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 £1100 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!