Reports from Lindsey Oil Refinery and the union protest in London about Staythorpe

Submitted by AWL on 5 February, 2009 - 5:04 Author: Mike Fenwick and Martin Thomas

Mike Fenwick reports from the mass meeting of construction workers at Lindsey Oil Refinery on 4 February.

We arrived at 6.30. There were only 50 pickets already there, lower than the numbers previously.

The talk was of the proposed deal that the press had announced as being agreed overnight - that the jobs would split 50:50 between Italian workers and locals.

As far as I understood that would mean not Italian workers being sent home, but not so many more arriving to take their number up.

Initial reaction to those arriving having heard this on the news was negative. Mostly because of what were seen as practical difficulties of running a bi-lingual site. There were also some comments about the work practices of the Italian workers and the health and safety consequences. That sort of craft chauvinism was quite prevalent. There was also doubts about harmonious working together on the site because of the friction already generated.

We asked workers about the BNP. Workers downplayed the significance of the BNP's attempted intervention. The BNP seems to have been more prominent on the internet than on the ground.

On the "British Jobs For British Workers" slogan, some seemed unrepentant and definitely chauvinist. Some obviously seemed to think it had been daft tactically, and some others that it shouldn't have been used. I'm afraid I can't begin to quantify 'some' in any more detail.

What I can report is that there was not one of the "British Jobs For British Workers" posters seen previously. Socialist Party members involved in the dispute had some internationalist slogans on placards that two full timers were holding up. Beyond, that one UNITE flag and two Union Jacks with the "British Jobs For British Workers" slogan running through the St Georges cross were the sum of what was on display.

One accurate statistic I can report is that the meeting was 100% white and male. The only women around were from the press and SWP. The workers were, however, by no means all British: a good number were Irish.

By the time the meeting started, I estimate there were 500 there. The mass meeting was very good. The stike committee made clear from word go they had not negotiated a 50:50 deal and they wouldn't agree to anything without the say-so of the strikers. If it had been agreed by the bosses and the union bosses, it still meant nothing until the strikers had discussed it.

The closing speech was on the theme "workers of the world unite".

The report was followed by a period of questions and then finally a vote which unaninimously rejected the deal. On jobs workers said they were after the 50/50 ratio that had been reported, but that hadn't actually been offered to them. They wanted that split deliberately to show they were being fair and not wanting to be seen as driving out the Italians already here.

The meeting seemed very democratic with all questions, even awkward ones, answered directly by the strike committee. They left to go and negotiate further. [Another mass meeting, later in the day, accepted a revised offer, leaving more jobs open to locally-recruited labour operating under the national union agreement].

There was some escalation of police presence on the picket lines, and the police handed out a public order notice making it clear how important the refinery was and any threat to disrupt it would lead to arrest. Workers saw that as preliminary to use of the anti-union laws.

But the Government seems to be playing carrot and stick: I suspect the Government will announce some review of the UK implementation of the European Union's 1996 "Posting of Workers Directive".

Our leaflet went down ok. The idea with most resonance was the demand to "open the books" on the IREM subcontract.



Martin Thomas reports: Maybe 50 to 100 workers from around Staythorpe in Nottinghamshire, where a new power station is being built, protested outside the London headquarters of Alstom (the main contractor for the project) on 5 February.

The protest had been organised officially by the Unite union, and seemed pretty much under official control. Workers on the protest - chiefly unemployed construction workers who had hoped to get jobs on the Staythorpe project - were happy enough to take Workers' Liberty leaflets and talk to us, but referred us to full-time officials when we asked for an interview about the protest.

There were no "British Jobs For British Workers" placards. The placards and banners were all official union ones, asking for "fair treatment" for UK workers. The demands on Alstom were fairly vague, and did not seem to include the call for Alstom to hire labour directly rather than splitting up the workforce by using subcontractors.

Interpretations of this varied among workers we spoke to, though pretty much all of them were emphatic in rejecting the BNP.

One younger worker stressed that "it isn't a matter of insisting that all workers have fair hair and blue eyes". By UK workers he meant workers living in the UK, whether recent immigrants or from long-settled families, and whether of British or other citizenship.

