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The Engineering Construction Workers Strike 2009
CRES report by Prof Gregor Gall
The construction worker’s strike of January-February 2009 was the first instance of robust collective action by workers (and implicitly their unions) against the effects of growing redundancies and the continuing recession that began in 2008. It threw up the critical issues of the construction of workers’ collective leverage, how labour markets operate, xenophobia, neo-liberalism and state regulation of labour, and for these reasons it worth examining in some detail. The paper begins by examining the origins to, and background of, the dispute. Given the proximity of this paper being written to the events themselves, its conclusions should be seen as being tentative rather than definitive.
Origins and Background
There are two parts to the origins of the strike revolt. The first concerns the unofficial strike at the Lindsey Oil Refinery and the second the Unite union campaign on the exclusive use of foreign labour. Taking these in turn:
Lindsey Oil Refinery
A ninety day redundancy notice was issued in mid-November 2008 at Lindsey Oil Refinery for Shaws’ workforce, meaning that on 17 February 2009 a number of Shaws’ construction workers would be made redundant. Total gave notice to part of Shaw’s contract for reasons of dissatisfaction with the quality and quantity of work, or depending on other reports, Shaws’ gave notice not to proceed with the rest of the contract. Either way, the day before the Christmas holiday, Shaws’ shop stewards reported to their members that a part of the contract on the refinery’s HDS3 plant had been awarded to IREM, an Italian company. Stewards explained that Shaws had lost a third of the jobs to IREM who would be employing their own core (non-union) Portuguese and Italian workforce numbering between 200 and 300. This precipitated stewards and union officials asking to meet with IREM after Christmas to clarify the proposal on whether would IREM employ local labour. Stewards also told the Shaws’ workforce that the IREM workforce would be housed in floating barges in Grimsby docks for the duration of the job, they would be bussed to work in the morning, bussed to and from the barge for lunch. Stewards were also told that IREM workers would be paid the national rate for the job; to date this has not been confirmed. After Christmas, the shop stewards entered into negotiations with IREM.
Meanwhile, the National Shop Stewards Forum for construction held a meeting in London to discuss Staythorpe power station where Alstom was refusing to hire local labour and relying upon non-union Polish and Spanish workers instead. It was decided that all Blue Book sites covered by the National Agreement for the Engineering Construction Industry (NAECI) should send delegations down to Staythorpe to protest against Alstoms’ actions. The workforce at Lindsey sent delegations. Then, on Wednesday 28 January 2009, Shaws’ workforce was told by the stewards that IREM had stated they would not be employing local labour. The entire refinery workforce, from all subcontracting companies and amounting to between 800-1000 workers, met and voted unanimously to take immediate unofficial strike action. The following day over a thousand construction workers from Lindsey, Conoco and Easington sites descended to the refinery’s gate to picket and protest. This was then the spark that ignited the spontaneous unofficial walkouts of construction workers across the length and breadth of Britain, amounting to over twenty groups of workers and involving up to c6,500 workers.
On Monday 2 February, the Lindsey strike committee put the following proposals to the strikers to be adopted as their demands (which they were): no victimisation of workers taking solidarity action; all workers in Britain to be covered by the NAECI agreement; union controlled registering of unemployed and locally skilled union members, with nominating rights as work becomes available; government and employer investment in proper training/apprenticeships for new generation of construction workers – fight for a future for young people; all migrant labour to be unionised; union assistance for immigrant workers – including interpreters – and access to union advice to promote active integrated union members; and build links with construction unions on the continent.
There is another sense in which the wildcat revolt did not come out of nowhere. In addition to the slow burn and then hot war at Lindsey involving Unite and GMB members, Unite had been running a campaign based around the Staythorpe power station near Newark in Nottinghamshire. Last October, French engineering group Alstom was contracted by RWE to build the power station and two companies, Montpressa and FMM, were subcontracted to carry out construction work. Both refused to hire locally, employing non-union Polish and Spanish contracted workers instead. Unite official Steve Syson argued: ‘All we are asking for is that UK workers get a fair crack of the whip. Let local workers show that they have the skills and experience to be the best in the business. It makes no economic sense to bring in workers and it certainly makes no sense to this community when skilled workers are unemployed yet there are jobs to be had on their doorstep’. Then Alstom was contracted by E.ON to build a gas-fired power station near Grain in Kent. Unite sought assurances that Alstom would provide a level playing field for UK workers during the process for sub-contracting by including a clause in the tendering process that any sub contractor would endeavour to use UK or local labour. Alstom refused and then appointed Polish construction company, Remak. Back at Staythorpe, under the direction of Unite, hundreds of skilled but unemployed construction workers began sustained demonstrations outside the site on 19 January to put pressure on Alstom. These demonstrations continued to the end of January (with a protest outside Alstom’s London HQ on 5 February). Unite then warned that the protests would spread to other power stations under construction (but without the prescience to know of what would come to pass in a matter of a few weeks).
