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`For international solidarity between workers' -- British left debates Lindsey oil refinery strike wave (updated Feb. 7)

Below are a range of views from the British and Scottish left on the strike wave that erupted at the Lindsey oil refinery and rapidly spread across the country. Statements from Socialist Resistance, Scottish Socialist Party, Socialist Workers Party, Respect MP George Galloway, the Socialist Party, the Morning Star, Lenin's Tomb blog and the Socialist Unity blog.

* * *

For international solidarity between workers

Socialist Resistance statement

February 2, 2009 -- That protests have broken out in the construction industry are no surprise. The dispute with the Italian engineering contractor IREM at the Lindsey oil refinery at Immingham is the flashpoint. The industry was amongst the first to be hit by the crisis in the autumn of last year. Tens of thousands of construction workers have been thrown out of work. In recent years the industry has been deregulated, privatised and largely de-unionised. There has been cutthroat competition amongst construction employers for ever-lower wages in order to get and deliver contracts. No wonder resentment builds up. This resentment is not helped by the response to the economic crisis by [Britain's Labour Party Prime Minister] Gordon Brown. He has been stuffing money down the throats of the bankers who triggered the problem in the first place whilst being prepared to see other industries go to the wall and workers thrown onto the dole.

And the European Union (EU) employment framework makes the situation worse. Construction, and other contractors, have been taking full advantage of the free movement of capital which the EU provides, which was always intended to facilitate the more effective exploitation of the European working class. It has encouraged employers to compete by undercutting existing wage rates and working conditions. The way the Posted Workers Directive — which covers workers in the IREM situation — has been introduced compounds the problem.

Workers have an absolute right to take strike action against such practices. In fact from the point of view of trade union principles they have an obligation to oppose such practices. This should not, however, lead workers — such as those in the current action — to attack fellow workers who are dragged into the situation. This dispute should be with the employers and governments at both national and EU level.

The slogan “British jobs for British workers” which has been dominant in every one of the protests, both verbally and visually, is the wrong way to conduct the dispute. It is a dangerous and xenophobic road to go down. No wonder the [neo-Nazi British National Party] BNP is trying to muscle in with other dangerous right-wing elements. According to reports in the Independent (Saturday, January 31) the Italian workers involved have faced direct intimidation. A hostile demonstration from the Lindsey refinery assembled outside their living accommodation in Grimsby dock to tell them to “go back to Italy”. This kind of action has a dangerous logic of its own.

In fact the demands of the strikers themselves imply that Italian workers at IREM should be sacked and replaced by British workers, and that jobs in Britain should be ring-fenced against workers from outside. This is seriously wrong — where would it leave British workers working under similar conditions in other European countries?

If wages are being undercut by IREM at the Lindsey refinery the strike is absolutely legitimate and should be fully supported both by solidarity action and by the unions. But the facts have to be clear and that is not the case yet. Maybe the Italian workers themselves or their unions could shed light on the matter of their rates of pay and working conditions? Has anyone asked them?

Wage rates and collective agreements, of course, should be defended against all comers, not just foreign employers. Undercutting from anywhere, including just down the road, is completely unacceptable. Collective agreements have to be defended at all times and the trade unions have a direct responsibility in this.

The way to defend construction workers, or any other section of workers, in today’s conditions has to be by strengthening trade union organisation and by working class solidarity — and that includes international solidarity.

The trade unions should make it clear that workers from abroad are welcome in this country. They should link up with the unions where workers come and ensure that all agreements, and obligations, are carried out by the employers.

Some of the unions involved in this dispute have rightly been having recruiting drives to recruit workers from abroad. This is the best way to build a fight-back. Pitting one group of workers against the other only benefits the employers who are always ready to divide and rule.

  • Defend all jobs wages and working conditions

  • Equal access to available jobs

  • Strengthen trade union organisation

  • For unity against the employers and the government

  • Defend collective agreements

  • For international solidarity between workers

  • No to racism, xenophobia and the BNP.

Scottish Socialist Party: Militant trade unionism an inspiration

By Richie Venton and Eddie Truman

Scottish Socialist Party -- On Wednesday January 28, 2009, workers for Shaw’s construction contractors at Lindsey Oil Refinery in North Lincolnshire were told by their shop stewards that the new contractor, IREM -- an Italian company that a part of the contract on LOR's HDS3 plant had been awarded to -- was refusing to employ UK labour.

IREM planned to house hundreds of Italian and Portuguese workers in accommodation barges in Grimsby harbour, bussing them to and from the plant every day. [IREM was] explicit in their policy of not hiring any UK workers as contractors.

This was particularly offensive to local skilled workers against the background of Shaw’s having issued 90-day redundancy notices in mid-November, meaning that they would become redundant mid-February, whilst IREM was herding Italian workers like cattle on a boat (rumoured to be a prison ship), keeping them well away from trade-unionised UK workers.

The entire Lindsey Oil Refinery (LOR) workforce, from all subcontracting companies, met and voted unanimously to take immediate strike action. The following day over a thousand construction workers from LOR, Conoco and Easington sites descended outside Lindsey Oil Refinery's gate to picket and protest.
Thus began one of the most remarkable episodes of industrial action in the UK since the uprising in the North Sea in the late 1990's.

