Marred by prejudice, but still a class battle

Submitted by AWL on 18 April, 2009 - 10:20 Author: Martin Thomas

Reply to Mark Sandell (Solidarity 3/147) on the engineering construction strikes.

I’m not clear where Mark stands himself. Does he take the view of some on the left, that Solidarity should have flatly opposed the engineering construction strikes — called on them to stop, presumably mounted counter-pickets or tried to organise “back to work” movements if we had the strength?

Or is it that he agrees with the broad approach we took — siding with the workers, but arguing against slogans like “British Jobs For British Workers” and for the strikes and demonstrations to turn to class demands addressing the underlying issues around sub-contracting, union agreements, and jobs? But thinks we got the balance wrong within that approach? I wouldn’t be at all dogmatic that we got the balance right. The strikes were a new thing, not quite like anything we’d ever seen before, and in a specialised industry where we have no members and few contacts. Much important information is hard to get.

However, Mark’s specific arguments do not convince me.

One: “We bent over backwards to justify, explain away, or ignore the depths of the nationalism involved"? "We baulked at criticising the role of the unions, the reps, and the backward ideas of the workforce”? We said: “Some [workers] will also be miseducated into picking up the worker-dividing demand: ‘British jobs for British workers’. There is a real danger that nationalism and xenophobia will grow as workers in Europe struggle to hold onto jobs”.

And: “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 prejudices against workers from other countries and divide the working class, further strengthening the bosses’ power over us... We need action directed against Gordon Brown’s government and the big employers, rather than echoing Gordon Brown’s slogans...” “The slogans of ‘British workers first’, or ‘British jobs for British workers’ cannot but turn worker against worker. Politically they are the wrong slogans — and potentially disastrous slogans”.

Where is the “justifying”? The “explaining away”? Or the “ignoring”? Or the “baulking at criticising”? Or, again, the “taking the SP’s word on this dispute” (the SP’s line being essentially that the “British Jobs For British Workers” element was marginal, and largely an artificial construction by the media)? Two: “The key reason these strikes spread was because they touched a nationalist nerve that is plain to see in any workplace... The dispute was chiefly defined by its nationalism.” In other words, the strike wave for a week or so starting 30 January was just, or primarily, an explosion of generalised nationalist sentiment such as exists in “any workplace”? That does not fit the facts. The strikes did not spread across all industries. It was not the workplaces where there is the greatest number of migrant workers, or the greatest recent influx of migrant workers, that took action.

The strikes spread in one very particular sector, engineering construction. Why? School teachers do not see new schools being run by subcontractors who bring in whole non-union overseas-recruited temporary workforces, deliberately housed so as to isolate them from local workers, and operating outside the national union agreements. Postal workers do not see new mail centres operated that way. Health workers do not see new hospitals operated that way.

Civil service workers do not see new offices operated that way. Tube workers do not see new operations run that way.

Engineering construction does. Many of the industries I've mentioned — education, the post, health, civil service, the Tube — have fairly large numbers of migrant workers. If by some freak workers in one of those industries did see new projects being operated by whole non-union overseas-recruited temporary workforces, outside the national union agreements, then they would be angry, and might seek to take action.

Even if the action involved many migrant workers (the engineering construction strikers, after all, included some Polish and many Irish workers), it would probably be coloured by nationalism. But it would not be just an outpouring of nationalist prejudice. It would be a working-class reaction coloured by nationalist prejudice. That is what these strikes were.

Compare the strikes by toolroom workers in British Leyland car factories in early 1977. These were the first stirrings of open industrial conflict against the pay-restraint policies of the Labour Government at that time of economic crisis, the beginnings of a revival of militancy after strike levels had plunged dramatically in August 1975 with the adoption of Government pay-rise limits endorsed by the union leaders.

The toolroom workers were a specialised, skilled, higher-paid section. Their headline demand was for separate negotiating rights over pay. Much of their concern — as was not uncommon with skilled workers’ disputes in the 1960s and 70s — was with “differentials”, the margin by which their wages were higher than those of other workers.

