Abstention or intervention
After the victory by the Lindsey wildcat strike, James Turley draws some lessons
Let us begin with the story so far. On January 28, 800 workers at Lindsey oil refinery in Killingholme walked out illegally. They were protesting against the ‘dumping’ of 200 workers of Italian and Portuguese origin in order to fulfil a construction contract at the Total-owned site.
The contractor had hoped to undercut the labour standards (whether de jure or de facto) in the British construction industry in accordance with rights enshrined by two key European Court of Justice decisions, known as Viking and Laval. The walkout spread to energy industry sites throughout the country, from Plymouth to Grangemouth, involving many thousands of workers.
The Lindsey workers are now back at work, after it was announced that 102 of the 198 jobs for skilled engineering workers, originally to be supplied by the Italian subcontractor, IREM, would now be taken by local labour. Elsewhere, the walkouts are continuing, notably at Staythorpe in Nottinghamshire, where a brand new power station is under construction with key work being carried out by Alstom. It has subcontracted gangs of mainly Spanish and Polish workers - who are on a flat hourly rate, thus once again undercutting agreements negotiated with the trade unions.
From the off, the presence of the chauvinist slogan ‘British jobs for British workers’ around the strikes complicated things. At least for outsiders. Enthusiastically taken up by the rightwing press to bash the Labour government and push the bigoted bilge it typically provides for petty bourgeois consumption. The flipside was that some on the far left took an abstentionist or even oppositional position to the strikes. We were left in the bizarre situation where the Daily Express supported a strike and the Trotskyist Workers Power opposed it.
As the action developed, it became clear that the slogan was more naive than chauvinist. Gordon Brown (in)famously offered it to the TUC congress in 2007 as a promise. For the most part, the strikers were simply throwing it back in his face (‘So this is how you intend to create British jobs for British workers?’) rather than giving it a malicious content (‘Send these foreigners home so we can have the jobs’). It lost prominence as the movement developed, and the leadership of the Lindsey workers - a six-strong committee - steered hard in the opposite direction. They steered hard enough that in Plymouth, at the Langage power plant, Polish workers proudly walked out alongside British comrades in solidarity with the Lindsey workers.
Eventually, when the committee drew up its demands, ‘British workers’ was completely absent; instead, the demands were all supportable and progressive trade-union positions:
- No victimisation of workers taking solidarity action.
- All workers in the UK to be covered by the NAECI [National Agreement for the Engineering Construction Industry] agreement.
- Union-controlled registering of unemployed and local skilled union members, with nominating rights as work becomes available.
- Government and employer investment in proper training/apprenticeships for the new generation of construction workers. Fight for a future for young people.
- All immigrant labour to be unionised.
- Trade union assistance for immigrant workers, via interpreters, to give the right of access to trade union advice - to promote active, integrated trade union members.
- Build links with construction trade unions on the continent1
It must be said at this point that the positive direction the strikes took is at least partially the work of the Socialist Party, whose Keith Gibson was elected onto the strike committee. Apparently fortuitously placed on the ground, the SP threw itself into the Lindsey dispute with gusto, and has vindicated the broad outlines of its analysis of the strikes. As a result, we have a fairly radical slate of demands (certainly more so than an ‘official’ GMB or Unite bureaucrat would have come up with); the chauvinists have been beaten back somewhat; and great efforts have been made to reach and organise the Italian workers with Italian-language literature (by no means an easy task: these workers live on barges moored at Grimsby, and are returned there during their lunch hour).
The Socialist Party’s record is, of course, not spotless. While the call for “links with construction unions on the continent” is welcome, it is still inadequate. Surely we must aim to impose common trade union standards for working conditions and wages across the whole of the EU, not just across the UK. What about united workers’ action across borders? What about political unity across borders? Additionally, without this European dimension, the demand for union control over hiring and firing runs the risk of British chauvinism - while it does not necessarily imply that interpretation, it would have been wise, given the ideological chaos around the strike, to pin things down a little more.
Nevertheless, the SP has deported itself consistently well on the whole - certainly more so than the opponents of the strike. The Socialist Workers Party continues to editorialise against ‘British jobs’ - absolutely correct within the context of critical support for the workers’ action, but providing this context seems to be a very much lower priority.2 The comrades do not seem to have been involved very deeply at all - another sign of the organisation’s long-term shrinkage.