Workers the length of the UK began a series of unofficial and therefore illegal actions from Grangemouth oil refinery and Longannet power station in Scotland, Sellafield and Heysham nuclear plants, Fiddlers Ferry in Widnes to the Drax power station in Yorkshire.

In just three or four days the UK's anti-trade union laws, some of the most oppressive in Europe, were swept aside by workers in key industrial facilities; power generation and oil refining. Workers ignored and defied anti-union laws on balloting procedures, solidarity strikes and mass picketing, exploding the myth -- perpetrated by far too many union leaders for decades -- that the anti-union laws invented by the Tories and retained by New Labour are insurmountable.

The industrial action was not taking place in isolation. Across Europe workers have started to take action against the impact of the economic recession that threatens their jobs and wages and conditions.

Complication

For the left the strikes brought complications in the form of the slogan ``British Jobs For British Workers'', which although was never raised officially by the Lindsey workers became prominent from the beginning of the dispute.

Socialists have absolutely no truck with such slogans which promote division and can and have been used by the far right to promote their racist poison.

When Gordon Brown first used this phrase in November 2007 the SSP was unequivocal in condemning him for playing into the hands of the British National Party (BNP) and fuelling racism and xenophobia.

When the strikers used this slogan initially there is no doubt that there was a large element of throwing the slogan back in Gordon Brown's face. Here was a situation in which UK workers were specifically being excluded from UK jobs.

But the slogan very quickly backfired; it was a gift to the BNP who had in fact been using it for a number of years and it allowed the media to deliberately and dishonestly portray the strike as overtly xenophobic and racist.

An interview conducted by Paul Mason, which was used on Newsnight, showed a striker making the point that "we can't work beside them, they are coming in full companies", referring to the segregated accommodation of the new contractors.

The BBC's 10 o'clock news carried a story about the strike in which government ministers accuse the strikers of xenophobia, the Newsnight clip is cut to the striker saying "we can't work beside them".

But the strikers themselves agreed demands at their mass meetings which never gained the oxygen of media coverage, but which cut across entirely the vicious distortions of their portrayal in the press. They demanded union rights for all workers, including immigrant labour; for union facilities for the Italian workers to make them an integral part of the trade union movement here; and for the implementation of the national construction and engineering industry agreement on the rate for the job, hours of work, breaks and conditions for all working in the UK – including the Italians.

Numerous first-hand accounts showed pickets giving short shrift to the unwelcome attentions of the fascist BNP – who after all sided with the Tories against the miners’ strike, and didn’t even think firefighters should have the right to strike.

Strikers demonstrated a core internationalism and solidarity with fellow-workers that bodes well for the future of this movement.

Union spokespersons repeatedly stated that this strike was not about race or nationality, not against Italian or Portugese workers, but against the Italian company that was excluding local, skilled workers from even getting an interview for jobs.

Strikers rightly saw this as an attempt by EU companies to exploit EU directives and court rulings on ``posted workers'' to undermine and break hard-won national agreements and trade union organisation.

Far from being instinctively against migrant workers from Italy or Portugal, many of the strikers are themselves ``migrants'' – forced to uproot themselves to find work in other regions of the UK or even across the EU. So they will have felt particularly bitter towards Labour’s Lord Mandelson who in effect told them to “get on their bikes” and trek across Europe for work – because after all the EU regulations are for the workers’ benefit!!

Seumas Milne in The Guardian called it exactly right when he described the strike as "a fight for jobs in the middle of a deepening recession and a backlash against the deregulated, race-to-the-bottom neoliberal model backed by Brown for more than a decade which produced it."

In the Glasgow Herald Professor Gregor Gall described the strike as essentially being about "the underlying issues of the race to the bottom under capitalism, the drive to neo-liberalism and the European Union's deregulatory preference."

The specific European Union legislation and court rulings that were inevitably going to ignite labour disputes at some point is the EU Posted Workers Directive and the judgements by the European Court in cases including Viking, Laval and Ruffert. The judgements have had the effect of undermining union negotiated collective agreements which are not recognised as ``universally applicable'' in the UK.

For trade unionists this strike was waiting to happen and the response of workers across the UK has been inspirational.

Linda Somerville, formerly a member of the Unite national executive, says that there were three things that stood out. "Firstly that the strike took place in the first place", she says. "We have been told repeatedly that workers in the UK are no longer interested in militant trade union action. That clearly is not the case.

"Secondly, the strength and depth of the secondary, solidarity, action was immense. Workers in key industrial locations across the UK held mass meetings and took action.

``Thirdly, the strikes were all against UK trade union law which is amongst the most oppressive in Europe. The legal tools were there for employers to launch a major assault on trade unions involved in the action but the sheer size of the strikes, protests and walk outs rendered the laws impotent.

"Workers at Grangemouth refinery who were very quick to come out in support of the strike have been emboldened by recently winning their pension dispute with INEOS which saw them take strike action in April 2008."

For socialists and trade unionists this dispute has been an important test, with many more to come.

