Jobs for all workers, not "British" jobs for "British" workers!

Submitted by martin on 31 January, 2009 - 7:57 Author: Martin Thomas and Sacha Ismail

Wildcat strike action has spread across the UK in support of a strike by construction workers at the Lindsey oil refinery in Lincolnshire over an Italian firm getting a contract for part of the refitting work on the refinery. The Italian firm will use its permanent workforce of Italian workers.

Rapid, rank-and-file organised action is needed in the current economic crisis, where thousands of jobs are being lost every day. We need industrial and political action to oppose job cuts, stop casualisation and the driving down of wages and conditions and demand what the labour movement has called "work or full pay", i.e. the demand for the government to organise decent jobs for all or a living income for those not in jobs.

But Italian workers are not to blame for the capitalist crisis. Nor are any other workers! Keeping out foreign workers will not stop soaring unemployment. What it will do is boost racism and divide the working class, further strengthening the bosses' power over us.

The strikes echo Gordon Brown's reactionary and populist slogan "British jobs for British workers" - used previously and since by the far right. But working away from home is hardly something new to the construction industry. Thousands of British workers in the industry are working across the world today. Do we want them chased out of Italy and other countries? Worker fighting worker cannot be the way forward.

On the day the wildcat strikes spread, our sisters and brothers in France showed the real way forward, in a national general strike against the attacks on the whole working-class in this global economic crisis. It follows on from the general strikes in Greece and Italy late last year under the universal working-class slogan for these times: "We will not pay for your crisis".

"We" there means workers all over the world, including all over Europe.

We need action directed against Gordon Brown's government and the big employers, rather than echoing Gordon Brown's slogans. The demands should be:

* Work or full pay, that is decent jobs or decent benefits, for all workers! If the government can advance ÂŁ1100 billion in cash and credit guarantees to save the banks, it can also take the energy industries into public ownership, under workers' control, and with working hours cut with no loss of pay to create new jobs. It can do the same in the car and car-components industries, hard-hit by job cuts. Militant action like these wildcats can force the government to budge - if it is directed against the government and the bosses, not against foreign workers.

* There should be an unemployed register for construction workers, with the Government enforcing a levy on the industry to pay them a living income when the industry does not find a job for them.

* All contracted labour should be under a single site agreement with union representation. The details of all contracts and sub-contracts should be open to union inspection. Where workers from other countries are employed on sites, the unions on the site should have access to them, and should work with the unions in those workers' home countries to ensure that the workers have representation, together with other workers on the site, via a union recognised on the site.

* Tax the rich and business to rebuild public services, creating millions of secure and socially useful jobs. Step up, not cut, investment in "green" energy alternatives, under direct public ownership! This is necessary to save the planet, and will create many thousands of jobs for construction workers.

* Workers' unity across the EU. British unions and shop stewards should be working with Italian unions and shop stewards to deal with the global corporations and the global capitalist markets, for example by "levelling up" workers' rights and protections across the EU.

One striker, on the strikers' website, writes:

"We want to be careful with the nationalism, lads, so that things don't turn nasty. I've got nothing against the Italian workers as such, they're just doing a job, putting food on the table for their families.

"They're not Without Papers, as they are EU citizens and are legally allowed to work here. Besides, this is racist. Many of us have worked abroad - Germany, Spain, Middle East - did we think or care about jobs in those countries? Getting at the workers is just going to give us a bad reputation, and turn the public against us.

"The problem is with the tenders, Total management and probably the Government for allowing foreign companies to undercut..."

Part of the background to the strike is increased use of sub-contracting on construction jobs, using EU rulings which allow contractors to undercut union-negotiated agreements by employing sub-contractors from other EU countries. The unions have been lobbying for changes in the law on this for some time.

The strikes could take a progressive turn if they shifted to making the sort of demands above: for all contracted labour should be under a single site agreement with union representation. For the details of all contracts and sub-contracts should be open to union inspection. Where workers from other countries are employed on sites, for the unions on the site to have access to them, and to work with the unions in those workers' home countries to ensure that the workers have representation, together with other workers on the site, via a union recognised on the site.

But under the slogans of "British workers first", or "British jobs for British workers" - which have dominated so far - the strikes cannot but turn worker against worker.