However, the process by which Unite as a national union came to adopt this position and take this action was complex. It appears that the driving force were the shop stewards and activists. The Guardian (5 February 2009) reported:
The groundwork [for this particular action] had been laid by 40 stewards who had met several times amid mounting concern at the way companies in the sector were refusing to hire British workers. … As pressure built on Unite’s leadership to take a tougher line, the stewards reconvened in London on 7 January. … Independently of the Unite leadership, several busloads of union members were dispatched from Yorkshire and south Wales to join the protests. … On 12 January a message posted on the online shop steward’s forum seemed to encapsulate the strategy. ‘Unite will begin an immediate strategic programme of demonstrations toward targeted construction projects within the UK power generation sector’ it read. ‘Leaders, activists and shop stewards have voted overwhelmingly to begin an organised and orchestrated campaign. ‘The lads had been talking about the issue since Staythorpe’ said … a scaffolder and steward from the Stanlow refinery in Cheshire. ‘These actions are not coming from the stewards, they are coming from the lads.’ But others said the stewards had been instrumental. ‘We had an informal meeting and we decided enough was enough’ said [one]. ‘We were not only afraid for our own livelihoods but the future livelihoods of our communities.’ Either way, the grassroots action took the Unite leadership by surprise. One official admitted yesterday: ‘We are trying to get some control on the thing.’
A similar account was given by Paul Mason on Newsnight (3 February 2009).
Dynamics of Revolt
The strikes were unofficial and unlawful: unofficial in that the unions of the members striking were unwilling to sanction the actions as official, and unlawful in that there was no prior balloting and notification process to the employers concerned. Moreover, those strikes which were sympathy strikes were also unlawful because they were sympathy strikes and no trade dispute existed between these workers and their employers. The connection between the two is that for fear of fines and sequestration of assets upon the granting of an injunction (and possible contempt of court), unions will not sanction unofficial action of this sort into official action. Also of note is that workers engaging in unofficial strike action lose the right to unfair dismissal under the Employment Act 1990 and the leaders of such action can be selectively dismissed.
These issues were not prominent because of the dynamics of the dispute. Here, Unite and the GMB were working with the strikers and providing them with representation – as opposed to strenuously and seriously calling on them to go back to work – even though they distanced themselves from it in other ways (see below). Of note, it is that neither of the two unions involved repudiated the action. The employers, probably, recognised there was little option but to deal with the strikers through their unions – so long as the strikers wished and despite the legal status of the strikes. Both these factors point a more important point, namely, that the underlying dynamic of the strike was one driven by the union members themselves, albeit within the broadly conducive environment outlined already with regard to their unions.
Sympathy walkouts and the congregation of protestors and strikers were coordinated by grassroots activists through mobile phone, email and the web, and the Bearfacts.co.uk website. Given the degree of support – with 25 sites and groups of workers supporting the Lindsey workers – flying pickets did not seem to have been necessary given the technologies deployed and the supported enjoyed. Mass meetings at sites took place with show-of-hand votes on what course of action to take. The reason why these means of organisation have been so effective was because of i) the prior and heavy unionisation of these workers, ii) the inter-site network of shop stewards as an authentic and organic voice of members, iii) the intermingling of these workers through working together on different projects, thus helping to create a common shared sense of interests and thus grievances.1 It is only with these points in mind that it can be understood and appreciated not only how quickly the unlawful, unofficial solidarity action was organised and delivered but also how it was not just construction workers but some production and maintenance workers that also took action (albeit with the caveat below). Also of note is that is that many unemployed construction workers took part in the protests, indicating that the gap between being employed or working or not is not a great one given the nature of the projects and employment in the industry.
Without being a definite and exhaustive list of the workers and sites involved, the following were identified:
Thursday 29 January
In England: 400 contract workers at Conoco Phillips oil refinery, employed workers at BP’s Dimlington gas terminal in East Yorkshire and its chemical plant in Saltend, Hull,
In Scotland: 400 contract workers, Longannet power station, Fife
Friday 30 January
In England: 400 contract workers at Conoco Phillips oil refinery, ICI chemical refinery at Wilton, Teesside, Corus steel plant, Redcar, Scottish & Southern’s Fiddler’s Ferry power station, Warrington, and Marchwood power station, Hampshire.
In Scotland: 1700 workers at Grangemouth oil refinery, Scottish Power’s Longannet and Cockenzie power stations, Shell gas processing plant, St Fergus, Aberdeenshire, British Energy Torness power station, and Mossmorran chemical plant (workers at two companies), Fife.