The Communist Party and trade-union organisations under their influence (of which there were then, unlike now, many) flatly opposed the strike as “divisive”. The British Leyland Combine Committee opposed the strike.

Yet we thought that despite everything there was a class content to the strike, and we supported it.

Undoubtedly the strike was coloured by craft chauvinism, and owed some of its popularity among the toolroom workers to that craft chauvinism. Objectively, however, its impact was to start to rouse workers, including low-paid workers, for independent action after a period of submission to the Labour government.

The engineering construction strikes have some similarities with that dispute: at least as many as, perhaps more than, they had with strikes primarily motivated by resentment against some other group of workers.

Mark does not mention the fact that after a few days the Lindsey strikers deliberately abandoned the “British Jobs For British Workers” placards and adopted demands focused on defence of union agreements against subcontracting. To be sure, all the evidence is that many workers still hold many of the ideas expressed in the placards. They thought that “British Jobs For British Workers” was a “diplomatic” mistake, rather than sharing our fundamental critique of it. But doesn’t the deliberate abandonment of the slogan show something? Three: The Lindsey settlement: “Was it that good? Did it deal with subcontracting? Or any other major issue? No, but it got some more British jobs.” The Lindsey settlement essentially allowed workers already on site, operating under the national union agreement, access to jobs on the next phase of the project.

It didn't abolish subcontracting across the industry, or even across the site — was it realistic to suppose it could? — but it did win some ground for union labour operating under the national union agreement, as against subcontract labour designed (so the Financial Times, no leftists, said) largely to undercut union power. That is a victory.

To be sure, we have no guarantees that some workers on the permanent workforce of the non-union Italian subcontractor IREM won’t be put on half-pay, or eventually on unpaid leave. For a start, that does not just depend on the Lindsey job. IREM is a big outfit, with 1500 permanent workers: whether it lays some of them off will depend on larger calculations than one subcontract at Lindsey. But if the sub-contract workers were more local it would not be reasonable to require of workers fighting to defend union agreements that they accept no deal which did not give cast-iron guarantees of no job loss for the non-union subcontract workers brought in to undermine those agreements. It is no more reasonable to require it when the sub-contract workers are a distance.

“And what happened about organising the Italian workers?” On the evidence we have the Italian workers at Lindsey, like the Spanish workers at Staythorpe, are kept under a regime designed to bar union access to them. Quite possibly not enough has been done to try to break that bar. But again, workers have the right to defend union agreements even if, in the short term, they are not able to unionise the non-union workers brought in to undermine those agreements. As to unionising the bulk of the IREM workforce, in Sicily, that is not something that the Lindsey strikers could do at will.

Four: “It seems clear to me that the lesson most workers will take from the dispute... will not be the one the AWL and left groups would like it to be [the virtues of militant direct action, etc.], but will instead be the poisoned logic of nationalism”.

Our editorial did not dismiss the dangers. “Some [workers] will also be miseducated into picking up the worker-dividing demand: ‘British jobs for British workers’. There is a real danger that nationalism and xenophobia will grow...” But it is not so “clear” that the main new element introduced into the situation by the engineering construction workers’ action was nationalism. Gordon Brown, who commands a much wider hearing than construction workers with a few A4 print-outs, launched “British Jobs For British Workers” long ago. The Sun, Star, Express, Mail, etc. promote similar ideas daily to a mass audience.

The nationalism is not new. The militant direct action, defending a national union agreement, defying the anti-union laws, is new. Actually, the fact of a sizeable group of workers, more or less in the public eye, pointedly (though very equivocally: let us have no illusions about that) discarding the slogan “British Jobs For British Workers”, is also new. (Who else had openly rejected it since Brown launched it, outside the revolutionary left?) It not guaranteed that workers will pick up on what was new and distinctive in the action, rather than what was recycling of nationalism already current. But it is not hopeless to work for that outcome.

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