Solidarity strikes have spread across Britain to beat the union-busting attempted by oil multinational Total and its contractors on their construction site at the Lindsey Oil Refinery site in Lincolnshire.
Many thousands of workers have struck over a principle, though the immediate bread-and-butter issue concerns just 51 workers. Such solidarity is the muscle-fibre of all working-class strength and dignity. That is why the Tories made it illegal in the 1980s, and why New Labour has kept the Tory laws.
But the engineering construction workers’ solidarity has been so powerful that, so far, neither the bosses nor the Government have talked about using the law against the strikes.
With solidarity and organisation, workers are strong. In engineering construction, as in any other industry, the bosses are paralysed if the whole workforce sticks together. If workers limit ourselves to action by individual groups about their particular group interests, the bosses are always likely to be able to bring in other workers to undercut each group. With solidarity, they can’t do that.
Solidarity is also the key to progress on all the broader concerns of the working class and of every group battling for liberation. Green politics started with building workers in the 1970s taking industrial action in solidarity with local communities, with students, with feminists. Once the practice and the effectiveness of solidarity is established, it is a principle that can change the world.
The law never suppressed illegal strikes, or solidarity, completely. But the solidarity strike wave that started on 19 June is bigger than anything similar seen for many years. Victory for it can establish a precedent and a principle important enough to reshape all prospects of the labour movement.
On 19 June, all the construction workers at the Lindsey site were locked out. With the support of the refinery owner, Total, two contractors, Jacobs and Shaws, sacked all their workers, a total of 647. Other contractors’ employees were locked out but not sent letters of dismissal.
Total bosses announced that the site would be shut for a while, and that workers who wanted to be re-employed when it restarted should apply by 5pm on Monday 22nd. They refused to meet union officials and the government conciliation service ACAS on 19 June.
On Monday 22 June, workers staged a mass burning of their dismissal notices outside the site. A BBC reporter said: "I asked [workers] if they were really prepared to put their principles before their job. The answer was always a resounding yes".
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On 23 June, Total bosses said that they would now take part in talks. They also claimed that they would have “sufficient workforce” to reopen the site, maybe from 28 June, but they did not explain how they would get that without conceding the workers’ demands.
Engineering construction has a high proportion of specialist skilled workers. That makes it harder for bosses to get the same degree of control as they have gained in other industries since the wholesale union-bashing of the 1980s.
There is an effective and detailed national union agreement. Back in January/February, when there was an earlier wave of strikes in the industry, the bosses’ newspaper the Financial Times reported “industry insiders” as saying that the bosses’ chief grievance was “the high level of unofficial walkouts in the engineering construction sector”.
It quoted Miles Templeman, director-general of the Institute of Directors: “We’re very concerned that if illegal strikes are not challenged, vital infrastructure projects like Crossrail and the next stream of nuclear power stations will be threatened” (6 February 2009). In other words, that the profits of contractors on those projects will be threatened.
The immediate background at Lindsey was redundancy notices being given to 51 workers employed by Shaws. Bosses said their particular sub-contract was ending; but it is a longstanding union demand in the industry that workers on a site be able to “follow the work” to subsequent phases of a project.
New workers with similar skills were simultaneously being hired by another subcontractor, RBC, and overtime was being worked on the site. According to the GMB union, site manager Richard Rowlands said that he wanted to be rid of “an unruly workforce who had taken part in unofficial disputes and wouldn’t work weekends”.
The whole site walked out on 11 June, including RBC workers. Their demands: withdraw all redundancies, stop all overtime, share out the work remaining on the project. Other sites across the country struck in solidarity. Then the bosses raised the stakes with the mass sacking on 19 June.
Bringing in scab non-union labour is harder for bosses in engineering construction than in other industries. Was Total planning that? Is it still planning it? Or will it retreat now and try that next time round? Solidarity action is the way to defeat all such moves.
The GMB called a solidarity rally at Lindsey on 23 June and has announced a hardship fund to help the strikers. Some construction workers are unhappy with the response of the other main union in the industry, Unite, saying that Unite’s national official for the industry, Tom Hardacre, tried to stop the solidarity strikes.
From a national stewards’ meeting on 5 June, GMB and Unite are already committed to a national ballot for industrial action across the industry over the renewal of the national union agreement for the industry. The union demands: a pay rise (the bosses are offering a freeze), better auditing of contractors, more job security.
GMB general secretary Paul Kenny said on 23 June that the ballot would start within the next week or so, though the GMB office had earlier told Solidarity that the ballot might not start until late July (indicating a mid-August ballot result), because a legal ballot requires the unions to have an accurate list of who is being balloted and exactly where they are working, a difficult task in an industry where contracts may last only months. The employers’ association has sent a circular to all the employers urging them: “Don’t give names and address of your workforce to full-time officers of the unions or shop stewards... don’t allow full-time officers access to your workforce”.