The SSP has repeatedly said that the economic recession and world wide crisis of capitalism will inevitably mean that workers will be pushed into struggle. But these struggles will be complex and contradictory with the enemies of the working class seeking to muddy the waters and cause confusion.

For that reason it is vital that we take a sober and detailed analysis of the situation and in particular understand that in Europe it is the rabidly neoliberal and pro-big business measures of the European Union that seeks to drive down wages and terms and conditions across the board that organised workers are now resisting.

We need to see the essence of the issues, even when accidental slogans cloud the image. Instead of ``British Jobs for British Workers'' the Scottish Socialist Party from the outset of this strike wave supported the strikers in demanding the right to work, the right to an equal chance of being employed, and for defence of the wages, conditions and union rights won by hard struggle in this harsh, dangerous industry.

The SSP from day one of this strike movement called on unions in the UK to urgently seek active links with unions in Italy, Portugal and the EU, to unite in action against attempts to divide and conquer, against the use of cheaper labour and worse conditions in the bosses’ race to the bottom.

We also need to raise demands such as trade union registers of unemployed workers in the industry as the pool for employment when jobs are on offer – at least a small step forward to the days when unions had elements of control over hiring and firing in a few of the better-organised industries, such as printing. That would help counter the conscious ``race to the bottom'' of conditions by companies at home and abroad, by use of cheap, disorganised workers to undermine the rights won by unionised workforces.

This dispute highlights the broader issue of ownership of the power and energy industry, where multinationals seize advantage of the de-regulated, cheap-labour EU market – championed by Blair and Brown – to maximise profits – and the SSP’s counter-proposal of public ownership and democratic control of the industry, where workers’ elected representatives would have a direct impact to all aspects of employment, production and planning.

The wave of tremendously courageous strike action seems, at time of writing, to have won a major climb-down from IREM, with UK workers to get 50 per cent of the jobs, but with no lay-offs for the Italian workers, and for all to get the nationally agreed wages, hours and conditions.

This example of militant trade unionism, in defiance of the laws, will inspire others to similar defences of their jobs and right to work – starting with others in the same industry.

The job of socialists and good trade unionists is to match the courage of these strikers and seek to influence the slogans and demands of their movement in a fashion that reduces confusion, limits the opportunities for the media and reactionaries to distort workers’ aims, and to consolidate the powerful elements of workers’ unity and internationalism already on show in this current powerful movement.

SWP: Why British jobs for British workers is not the solution to the crisis

Socialist Worker -- January 31, 2009 -- The Socialist Workers Party has issued a statement on the walkouts in construction. The full text follows.

Thousands of workers at around 20 construction sites and refineries across Britain have walked out on unofficial strike. At the centre of the strikes is the claim that foreign workers are taking the jobs of British workers.

Economic crisis is threatening the jobs and living standards of every worker. Just last week giant multinationals announced 76,000 job losses across the US, Britain and Europe. The world is in the deepest crisis since the 1930s with spreading mass unemployment, pay cuts and poverty.

This government, which has so utterly failed working people, showers billions on the bankers to shore up the profit system. But workers are ordered to the dole queue. As a steel worker at Corus said last week, “If you’ve got a bowler hat you get billions, if you’re in a hard hat you get turned away”.

We need a fightback, with strikes and protests, and the unions have been scandalously slow to offer any sort of resistance to the jobs massacre.

But these strikes are based around the wrong slogans and target the wrong people.

It’s right to fight for jobs and against wage-cutting. It’s right 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 for the job and that there’s no undercutting of national agreements. And we need militant action, including unofficial action, to win these demands.

But these strikes are not doing that – whatever some of those involved believe.

The slogan accepted by many of the strikers is “British jobs for British workers”. That comes directly from Gordon Brown’s speech to the Labour Party conference in 2007. And it has been encouraged by many in the higher levels of the Unite union. Derek Simpson and others at the top of Unite have done nothing to encourage resistance to job losses, or a fightback against repossessions or against the anti-union laws. Instead they go along with a campaign that can divide workers.

But it lets the bosses off the hook and it threatens murderous division at a time when we need unity in action to fight back.

It’s not Italians or Poles or Portuguese workers who are to blame for the attacks on British workers’ conditions.

Construction workers have always been forced to move far from home for jobs, whether inside a country or between countries. How many British workers (or their fathers or brothers) have been forced to work abroad from Dubai to Dusseldorf?

When workers are divided it’s the bosses who gain. Total Oil, who manage the Immingham refinery, make £5 billion every three months! Jacobs, the main contractor which has then sub-contracted to an Italian firm, made £250 million in 2007.

These are the people workers should be hitting, not turning on one another.

Those who urge on these strikes are playing with fire. Once the argument is raised it can open the door to racism against individuals. Already in some supermarket warehouses the racists are calling for action against workers from abroad.

We all know what will happen if the idea spreads that it’s foreigners, or immigrants or black or Asian people who are to blame for the crisis. It will be a disaster for the whole working class, will encourage every racist and fascist and make it easier for the bosses to ram through pay and job cuts. Already the BNP are pumping out racist propaganda supporting the strikes.

Everyone should ask themselves why Tory papers like the Express and the Sun and Mail – which hate union power and urge on privatisation – are sympathetic to the strikes.