The issue, as he saw it, was one of employers undermining union agreements by recruiting low-paid non-union groups of workers elsewhere and taking advantage of the EU judgements to bring them to work outside the negotiated agreements.

He agreed that a good way of resolving it would be European Union legislation guaranteeing "posted" workers the protections of the union agreements and laws in both the country they are "posted" from and the country they are "posted" to, so that on every issue whichever country's provisions were more favourable would apply. Workers across Europe could unite on such a proposal, rather than being set against each other.

Other workers nodded agreement to the definition of "UK workers" as workers living here, regardless of migrant status, but saw the issues in more nationalist terms. "I don't hold with all this European stuff", said one. "I'm British, me. My forefathers fought for this country". Others complained of there being "too many" Polish workers in Britain, and alleged non-British workers had lower skills.

RWE is building a new gas-fired power station at Staythorpe, in Nottinghamshire. The issues there, according to the Unite union website, are as follows:

Alstom has been contracted by RWE to build a gas fired power station near Newark. Two companies, Montpressa and FMM, have been subcontracted to carry out construction work on the site. These two non-UK contracting companies say they have no intention of employing any UK labour to undertake the work...

Unite estimates that 600 jobs will be needed to build the power station's turbine and boiler. Montpressa will fit the turbine and FMM will fit the boiler. A further 250 workers will be required to build the pipe connecting the two. None of these jobs will go to UK workers...

FMM told union officials that because they had no direct employees themselves, they would supply their workers directly from abroad...

Alstom has been contracted by Eon to build a gas-fired power station near Grain in Kent. Unite sought assurances that Alstom would provide a level playing field for UK workers during the process for sub-contracting. The union pressed Alstom to include a clause in the tendering process so that any sub contractor would endeavour to use UK or local labour.

Alstom refused and then appointed a non-UK construction company, Remak, to build the boiler. The union has been informed that Remak will not use any UK labour.


Comments

Submitted by martin on Thu, 12/02/2009 - 14:31

An additional report from Chris Marks on the Lindsey Oil Refinery picket and mass meeting of 4 February:

The mass meeting this morning was addressed by the entire stewards' committee at the plant. They started by denouncing the reports in the local paper, the BBC, and the Hull based radio station that they had struck demanding a 50% British and 50% Italian workforce.

Talking before the meeting, workers expressed concerns about safety. One bloke told a story of some of the Italian workers brought in by the non-union subcontractor IREM unaccountably removing scaffolding, with the result that a union member nearly fell off a platform). Some workers felt that a mixed workforce would create tension.

A report from ACAS was read out: the most substantial demands had been rejected. Questions from the crowd were a mixed bag. Obvious plants by the Socialist Party relating to Labour Party affiliation were reasonably well received, but unfortunately statements about how the tax paid by the Italian workers would go to Rome got the biggest response from the crowd, and the fact that Italian workers would be treated on the NHS if they had an accident.

Many people were in support of making the strike official, although legally this would mean workers would have to return to work and then ballot. A demand for a march on London also seemed very popular, but was opposed by the committee on legalistic grounds.

The mass meeting itself was quite something as an expression of working-class solidarity and democracy.

The Socialist Party had several people there - they have members on the stewards committee. They were promoting the role of Italian and Polish workers in the struggle with a number of placards which read along the lines of 'Polish power station workers out in Solidarity with Immingham' and one in both English and Italian urging the Italian workers to join the picket. The SWP had few activists there.

Three Union Jacks were waved, with 'British jobs for British workers: Your words, Gordon Brown' written on them. There were a couple of people handing out racist leaflets calling on Britain to be preserved for the 'indigenous' population - and wearing placards around their necks proclaiming 'I'm not from any political party'...!
The film crews spent a lot of time filming the Union Jack wavers and interviewing them. I doubt they will report the contributions from the floor showing solidarity with the Polish workers and French general strike.

A couple of workers we spoke to said that the only BNP presence they'd seen was a truck that circled the car park a couple of times then went off.

Contact with the Italian workers may be harder than it seems. They are holed up on an old hospital barge at Grimsby dock and are under constant police protection due to reported threats to sink it.

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