In Wales: Npower Aberthaw power station, and South Hook natural gas terminal, Milton Haven.
In Northern Ireland: AES Kilroot power station.
Monday 2 February
In England: 1,300 workers Sellafield nuclear power plant, Cumbria, 300 workers at Heysham nuclear power plant, 200 construction workers at Fiddlers Ferry Power station, 150 contractors Drax power station, Selby, 400 workers at Wilton chemical site in Cleveland, 250 workers at Coryton oil refinery, Essex, 70 workers at Sizewell nuclear plant, 600 workers at Langage power station, Plymouth, workers at Staythorpe power station and Didcot power station, and workers at Marchwood power station and Fawley oil refinery.
In Scotland; 500 contractors at Longannet, 300 contractors at the Grangemouth, 130 at Scottish Power’s Cockenzie Power Station, 230 at Mossmorran among two companies.
In Wales: 500 contractors at the South Hook terminal, and workers Aberthaw power station.
Tuesday 3 February
In England: 500 workers at Stanlow refinery, Cheshire, Drax power station, 250 workers at Coryton oil refinery, 600 workers at Langage power station, 250 workers at Heerema’s gas and oil engineering plant, Hartlepool, workers at Marchwood power station and Fawley oil refinery.
In Scotland: 400 contractors at Longannet, 130 at Scottish Power’s Cockenzie Power Station with 230 contractors at two companies at Mossmorran.
Wednesday 4 February
In England: 500 workers at Stanlow refinery, Drax power station, 250 workers at Coryton oil refinery, 600 workers at Langage power station, 250 workers at Heerema’s gas and oil engineering, Hartlepool, workers at Marchwood power station and Fawley oil refinery.
In Scotland: 400 contractors at Longannet.
Thursday 5 February
Strikes end after Lindsey workers voted to accept agreement and return to work on Monday 9 February.
The pattern of the sympathy strikes was far from just mostly token gestures of one-day actions. And while they were not all-out or discontinuous actions either, they did keenly show a degree of resoluteness over supporting the Lindsey workers and speaking out on the overall issues to hand. Again the Guardian (5 February 2009) (and Newsnight (3 February 2009)) made it clear that the grassroots dynamics of the action:
Last Friday morning, from Merseyside to Plymouth, shop stewards’ mobile phones started ringing. Grassroots organisers for the GMB and Unite unions were inundated with calls from members who wanted to join the industrial action erupting at the Lindsey oil refinery near Grimsby, where hundreds of welders, engineers, pipe-fitters and laggers had launched the biggest protest yet at the employment of foreign workers on energy construction projects.
‘They were outraged at what was going on’ said … a GMB steward who until recently worked as a welder at the Fiddlers Ferry power station on Merseyside. ‘We got calls all morning. There were no orders coming from the shop stewards, it was all coming from the feelings of the members.’ By the end of the day 3,000 workers had gone on strike or mounted protests at 12 sites. The action spread by phone in ‘a domino effect’ stewards said.
The role of the Unite and GMB unions in the dispute has been interesting and intriguing, and says much about the realpolitik of contemporary industrial relations. As with elsewhere, Unite recommended that the Longannet workers returned to work on Tuesday 3 February. But the workers there voted by 211:150 to stay out until Friday 6 February when they would reconvene. (The debate concerned whether to return to work and ballot on official strike action and raise money to support the Lindsey strikers.) And, in the media, the two unions made it clear that the action was not official and that they could not support it. That aside, they did not condemn it. But more than that, they as national unions were one of the main voices of the striking workers (see below) and their urging of returns to work were not particularly vehement. Practically, the two unions at their national officer levels were amongst the negotiators in talks aimed at resolving the Lindsey dispute as well as the political dispute over exclusive use of foreign labour and the EU Posted Workers’ Directive. While one would expect national officers to be less involved on the ground, it was noticeable how involved regional officers were. Some non-media reports suggest that there were meeting between union officers and shop stewards on constructions sites and that information about the strikes was spread between the sites via official channels, effectively encouraging solidarity action (although there seemed to be little coordination between Unite and the GMB).
It appeared that it was only when negotiations began concerning Lindsey late on Monday 3 February that the national unions put genuine effort into arguing for returns to work and on the basis of the strikers having made their point and now they, the unions, would deal with the matter using the head of steam created by the strikers. This was particularly apparent on Wednesday 4 February with strikers at Cockenzie and Mossmorran agreeing to return to work following Bobby Buirds, Unite regional officer, commenting that although workers had wanted to remain on strike, they had backed a union initiative to end the wildcat action because the strikers were ‘aware that this is not a sprint, this is a campaign’.
