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Building workers on strike: victory or defeat?

Don Flynn assesses the recent strikes for British jobs and finds trade union claims shaky at best.

Unless rank-and-file militancy has got a surprise in store for us, the wave of strikes which brought thousands of construction workers out in solidarity with their colleagues at the Lindsey Oil Refinery at the end of January seems to have subsided, or at least for the time being.

It's not that the basic issues have gone away. The immediate cause of the strike at the Lincolnshire refinery was the award of a sub-contract on construction work for a desulphurisation plant to an Italian company which proposed to employ a workforce consisting of mainly Italian and Portuguese workers on that site. Disputes over similar issues have been simmering at the Staythorpe Power Station in Nottinghamshire, and the Isle of Grain Power Station in Kent. In these latter two cases companies employing Polish workforces have been awarded contracts for specialist construction work.

As well as the explosion of a type of trade union militancy which hasn't been since in the UK since the 1980s, the Lincolnshire dispute was memorable for the slogans which rallied solidarity action from workers at oil refineries and power plants across the UK 'British Jobs for British Workers'. The leaderships of the two main unions involved, Unite and the GMB worked hard to spin an interpretation of this rallying call as being not anti-immigrant, but rather simply calling for a 'level playing field' to deal with the threat of non-British companies who were winning contracts through undercutting union-negotiated collective agreements. The conscience of leftists was thereby appeased: it was a strike against the mobility of capital, rather than the nationality of other groups of workers.

Maybe, and in troubled times it is human nature to hope for the best. But as the weeks go by, and as we continue to look for signs of a revival of working class militancy, we might at least use this as an opportunity as ask what really went on at the Lindsey Oil Refinery.

But a couple of things are troubling about the claims of the uncritical supporters of the workers' action. Firstly, that the Italian firm, IREM, was bringing in a workforce that would work at rates below the 'Blue Book' agreements which cover unionised sites in the construction sector. When evidence on this important issue failed to materialise a fallback position was found in claims that employment costs were being reduced by accommodating the workers in a barge moored in nearby Grimsby, and that national insurance payments would be made at the low tax Italian rate.

This hardly seems convincing. The Blue Book contains provisions governing either 'digs' money or the use of accommodation units for construction works working away from home and if the evidence existed of substandard rates being used we should have expected to see it. As for the complaint that there were elements of a tax fiddle in the arrangement well, yes, maybe, but whenever has this been the cause of such an extraordinary wave of militancy?

Big claims for the 'unfairness' of foreign firms are common in the disputes being flagged up in the oil refinery and power plant sector. At both Staythorpe and the Isle of Grain similar allegations have been made about agreement-busting actions by main management, but with flat denials of this by the contractors.

Of course, capitalist firms tell lies and it wouldn't be outrageous to suspect that a few porkies are doing the rounds in this instance. But if management are giving categorical assurances of national agreements being honoured, how difficult would it be to get this into the public terms of the contract?

The problem is that a perusal of the statements emerging from the union side in these disputes leaves the impression that the claims of inferior terms of employment are a smokescreen for the real complaint, which is that foreign workers are being employed to do jobs which British workers could do instead. The 'British Jobs for British Workers' slogan seems to have fallen out of favour now that the centres of the dispute have moved to Nottingham and Kent, and union placards calling for 'Equal Rights for UK Workers' were substituted at demonstrations which took place at Staythorpe and Grain at the beginning of February.

Well, the appeal for 'equal rights' has the ring of the civil rights movement behind it, and maybe that is sufficient to hoist it into the range of being a progressive demand. But in what sense are 'UK workers' deprived of equality?

The answer is, they are not. Contracts become available in the construction sector, and contractors of all nationalities within the European Union and beyond are able to bid for the work. The vast majority of successful contractors in the UK are UK-based companies and their workers, mostly, but not all, are British citizens. In some instances the contracts are awarded to non-British firms, and these might choose to exercise their prerogative to bring across members of their permanent workforce who are not British citizens, and they will end up working on the site. In principal there is nothing unfair or unequal about this, anymore than would unfairness follow from Kent-based firms winning contracts in Hampshire and bringing in their Kentish workers.

Proponents of the 'unfair' argument draw attention to decisions of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the Viking, Laval and Ruffert cases. These are alleged to have redrawn the basic rules for trade union activity in the EU to effectively outlaw strike action in defence of collective agreements.

The truth is a little more complex than this. The ECJ rulings are widely regarded as inelegant jurisprudence which have introduced a great deal of uncertainty into rules on the posting of workers abroad and the scope for legitimate trade union action to counter 'social dumping'. If the EU was a proper state the government who have expressed deep exasperation with the judges for making a dog's dinner out of the situation and they would step in with proper legislation to sort the mess out. But the EU isn't a state and instead of a government it has 27 squabbling political entities acting on an unspoken agreement to paralyze every line of progressive advance the Union might ever possibly take.

The Viking et al cases are clearly regrettable, and someone should do something about it. But have they created a situation in which industry-wide agreements are being ripped up and living standards driven down? No they have not. In the UK the Blue Book agreements are maintained on building sites across the country in pretty much the same terms as they have in the past, which is through robust trade union organisation and shop stewards able to address the real issues at stake. If the right to strike has been curtailed in recent years this has come in the main from domestic legislation rather than anything produced by the EU. If the workers in Cumbria, Scotland, Wales and the southern English counties who down-tooled in solidarity with the Lindsey refinery workers, were breaking laws, the vast majority of the laws they broke were 'made in Britain' rather than any place in supposedly free market Europe.

The sight of workers massing on picket lines at building sites in the beleaguered UK warmed the hearts of many left wing socialists who are eagerly looking for signs of a genuine working class response to the biggest crisis of the capitalist system in generations. A revival of militancy is very definitely needed at this time, on a programme which loudly states that the burden of crisis should not fall on working class people. But the need for this stalwart defence of living standards makes it more important, not less, to pay attention to the politics of the response.

Let us admit the obvious fact: the immediate response of trade unionists at the Lindsey refinery and the other sites which support them was a nationalistic assertion of preference for British workers as opposed to workers of other nationalities. The claim that the strikes were in the defence of collectively-negotiated agreements was spurious, with evidence of below standard wage rates being paid to the Italian or other non-British workers being completely absent. The 'victory' celebrated at the end of the strike, of 102 jobs being secured for 'British' workers on the IREM contract will prove pyrrhic if bounds of solidarity are not built up in the months ahead between workers of all nationalities on the Lindsey, and other, sites.

For more than a decade trade unions have been press releasing claims for break-throughs into new periods of global trade unionism, with agreements with labour federations abroad to act in concert in defence of workers' rights and living standards. As the global crisis unfolds the real challenge will be to put flesh and blood on the skeleton of international trade unionism, so that the movement becomes capable of militant struggle across national and continental frontiers. We should be clear: self-pitying appeals for 'British Jobs for British Workers', or 'Equal Rights for UK Workers' are part of the garbage which has to be cleared away if an international challenge to global capitalism is to be mounted as the current crisis develops apace.