Right-wing ideas gain a hold among workers when they see their lives being torn apart and the unions offer no lead. No doubt some in Unite think it’s easier to get a fight around a slogan like “British jobs for British workers” which sets people apart than one that brings people together like “Workers should not pay for the bosses’ crisis”. That’s a doomed strategy.

Instead of turning against workers from abroad, everyone should be organising in a united way to pressure the union leaders to fight. And if the union leaders won’t fight then workers will have to organise the resistance themselves.

Let’s demand an end to the system where foreign workers are housed separately from the British workforce.

Let’s bring workers from abroad into the unions and link arms against the bosses and their system.

Workers across Europe are under attack. Out unions should learn from the general strikes in Greece and France that we need mass, militant action directed at the bosses and the government to win.

  • Fight all job cut
  • No deals that cut wages or accept lay-offs
  • Smash privatisation and sub-contracting
  • Unity against the bosses, no to racism and the BNP.

Respect MP George Galloway: `It's about decent jobs, available to all'

Reacting to news of wildcat walkouts from construction sites across Britain, Respect MP George Galloway says:

``Despite attempts to confuse and misreport, the fundamental issue that's led thousands of construction workers to defy the anti-union laws and walk off the job is simple: decent jobs, open for all to apply for.

"These walkouts come after years of the construction conglomerates trying to weaken union organisation, divide up workforces and introduce super-exploitation across the industry.

"Union activists have told me of unofficial blacklists operating, made all the more widespread by a culture of subcontracting to cut-throat companies.

"We used to have a nationally owned energy sector, which provided secure and relatively good jobs as well directly employing building workers and entering long term contracts with construction companies.

"Now we've got privatisation, chaos and a race to the bottom where employers across Europe are attempting to drive down pay and conditions.

"That's why the defence of national agreements is so important. It is the only way whereby working people can raise up conditions in the worst companies to those where unions are better organised and have won a fairer share.

"So those little Englanders or downright racists who claim they are supporting the construction workers' walkouts are doing no such thing, because they oppose the very trade union strength that makes a national rate for the job possible.

"The Unite union -- including the Transport and General Workers Union, which I've been a member of for over 30 years -- has always stood against scapegoating and discrimination. And it's stood against the exploitation of foreign workers as a means to lowering pay and conditions here.

"The union has been calling for national agreements to prevent undercutting, and for jobs to be open to all construction workers, without blacklisting or discrimination.

"That's got my support. If Gordon Brown really wanted to help construction workers he would rigorously enforce the highest employment standards instead of playing to the right wing gallery with slogans about British jobs, for British workers."

Socialist Party (CWI): What's really behind the Lindsey Oil Refinery strike

By Keith Gibson, personal capacity, GMB -- elected onto unofficial LOR strike committee.

Socialist Party -- February 1, 2009 -- A ninety day redundancy notice had been issued around mid November 2008 at Lindsey Oil Refinery (LOR) for Shaws' workforce.

This meant that by February 17th 2009 a number of Shaws' construction workers (LOR) would be made redundant.

The day before the Christmas holiday Shaws' shop-stewards reported to the men that a part of the contract on LOR's HDS3 plant had been awarded to IREM, an Italian company.

The Stewards explained that Shaws had lost a third of the job to IREM who would be employing their own core Portuguese and Italian workforce numbering 200-300.

Stewards and Union Officials asked to meet with IREM asap after Christmas to clarify the proposal i.e. would IREM employ British labour? Shaws' workforce were told that the IREM workforce would be housed in floating barges in Grimsby docks for the duration of the job, they would be bussed to work in the morning, bussed to and from the barge for lunch.

IREM workers would work from 7.30am-11.30am and 13.00-1700. On Saturdays they would work 4 hours to make up a working week of 44 hours. The normal working week is 44 hours divided by five days, from 7.30-1600 finishing at 1400 on Fridays (most workers work overtime).

Normal breaks include 10 minutes in a morning and a 30 minute dinner break. Stewards were told that IREM workers would be paid the national rate for the job; to date this has not been confirmed.

After Christmas the nominated shop stewards entered into negotiations with IREM. Meanwhile, a National Shop Stewards Forum for the construction Industry held a meeting in London to discuss Staythorpe Power Station where the company Alstom were refusing to hire British labour relying on non-union Polish and Spanish workers instead.

It was decided that all Blue Book sites covered by the National Agreement for the Engineering and Construction Industry (NAECI) should send delegations down to Staythorpe to protest against Alstoms' actions.

The workforce on the LOR site sent delegations. Then, on Wednesday January 28, 2009, Shaws' workforce were told by the stewards that IREM had stated they would not be employing British labour.

The entire LOR workforce, from all subcontracting companies, met and voted unanimously to take immediate unofficial strike action.

The following day over a thousand construction workers from LOR, Conoco and Easington sites descended outside LOR's gate to picket and protest.

This was the spark that ignited the spontaneous unofficial walk outs of our brother construction workers across the length and breadth of Britain.

This worker solidarity is against the ``conscious blacking'' of British construction workers by company bosses who refuse to recruit skilled British labour in the UK.