This level of open and complicit involvement highlights three points. Firstly, compelled, under pressure and with some degree of being in agreement, the two national unions operated as friends of the strikers. One employment lawyer put it that Unite and the GMB were ‘saying ‘No’ [to the strike] while nodding their heads’ (Financial Times 5 February 2009). This point speaks to the dynamics of the dispute and the balance of power within the workers’ side. Secondly, what scope there is within existing law to support and organise workers striking unofficially. Thirdly, it raises the question of what more unions could do if the Trade Union Freedom Bill (sponsored by John McDonnell MP) had been passed, for it permitted solidarity action where there were intimate relationships between the employers. However, it is the first point that is worth dwelling upon. Although receiving de facto encouragement and support from their unions, the dispute was driven by the members concerned, whether at the steward or grassroots levels. In this situation, the unions had less to do in the physical sense of organising the strike and sympathy actions – which is usually the point that High Court judges look to in order to determine whether the law is being broken, that is, whether the union is in contempt of an injunction to desist from doing so. The issue of unions paying strike pay to unofficial strikers is not relevant as a form of support as strike pay is not a common feature today of unions in Britain. A wider sense of this degree of legal latitude can be gained from the appreciation that no employer has sought an injunction or to exercise their other rights under current employment law (see above). This is a sure sign that seeking such remedy would only have inflamed the situation and strengthened the striker’s hand and/or resolve.
Whilst the strike became a political hot potato and involved thousands of workers, it did not have the capacity of to deliver a knock out blow because the strikers were not maintenance or production workers at the oil refineries or power generation plants. If we recall the Grangemouth INEOS refinery workers’ strike over pensions in April 2008, they were able to put a gun to the company’s head by stopping the plant from receiving crude oil from the North Sea oilfields. But even in this case, it was only on the day after the Lindsey workers walked out – some nine months later on from the strike – that Unite announced that it reached an agreement with INEOS on the company pension scheme whereby members will contribute to the pension scheme, benefits are maintained and new starts allowed to enter the scheme. Something similar can be said about the leverage exerted by the tanker drivers’ strike in June 2008 and the results they gained from their strike vis-à-vis the construction workers. So the construction workers’ strike had a more political than industrial character in this respect. It is likely that it did not spread into the production and maintenance workers for the reason that there are, in trade terms, different types of workers there are not covered by the NAECI (but by company level agreements) and are not employed on the same precarious basis. This meant that the degree of common interest between them was not as stark. But had the strike at Lindsey and the sympathy action lasted longer than they did, the issue of escalation by bringing out these other related workers would have borne down heavily as would that of raising money to support the strikers. In this situation, the largely congenial relations between strikers and their national unions may not have remained quite so.
Local or British Labour?
From the placards on the pickets and demonstrations, the one demand that stood out most clearly was ‘British jobs for British workers’ (and rightwing forces ranging from the Daily Mail to UK Independence Party and BNP were quick to lend their support and champion the strikers’ cause. Indeed, the BNP attempted to join the picketlines and protests and recruit out of the revolt but was ejected and rejected.) Did this mean that some sections of the left (like the Socialist Workers’ Party and Workers’ Power) were right to say this was tantamount to a racist strike, the strike was playing with fire and that the wrong target of Italian and Portuguese workers had been chosen (rather than the correct target of the employers)? Or were Seumas Milne in the Guardian, several MPs (John Cruddas, George Galloway and John McDonnell) along with the Scottish Socialist Party, Solidarity, Communist Party and Socialist Party (former Militant) correct to say this was a strike for the right to work and was a strike against employers, neo-liberalism and recession?
The original dispute at Lindsey concerned IREM’s practice of exclusively using Italian and Portuguese workers. In other words, IREM was bringing in new workers who were permanently employed by it to do the work and not permitting any other workers, whether British or non-British in the local labour market, to be eligible to apply for this work.4 So this was not a strike against the use of foreign workers per se. It was a strike against the exclusive use of certain workers at the expense of others workers in the local labour, or British, labour market. The strikers were not calling for the expulsion, repatriation or sacking of ‘foreign’ workers. And given the expanded nature of the labour market in Britain in recent years, it was not just British-born and British self-identified workers that were ineligible for the work but all other skilled workers already in Britain. The mistake by some on the left in the unions to criticise or oppose the strikes was down to their mesmerisation with the slogan ‘British jobs for British workers’.
A selection of quotes from those organising or directing the strikes in some capacity highlights that this was not a racist or xenophobic strike despite the slogans and soundbites:
Bobby Buirds, Unite regional officer in Scotland: ‘The argument is not against foreign workers, it’s against foreign companies discriminating against British labour … If the job of these mechanical contractors … at INEOS finishes and they try and get jobs down south, the jobs are already occupied by foreign labour and their opportunities are decreasing. This is a fight for work. It is a fight for the right to work in our own country. It is not a racist argument at all.’
