Monday, 2 February 2009

Wildcat Strikes in UK Construction Industry-Xenophobic or Legitimate?

In an earlier post I gave a brief sketch of the types of struggle that could be thrown up in the UK by the on-going financial crisis. We now have the first signs of discontent with wildcat walk-outs by construction workers at oil refineries. The reason for the strike (or so the media were telling us) was the shipping in of foreign labour, (Italian & Portuguese) taking the jobs needed by British workers. The union banners proclaimed “British Jobs for British Workers!” My heart sunk; on the day when France was paralysed by a general strike clearly aimed at bankers and the government, us Brits, were withdrawing behind our borders, and doing what we do best-bashing Johnny foreigner. But after calming down and doing some research on the web I found out things were far more complicated.

These workers have a legitimate grievance. John Cruddas, Left-Wing Labour MP for Dagenham in the Guardian (31/01/09) writes:

“The Lincolnshire refinery where the current dispute began is owned by the US oil company Total. It employs the giant American engineering company Jacobs which then subcontracts to an Italian firm, IREM, which cut its labour costs by using its own Italian and Portuguese workers. Big engineering contractors have been recruiting complaint and cheap foreign labour for years.”

So it could be argued the battle is not really about foreigners taking our jobs but aimed at large companies undercutting workers’ rights and union agreements, with the Italian workers unfortunately finding themselves in the middle. And this is happening right across Europe. Cruddas again:

“In 2003 the Finnish ferry company Viking Line reflagged its vessel and employed an Estonian crew, cutting its wage costs by 60% Its actions were upheld by the European court of justice. In 2004 a Latvian company, Lavel, sent workers to building sites in Sweden. The Swedish construction union asked the company to agree to the existing collective agreement within the building sector. It refused, operating instead under the Latvian agreement-including lower pay that undercut the Swedish workers’ wages."

Many of the strikers are saying something similar (see Libcom: class-struggle anarchism, The Socialist Party and Morning Star, all supporting or giving critical solidarity to the action.). But the walk-out has been portrayed as an anti-foreigner protest in the media. But what about the main slogan of the protest “British Jobs for British Workers.” This is a bad slogan and I would have preferred another one; it conjures up all sorts of nasty BNP imagery like spray-painted graffiti outside an Asian shop. But looking at it closer and in context it’s not as irredeemable reactionary as some are making it out to be. No doubt the strikers, taking up Gordon Brown’s very words and throwing it back at him, have on the hoof used the slogan as a populist or mildly left-wing nationalist/protectionist rallying cry. A mistake most certainly but one that does not invalidate the underlining causes of the wildcat action-attacks on workers and the recession. Nor will the BNP find it easy to muscle in on an industrial dispute; this is not fascist territory and although a minority could potentially be attracted, the majority are it seems to me straight down the line union men. Anyway struggle will always be contradictory and messy; we live in the real world not lefty la-la land with all the right-on and cosy slogans.

Far more worrying are the attitudes of certain sections of the Left. Our old friend the SWP raises its ugly head once more. From their high moral position with no real contact with workers or industrial unions, (except students, teachers and lecturers) the ignorant Sun-reading rabble are told this is a xenophobic even racist strike, utterly refusing to listen to what the construction workers are saying and ignoring their legitimate concerns. You can bet your life the SWP will not attend any of the picket lines even in a spirit of critical solidarity, to discuss and debate with the strikers. Maybe they should protest outside TUC HQ holding placards with STOP THE RACIST STRIKES! emblazoned on them instead. Depressingly Workers’ Liberty (a Trot group I have a small amount of respect for) are aping the same line.

Are the SWP and the AWL influenced by an unconscious middle-class prejudice against white working-class men? Did they see white working class men with Union Jack flags on the TV and automatically think racist. Let's imagine an alternative situation as a way of clarifying my point. The Government decides to contract out Revenue & Customs Contact Centres as a means of cutting back on public spending. A private company wins the contract and hundreds of HMRC staff are made redundant as the work shifts to India. A wild-cat strike of clerical and admin staff made up of 70% women and 30% ethnic minorities with British nationality spreads throughout the public sector with the slogan 'British Jobs For British Workers.' The majority of the workers on the pickets clearly make it known they are against the government and the private company, not directing hatred towards Indians, although many express their feeling of national identity by holding Union Jack flags, like the construction workers strike. Although there is the extra issue of privatisation and the Indian staff are not domiciled in the UK, the scenario is almost the same as the current situation, except for one other difference-the gender and ethnic make up of the strikers. Would the SWP and AWL support the strike or see it as xenophobic? The answer I think is yes they would support the strike and not only that they would be proclaiming the start of the revolution!

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