Workers’ Liberty activists report from the Isle of Grain power station construction project, in Kent.
Sixty to eighty construction workers gathered here on Wednesday 11 February for a demonstration organised by the unions, GMB and Unite. The political issues were posed most sharply when a team arrived from the Daily Star to try to give out printed “British Jobs For British Workers” posters and get a photo-shoot of workers holding them.
The union banners and flags had no such slogan, instead calling for “fairness” or “a chance” for local workers. Many of the workers on the demonstration were clear that the issue for them was coverage on the job for union agreements.
When the Daily Star people arrived, we, and some of the workers, tried to stop them setting up their photo-shoot. But a small group on the demonstration, maybe eight people, were keen to take the placards, and in the end the Daily Star got its photo.
That small group left the demonstration soon afterwards, and in conversations after that most workers agreed that it was a bad thing that the Daily Star had been able to pull off its stunt.
The union officials on the protest behaved poorly, disapproving of the Daily Star stunt but doing nothing vigorous to obstruct it. At the same time, their speeches told the workers that it will be “a long campaign”, taking years. Such an approach cannot but tend to push some workers towards seizing on the Daily Star approach as a way to get things done faster. Despite the demonstration being an official union event, few workers had a good word to say for Unite leader Derek Simpson.
Many workers agreed in discussion that what’s really needed is an international union battle for EU-wide guarantees of workers’ rights. One of the things this struggle is showing is the limits of purely or mainly national trade unionism.
But — not surprisingly, given the feeble bureaucratic nature of such international trade union activity as there is — many workers were also sceptical about active international solidarity. Many reckoned that “Europe hasn’t worked”.
Some were straightforwardly nationalist, and happy enough with the slogan “British Jobs For British Workers”. Some saw the demand for jobs to come under union agreements as a way not so much to secure workers’ as to deter contractors from employing workers from other countries.
A local Labour councillor spoke at the demonstration, saying that a major issue was getting contractors to take on apprentices rather than cutting apprentices and relying instead on importing labour. She also said that wildcat strikes were not the way to pursue the workers’ demands, a comment which got a hostile response.