As Solidarity goes to press, workers’ demonstrations over union-agreement coverage on construction projects had just been held at the power-station sites at Staythorpe in Nottinghamshire and the Isle of Grain in Kent.
These actions follow a week-long wave of unofficial strikes at power-station and refinery sites across Britain which defied the anti-union laws in a way not seen for decades. The campaign started with demonstrations at Staythorppe, stepped up with a strike from 28 January at Lindsey Oil Refinery in North Lincolnshire, and exploded across the country with strikes from 30 January.
The main slogans on the picket lines and at the mass meetings in the early stages were “British Jobs For British Workers” and “British Workers First”.
On 2 February the Lindsey workers formulated precise demands, of which the leading one was for all workers on site to be under the national union agreement for the engineering construction industry. This highlighted class issues — the defence of union agreements, and union labour, against the use of subcontracting to break and displace them.
Around the same time, the “British Jobs For British Workers” cry — an attempt to co-opt a demagogic and reactionary phrase launched by Gordon Brown at the TUC Congress in September 2007 — receded in prominence. Conversations on picket lines and demonstrations with workers involved show, however, that the nationalist sentiments expressed in such slogans are not just something artificially attributed to the workers' movement by malevolent mass media.
In the construction industry, the issues mostly revolve around not “migrant labour” in the usual sense — workers who move from one country to another — but “posted workers”, workforces hired by an employer where wages, conditions, or union coverage are weaker, in order to be “posted” temporarily in order to undercut workers' conditions and solidarity in another.
The subcontractor around which the Lindsey Oil Refinery dispute centred, IREM, is a non-union firm based in Sicily. The work for which they were brought in was a phase of the project expected to go to a British-based subcontractor with a workforce already on site: those workers stood to lose their jobs. Many of the “British” workers at Lindsey were not in fact British, but Irish; in one of the other walkouts on 2 February, at Langage power station in the south-west, a number of the workers walking out were Polish.
The European Union has a “Posted Workers' Directive”, dating from 1996, which appears to guarantee “posted” workers the rights and conditions won by workers in the country they are “posted” to. In fact it is full of loopholes, and often “posted” workers get only legal minimum entitlements. Recent European Court of Justice rulings have widened the loopholes.
In the Laval judgement of December 2007, the European Court of Justice ruled against Swedish trade union action to force a Latvian contractor, which had hired a workforce on Latvian wages and conditions for construction projects in Sweden, to respect Swedish union agreements.
The Financial Times of 7 February reported that “companies working in the [engineering construction] sector state privately” that they have chosen “posted“ workforces because they can better select them to undercut the possibility of what they call “1970s-style” unofficial strikes, more common in this sector than in others.
The words “British Jobs For British Workers”, however, as they spread out to the general public, do not bring those ideas about union agreements and trade-union protections for migrant workers with them. On the contrary, there is a serious danger — against which socialists and trade-unionists must now fight — of them dividing workers as the economic crisis deepens, and encouraging some sections of the working class to turn against migrant workers, or even British-born workers whom they find insufficiently “British”, rather than uniting with them to fight for jobs.
The fight for jobs and for union agreements must continue, and the inspiration of the construction workers’ defiance of the anti-union laws must be built on — but combined with a fight for workers’ unity, international solidarity, and migrant workers’ rights.
The text below has been distributed as a leaflet at construction workers’ demonstrations in the week starting 9 February.
On 5 February workers on strike at Total’s Lindsey Oil Refinery agreed a deal which marked a substantial industrial victory. The next phase of recruitment on the project, 100 or so jobs, will be UK-based. The contractors have agreed that all workers will be paid according to the national union agreement (NAECI).
None of the 100 Italian workers brought in by the non-union subcontractor IREM will be laid off. According to strike committee sources, the deal also allows for the shop stewards to check that the Italian and Portuguese workers are on the same conditions as the local workers covered by the national union agreement.
Despite this victory the deal leaves many issues unresolved, in terms of both workplace issues in the industry and the bigger political questions. This means other disputes will develop in this sector.
The slogans should be “Jobs For All”, “Work or Full Pay”, and “One Union Agreement For All”. “Workers should not pay for the bosses’ crisis in Britain or in Europe”.
• That the owners, of the refineries and power stations, open the books on the contractors and give the workers and their unions access to all information concerning the tendering process and how much workers are being paid. Let the world see the true costs of subcontracting on pay and conditions!
• Access to all migrant workers to organise them. Contact overseas unions to work together on this. Demand that collective bargaining cover every worker on each site.
• For workers’ unity across the European Union! The bosses will plan across the EU whatever we do. We can fight back only by building strong links between unions in different EU countries. We should demand “levelling up” of wages and conditions everywhere to the best levels in the EU.
• Call for the direct recruitment of labour by oil and power companies, or by principal contractors, rather than use of subcontractors, whenever possible.
• Start a register of unemployed union members in construction and demand companies recruit from the register. Demand the Government intervene to guarantee jobs or a living rate of fall-back pay to all on the register. Workers from other countries should be eligible for the register by agreement with the unions in those countries.
• Globally, the unions need to get together to develop International Union Cards, recognised as giving union membership and rights in different countries by agreement between the unions concerned.
• Unions across the EU should call a conference to work out a common working-class demand to protect union agreements and workers’ legal protections against the use of subcontracting to undermine them (as licensed by the Viking and Laval rulings), while upholding the rights of migrant workers, both “legal” and “illegal”.
• Repeal of the anti-union laws which hobble the working-class whilst giving bosses free rein, and for a European charter of workers’ rights.
If the British Government can advance £1100 billion cash and credit guarantees to save the banks, it can also take the energy industries into public ownership, under workers’ control, and with working hours cut with no loss of pay in order to create new jobs. It can step up investment in “green” energy projects, creating thousands of socially useful jobs for construction workers. Capitalism is international.
Workers’ only reliable weapon against the international plans of the bosses is international unity.
Otherwise the bosses will always be able to play off the workers of one country against another.
The slogan "British Jobs for British workers", used in the early stages of the Lindsey strike but then dropped, was picked up by the BNP and the far right to fuel hatred of all foreign workers and immigrants.
Some of the strikers may have meant, by "British workers", just "workers recruited under British union agreements", whether they are migrants who arrived recently, or from long-settled families. But that is not what the slogan “British Jobs for British Workers” will mean if it spreads. It will become a weapon to divide workers, setting longer-settled workers against the maybe two million migrant workers who are a major part of today’s “British” working class, and the mainstay of many vital sectors such as the Health Service. Only the bosses can gain from that.
And anyway, what are “British” jobs? Capitalism today is international, dominated by corporations which operate across the globe. The working class needs to become as international as capitalism!