Thursday, 29 January 2009

A 'Racist' Strike?

Hundreds walk out of their workplace. On the second day the strike spreads, pulling up to a thousand workers out on secondary action across sites in Northern England and Scotland - much of it illegal under the anti-trade union laws Labour has, to its eternal shame, left on the statute books. In short, an outbreak of the very 'spontaneous' actions of our class that would normally excite the left in this country. Except there appears, at first glance, a racist fly in the militant soup.

According to the
BBC, on Wednesday the Lindsey oil refinery in Lincolnshire awarded a portion of a £300 million construction project to an Italian firm, which, going from the reports, will be using Italian and Portuguese workers. At a time of rising unemployment you can understand why the local union, Unite, and many of the workers are angry about this development. Quoted on the BBC, Unite's Bernard McAuley says "there are men here whose fathers and uncles... built this refinery from scratch. It's outrageous."

But, somewhat surprisingly, it is left to the
Daily Star(!) to show this dispute is about class, not race. An anonymous scaffolder tells the soaraway Star “we need to make a stand now. This is not a racist protest. I’m happy to work hand-in-hand with foreign workers, but we are not getting a look in. There are guys at this site who had been banking on that work and then it gets handed to an Italian firm. It’s about fairness.” No doubt some of these workers will have attitudes a lot less enlightened than the chap above.

British bosses are past masters at using race, ethnicity and nationality to divide and conquer both at home and abroad in their former colonial possessions. Drafting in migrant labour from overseas is a tried and tested method of undermining the pay and conditions of workers. Turning on the workers who come in to take advantage of employment opportunities plays directly into the bosses' hands - it obscures the fact it is they who are attacking and driving down wages, and therefore the responsibility lies with them. Unsurprisingly, the mainstream of the labour movement has a less then spotless record when it comes to this. For example, while in the North West the T&G arm of Unite have done some good work amongst Polish workers, trade unions as a whole have done little to combat knee-jerk xenophobia of this type.

When the bosses divide our class along the lines of race and nation, we are weaker. Instead of capitulating to the anti-immigrant sentiment fanned by the gutter press, unions must demand legislation that prevents employers from taking on workers at below the basic rates of its workforce. Unfortunately, as this appears to be beyond the political imagination of many a trade union leader, it falls to the small and scattered forces of the left to make this case at the refinery gates.

Edit: Now also published at Socialist Unity .

33 comments:

Anonymous said...

Yours is the only blog to mention it, Apparently it is spreading across Teeside, parts of Scotland and there is to be a 'national march on Parliament' next tuesday. and other 'elements' are sticking their oar in.

From what i gather many people not connected to the plant are getting involved, young guys, articularly. Its looks like this is is a lightning rod for globalisation and its discontents, but this time its workers, not students, etc . One has to be concerned how this pans out, but cries of racist or xenophobe won't be productive, nor will ignoring it as seem to be happening on the Left blogosphere, (apart from yours)etc.

The far left is generally not known for tact, though I trust the SP will be more sussed than say the SWP. In fact, i don't think the SWP/Respect will be welcome and will be told to fuck off.Imo, this is a real test of the maturity of the left, what do you think?,

Madam Miaow said...

Thanks, Phil.

I'm reminded of the crap the Chinese had to go through when they were shipped into the US to build the railroads in the 1860s, and right into the 20th Century.

The Labour movement defined it as a matter of race, not class, and it weakened everyone. I understand that the Wobblies were far more enlightened and sought to bring them into the fold to take their place in the class alongside all the other workers. Even in Britain the unions attacked them, leading to nasty riots in places like Cardiff.

Even recently, John Rees declared the UK Chinese to be of no importance as it was "British workers who count", despite unauthorised workers suffering so much. I hope what you are saying regarding the present situation gains currency. Because business and government would love us fighting each other as everything collapses.

Charlie Marks said...

Rather than this being about tensions between settled and migrant workers within the labour market, this strike is centred on the intention of the employer to bring workers in from overseas rather than seeking to employ workers who live locally. So it is not a racist strike: the argument of the protestors is not that workers from ethnic minorities, migrants, etc. should not be employed.