The workers of LOR, Conoco and Easington did not take strike action against immigrant workers. Our action is rightly aimed against company bosses who attempt to play off one nationality of worker against the other and undermine the NAECI agreement.

THE BNP SHOULD TAKE HEED, UK CONTRUCTION WORKERS WILL NOT TOLERATE ``ANOTHER RACIST ATTEMPT'' TO SEVER FRATERNAL RELATIONS WITH WORKERS FROM OTHER NATIONS

Demands for the construction industry:

  • No victimisation of workers taking solidarity action.
  • All workers in UK to be covered by NAECI agreement.
  • Union-controlled registering of unemployed and locally skilled union members.
  • Government and employer investment in proper training/apprenticeships for new generation of construction workers.
  • All immigrant labour to be unionised.
  • Trade union assistance for immigrant workers -- via interpreters -- to give right of access to trade union advice -- to promote active integrated trade union members.

Morning Star: This is a strike against bosses

Morning Star -- February 1, 2009 -- UNIONS condemned attempts by the far right on Sunday to hijack the "British jobs for British workers" protests for their own racist agenda.

As Prime Minister Gordon Brown sought to backtrack from his pledge of "British jobs for British workers," Trade Union Congress general secretary Brendan Barber spoke out against attempts to stir up racist hatred against foreign workers on the back of the dispute.

The wave of industrial unrest is set to spread further this week when nuclear power workers are expected to join more than 3000 oil and gas workers who walked out on Friday in support of workers at Total's Lindsey oil refinery in Lincolnshire.

The action began last Wednesday when hundreds of workers gathered at the refinery to protest against the company's decision to award a portion of the £200 million construction contract to IREM, which is set to employ up to 400 Italian and Portuguese workers to build a hydro desulphurisation unit at the site.

Unions representing the 1000 strikers at the Lindsey refinery said that their members had not been given the opportunity of applying for jobs on the IREM contract, in what they say is a breach of EU law.

The TUC expressed sympathy for workers taking strike action in support of colleagues at the refinery, but it warned that activists from the BNP and other far-right factions were attempting to influence the strikers.

Mr Barber said: "Unions are clear that the anger should be directed at employers, not the Italian workers. No doubt some of the more distasteful elements in our towns and cities will try to use the fears of workers to stir up hatred and xenophobia.

"But I am confident that union members will direct their anger at the employers who have caused this dispute with their apparent attempt to undercut the wages, conditions and union representation of existing staff."

As demonstrations spread from Lincolnshire to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland last week, many of the protesters targeted their anger on Mr Brown over his pledge to deliver "British jobs for British workers." The PM claimed yesterday that he had only meant people would be given the skills to compete against other nationalities.

However, he condemned the strikes as indefensible as he made a frantic effort to prevent the industrial action from escalating.

He said he recognised that people were "worried" about jobs being taken by workers from other countries but stressed that Britain was part of a "single European market."

However, his stance was given short shrift by GMB general secretary Paul Kenny.

"No company should be able to discriminate against anyone on the grounds of where they were born," he said.

"You simply cannot say that only Italians can apply for jobs, as has happened in this case.

"No-one is saying that different countries cannot bid for different contracts, but what is happening here would be illegal under UK domestic law.''

Lenin's Tomb blog: Begging to differ

February 3, 2009 -- Lenin's Tomb -- There is a temptation to either cheerlead the strikes that have now spread to Sellafield, or dismiss the strikers outright as 'racist morons', as one commenter said in a thread below. For Labour politicians who look to a strengthened state to resolve the economic crisis and bring about distributive justice, it is logical to downplay the xenophobic aspect of the strike. Jon Cruddas, denying that the strikes involve xenophobia, argues that:

"Britain is a country that no longer owns the productive processes that create its wealth. Crucial economic sectors have been handed over to unaccountable foreign ownership."

Cruddas, despite his background as a Blairite, is currently far better than most of the PLP voting fodder. And his argument is undoubtedly intended to support the case for a Keynesian national welfare state, which would be an improvement on what we have. But the way he has put the argument here, you would think that 'foreign ownership' was the problem. You would think that the hundreds of thousands of jobs shed by British capital over the last few months was somehow a more 'accountable' process than, for example, Nissan sacking workers. Cruddas' argument is not xenophobic, but you can see why his position would lead him to understate the problem with these strikes.

It is a little more surprising to see marxists engaged in a similar disavowal, though. This morning, I was reading that the line of one socialist party (the Socialist Party) is to say that the slogan ``British jobs for British workers'' was not really indicative of any racism, but merely "just one in the eye for Gordon Brown". Now, I don't like attacking rival parties on this blog, and I don't generally have a problem with the SP. However, I have to say that this ``one in the eye for Gordon Brown'' excuse is absolute bollocks, and if this is the basis upon which they are boasting of organising a ``mass meeting'' of the workers, then it is a highly opportunistic one. I say this more in disappointment, and an urgent desire to impale someone's eye with a fish hook, than in anger. It is not good enough to patronise those on strike by ignoring the basic problem with the central demand of the strikers.