Unite shop steward Garry Scales: ‘We are angry that workers have been taken on from outside the UK when people here are out of work.’
Unite regional officer Bernard McAuley: ‘There is sufficient unemployed skilled labour wanting the right to work on that site and they are demanding the right to work on that site. … We want fairness. We want the rights of our members to have the opportunity to be employed, not just on this job but on all jobs around the United Kingdom’.
Sellafield striker and GMB convener Willie Doggert: ‘All we want is a level playing field, it’s not just about foreign workers, we need jobs to be advertised with transparency – so that everybody gets a far crack of the whip.’
Derek Simpson, Unite joint-general secretary: ‘It’s not the question of foreign workers. It is the question that some of these companies … are saying they will exclusively debar UK workers, they will not consider UK workers under any circumstances … The unofficial action taking place across the UK is not about race or immigration, it’s about class. It’s about employers who exploit workers regardless of their nationality by undercutting their hard won pay and conditions. These are rights that trade unionists have fought long and hard for …’
GMB general secretary Paul Kenny: ‘No company should be able to discriminate against anyone on the grounds of where they were born. You simply cannot say that only Italians can apply for jobs, as has happened in this case.’
Keith Gibson, GMB steward at Lindsey oil refinery: ‘This issue is based around the defence of the construction industry national agreement which, we believe, with their use of foreign labour or otherwise, is a direct attack on a national agreement. They won’t be happy until they’ve broken that agreement, until they’ve lowered the wages and living standards of construction workers in this industry’.
Of course, this in and of itself is not conclusive proof as words and actions can diverge for a number of other reasons. The demand of ‘British jobs for British workers’ (and its other imitations) owes much to the attempt to make political capital out of the phraseology of the promise coined by Gordon Brown in 2007. The strikers did so in order to try to exert some leverage over the government by taking up its phrase and trying to put pressure on them to deliver upon it. After spending billions of pounds of public money bailing out reckless bankers and indemnifying them against their losses, the strikers were seeking to make the point that they too demanded government protection. So using the slogan was a tool of tactical leverage at the level of a single and simple slogan but which hid a much more complex phenomenon. The fuller demand that could not easily be encapsulated in a slogan and which would not fit onto a placard or banner, as alluded to above, concerned the right of workers in Britain – whether ‘British’ or not – to be eligible to apply for vacant work on construction sites in Britain (as opposed to demand the right to get the jobs). Given the multi-national and multi-ethnic composition of the workforce in Britain, workers in Britain are many and varied in terms of their background. This again indicates that at base the strikes were about a demand for the right to work for workers who are domiciled in Britain. Indeed, as to emphasise the point on Tuesday 3 February, among the 600 workers that walked out at Langage Power Station, were hundreds of Polish workers. Jerry Pickford, Unite regional officer, commented that the walk out was in ‘general sympathy with what’s happening in the construction industry … All the Polish workers have walked out as well, because this is not an issue against foreign workers.’
To further enforce the point about the tactical use of the slogan, the nature of the support from workers in Scotland is worth examining. Thus, the majority of these workers in Scotland are likely to have been ‘native’ to Scotland and see themselves as more ‘Scottish’ than ‘British’ or ‘Scottish’ rather than ‘British’ because of the dominant influence of Scottish national identity. Yet use of the term ‘British’, the prominence of the Union Jack and the like were no barriers to giving solidarity because the motivation to support their fellow workers was a non-racist, class-based one. The same can be said, to a lesser degree, for Wales (where national identity is less strong and few workers proportionately took action in sympathy). Finally, and in recognition of the attraction of the BNP and the ability of the media to portray the strike as racist and xenophobic, some of the slogans began to change from Monday 2 February to demands for the right to work for local workers and workers in Britain. Thus, bearfacts.co.uk posters changed from ‘British jobs for British workers’ to ‘Fair Access for Local Labour’ where local meant existing workers in the local labour markets and was not a cipher for ‘British’ or white ‘British’ workers.
Now, of course, none of this is not to suggest that there was no racism or xenophobia involved. There was inevitably some amongst the workers at Lindsey because these workers are a reflection of workers (and people in Britain in) in general who, in turn, reflect some of the dominant views that exist in society. The same can be said for the wider numbers of strikers and those out of work construction workers that became protesters. But where much more evidence of this was seen was amongst those people who left comments on newspaper websites and the like and who were not directly involved in the dispute as well as the attempts by the BNP through their specially created website, British Wildcats, to encourage and support the ‘little Englander’ attitudes.6 Finally, some of the alleged extant racism and xenophobia should also be considered as British nationalism which while of a predominantly white nature can also encompass the nationalism of citizens, white and non-white, who were born in Britain and have taken up British citizenship and affiliation.