Phil BC said...

Charlie and MM, you're both right.

I see this morning the strike is spreading, though again the BBC are sticking to reporting chauvinist statements (just look at the photo of the Italians they've decided to use). Disgraceful.

Anon, Ian Bone wrote a brief covering note yesterday before regurgitating the original BBC report. But that's about it. I'm sure other left bloggers will take it up today.

There are dangers in this situation, but it is also pregnant with possibilities.

Benjamin Solah said...

When I read this my thoughts went to where the BNP are placed in all of this. True, the situation is a class battle but I'm expecting the BNP will try to use this to their advantage and try to add nationalist shit to the strike. After all, they were found to members of trade unions.

Phil BC said...

Unfortunately, the BNP have already tried to intervene. See this thread at Meanwhile At the Bar.

Jim Jay said...

Well done Phil for being so quick off the mark on this story - I read it here first before seeing it on the news even.

I think you're instincts are right on this - but having listened to one of the workers interviewed on Radio Four this morning and read a bit more about it I think it's more complicated than saying it isn't about race.

Many racist concerns often are underpinned with legitimate economic or social concerns that direct at the wrong people. It doesn't mean they aren't actually racist. Of course I agree with the point that simply calling people racist isn't helpful - but turning a blind eye to problems, or excuse them isn't either in my view.

The speed at which the strike is spreading and the fact that these workers have a wider outlook than simply defending against job losses (which aren't happening) is commendable but there is a clear element to this which is stated very clearly over and again "British jobs for British workers" - I just don't agree with that statement.

"When the bosses divide our class along the lines of race and nation, we are weaker." I agree - but that's what's happening right now and personally if I was an Italian living in any of these areas I would not be shouting it from the rooftops but keeping my head down.

Phil BC said...

A point made by Eddie Truman on Socialist Unity, and repeated by Anna on her blog deserves an airing here:

"I just spoke to a national GMB official and he was saying that a number of agencies involved in the sector are point blank refusing to hire UK workers in a deliberate attempt to smash union organisation and drive down wages."

Charlie Marks said...

You miss the point, Jim. Regardless of your nationality, if you work in the sector and live locally, you cannot apply for that job - it's about undercutting the going rate.

Very clearly it is the employers that are doing this and the protests are directed at them, not at foreign workers.

Charlie Marks said...

This is very definitely "a deliberate attempt to smash union organisation and drive down wages" - and that is the whole point of having open EU-wide labour markets.

nationofduncan said...

You beat me to it Phil, good post.

This dispute is highly significant, we need to be careful about how we intervene and support it but if we don't the loss is entirely ours and the beneficiaries will be the far right.

Jim Jay said...

I'm not sure I am missing the point Charlie - and I do think Phil's instincts are right on this.

My concern is that whilst this is the employers helping to whip up racism that doesn't mean that racism is not being whipped up. It's still real no matter what the source.

As Duncan says I just think we need to be careful about our support - not that we shouldn't give it.

Paul said...

Yes good post Phil - I was starting to script something on same lines but you've done i5 much better. In terms of the wider blogoland reaction (or lack of it) to what might actually develop very quickly into something very big, given the undercurrents of general discontent with the 'system' which allows this stuff to happen, I am reminded of that bit in Monty Python's Life of Brian where the proper activist (the woman) runs in and, infuriated at the navel gazing, shouts 'It's happening, it's really happening'.

But I have my own bit of guilt about that 'cos I didn't really pick up what was going on properly till last night, and still did my tax returns..

Denzil said...