That said, the urge expressed in some of the comments in previous threads to dismiss the strike as simply and straightforwardly a racist one has to be resisted. True, the immediate demand of the workers was ``British jobs for British workers'' in opposition to the hiring of Italian workers, some of whom are currently decamping in fear for their safety. The way in which the strike was framed has encouraged the most reactionary elements in British politics and drawn a number of the BNP's professional pogromists into the area to hunt Italians in the bars. It's a tragedy, because rather than resisting the job losses, the workers are being encouraged to struggle against one another for a diminishing pool of available work. This argument can't be ducked. But that doesn't mean that's all there is to the strike, and it doesn't mean those on strike can't change their minds or be won to a better argument (provided you are willing to make the argument). Moreover, we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that the apparent militancy of the action is quite at odds with the conservative and minimal ends that the union leadership is seeking.

Derek Simpson has proposed a ``3-point plan'' to resolve the strike. Predictably, the main component seeks some sort of settlement in which some of the Italian workers may be replaced by UK workers (such, I gather, is what point one is aiming at). It is on this basis that workers have voted to let the union leaders go into negotiations with management. This would be a pretty lousy culmination of what the shop stewards themselves describe as a 'heroic' effort, especially when those workers could win so much more. They've got management's complete and undivided attention. They've got the politicians talking about them. They also have the ability to act independently of their union leadership if they want to. Why settle for so little?

Because the basis of the strike was wrong from the beginning. Because it was always conceived in terms of competition with other workers, first and foremost. Think about it. New Labour has consistently opposed workers' rights in the EU, and has always sought opt-out clauses on behalf of British capital whenever it was unable to block new rights from being introduced. According to Hugh Kerr, when he was a Labour MEP in 1997, he and his fellow MEPs were visited by the new minister for industry and told, in a message that came directly from Brown and Blair: "do nothing which will harm the interests of British industry and the City of London".

Unite rightly complains about companies using ``social dumping'', which is actually made possible precisely by the stratification of the European labour market. Yet the basis of this strike was a slogan raised by Gordon Brown himself that actually reinforces that stratification, and it was encouraged by a union leadership that has done nothing to resist the huge job losses that have already taken place at that plant. The returns of this struggle may be little more than a slight change in the composition of the workforce at the plant in favour of British workers (not to mention the strengthening of the fascist right, who might complete the ethnic cleansing through their own thuggery). This is a pretty miserable prospect.

The lesson that should be learned is that the slogan 'British jobs for British workers' is not only a miserably divisive slogan, and not only a poor substitute for action to defend all jobs -- it is actually a route to accomodation and defeat.

Socialist Unity blog: Lindsey oil refinery -- What was won?

By Neil Cafferky (Socialist Party member)

February 7, 2009 -- Socialist Unity -- The Lindsey oil refinery dispute and its outcome are sure to be debated and studied in the labour movement for years to come. Much of the media attention has focused on the agreement by Total to provide 100 jobs to local, unionised labour on trade union pay and conditions, the National Agreement for the Engineering Construction Industry (NAECI).

Andy Newman in a previous article has already discussed what this agreement means in terms of stopping the race to the bottom through the exploitation of migrant labour and the discrimination against indigenous labour, so this article will not be examining this aspect of the agreement.

In addition to winning extra jobs from Total. There are even more positive outcomes to consider.

For years the anti-trade union laws have hung like the sword of Damocles over the heads of organised workers. Now in the face of determined, militant and well-organised action they have been exposed as a paper tiger. This lesson will not be forgotten by workers.

Second, the working class in Britain, so long derided as inert, conservative, depoliticised, even xenophobic has stirred to life under the threat of mass unemployment and with a fraction of its organised strength smashed key European Court judgments that enshrined neoliberalism and the race to the bottom in the legislation of every single EU country.

However, significant as these victories are there is another, less-reported aspect to this agreement that could have the most positive long-term implications for workers in the battle against unemployment and the bosses.

Readers will recall when this dispute first hit the headlines on Thursday 29th January 2009 that the immediate demands of the strikers were unclear to those outside the dispute. The dispute had been triggered by a 90-day redundancy notice issued by Shaws, one of the subcontractors on the Total site. This meant that by 19th February a number of workers on the site would be made redundant. Just before Christmas Shaws shop stewards were informed that part of the contract had been awarded to the Italian firm IREM. Shop stewards asked IREM for clarification in regards to hiring British labour. It became clear that IREM would employ segregated labour with no credible guarantee that those workers would receive NAECI pay and conditions. On the 28th January IREM stated they would not be employing British, i.e. unionised, labour.

On the 29th January it was clear to Socialist Party members on the ground that although the dispute had been triggered by the discriminatory employment practices of IREM, all sorts of moods, some less progressive than others, were emerging among the strikers. While the ``British Jobs for British Workers'' placards and Union Jacks were in a minority this was being picked up by the media and spun as evidence of a xenophobic, ``anti-foreigner'' strike. In passing it must be said the prominence of Union Jacks was partly due to the vacuum left by the trade union officialdom that did not follow their usual practice of flooding pickets with trade union flags and banners, such was their fear of being ensnared in the anti-trade union laws.

In these circumstances the task of the socialists intervening into the disputes was to win the ear of the workers by giving full support to the strike and raising demands that pointed towards the unity of all workers. In that way nationalistic moods could be sidelined.

