“We want to be careful with the nationalism, lads, so that things don’t turn nasty. I’ve got nothing against the Italian workers as such, they’re just doing a job, putting food on the table for their families.
“They’re not Without Papers, as they are EU citizens and are legally allowed to work here. Besides, this is racist. Many of us have worked abroad - Germany, Spain, Middle East - did we think or care about jobs in those countries? Getting at the workers is just going to give us a bad reputation, and turn the public against us.
“The problem is with the tenders, Total management and probably the Government for allowing foreign companies to undercut...” — A striker from the Lindsey Oil Refinery site, on the strikers’ website.
Wildcat strike action spread across the UK over a week or so from 30 January, in support of a strike by construction workers at the Lindsey oil refinery in Lincolnshire over an Italian firm getting a contract for part of the refitting work on the refinery and bringing in its (non-union) permanent workforce of Italian workers to displace workers employed under the national union agreement for the engineering construction industry.
Part of the background to the strike is increased use of sub-contracting on construction jobs, using EU rulings which allow contractors to undercut union-negotiated agreements by employing sub-contractors from other EU countries.
On Monday 2 February the Lindsey strikers adopted a series of positive trade-union demands, and on 5 February they accepted a settlement giving serious concessions on those demands.
But socialists have faced the paradox that the most inspiring working-class movement for many years took place under a central slogan, “British Jobs For British Workers”, which cannot conceivably answer the needs which spur the action. What should our attitude be?
“When I see a worker fighting with a policeman, I don’t need to ask myself which side I’m on”. That was George Orwell commenting on the conflict between the anarchist workers of Barcelona in 1937, and the bourgeois-Stalinist military police who repressed them.
Leon Trotsky wrote this in 1938: “In... even [the] patriotism of the oppressed, there are elements which reflect... a clinging to what they believe to be their own good... defence of [their] home, [their] families and other similar families... elements which we must know how to seize upon in order to draw the requisite conclusions”.
These quotations show the attitude that socialists who flatly reject the slogan under which the strikers mobilised must take to this movement.
The striking workers at construction sites in the energy industry simply ignored the Tory anti-union laws, under which solidarity strikes are illegal. In effect they ripped them up. Strong, determined action can defy the law. The action shows that: government and employers made no move to use the law against it.
Other workers will learn from what the strikers have done. They see trade-union solidarity in action for the first time in many years.
The workers on strike are our people. We are on their side. This is a tremendous working-class movement that must act as a stimulant to other workers faced with defending themselves in the greatest capitalist crisis in three quarters of a century. It is an eruption of class struggle that may be the harbinger of many such struggles. Other workers will, indeed, learn from this example to act and to defy the anti-union laws.
But some will also be miseducated into picking up the worker-dividing demand: “British jobs for British workers”. There is a real danger that nationalism and xenophobia will grow as workers in Europe struggle to hold onto jobs. A central reason for this is that trade unions lack a strategy to fight for jobs on a Europe-wide basis.
The strike-wave’s nationalism reflects the reality and the political limits of the working-class movement. Within the European Union there are still tremendous reserves of nationalism, and fusions of class-consciousness and nationalism.
If the British “Labour” prime minister raises the slogan “British Jobs For British Workers”, as he has done, it is not surprising that workers pick up on it. What was distinctive, what was new, about the strike movement was not the potentially suicidal nationalism, which, among other things it can divide the British working class along “immigrant” and “native” lines, but the militancy, the wildfire spread of solidarity action, and the magnificent contempt for the vicious Tory anti-union legislation which “New Labour” has kept on the statute books for the dozen years it has been in power.
This sort of militancy has been absent in Britain for many years. Socialists cannot put our internationalism and our programme — working class unity across borders and and the unity of all the workers within the existing national borders — as an ultimatum to workers acting on their existing level of trade-union and social awareness. We have to combine siding with the workers with arguing within the workers’ movement against nationalist blind alleys and for international working class solidarity.
Rapid, rank-and-file organised action is needed in the current economic crisis, where thousands of jobs are being lost every day. We need industrial and political action to oppose job cuts, stop casualisation and the driving down of wages and conditions and demand what the labour movement has called “work or full pay”, i.e. the demand for the government to organise decent jobs for all or a living income for those not in jobs.
But Italian workers are not to blame for the capitalist crisis. Nor are any other workers! Keeping out foreign workers will not stop soaring unemployment. What it will do is boost prejudices against workers from other countries and divide the working class, further strengthening the bosses’ power over us.
As the wildcat strikes began to spread, our sisters and brothers in France showed the real way forward, in a national general strike against the attacks on the whole working-class in this global economic crisis. It follows on from the general strikes in Greece and Italy late last year under the universal working-class slogan for these times: “We will not pay for your crisis”.
“We” there means workers all over the world, including all over Europe. We need action directed against Gordon Brown’s government and the big employers, rather than echoing Gordon Brown’s slogans. action on demands such as:
• Tax the rich and business to rebuild public services, creating millions of secure and socially useful jobs. Step up, not cut, investment in “green” energy alternatives, under direct public ownership! This is necessary to save the planet, and will create many thousands of jobs for construction workers.
• Workers’ unity across the EU. British unions and shop stewards should be working with European unions and shop stewards to deal with the global corporations and the global capitalist markets, for example by “levelling up” workers’ rights and protections across the EU. The longstanding campaigns against the European Union are nourished in large part by the fear that the more extensive workers’ rights and protections won by the labour movements in France or Italy, Germany or Sweden, but lost in Britain since the Tory onslaught of the 1980s, may spill over through the EU into Britain. The Tories and New Labour has sought opt-outs for the UK from EU legislation, notably on the Working Time and Agency Workers Directives. British workers work the longest hours in Europe and have fewer individual and union rights at work. To deal with the global crisis, and the inescapable reality of capitalist corporations which contract and sub-contract, allocate and reallocate, across the globe, workers need not a “British-first” mentality, but workers’ unity and solidarity across Europe and the world.
• Work or full pay, that is decent jobs or decent benefits, for all workers — in Britain and across the European Union! If the government can advance £1100 billion in 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 to create new jobs. It can do the same in the car and car-components industries, hard-hit by job cuts.
• There should be an unemployed register for construction workers, with the Government enforcing a levy on the industry to pay them a living income when the industry does not find a job for them.
• Workers’ unity to demand jobs for all, through increased investment and shorter hours. All contracted labour should be under a common union agreement. The details of all contracts and sub-contracts should be open to union inspection. Where workers from other countries are employed on sites, the unions on the site should have access to them, and should work with the unions in those workers’ home countries to ensure that the workers have representation, together with other workers on the site, via a union recognised on the site.
The slogans of “British workers first”, or “British jobs for British workers” cannot but turn worker against worker. Politically they are the wrong slogans — and potentially disastrous slogans.
Workers at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago, USA, recently occupied their factory when the bosses shut it down. The occupation was completely illegal under US law. But the owner and the police did not dare use the law. The workers won what they demanded: back pay and pension money. Now it looks as if they may have won what at first they did not even dare to demand: the reopening of the plant.
The Republic Windows workers — many of them migrants or of recent Latin-American migrant origin — aimed their struggle against the bosses and the Bank of America (the bosses’ financier), not against other workers.
Workers should not pay for the bosses’ crisis! Work or full pay for all! Workers’ unity across Europe! Fight nationalism and racism in the British labour movement!