The far-right and Tory papers like the Express and the Sun and the Mail – which hate union power and urge on privatisation – are supporting the strike action rather than vilifying it. Why? Because they know that the strike's current slogans are a disastrous blind alley for the working class. Because they know that if anger is directed against Italian and other foreign workers, it will deflect that anger from the bosses who make the job cuts.

Because it chimes in with their more general racism and xenophobia, and in particular their noxious campaigns against asylum-seekers and poor, mainly illegal migrant workers from the developing world.

Because it chimes in with their longstanding campaigns against the European Union. Those campaigns are nourished in large part by the fear that the more extensive workers' rights and protections won by the labour movements in France or Italy, Germany or Sweden, but lost in Britain since the Tory onslaught of the 1980s, may spill over through the EU into Britain.

The Tories and New Labour has sought opt-outs for the UK from EU legislation, notably on the Working Time and Agency Workers Directives. British workers work the longest hours in Europe and have fewer individual and union rights at work.

To deal with the global crisis, workers need not a "British-first" mentality, but workers' unity and solidarity across Europe and the world.

Right-wing union officials who have waged no fight for jobs except to plead with employers to reduce their cutbacks have supported the strikers' demands. Unite, the union that organises the industry, has played a disgraceful role.

Where was the outcry from those same union leaders as the Welfare Reform Bill passed its main reading in Parliament - a wholesale attack on the rights of unemployed workers? As of November last year there were 1.92 million people out of work according to the official figures. Tens of thousands of jobs have been lost since then. In the energy industry, E-on this week announced 450 job losses in the UK and the Newcastle office of the National Grid is being shut, axing 182 jobs.

Yet in their talk with bosses, union leaders still plead, suggesting that workers will accept lower pay if the bosses reduce job cuts. No talk of direct action. Now they support the wildcat demands - while insisting that they can't support the strikes as such because they are unlawful.

Wrong way round! Against the jobs massacre, we need working-class action, including instant action in defiance of the law.

Strong, determined action can defy the law. The current action shows that: government and employers have made no move to use the law against it.

Unite's squirming justifications of xenophobia are linked to its leaders 'left-wing' economic nationalism. But they are also reflective of a wider problem with our union leaders. All this is highly reminiscent of what is happening at Heathrow, where Unite is quietly accepting an ongoing jobs cull, while at the same time pimping itself around on behalf of the British Airports Authority and the CBI with the claim that a carbon-spewing third runway is necessary to create jobs.

Workers at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago, USA, recently occupied their factory when the bosses shut it down. The occupation was completely illegal under US law. But the owner and the police did not dare use the law. The workers won what they demanded: back pay and pension money. Now it looks as if they may have won what at first they did not even dare to demand: the reopening of the plant.

The Republic Windows workers - many of them migrants or of recent Latin-American migrant origin - aimed their struggle against the bosses and the Bank of America (the bosses' financier), not against other workers.

Workers should not pay for the bosses' crisis! 'Work or full pay' for all! Workers' unity across Europe! Fight nationalism and racism in the British labour movement!


Submitted by martin on Mon, 02/02/2009 - 07:40

The demands of the strike are what they are, namely reactionary. I'm sure it is true that job insecurity and aggressive subcontracting in the industry has fuelled the feeling, but the strike cannot win progress on those issues unless it develops demands on those issues, aimed against the bosses and the government, rather than demands aimed against foreign workers.

Commentators from afar saying that they know what the strikers "really mean" won't change the demands on the strikers' placards and the strikers' website. Only convincing workers on the issues will do that.

Submitted by Daniel_Randall on Mon, 02/02/2009 - 11:45

Tom -

Yes, the Burberry stuff had some seriously dodgy shit going on around the edges which, as you say, we criticised. The use of the slogan "keep Burberry British" was disgusting, but the core demands around which that campaign was organised were against the closure of particular workplaces.

I don't think the current wildcats are much of analogy. Surely the point about a strike conducted around the demand "British jobs for British workers" (rather than a dispute which has that kind of chauvinism as an element of it) is that it can't possibly win on that basis and that even if it did, the consequences of its victory would be far from straightforwardly progressive for the working class as a whole.

