EDITORIAL - 6 Feb 2009

Ten Days That Shook the British Left: the Oil Refinery Wildcats

The strike at the Lindsey oil refinery in Lincolnshire and the wave of solidarity wildcats have been described by John McDonnell MP, as "Ten Days That Shook New Labour". Sections of the Left are claiming the result as a victory. But who has won?

On Thursday (5 Feb) it was announced that the settlement would allocate 102 additional jobs out of 200 at the construction site to “local” workers. No Italian workers will be sent home, although less will be arriving to make up the 200. This would suggest (for those who see it in such terms) that the international jobs playing field is “leveled” and the match drawn. But is it? According to Channel 4 News, such a deal would be illegal under the employment discrimination law; and the Italian contractors, for their part, have agreed only to “advertise the jobs locally.” And for what it’s worth - which may not be much - the union leaders have got the engineering and construction employers association to “ensure” that UK contractors "will always explore and consider the local skills availability and to consider any applications that may be forthcoming" (as if they’d ever admit to doing anything else). No cast-iron guarantees there, but good enough for GMB union leader Phil Whitehurst, who says: "This time last week there was going to be no UK labour employed on the contract and now we've been given 102 positions. It's highly significant." And this in a period in which manufacturing jobs are disappearing at a rate of 30,000 a month!

It is clear that the grievances of the workers stem in part from the sub-contracting procedures now being used on construction sites. Recent EU court rulings have given a green light to employers in one country to employ sub-contractors from another country in order to undercut union-negotiated agreements. Unfortunately the response of the British union leaders is to fly the tatty flag of New Labour nationalism. Unite general secretary Derek Simpson says,

"The problem is that employers are excluding UK workers from even applying for work on these contracts.... The government must act to level the playing field for UK workers. No European worker should be barred from applying for a British job and absolutely no British worker should be barred from applying for a British job."

But how the sloping playing-field theory squares with the fact that there are 47,000 temporary UK workers "posted" in Europe and only 15,000 foreign workers posted in the UK is not clear. Probably the best trade union sentiments expressed so far have come from the CGIL, Italy's biggest union federation. In a 2 February press release Sabrina Petrucci and Nicola Nicolosi of CGIL say that “The current economic crisis, caused by a capitalist system devoted to financial speculation, lacking rules, and centred on debt, is producing one of the worst social evils: the poor against the poor, workers against workers.” “What’s going on in Lincolnshire is one of the ugliest pages in the history of the trade union movement in these globalised times: English workers against Italian workers,.” they say. However, they add, “We have a duty to understand the workers’ unhappiness. The consequences of European judgements on the labour market, on the right to free movement of goods and people, are multiplying, opening the door to social dumping,” which “becomes an opportunity for the firms to cut labour costs and creates unfair competition.” Noting that the Italian contractor at Lindsey is a non-union firm, they conclude, “the economic and financial crisis can’t be fought within national boundaries, even if these English workers are given a response within their national boundary: we need a European and global trade union initiative to support the unemployed and for new social and industrial policies and perspectives.”

Nationalism and the Left

The first TV pictures of the picket lines showed Union Jacks and nationalist placards with slogans such as ‘British Jobs for British Workers‘ and ‘Put British Workers First’. Initially, the reaction of those on Left who like to put anti-BNP leaflets through letter boxes telling British workers (patronizingly and insultingly) ‘Don’t Vote Nazi’, was one of sheer panic. On Monday (2 Feb), for example, a section of the Alliance for Workers Liberty attempted to organise a picket of Unite HQ to get the “reactionary” strike called off (the picket was “snowed off” and in any case the line changed to “critical support” later in the week). As it turned out, there were virtually no manifestations of outright racism on the picket lines, and the BNP failed to make any impact on the strikers. The Socialist Party militants among the strikers who took the lead in shooing off the BNP pamphleteers are to be congratulated. A motion passed at one of the mass meetings called for Trade Union assistance for immigrant workers and the building of links with construction trade unions on the continent.

John McDonnell says that the British working class is now “without political representation” (quite a statement coming from a Labour MP) and too restricted by anti-union laws to mobilise through official union channels. Therefore, he says, “there is no other route but to take direct action when fear for jobs turns to anger.” As for the nationalist sloganising, he says that “In any dispute or struggle [solidarity] doesn’t mean blindly accepting either the analysis or demands of those directly engaged in the dispute... Disputes are at times chaotic with goals sometimes ill defined and often quickly evolving.” [http://thecommune.wordpress.com/]

McDonnell is addressing the Lukacsian-Leninist problematic: the contradiction between empirical and ascribed class consciousness i.e. between what workers think the issue is and what the issue supposedly really is. The solution for some – trust the professional revolutionaries of the vanguard party – was never viable and can hardly be attempted in a working class which is “without political representation”. As usual, the vanguardists have come up with lists of “alternative” demands, which they tell the workers they “must” fight for. Some on the Left refused to support the strike in the absence of such demands being approved, whilst others, offered support on the grounds that the strikers are “our people”, right or wrong, left or right.

As non-vanguardist Marxist-humanists we do not tell workers engaged in class struggle what to do or what to think; rather, like Marx, we modestly offer “critical insight” into the “real movement.” The wildcats are a real movement inasmuch as they have displayed the power of direct unofficial action and shown up the British Trade Union movement, chained by anti-union laws and useless leadership, as unfit for purpose. But they are not so “real” as class struggle, inasmuch as the strike was nationalist in both form and content: after all the strike began in reaction to the use of foreign labour and was organized at a purely national level. Inasmuch as the results can described as in any way positive they are miserable – a promise to “consider” employing 102 local (read British) workers.

What Next?

In a globalised economy, which may be sliding towards a depression, lessons must be learned, and fast. As socialists we need to say what we are for, not just what we are against and make it concrete.

  1. We are for No Immigration Controls and we fight for decent working conditions for all workers.
  2. In the context of the above strikes we support all workers, EU and non-EU alike, being employed on decent working conditions and - in reference to the current disputes - employed under the exisiting agreements on the sites in question.

What does this mean concretely for trade unionists and socialists?

  1. It means we do not pass solidarity resolutions in trade union branches supporting the stikes, without criticising nationalist demands, such as “British Jobs for British Workers.”
  2. It means we do not back requests to join picket lines to stop other workers going into work on the basis of the such demands.
  3. It does mean supporting actions for better conditions for all workers and counterposing this to “British Jobs for British Workers .”

The above is not going to be easy to argue for in a period of recession where workers still feel they have more in common with the nation state than their fellow workers in Italy, Africa or China . However not to do so is a dead end. The current British reaction to out-of-control capitalism resembles the people asleep on a train who wake up to find nobody is driving it and then carry out panic attacks on the other passengers. It is not good enough to support the strikes and then somehow argue that they are “really” about underlying issues. We need to state clearly that we are against strikes that make nationalist (or racist) demands. We do have to say however that we are in favour of strikes that are about decent conditions for all workers and which target the real enemy – capital - and not just its real and imaginary personifications.

6 February 2009