it must be disappointing when workers take spontaneous action across three countries.)

The downside to all this is that the issues are dangerously confused. Some workers carried placards with the slogan "British Jobs for British Workers" - actually a reproach to Prime Minister Gordon Brown who used this phrase in his first speech as leader to Labour Party conference, on September 24, 2007, when he promised to make Britain a "world leader" in finance, technology and industry. Brown may have meant to carry echoes of Harold Wilson's "white heat of the technological revolution" from a different day and age, but the phrase about "British Jobs" is a British National Party(BNP) slogan, and the BNP, which has tried without much success to launch its own union is now hoping to muscle in on this struggle, saying its members will join picket lines. That would be a new experience for some of them who are more used to crossing them.

The bosses' media like the BBC have highlighted the "British Jobs for British Workers" slogan, and some workers have vented their anger and frustration in hostile remarks about the foreign workers. But this is not the real issue of these actions. Before anyone brands the workers as "racialist", perhaps they will cast their minds back to the Gate Gourmet dispute at London airport, when a mainly Asian workforce, members of the TGWU Unite, found themselves sacked by an American-owned employer which preferred to hire casual agency labour, many from eastern Europe. Something similar has happened to Asian seafarers employed on Swedish ferries. The employers are taking advantage of outsourcing, casualisation, and European Union rules on "free movement of labour" to break up union organisation and undermine the pay and conditions that workers have won.

The Transport and General Workers Unite and GMB have come across some horrendous exploitation, and have worked to organise Polish and other immigrant workers. The workers at Grangemouth say they have worked with Polish workers and had no problem with them. What concerns many workers is not the nationality of workers coming on site, but firms bringing in their own labour and keeping out local workers and unions.

"The argument is not against foreign workers, it's against foreign companies discriminating against British labour," says Bobby Buids, a regional officer for Unite, quoted in the Guardian. . "If the job of these mechanical contractors at INEOS finishes and they try and get jobs down south, the jobs are already occupied by foreign labour and their opportunities are decreasing. This is a fight for work. It is a fight for the right to work in our own country. It is not a racist argument at all."

Gordon Brown, in Davos when news came of the strikes, promised that economic expansion would create jobs and asked workers to be patient. He reiterated his faith in free markets, and siad the strikes were "indefensible". Tory David Cameron is on record saying promises to protect jobs are in conflict with European Union law. That's understating it. Whereas Britain under Tory or New Labour was the sweatshop of Europe, not in terms of manufacturing, but of opt outs from working hours directives and other gains, things have changed, by the enlargement of the European Union to bring in poorer countries (whose plight has actually worsened in some respects), and by moves in the European court.

We have had cases like Laval, a Latvian contractor, bringing its own workers to a job in Sweden, and able to tell the Swedish unions they could not organise or negotiate for them, because the workers already had a contract in Latvia. Or Ruffert, in Germany, where imported east European workers only earned on average half the pay of the German workers, and neither unions nor local government could do anything without being in breach of laws on free competition. In Luxemburg, the government was told that an agreement linking pay to the cost of living was an unfair restriction on competition.

The British media, previously obsessed with stories of EU waste and imaginary laws on straight bananas, or our "right" to work the longest hours, has not gone out of its way to warn people about these aspects. Labour MEPs seem to have maintained a low profile, whether this is their own or the media's fault. Trade unions and the TUC have started to wake up, and do what they can. But with the European elections due this year, TUC leaders keeping close to Labour are encouraging trades councils to concentrate on campaigning to stop the BNP getting votes. That is a serious issue. But with capitalism destroying people's jobs, homes and savings, we need to offer something more than moralising preaching, or empty slogans like "Hope, not Hate".

Nor is it much use some old sectarian just telling worried and angry workers that "the problem is capitalism". Of course it is. Despite years of New Labour telling us the class struggle was over, workers know the score, and the credit crunch has brought this home to the middle class. What we need are policies that take the power away from the capitalists - including their right to hire and fire whom they like and set worker against worker, competing to be the cheapest labour. That also means fighting racialism and the divisive policies of such as the BNP, who are the enemies of workers' rights. We want not 'British jobs for British Workers' (who have worked abroad often enough) but Workers of the World Unite! But whatever the false consciousness and misguided slogans that have come up, and become the issue for the media, these workers are fighting the bosses for their future. And in this they are right..They have also, incidentally, shown that "secondary action" may be illegal, but is not impossible. That worries the government, and its tame union leaders. It was time somebody did.

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At 3:34 AM, Blogger Charlie Marks said...

Four countries - workers in the six counties also took sympathy action.

Protesters in England cheered when they were told their "Scottish brothers" had walked out in sympathy.

But we mustn't forget this strike is only by contractors - not by those directly employed by the energy companies.

Also of interest is the election for general secretary of the Amicus section of Unite - Jerry Hicks is the only challenger to Simpson and I imagine his chances will be boosted by his backing the action.

At 12:31 PM, Blogger Madam Miaow said...

Thanks, Charlie. The situation is very confusing and your piece is most helpful in untangling it. I'll link from my latest post.

At 5:48 PM, Blogger Mick Hall said...

Another good post, I am not criticizing any one individual here, but when the class struggle gets a little complicated, it certainly sorts out the men from the boys.


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