In a growing economy, the employment of foreign labour for workers is not necessarily a problem for existing workers, so long as the extra labour is a supplement rather than an alternative and on the same wages and conditions as those of existing workers. But come a recession, particularly in a sector where work has always been sporadic, peripatetic and discontinuous because of the nature of the construction projects, this balance can change quickly and dramatically.
The issue of whether the IREM workers were in anyway undercutting wages and conditions was thus a crucial one. Alongside IREM claiming that it needed specialist labour which was not available at the time of the award of contract, it also claimed the workers were being paid on the NAECI rates in the ‘Blue Book’ and one newspaper (Daily Mail 31 January 2009) even claimed that Unite officials had negotiated these workers’ terms.8 But there are reasons to doubt these claims, especially when the company was not prepared to provide the documentation to substantiate this, it operates as a non-union company and its workers were segregated from other workers so that a veil of secrecy surrounded the Italian and Portuguese workers’ terms and conditions. First, the NAECI agreement is not legally binding, thus, providing ample room for it to be ignored (unlike collective agreements in Italy – and other continental European countries – where extension to all workers is mandatory). Second, it is not clear whether the workers were unionised or not. If they were not the claims about the NAECI rates was dubious because the workers would not have an independent body to enforce and police the implementation of the NAECI rates. Third, the provision of accommodation and food for these workers on a floatel – and transport to and from to the site – provided the opportunity to allow the company to deduct monies for board and lodging and so on as well as make the workers dependent upon the employer as if they were in a company town. Fourth, the Posted Worker Directive only requires that employer do not pay below the minimum wage of the country in which the work is being carried out – which will inevitably be lower and possibly be much lower that collectively bargained rates. If the issue was not one of wage undercutting, it was made clear by the Financial Times (6 February 2009) that construction employers were looking to use more foreign workers because they were less strike prone and would accept poorer site conditions that home workers.
The rightwing press supported the strikes for the reason that they took at face value the ‘British jobs for British workers’ slogan used by the strikers and sought to use it to augment their own xenophobic and anti-EU agenda. But the case of the BBC is far more worrying given its alleged impartiality and impartiality being part of its corporate mission. For example, on Monday 2 February, the ten o’clock bulletin gave us a good example of this. A voiceover by the BBC’s political editor, Nick Robinson told us: ‘Beneath the anger, ministers fear, lies straightforward xenophobia’. Then it cut to a woolly-hatted worker telling BBC reporter: ‘These Portugese and Eyeties – we can’t work alongside of them.’ But Paul Mason’s report on Newsnight the same night featured the same interview except that it was edited in a very different way so the quote ran: ‘These Portugese and eyeties – we can’t work alongside of them: we’re segregated from them. They’re coming in in full companies’. It would be hard to not conclude that the intention from the editing of the quote was to suggest that working-class people are racist. A broader point emerges for the left in the unions which was critical of the strikes. This is that using the rightwing press to substantiate one’s arguments is a very risky venture (just as taking any statements literally and at face value is).
Political Responses and Solutions
Politicians of mainstream parties (Tories, Liberals, SNP) by Friday 30 January repeated the lines like ‘strikes are not the best way to sort this out’, ‘you’ve made your point now so get back to work’ and ‘this will start to damage the economy’. None outlined just how the strikers could continue to exert pressure without striking. Only Labour called the strikes ‘indefensible’, ‘xenophobic’ and mounted an attack on them. But, in fact, the government was somewhat split along lines of some neo-liberals like Brown and Mandelson remaining steadfast in their neo-liberalism and others like Health Minister, Alan Johnston, and Environment Minister, Hilary Benn, accepting that the injustice needed addressing in the context of the continued erosion of electoral support for Labour ahead of the next general election. Benn said that the angry workers were ‘entitled to an answer’ to the question they posed over the right of employers to employ only certain workers by dint of their nationality. So Labour seemed to alternate between criticism and assuaging the anger.