Do these workers have legitimate concerns? Yes, clearly. Do we support them taking action on them? Yes, clearly. But surely the point of a socialist engagement with a dispute like this is to make clear that the political basis on which they've chosen to take this action is a complete blind-alley. Don't you agree?

Playing games with analogies is dangerous, but indulge this one momentarily; what if, somehow, the plans for the new runway at Heathrow are scrapped and a group of construction workers whose company was promised contracts for it walk out, demanding that the building of the runway goes ahead. Do they have legitimate concerns? Yes, of course - jobs are short, wages are low and we're in favour of people's right to work. But would we just offer straightforward "support" for that strike? I don't think so.

Submitted by Daniel_Randall on Mon, 02/02/2009 - 17:23

As Nick points out, the demands that Belboid cites are a new, and positive, development. As I understand it, the events outside Unite's offices were not "counter-protests against the strikes" and were called by the Campaign Against Immigration Controls (which the AWL participates in), not by random "AWL members". There have been none of what Mark P refers to as "AWL counter-protests".

Mark P's and Belboid's sectarian bullishness is disgraceful; at least Tom's trying to work through the issues. If I was a migrant worker, I think I'd be feeling incredibly threatened and got at by the strikewave. We have as much of a responsibility to have a "dialogue" with them as we do with the strikers.

Submitted by patmarkey on Mon, 02/02/2009 - 18:02

On local radio (BBC Radio Northampton) this morning, unemployed workers from Corby were asked 'who is to blame for the economic crisis?'. Without exception the answer given was 'foreign workers'. Just a couple of weeks ago, surely that response would have been unthinkable, and the response would have included 'fat cats', 'bank bosses' and such like.
Now, the 'fat cats' must be laughing all the way to the bank, so to speak. The BNP, UKIP, and other racists will have been given a big boost.
Of course, we should engage with the dispute, making arguments against the blind alley of reactionary slogans and nationalist sentiments, and for international working class unity.
As the comments above point out, today's mass meeting at Lindsay offers more hope.

Submitted by AWL on Mon, 02/02/2009 - 19:25

To clarify, the AWL did / does not support the proposed pickets of UNITE head office by CAIC - proposed pickets because we're not sure they took place. So that answers your question, Mark.

Incidentally, CAIC's statement on the strike, 'We want a fight that can unite all workers', does not demand the strikes be called off.

Submitted by martin on Mon, 02/02/2009 - 20:54

Here's the actual text of the CAIC leaflet - it is, to repeat, not an AWL leaflet.

* Foreign workers are not to blame for the capitalists' crisis

* Action against the bosses and their government, not foreign workers

* No to nationalism and racism in the labour movement

* Don't echo Brown's reactionary slogans

* Jobs or full pay for all: cut work hours, expand public services. Tax the rich!

* French, Italian and Greek workers show the way - for workers' unity across Europe! Workers of the world, unite!

Today at 7am and at 5pm the Campaign against Immigration Controls is picketing the Unite offices in Holborn, London, to protest against nationalism in our movement and to argue for working-class internationalism, freedom of movement and equal rights and jobs - for all. The Italian workers should be welcomed here.

We want strikers to adopt a programme to fight the job losses, the union breaking and the benefit cutting - the general strategy of the bosses and New Labour during their economic recession of their making.

But we want a fight that can unite all workers and win. In Italy and France and Greece the unions have held local and general strikes against the economic crises. Look at what’s happened in Iceland. In England and Scotland, the first big display of resistance has ended up targeting foreign workers. We oppose this direction. We need a different politics and a united class struggle.

Strikers have our full support and solidarity for a struggle along the lines of the workers and students in Italy who have organized national general strikes promising “We will not pay for their crisis”. At the same time, the Italian working-class needs to combat anti-migrant and anti-minority bigotry in its ranks. Ironically, news of the UK strikes have caused pause for thought for many Italian workers who had taken racist and xenophobic positions.

We support the strikers’ resolve to self-organise and fight unemployment militantly, with or without the trade union leaders who should have begun a proper fight, years back - who in other places are putting down workers' action.