My understanding is that many employers are going directly to agencies employing foreign labour. Jobs are not being advertised, Gordon Brown might claim there are 600,000 vacancies at any one time, but anyone who is unemployed will tell you its difficult to find a decent job advertised. Perhaps its different in central London where all the MPs live?
For working-class people to reject this situation is not racist. Very often the local people who are not being employed are black or asians. Infact our ethnic communities are suffering most because of the e.u. labour being drafted in.
This sort of thing has been going on for years in less organised sectors of the economy: care homes, factories, restaurants, hotels, shops etc. It's driven wages in all those sectors down to minimum wage, with no enhancements.
How can the trade unions response in most sectors of the economy? Its impossible for them.
There needs to be a political solution and this brings us back to the New Workers Party. There should be a law that all jobs should be advertised locally for a least a month, before agency labour can be employed.

journeyman said...

Socialists have to unhesitatingly give their support to the strikers.

Obviously we need to raise the issues skillfully - but this could be an opportunity to put forward a genuine class-based opposition to the bosses club of the EU.

journeyman

Southpawpunch said...

I think this is interesting in all sorts of ways. And welcome, overall. It's probably the most important thing happening in Britain at present (and also for some time) so it is very important to be clear about it. I usually have lots of opinions. But here I am happy to admit I just don’t know.

Could it develop into a strike wave primarily focussed against immigrant labour which socialists must oppose, as they did when dockers marched on Parliament support of Enoch Powell. (So I disagree with "Socialists have to unhesitatingly give their support to the strikers." above).

I’d predict the far Left parties to develop a certain degree of blindness to some racist aspects in that they would continue to support it, for a while after, IF it became unsupportable. They will (rightly) be very enthused about this militant development but also think that workers can do no wrong (workerism).

Or is this all too gloomy an analysis? Could the chauvinism be but part of the issue and one that may be fought against with some success.

Note the Scottish strikers quickly travelling to Lincolnshire to presumably argue for ‘British jobs for British workers’. That is Scottish workers who most parts of the Scottish Left (now plagued with nationalism) think should have an artificial national boundary wall put between them and English (etc) workers.

Regrettably the far Left are likely to have very little impact on the strike in Lincolnshire. I’d be surprised if there is one far Left person there on strike (although maybe they have played a role in the spread of the strike?)

But we certainly can, paltry as our forces may be, do our utmost to spread this very welcome smashing of the anti-trade unions laws - sympathy strikes & walking out without a ballot - to promote other walk outs not connected with this dispute and the overhang of racism as well as the victory of the current strikers for the many demands we can support.

And Madame Miaow - your monomania against John Rees is now beyond ludicrous.

Phil BC said...

Socialist Party report from the action:

Construction workers strike spreads

Thousands of construction workers in oil refineries and other major utilities sites are on strike.

There were mass meetings in the Lindsey and Conoco refinery sites in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire today and Socialist Party members were well received with 18 copies of the Socialist sold.

The main issue is not that "foreign" workers are being brought in by the employers, as reported in the media, but that there are thousands of unemployed construction workers.

The Socialist Party is raising the demand that any worker should be part of the national engineering construction agreements that cover the wages and conditions on the sites.

We are also calling for an unemployment registrar to be set up under union control that can supply labour to the sites when that is needed.

The reason for the strikes is that the employers have awarded the contracts to an Italian firm that has brought in labour which is not part of the national agreements.

A six-strong strike committee has been set up with a Socialist Party member on the committee. At the time of writing the strikes are spreading like wild fire according to the BBC, currently covering something like sixteen sites from Scotland to Wales and from Northern Ireland to Merseyside.

nationofduncan said...

I’d be surprised if there is one far Left person there on strike

I hope you're sufficiently surprised SouthpawPunch:

A six-strong strike committee has been set up with a Socialist Party member on the committee

Anonymous said...

Infiltrated by racists. From the BNP website's comments section:

'We had 8 activists arrive at 11.00 am, unforunately just as the demo finished (It started at 6.00am)
One member did a short interview with ITV. All they had to distribute were back numbers of Freedom and glossy "Where we stand Leaflets"'

Southpawpunch said...

Fair enough, I am pleasantly surprised (although is the SP member in Lincs or at some of the other places now affected, as I did mention in my comment - not that it matters).

I am also enthused by reading Jerry Hicks (http://www.socialistunity.com/?p=3495) "Jerry tells me he has been in touch with the strikers, and this is very far from being a racist or reactionary strike...