Over the weekend of the 31 January-1 February, the government instructed ACAS to investigate the claims of wage undercutting and to mediate in the Lindsey dispute. Total was involved in the talks despite the issue being with IREM. Indeed, Total refused on Monday 2 February to negotiate with the strikers until they had returned to work. This position was changed as the determined action of the strikers continued and Total became anxious about a proposed boycott of its products. On 2 February, Unite proposed a three point plan to the government to resolve the unofficial revolt: i) resolve the immediate problem that exists at Total’s Lindsey oil refinery. Reach an agreement which gives fair consideration for UK labour to work on the contract; ii) carry out an investigation into the practices of contractors and subcontactors in the engineering and construction industry. Follow by action from the government which will insist that companies applying for contracts on public infrastructure projects, sign up to corporate social responsibility agreements which commit to fair access for UK labour; and iii) overturn European legal precedents which allow employers to undercut wages and conditions. On 30 January, Unite called for a national protest in Westminster. Meantime, talks began on 3 February aimed at resolving the Lindsey dispute. By the early morning (4 February), the media reported that a deal was in the offing and would give 100 of the 200 jobs which IREM had available to existing workers in Britain. By mid-morning, it emerged that less than 30% (61) of the 198 jobs would be made available to existing workers. This, along with continued assurances from IREM that it was paying its Italian core workers the NAECI rates, were rejected. Yet by the afternoon, an outline of a deal had been agreed whereby Unite and GMB would recommend that the strikers accepted the revised deal (of 102 jobs available for local workers of any nationality, with no redundancies of the Italian workers) and return to work. The deal was put to the strikers on Thursday morning and accepted unanimously. However, it remained unclear whether there 102 jobs were part of the 198, whether they were new jobs in addition to the 198 and whether if that was not the case, 102 IREM core workers would be transferred elsewhere. Nonetheless, all of these workers would be paid on NAECI rates. Furthermore, and as part of the agreement, the government reached an understanding with the engineering construction industry association to ensure non-UK contractors ‘will always explore and consider the local skills availability and to consider any applications that may be forthcoming’.
Politically, a case was being built – and support gathered for it – for the British government to revisit and revise its extremely neo-liberal 1999 interpretation of the Posted Workers Directive into national regulations. These stipulated that terms and conditions should not be below the legal minimum in Britain as per the minimum wage and the like rather than not be below the collectively bargained industry rates. It is this revision – to the collectively bargained industry rates – to the British regulations which is seems to be being pursued by the GMB rather the abolition of the EU Posted Workers Directive or its revision (in the EU). Such a demand has been in existence since 1999 and was pressed for at the 2004 meeting that led to the first Warwick agreement. Similarly, a political case was being built by Unite to put pressure on the European Union to overturn the disputed verdicts of the European Court of Justice (see below).
Europe and Neoliberalism
The project of European integration, and its embodiment in the EU, is about facilitating the conditions for business to be able to compete on similar or more favourable terms with other major world economies, initially Japan and the US and now China and India. Essentially, no one European country could seek to do this on its own, and so the EU is a European response to capitalist and neoliberal globalisation. This means it takes on the conditions of the ‘race to the bottom’ in terms of workers’ terms and conditions. In particular, the social dimension of the original vision of an integrated Europe is now being subordinated to the economic, i.e., the profit motive. As the GMB union argued: ‘Economic freedoms cannot have priority over fundamental social rights and social progress, and in the case of conflict, social rights should take precedence’. But four recent judgements by the European Court of Justice (ECJ), known as Laval, Viking, Ruffert and Luxembourg, have enshrined this race to the bottom in ECJ case law and given huge new powers to employers to bring in contract labour anywhere within the EU. The ECJ and the European Commission are effectively implementing a programme to narrow the scope for member states to preside over their different social models and labour markets in the context of foreign companies posting workers to their territory. Essentially, the decisions have allowed business to operate untrammelled and prevented workers from acting lawfully to stop employers from operating like this.
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 ECJ. In 2004 a Latvian company, Laval, 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. Again, the court ruled in the company’s favour. Workers’ conditions and pay need only comply with the laws of the company’s home country. So now workers terms and conditions must only meet the regulations of the country from where they were recruited, not from where they are due to work. In other words, there is an economic (profit) incentive to import and export workers as never before. And, the Posted Workers’ Directive prescribes this as a legitimate lawful method of conducting business. It is definitely not a legal loophole. The result has been evidenced in the Irish Ferries dispute in 2006, when Irish seafarers were displaced by sweated Latvian and Polish labour being paid a third of the wages, and the Gate Gourmet strike of 2005 also saw low-paid Polish workers displace local staff, mainly British Asian women.