Despite the unions’ legal difficulties, there is a great deal more they could do to back the workers — organising rallies like the 23 June one, publicising clear and worker-unifying demands, building solidarity with the engineering construction workers among other sections of the working class.
Working-class history shows again and again that if union power is broken in the best-placed sections of the working class — as it was among miners, printworkers, and dockers under the Tories in the 1980s — then the worst-placed sections of the working class suffer too, and probably even more, as solidarity is damaged and the “markers” which can pull up their pay and conditions are destroyed.
The January-February strikes in engineering construction became notorious for the slogan “British Jobs For British Workers”, initially displayed by many strikers on placards.
The underlying issue there was the replacement of workers employed by Shaws at Lindsey by a non-union contractor from Italy, IREM, under conditions where the union could not check that IREM was keeping to the union agreement. Many workers — and, notoriously, Unite joint general secretary Derek Simpson, doing a “photo-opportunity” for the Daily Star — voiced the issue in nationalist terms.
A few “British Jobs For British Workers” placards are still there at the current rallies and picket lines, but they are now outnumbered by “No to job losses, share out the work”, “Sack the bosses, not the workers”, “Trade union jobs and pay for all workers”, and even “Workers of the world, unite”.
There are surely still arguments to be had about nationalism, but they should not deter us from supporting and learning from the tremendous wave of solidarity strikes.
Frank Miller reports from Lindsey (23 June): Building from a slow start at 6.30, the picket swelled to over 1500 by 8.30.
The workers’ dramatic burning of their dismissal letters (22 June) was matched today by a further defiant gesture as they moved off in an impromptu march along the road outside the. The police, present in only small numbers, had no choice but to fall back.
At the mass meeting, most workers seemed certain that they would all be reinstated, as Total is losing too much money on the delays and stoppages on the construction site.
Apparently escalating the action to winning the support of tanker drivers has been discussed. The isolation of the refinery and the limited road access would mean that it would take a major police operation of the kind seen in the 1984-5 miners’ strike to effectively frustrate a picket of the size seen today. The refinery supplies a large chunk of the north east of England and Yorkshire, so the effect would be quickly seen at the petrol pumps.
I saw at least one trades council banner, at least two FBU branches, flags from Unison and others — one Union Jack and two “British Jobs For British Workers” placards, both from the Daily Star, but union flags and banners dominated.
The strength of the rank and file and their local strike committee is intact from February, and clearly any deal will have to go to a mass meeting.
If Total and the contractors prove stubborn, then a broader appeal for solidarity is likely, calling for supporters to picket Total garages and offices and for further and bigger demonstrations at the site itself.
Pete Radcliff reports from Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station, Notts (21 June): 80 or so workers on the picket line. No full time officials — Unite officials widely disliked, especially by Unite members. GMB seen as better. Some workers had joined the union just this week, it appears.
No “British jobs for British workers”, as far as I could see. They agreed to meet up again on the picket line on 22 June and review progress.
Elaine Jones reports from Stanlow oil refinery, Cheshire (24 June): About 400 workers were at a mass meeting outside the refinery today. They voted to stay out in solidarity with the Lindsey workers and meet again on Friday.
Anthony Fields, Unite rep, and Gerry Hughes, GMB rep, said that workers were angry about the mass sackings at Lindsey. “There are people involved in this dispute who until a few weeks ago would have not have dreamed of this sort of action”.
The striking workers are employed for maintenance, rather than building new plant. Their current policy is to help fix it if there is an emergency in the refinery, but if they are out for any time it will affect production in the refinery.
There were no placards or banners. The union reps said that as far as they were concerned, the dispute is not about nationalist or racist goals, but union agreements. However, they said, there is a variety of views in the workforce, including workers who would agree with some BNP-type ideas.
Tony Byrne reports from Staythorpe Power Station (23 June): At 7.30 there were about 250 workers on the picket line with numbers still growing, people coming to express solidarity with those contractors at Staythorpe who were sacked by Alstom (the principal contractor) two days ago for taking unofficial strike action in support Lindsey workers.
The picketers took to the road and effectively blocked the two entrances to the site.
Most of those picketing had been at Lindsey the day before. One of them said that Matt Wrack gave a much better speech than any of the leaders from Unite and GMB but there was a feeling that GMB are doing better than Unite.
This dispute has been going for some time now, and the official leadership has been uninspiring. Even the announcement that the dispute is going to be made official didn’t seem to enthuse people that much today. The workforce is militant and they show each other solidarity. I can understand rank and file leaders feeling worried about their job security but maybe the fantastic solidarity that has been demonstrated in the industry will give them the courage to come forward.
A few workers were using the phrase “British workers first” as a reason to get rid of some Polish workers on the site. There were no BJFBW placards or chants but if somebody doesn’t offer these workers a socialist lead then this sentiment will grow.