My comment above is based on the information I had at the time and of course I would expect the mainstream media to play up that aspect of the strike.

If it's all good, excellent.

I am also very well that an astute management, if it goes on a media offensive, will use one of its strands to target liberal opinion by portraying themselves as campaigning against racism - and Guardian types may fall for that.

But still, I also maintain IF tyhe strike isn't as kosher, "I’d predict the far Left parties to develop a certain degree of blindness to some racist aspects in that they would continue to support it, for a while after, IF it became unsupportable. They will (rightly) be very enthused about this militant development but also think that workers can do no wrong (workerism)."

Merseymike said...

The fact is that overseas workers are employed on lower wages - and it is this act by the management, not the fact that the workers are foreign, which is the grievance.

No undercut wages, no incentive to bring them in in the first place

But this is the free market, this is the glory of globalisation.

HTUT said...

The SWP, who clearly didn't see this coming, unlike many others, have come out with a pathetic line, basically don't support the strikers,they are xenophobes, etc, open borders for all!

http://www.socialistworker.co.uk/art.php?id=17004

I think the SP are showing real political maturity on this one and if I was a Trot i would join them.

Charlie Marks said...

I think the SP has taken the better line on this, based on what Phil's quoted and the SWP statement.

We can assume that the majority of strikers - like the majority of people in the country - are not taken in my the fascists posturing. (Finally, the BNP finds a strike it likes. Not to worry, they'll soon be back to condemning strikers for being "greedy"...)

So, our job is to do, a la Dragnet "just the facts".

Madam Miaow said...

Southpawpunch, when the leaders of the left make statements worthy of Dennis Kearney in the 19th C, and those statements are pertinent to current events, they should be challenged until retracted and resolved.

We're coming up to the 5th anniversary of the Morecambe Bay disaster so do forgive me if a convergence of events foreground them even more for me.

MikeSC said...

The media is doing a fantastic job of blaming foreigners (fantastic is probably the wrong word...) Give the working class a working class enemy and all that.

Phil BC said...

Hardly surprising, really. We'll see how long this right wing support will last should the wildcat strikes start really disrupting things. I plan to write something more on the dispute over the weekend.

Re: HTUT, you don't have to be a Trot to be in the Socialist Party. After all, I'm not.

Southpawpunch said...

I'm not going to get overly sidetracked into a debate about Rees but it just a foul slander to compare him to a C19 Labour leader who was best known for calling for the Chinese to be expelled from California and was behind various anti-Chinese laws and led gang attacks on Chinese workers.

I must have missed the bit in SW where it calls for Chinese, blacks etc to be expelled from Britain and beaten up as well.

I look forward to posting my views on Phil's promised post on the substantive issue, which is also one of the most interesting development for Lefts recently.

Madam Miaow said...

I know from past experience you see yourself as Rees's personal attack dog when it comes to me, Southpawpunch, but you should cut out the brownnosing. You may not have noticed but I've been proven correct on the matter of that charmer.

BTW, the SWP's statement seems pretty fair to me, urging caution and promoting a spirit of internationalism with all workers while still engaging with this important wave of strikes. The contrary of "It's British workers who count," and "white socialists are great, ra, ra!" It's still early days so we're all still working things out on the left. Glad to see the SP has people on the ground.

Robert said...

Two New Power stations are to be build using the same type of Labour, the company has employed Polish workers using that countries min wage which is lower then ours.

This cannot be allowed to happen because all you will get are cheap Labour moving across the UK and the EU, but as normal Brown shoots off his mouth and mises the point, we do not have 650,000 jobs I know I've been looking for them. for the first time ever last week my job center did not have a single job available and suggested too people to look wider look further away, so I did and guess what they said they had nothing which would be suitable.

But in the end no matter what Labour wants people will act if they see a government or companies taking the piss. If you work in the UK you pay the rate of pay end of story.

what the EU need to do is set a min wage structure for the whole of the EU and nobody can be paid lower then that.

