Engineering construction: Solidarity can change the world!

Submitted by Newcastle on 9 July, 2009 - 3:15

At 8am on Friday 26 June Unite rep Tony Fields said to the meeting of 400 maintenance engineers at Stanlow oil refinery, “Well, that’s it, lads. It’s done, we’ve won. What do you want to do? Go back today or go back on Monday when the Lindsey refinery workers go back?”

We’ll go back Monday, they said. And that was it.

“That’s what happens when you get solidarity”, one worker said.

And indeed it is.

Lindsey Oil Refinery construction workers have won their dispute. All the workers’ demands have been met. It is a victory against Total who thought they could sack workers who dared to take industrial action. The 647 dismissals have been withdrawn, the 51 redundancies rescinded, and all employees have been guaranteed a minimum of four week’s work.

This dispute has important lessons for us all.

solidarity

This victory has been achieved by the militancy and determination of 1,200 LOR workers taking unofficial strike action and the solidarity of more than 4,000 workers at 30 other sites, including power stations and petrochemical plants.* In engineering construction, as in any other industry, the bosses are paralysed if the whole workforce sticks together.

If we limit ourselves to action by individual groups on particular group interests, the bosses are always lable to bring in other workers to undercut each group. With solidarity, they can’t do that. Once the practice and the effectiveness of solidarity is established, it is a principle that can not only win industrial disputes but can change the world.

the anti-trade union laws

Although anti-trade union laws introduced by the Tories in the 1980s and 90s never suppressed illegal strikes or solidarity completely, they have been used by the employers under the Tories and Labour to intimidate and frighten workers and to stop industrial action.

The trade union bureaucracy have used them as a reason to stymie and refuse to initiate strike action.

In this dispute the anti trade union laws were broken, and no action was taken by the employer or government to enforce them. It shows that the way to defend workers’ pay and conditions is to take whatever action is required — you ignore the law.

The solidarity strike wave that started on 19 June is bigger than anything we have seen for many years. It has shown that all-out solidarity action organised quickly is the most effective weapon our class has against the bosses. The show of strength and the refusal to be frightened by the threat of redundancy has demonstrated to the working class that there is an alternative to accepting pay cuts and attacks on conditions — an alternative that wins.

changing the unions

Because the action was solid and strong it forced the trade union leaders to back the action. That in turn gave further confidence to the strikers.

The full-time officials of GMB and Unite, while repudiating the unofficial action, were forced to back the workers openly, once the 647 were dismissed. The fact that the action was unofficial and determined meant that it would have been difficult for the union leaders to derail the dispute.

On its website the GMB takes credit for the victory! Not quite true, but General Secretary Paul Kenny gave full support, spoke at rallies etc., and as the union says that international support from trade unions at other Total plants was important.

The Unite website says little, but GMB and Unite stewards were working together, and it was the union officials who did the negotiating.

But, and this is the point, the unions behaved as they did because of rank and file pressure, and that pressure can shape what the union leaderships do both industrially and politically.

rank and file control

The role of the shop stewards and strike committees, and the links between rank and file workers who were in touch by mobile phone was crucial.

Rank and file co-ordination is an effective way to organise action and it means that decisions are taken democratically. Mass meetings made the decisions on what to do next. The decision making process lay outside of the control of the union and in the hands of the workers.

All of this makes it difficult for the trade union leadership to take decisions that the workers disagree with. It shows why rank-and-file organisations across the trade union movement are necessary.

tackling racism

Rank-and-file control, mass meetings and workplace democracy help the work of left-wing stewards and socialists, to fight divisive and posionous role backward looking ideas such as sexism, racism and nationalism play in the working-class.

They are able to argue directly with those who have racist and nationalistic views like those expressed in the “British jobs for British workers” slogans.

Those views can be tackled head on — we cannot pretend they don’t exist. When workers are engaged in a struggle, all kinds of ideas and ruling class ideology are questioned — and in such a situation, sexism, racism and other similar ideas can be changed. That happened in this dispute. For instance a discussion took place about chasing the BNP off the site if they came. The workers could see the importance of getting support from other workers and why that meant the BNP must be kept away.

In disputes like this that you can see why Marx argued that class struggle is not only necessary to beat the bosses but it is also necessary to make the working class fit to govern.

In bigger struggles, over time, the ideas of thousands of people can begin to open up to new possibilities — they see society does not have to be organised in the way it is. By intervening in these struggles socialists, with an overview of how and why the world is organised as it is, can influence the sort of society the working class fights for.

other possibilities, the future

The dispute could have escalated. For example, at Stanlow there were other workers who had saidthat they wanted to come out and if the dispute had continued they would have come out.

The employers could have tried to use the anti-trade union laws and continued the lockout but that would have risked them being unable to carry out other contracts. For example, at Stanlow a maintenance contract employing 3,000 men is set to start at Christmas, and they need the skilled workers from Lindsey to complete it.

These workers are skilled. Much as the employers want to break their pay and conditions agreements, retraining thousands of other people would be expensive and take a long time.

The bosses and government could have decided that to allow any victory at a time when they want to make massive cuts was too much of a risk and the strike needed to be stopped. Then this dispute would have become an issue for the broader trade union movement. Other workers would have had to decide whether to back and spread the action.

There is another dispute looming in the industry, and these issues may well be raised again. The broad labour movement has to prepare itself now for that possibility. The employers still have their sights set on breaking national agreements and the trade unions. A national ballot, organised by both the GMB and Unite unions, is planned, taking up the employers’ refusal to make a pay offer or give any guarantees of employment security in the review of the National Agreement for the Engineering Construction Industry for 2010.

The employers and the government now know that if they don’t concede, engineering construction workers will strike. The union leaders too realise they risk losing the confidence of a militant group of workers if they try to sell them short.

working class confidence

The history of working-class struggle shows again and again that if the organisations of the best-placed sections of the working class are broken — as they were among miners, print workers, and dockers during in the 1980s — then the weaker and organised sections of the working class suffer too, and probably even more.

This is because strong solidarity action is curtailed and “markers”, consolidated wage rates and working conditions which can pull uppay and conditions for everyone are destroyed.

But each time a battle is won, it sets an example to the whole movement. It shows that if you fight you can win; that solidarity works; and that through it we can begin to reshape the whole of society and protect those who are unable to take effective trade union action. It is possible for the working class to begin to reverse the defeats of the last 20 years. The success of the construction workers’ dispute can demonstrate to the working class that it’s possible to stop the bosses as they try and make us pay for their crisis. It is an important victory. We should do everything we can to ensure that message is spread more widely.

* Figures come from a Guardian report, which said over 3,000 at nine sites, and the Socialist Party, which said solidarity at 30 plants. One of the biggest walkouts on Monday was at Sellafield, where 900 contract staff decided to stay out until Tuesday. Other sites hit by unofficial strikes included the Ensus biofuels plant in Wilton, Teesside; ConocoPhillips’ Humber refinery; two gas plants in west Wales; Aberthaw power station in south Wales; Drax and Eggborough power stations near Selby, North Yorkshire; Fiddlers Ferry power station in Widnes, Cheshire; at Shell’s Stanlow refinery in Ellesmere Port, Cheshire; and Didcot power station in Oxfordshire.

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