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 .