After a discussion between the Socialist Party and their supporters on the strike committee a list of demands were drawn up, these then became the property of the strike committee itself. This was then discussed at the strike mass meeting and unanimously adopted by the strikers.

• No victimisation of workers taking solidarity action.

• All workers in UK to be covered by NAECI Agreement

• Union-controlled registering of unemployed and locally skilled union members

• Government and employer investment in proper training/apprenticeships for new generation of construction workers

• All immigrant labour to be unionised.

• Trade Union assistance for immigrant workers -- via interpreters -- to give right of access to trade union advice -- to promote active integrated trade union members

The first demand is normal practice in any industrial dispute while the last one is more of a demand on the trade union movement as a whole than on the employers. However the other demands all imply a certain amount of control by the union over the management practices in the workplace before they can become effective.

All workers in the UK to be covered by the NAECI:

Prior to the dispute IREM had given assurances that IREM workers would be paid NAECI rates. However the Lindsey workers are not so gullible as some on the left who simply took the assurances of a notoriously anti-union firm at face value. Such an agreement can only be enforced by the presence of a significant trade union membership amongst the workforce. The importing of non-union labour posed a mortal threat to NAECI wages and conditions. Therefore the agreement also means the ability of the workforce through the union to monitor and enforce on management pay and conditions more favourable to them.

All immigrant labour to be unionised:

Clearly this is not a demand that can be won overnight. Immigrant workers themselves need to be convinced that their interests lie with their fellow workers. In practical terms this means a constant dialogue between unionised and non-unionised workers. However this is made immensely more difficult if companies like IREM are allowed to bus workers to and from sites, keep non-unionised workers on separate shifts and isolate them on barges. In order to get around this the union must break the management’s monopoly of control over work patterns and shifts.

Thanks to the industrial action taken by construction workers up and down the country, Union Jack wavers included, ALL workers, British, Italian, Portuguese etc. will be paid at NAECI rates. To ensure this is carried out the wages and conditions of ALL workers will be monitored by the unions.

To prevent future division of the workforce along nationalist lines Total has agreed to end the practice of segregating workers. The implications of this should be immediately apparent. A massive barrier to the basic foundation of effective workers solidarity, the habit of co-operation forged in daily routine of working alongside each other has been removed. The danger of nationalistic moods breaking out among the workforce has been pushed back.

Union-controlled registering of unemployed and locally skilled union members:

There has been much spurious debate around the idea that the 100 jobs reserved for unionised British labour represents a blow to workers' unity. It is nothing of the sort; in fact this false idea betrays a lack of imagination.

Capitalism has now entered a period of sustained crisis. This has already manifested itself as huge surge in unemployment. The battle against unemployment and all the evils that come with it will become a central issue for the working class in this period.

Part of this battle is ensuring that the unemployed are not used as a battering ram against the pay and conditions of organised workers. This can only be done by winning the unemployed to the side of trade union struggle and by undermining the exclusive privilege of the bosses to decide who to hire and fire.

The agreement of Total to employ 100 unionised workers is in fact the chink of workers' control in the hiring and firing of workers at the Total site.

People who argue this is ``British Jobs for British workers'' need to understand this can only be counteracted not by condemning the agreement but by going back into every single union branch and demanding that the unions set up registers of unemployed members nationally and also launching a massive union recruitment drive to unionise indigenous and migrant labour up and down the country. This can be the spring board to workplace wide and then industry wide closed shops. If the labour movement can achieve this, our class will be in an incomparably stronger position in relation to the bosses.

To conclude, there has been much comment, both positive and negative, around the role the Socialist Party played in intervening in this dispute. For us, the role we were able to play in the dispute demonstrates what can be achieved by a revolutionary party that has a clear understanding of the issues at stake and knows how to get across its ideas to workers. However to even reach this point it is necessary for activists to listen to what workers are saying, even when we might not like some of what they are saying. Any other approach simply amounts to patronizing workers and is a complete dead end.

The Lindsey dispute is a crucial turning point for Britain. We are witnessing the beginnings of something not seen since the Poll Tax battle, the working class operating on a national scale in the teeth of illegality to inflict a defeat on the bosses and the government.

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European single market is undermining labour

February 5, 2009 9:23 | by Brian Denny

As strikers rage at the use of foreign workers at an oil refinery, Brian Denny lays the blame at the door of the EU.

THE use of Italian contract workers at Lindsey oil refinery in Lincolnshire is the latest example of employers across Europe going on the offensive and undermining organised labour. Refinery owner French oil giant Total gave the £200 million contract to Italian company IREM as it was the cheapest tender. More than 300 of its employees are today being kept on barges berthed at the docks in nearby Grimsby and are being ferried to the refinery to work.

The company claims that the Italian workers are on the same wages as their British counterparts, but, even if this was true, sleeping on containers in the freezing seas on the Humber estuary constitutes a lower social wage for these workers. The fact that British energy workers do not know the conditions that these contractors are employed on is enough in itself to set alarm bells ringing. This process undermines the very idea of collective bargaining, a concept which is under attack in a number of ways by employers and the European Union.