Conclusion: difficult next steps
Having highlighted and created a political sensitivity to the issue as well as achieving a compromise at Lindsey, the next difficult steps facing the activists and national unions is not just to maintain the pressure and profile but make genuine advance in achieving union objectives. The history of building up heads of steam only for them to dissipate is an age old problem. If we recall the Gate Gourmet dispute of 2005, the ability of the union movement to secure a change in the employment law that restricted secondary action was unsuccessful when the Trade Union Freedom Bill was rejected on several occasions in Parliament as a result of the Labour government’s opposition. And while Lindsey workers went to Staythorpe and Isle of Grain to show their solidarity support and while there were demonstrations at these sites, lobbies of Parliament, meetings of sponsored MPs in different union parliamentary groups and so on, the problem remains that the target of this pressure is a considerable distance away from it and thus any leverage or power over them from a construction site is diffuse. The Parliamentary Labour Party and Labour government as well as the European Commission and European Court of Justice are unaccountable to these workers in any direct sense. It may well take more strikes of the kind just witnessed and such action being allied to that of fellow workers on mainland Europe for sufficient power to exercised to make a difference to gain union objectives here.
Please note – due to formatting restrictions on this site, notes haven’t been included in the article. For the full article with notes, email us at the address at the top of this page.
St Athan Deal on the Ropes says Private Eye
http://www.antimetrix.org/no – 1219 One in the Eye (page 3)
The Eyes exposure of the unaffordability and big military risks of plans to privatise defence training in a £12bn PFI deal has angered the man running the project Brigadier Geoff Nield. “I return to you on the subject of the leakage of DTR related material to the press,” he writes in a memo. “You will be aware of most of the articles on package 1 [the main, PFI, element of training reform] which have appeared in Private Eye.” What really riled Nield was our exposure of of the cancellation of a planned announcement before parliament broke up. “The act of someone to release this latter information to a private eye journalist is clearly illegal, contrary to to the official secrets act,” he mutters darkly.
Nield might be over-egging it as the official secrets act contains a public interest defence. Or maybe he thinks the public would be better off not knowing that the deal, which the MOD has refused to justify financially or operationally, is on the ropes. Or that the MOD’s own secret assessment betrays the risk that “training output fails to meet the requirements of of operational command “.
D-day is due this month with an announcement on signing the PFI contract – or given the problems and latest rumours that the sale of MOD sites on which the deal depends has fallen through – abandoning PFI altogether.
All of which makes the timing of last weeks sale by the MOD of its remaining 19.8% stake in QinetiQ, owner of Metrix, highly unusual. If the MoD pulls the defence training deal. QinetiQ’s share price will be hit and questions will be asked about whether the forthcoming announcement was a factor in the sell off decision and if so, whether inside information played a part.
If the deal goes ahead and QinetiQ’s stock rises, however, another badly timed government sale will have cost the government millions. Remember you read it here first.
see also page 6 on EDS.
Former long serving armed forces minister Adam Ingrams appointment as £50,000 a year consultant for the Eye’s favourite firm, EDS, is just reward for 6 years at the MoD helping booster the firms business.
ED’s notable successes in recent years include a £250m contract to take the forces payroll (with predictably disastrous results so far) membership of the Metrix consortium negotiating a £12bn (and rising) PFI deal to privatise military training and a 4bn contract won in 2004 to overhaul all military and civilian defence IT……
Not a word of any problems like unaffordability and big military risks by Wing commander Richard Read in his propaganda article titled ACADEMY logbook in the Gem on Aug 5th ..
He is described as site director, he and worked closely with Metrix and the MoD on the defence training review programme ….Read tells us “While much debate ensues over the precise number of jobs that will be created; even at its lowest, likely conservative, estimate it will be in the thousands with evident positive boost for the local and South Wales economy”!!!
..The new Defence Technical Academy is building on S
Cowbridge Today, Wales – News 11:13 8-Aug-08
No mention of these either by WAG and friends sham consultation.
Call for Calan Mai 2009 – from http://www.calanmai.wordpress.com
Calan Mai is the 1st May – On this day Mayday rallies, marches & cultural events happen all around the world, there is scarcely a capital city in Europe without a MayDay parade, Cardiff is notable for not holding a regular event. Indeed there has not been a proper marking of Mayday in Wales since Social Forum Cymru 06 in Aberystwyth.
May Day is International Workers’ Day, a day that should recognise that the working class is an international class; that the oppressed and exploited throughout the world have everything in common with each other and nothing in common with ‘their’ nation, ‘their’ government and ‘their’ bosses. So migrants, refugees, those deemed ‘illegal immigrants’ by the State,those facing deportation, people in detention, should be at the center of what May Day is all about.
Across Europe many cities organise protests and rallys as part of EuroMayday – a process by which actions and demands are put forward to fight the widespread precarization of youth and the discrimination of migrants in Europe and beyond: no borders, no workfare, no precarity!
The demands surrounding the protests for EuroMayDay 008 are:
- full legalization for all persecuted migrants
- self-organizing and unionizing rights freed from state repression
- unconditional basic income
- a european living wage
- free access to culture, knowledge, and skills
- the right to cheap housing