The Sentinel said...

I love the hypocrisy.

Your whole movement is built upon notions of militant proletarian action, and supports the most lunatic and perverse of causes, but if even a whiff of nationalism - or more accurately protectionism - is sniffed the neo-witch word of 'racism' is bandied around immediately and these wildcat militant actions, so widely admired in such less deserving circumstance are derided and denounced.

I can think of no better application of union (official or otherwise) time and resources then to protect the very right to work that the local people have when local jobs are available. Unions have long since forgotten that they exist only to represent employment issues, not wide-ranging and largely unwanted political campaigns.

We are only just into what would appear to be a very serious and quite possibly protracted downturn and it is only right and natural that the people of this country want to protect the jobs in this country so that they may work and work for a decent rate, not be sidelined by foreigners or threatened with dramatic pay cuts to compete.

As one activist said, when he applies for a skilled job, he expects his skills to be the real issue, not the lowest possible hourly rate.

I strongly suspect that cheap immigrant labour and so called 'out-sourcing' has played a major part in the situation we are now facing because it was always an unsustainable duality in affluent 'western' countries.

I think these workers and the people who want to work involved in these actions are spot on and that as things get worse, the blindingly obvious will hit home more and more - jobs in Britain are for British people first, second and third.

Anything else is insane political nonsense and unrealistic economics...

nationofduncan said...

Sentinel,

Where exactly in Phil's post does he 'deride and denounce' the strikes?

jobs in Britain are for British people first, second and third.

The irony of saying that when it's a French company, Total, doing the construction project is brilliant. Surely they should shut up shop and go back to France where they can employ French people?

Also, I take it you would have thought it acceptable if the company had got workers in exclusively from Devon to do the jobs at the Lindsey Refinery then? They would be British after all.

Phil BC said...

Just a few questions for you, Sentinel;

1) Who, on this blog, is denouncing these strikes as racist?

2) Do you agree, or not, that the bosses are trying to play different nationalities off against each other to weaken the workforce as a whole?

3) In your opinion, should the primary organisation of workers (the trade unions), concern themselves solely with the narrow range of workplace issues? If so, do you extend this to business which, after all, should only concern themselves with making money?

The Sentinel said...

nationofduncan,

"Where exactly in Phil's post does he 'deride and denounce' the strikes?"

I started my comment with "Your whole movement..." and, perhaps only marginally, but your 'whole movement' goes beyond just Phil's blog.


"The irony of saying that when it's a French company..."

Again, the clue was in the text - "jobs in Britain are for British people first, second and third."

I made no reference to the origin of ownership (apparent ownership, most companies are owned by many different concerns from many different nations) but to the location of that industry.


"Also, I take it you would have thought it acceptable if the company had got workers in exclusively from Devon to do the jobs at the Lindsey Refinery then? They would be British after all."

And finally Duncan, again the clue was in the comment - "I can think of no better application of union{..}to protect the very right to work that the local people have when local jobs are available.."

It would hardly be practical for workers from Glasgow or London to commute back and forth anyhow.


Phil,

1) As I said to Duncan, I started off my comment with "Your whole movement..." and was beyond the scope of just this blog, but in any case, Jim Jay and Madam Miaow have implicitly alluded to a racist undertone, as have you.

2) No I do not; not even slightly. They are trying to get the cheapest deal they can - the lowest outlay for the biggest profit. Thats what they do and thats all they care about.

3) The clue is in the name - Trade Union. Thats is what people sign up for - workplace representation. If people want politics they can form parties or vote for existing ones.

When I was involved with CWU some years ago, the overtly political nature of most of its officers- which was very much opposed to the ordinary member- was a constant source of bemusement and friction.

A lot of due-payers had failed to see that the whole thing had been infiltrated and hijacked by people with extremist agendas (mainly because ordinary members rarely attend meetings) and had very little to do with what it was being paid to do.

It was widespread practice that it choose which members and which cases to represent if they felt the politics were not compatible in an amazing display of contempt for its mandate and its funders.