Total is exploiting EU law which demands the free movement of capital, goods, services and labour, a neoliberal model which facilitates a race to the bottom in wages and conditions. This process began back in 1987 with Margaret Thatcher's Single European Act, which Tory MP John Bercow later boasted was about imposing a single market to achieve the "Thatcherisation of Europe."

This internal market was designed to slowly remove barriers to the free movement of capital, goods, services and labour, the so-called "four freedoms," until capital could move anywhere and any time regardless of the consequences. Rather than liberate workers, it has enslaved them by turning people into commodities, with very few collective rights, to be exploited and dumped without regard to social models built up over generations in the member states.

We saw this process at work in the Irish Ferries dispute in 2006, when Irish seafarers were displaced by sweated Latvian and Polish labour being paid a third of the wages. The Gate Gourmet strike of 2005 also saw low-paid Polish workers displace local staff, mainly British Asian women.

Four recent judgements by the European Court of Justice, known as Laval, Viking, Ruffert and Luxembourg, have also enshrined this race to the bottom in ECJ case law and gives huge new powers to employers to bring in contract labour anywhere within the EU. The ECJ and the European Commission are effectively implementing a programme to narrow the scope for member states to preside over their different social models and labour markets in the context of foreign companies posting workers to their territory. In the Luxembourg case, the ECJ does not even recognise Luxembourg's right to decide which national public policy provisions should apply to both national and foreign service providers on an equal footing.

This process is also being played out at Staythorpe power station near Newark, where employers in the energy sector are also refusing to employ local unionised labour. French engineering group Alstom has been contracted by energy privateer RWE to build the power station and two companies, Montpressa and FMM, have since been subcontracted to carry out construction work.

It is clear that the the employers' response to the growing economic crisis is to exploit neoliberal EU rules on "free movement" and drive down wages, exclude organised labour and maintain their profits. A stark illustration of this is the fact that the spontaneous strike action came a day after Shell reported the biggest annual profit in British corporate history of £21.9 billion, leading to renewed calls for a windfall tax on energy companies.

But the use of cheap foreign workers as a battering ram against organised labour is not a new concept. In 1934, as European countries followed the United States into the Great Depression, French writer Antoine de St Exupéry described Polish miners expelled from French coalfields once they had fulfilled their usefulness as "half-human shadows, shunted from one end of Europe to the other by economic forces."

This is the European reality for more and more workers as Brussels imposes its increasingly discredited neoliberal economic model that treats labour like a tin of beans. Even Environment Secretary Hilary Benn has said that angry energy workers were "entitled to an answer."

Yet while new Labour remains wedded to the creation of a pseudo-state called Europe, where democracy and workers' right only exist in the past tense, then more and more workers will be asking the same questions.

Brian Denny is secretary of Trade Unionists Against the EU Constitution. This article first appeared in the Morning Star, now a free access site.

see also http://www.spectrezine.org/europe/BrianDenny4.htm

Liam Macuaid: The verdict on the Lindsey dispute

The verdict on the Lindsey dispute

Let’s return briefly to the Lindsey dispute now that tempers have cooled and a bit more information is in the public domain.

Over the course of the dispute the emphasis shifted somewhat from “British jobs for British workers” to portraying it as defence of working conditions.

ACAS (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) is the state organisation which intervenes when the balance of forces in an industrial dispute make the outcome unclear and one or both parties wants a face saving settlement. It was invited to help reach an agreement into the recent dispute over subcontractors at the Lindsey oil refinery and it’s worth quoting one section of its report at length because it takes up the issue of whether or not the Italian workers employed by IREM were being paid at a different rate to British workers.

“IREM were fully aware and, in submitting a tender, would be implicitly accepting that all of their workers on site would be employed on the terms and conditions set down in the National Agreement for the Engineering Construction Industry (NAECI) including their pay.

This agreement, commonly known in the industry as the NAECI ‘blue book’, determines the pay and conditions for workers at all major engineering construction sites in the UK and requires that all member firms of the Engineering Construction Industry Association (and of other signatories to the agreement) abide by the terms of the agreement where projects are put within its scope. This is not mandatory but Total chose to conduct this project under the terms of the NAECI agreement.”

Apparently the only alteration conceded to the Italian workers was to trade their tea breaks for a longer lunch break. It isn’t obvious, even so long after the event that the strikers were aware of this. The thrust of much of the argument was that the Italians were working for less money and a lot was made of the fact that the only requirement on the employer was to pay the minimum wage. This turns out to have been irrelevant in this case.

It turns out that the dispute has established a precedent of unions demanding what Keith Gibson call jobs on a “one for one basis”. Keith mentions this in the video which can be found on the Socialist Party’s site. He adds that the employer was willing to give 100 jobs to local unemployed people to match the number of Italians employed. If that means anything it means that workers from outside a locality can be refused a job because of where they were born.

The big positive to come out of this strike was that it gave a reminder of the power of unofficial action to make the anti-union laws a dead letter so when Keith says in the video that “it was a fantastic victory for working people” he is partly right. The big negative is that it has legitimised the idea of recruiting workers on the basis of nationality. That’s a very big negative which we will have cause to regret with every rise in the unemployment figures.

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