The wooden spoon goes to Workers Power, however, which vitriolically opposed the strike wave from the outset. Last week, we called its position “idiotic abstentionism” (February 5). Now, as it tries to claim it was right all along, this always-unbalanced sect moves from the idiotic to the delusional. “Those who play with fire,” the comrades headline a follow-up article, “will get burnt”.
To support their case, they selectively quote comrade Gibson to emphasise the ‘British workers’ angle, and downplay the importance of the agreed demands - “The issue remains whether the Italian and Portuguese workers can take up their jobs. If the strike continues to oppose this, then it is no good attaching nominally progressive demands to the strike, as its overriding [sic!] aim remains to oppose the employment of workers on the basis of their nationality.”3
Precisely in what sense a strike ‘opposes’ something (‘overridingly’, no less) without that opposition actually being in the strike demands is left to the reader’s imagination - one fears that the touch of chauvinist pitch has rendered the Lindsey strike unclean in WP’s eyes, rather than any substantial analysis. The “overriding” aim of the workers was to defend their jobs, pay and conditions - something shared with virtually every spontaneous trade-union-type action. But most workers are not conscious proletarian internationalists. Defence of their own interests is often viewed in sectional terms - to win concessions you have to see off not only the boss, but rival groups of workers too (not least those who would undercut you).
In order to defeat sectionalism (of which nationalism is one variety), it is necessary to supersede trade union consciousness. That cannot be done by abstaining from - or, worse, actually condemning - all trade union actions that are coloured by sectionalism. Those on the left who do so would, if they were consistent, end up opposing a very high proportion of strikes indeed. It is necessary to intervene in those actions (as the SP has done, albeit imperfectly) and attempt to win the workers to a consistent political approach.
The course of events, it should be noted, exposes the futility of WP’s distinctive political method - that is, endless calls for action, at the expense of programmatic clarification. This particular ‘action’ could not be supported by WP, so it had to end - nothing, presumably, could be gained from it. The SP ignored this advice, and helped lead the strike in a progressive direction by drawing up for it a limited, but markedly unchauvinistic, set of demands. The SP has no doubt made more than a few contacts (a good deal of copies of The Socialist sold this week, one notices from its articles); Workers Power, by contrast, is left looking a bit stupid. So who has gotten “burnt”, comrades?
The strike wave is rich in implications. Firstly, it is certainly not the last example of industrial resistance Britain will see during this crisis, about which predictions become more pessimistic daily. Contradictions between the immediate interests of capital and labour are far less keenly felt during boom times, when everyone (it seems) has a job and a slice of the pie. The Financial Times reported the explosion in capitalists’ use of foreign labour as being a result of “1970s-style” stoppages over “tea breaks” and as a mark of respect for funerals, etc(February 7) - now, it seems, workers are far more Bolshie over the minutes and seconds of the working day. Or is it because profit-squeezed employers are now more likely to attack them?
While IREM defended to the last the right to keep its terms of employment “confidential”, you can be sure that it concluded that a workforce flown in from the outside and kept isolated from other workers would be more atomised and less combative than a unionised local workforce - which might, after all, insist on retaining its tea breaks. The fact that they were Italian and Portuguese was not in itself the determining factor. Nor should it be for the workers’ movement.
The fact that IREM and Total were forced to retreat demonstrates that defensive actions can be successful, even in current conditions. The dispute has shown us the good and the bad side of spontaneous actions. While workers often have an instinctive sympathy towards their brothers and sisters from other countries, and know broadly where their enemies lie, this sympathy can be derailed, and spontaneous outbursts will bring into play backward prejudices as well as politically advanced ideas.
Above all, we have seen the need for an internationalist party - not a ‘more radical’ union movement, or a sect. In reality, it is not the case that a strong working class party is based on the trade unions, but vice versa - strong trade unions and other defensive organisations must be coalesced by a party. Crucially both party and unions must be organised on an EU level.
1. Reproduced in The Socialist February 4.
2. Interviews with strikers at various pickets can be found buried in a box-out on p5 of this week’s Socialist Worker (February 14).