But we believe the slogans of the strikers as they stand are an offense to migrants, to all those who welcome and solidarise with migrant workers around the world (including British migrants), and to fellow trade unionists and activists who stand against bigotry and borders in our movement. The current slogans are divisive and feed the poisonous nationalism that Gordon Brown's budget speech gave legitimacy to and fostered. It is no surprise that the BNP see this dispute as a rallying point. But neither is it a surprise to see Gordon Brown squirming.

Workers are referring to the solutions he offered. His solutions were wrong; we opposed his rhetoric then, as we oppose it being adopted by workers now.

We see the problems with tendering, self-employment, agency work, the eroding of individual and collective rights, union breaking, under-cutting of wages; these are general attacks, facing most workers in the world today, but get associated and blamed on migration. Migrant workers are often the most precarious and exploited. We need solidarity.

Bosses exploit divisions. Why are the right-wing media so behind these strikes? Why, in contrast, did they denounce the postal-workers’ wild cat action? It is the same media that has been whipping up support for workplace immigration checks and raids, forced deportations and detentions, and a general climate in which the BNP have grown significantly.

We do not put it past corporations to deploy even whole battalions of foreign labour to break up union strength in a locality. Or even to whip up race riots and anti-migrant actions which happens frequently in Italy.

There is also a parallel in what the strikers say is happening now, in off-shoring. It simultaneously undermines organized work-places and sometimes the workforce of whole countries, exploits generally cheaper and less organized labour, and creates a sense of resentment in the way it is done.

Workers in the UK are paying again for the breaking up of the manufacturing unions and industries - and the reshaping of the UK economy around the rule of the banks and the arms, security and energy multi-nationals.

Is it new for the bosses and governments to divide and rule? What is the real strategy to fight this?

We campaign for working-class unity across borders, and against immigration controls and nationalism, because we believe that we need a united struggle across the world against a capitalist system that is global in its reach. We have no desire to turn the clock back, and retreat to imagined nations and races. Or even to press pause. Neither is wanted or possible.

We support both the right to work locally and the right to migrate within existing national boundaries and across them.

Bosses want non-unionised, dispensable workers. New Labour wants this too. Bosses want profits and New Labour makes sure they get it.

People are fearful and anxious of what is to come. The idea of further job losses, which in this case the workers are arguing are a calculated attack on the British workforce and unions, demands a response and a solution. The Viking and Laval test cases which ruled against the unions need to be fought. It is the kind of action that is being taken now that can secure workers’ demands, but for now the demands are at best unclear, and seem to suggest that British workers must first in the queue. This may seem reasonable to some in this warped world of ours, but it a logic that leads to division and defeat.

The tactics for fighting will be decided by the workers themselves. There are significant voices within the union who are rejecting the nationalism and trying to put this dispute on better footing.

There are positive alternative demands that can be made. Many of the activists and organizations that have participated in the activity of the Campaign against Immigration Controls have put forward broad alternative programmes and slogans, many of which seem viable and necessary. It should also be said that there have been long discussions and arguments among trade unionists and activists across the country about this strike wave.

There is widespread dissatisfaction with the slogans. There is total support for militant action to fight for jobs. There is starkly differing reading about what this strike represents. We say it hangs in the balance. Everyone would surely agree that the fight for our times is, and must be, the fight for jobs for all.

The year began with the flaring up of historic struggles where working-classes and born again nations have been turned against each other. In Palestine, Sri Lanka, the Congo, Kashmir. These struggles need to transform in to reconciliation among workers, on the basis of mutual respect and equal rights for all – and united class war against the people who profit from human misery.

This dispute, coming in the wake of these existing tragedies, is another (for now smaller) blow to class unity.

With all these situations reality can change, and change they must urgently. Peace is needed across the world between workers. Struggle is needed against this system of global exploitation, of plunder and war, of displacement, forced migration, unemployment, poverty, ecological crisis, starvation: the whole catalogue of crimes of capitalism.

We want to be supporting, taking parting in, spreading strike action and protests that secure jobs for all, not fearing the nationalist, racist and fascist turn that is evident throughout Europe. The bosses’ European Union – of coordinated attack upon attack against workers - is coming apart at the seams, and so it must. A workers’ Europe, based on coordinated and unified grass-roots struggle is the only way to fight this recession. Workers’ of the world unite.

Campaign Against Immigration Controls 07974 331 053

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