Saturday, January 31, 2009

Defend Jobs - Blame The Bosses Not Foreign Workers

Over the last few days, workers have been walking out of oil refineries around the country in support of their workmates at Lindsey refinery in North Lincolnshire where a contract has been awarded to an Italian firm.

Lindsey, owned by Total, is building a new diesel refining plant. Diesel is cheaper to produce than petrol, but in Britain is more expensive (96p vs 85p ish per litre at present), partly because of lack of refining capacity in this country. There is also a shift from petrol towards diesel at present, with, for example, more diesel cars being produced. Hence, new refining plant needed. The contract for the new plant went to Jacobs, who have sub-contracted to an Italian company, which pre-recruited its workforce in Italy and has allegedly stated that it will not take on British labour (although this may be an urban myth).

I do not buy into the view prevalent on parts of the left - and in my own union's leadership - that all bad things come from the EU, but in this case, the European Court's Viking and Laval rulings have added a poisonous element to the situation. Under these rulings, the contractor is allowed to employ workers in Britain under conditions that would not be allowed under British law (eg. wages below the minimum wage) because it pre-recruited them in another country. It can apply the other country's legal standards if it wishes too ie. if it enables it to pay workers less and rip them off more.

Following a meeting at 7.30 yesterday morning, hundreds of workers walked out of Grangemouth oil refinery in Scotland in sympathy with protesting Lindsey workers. Similar walkouts have taken place at several other refineries.

The Grangemouth workers' resentments have some history. Every so often, the refinery has a 'turnaround', the most recent of which was in 2007 and lasted about six weeks. During a turnaround, the refinery is closed down, and loads of maintenance, inspections, etc carried out. Although some of this is done by Grangemouth workers, most is done by contractors. Thousands of workers are needed, with a whole village of temporary accommodation set up for them.

In the past, the contractors have used local labour. However, especially with future turnarounds likely to be longer, there is not enough skilled local labour (partly because many skilled British workers are overseas being 'foreign labour' themselves!), so more and more foreign workers are being used. In particular, there is a shortage of fitters, electricians, plumbers and other skilled labour in the local area. In the 2007 turnaround, resentments had already started about foreign workers "taking our jobs".

Despite the nationalist rhetoric, there is a genuine issue here for workers. They are entitled to fear for their jobs, and the whole system of contracting has a corrosive effect on both wages and conditions, and on unionisation and working-class unity. Employers deliberately use contracting-out, not only to save money, but to divide the workforce into separate chunks, on different pay and conditions and harder for unions to organise. Where contractors are bringing in workers from outside the area, they are often physically separating them from other workers in temporary accommodation and with working conditions designed to keep the union out.

Meanwhile, both the New Labour government and the trade union leaders are reaping what they have sown. Remember that conference speech in which Gordon Brown said the word 'British' how many times? He can hardly complain when workers call him on his word! And the union leaders who have been willing to use nationalist slogans in the past (only recently, we had 'Keep Burberry British') are now allowing jobs to go and recommending wage cuts, hardly inspiring their members' confidence.

None of this, of course, is an excuse for turning workers' anger against fellow workers of a different nationality. We don't want 'British jobs for British workers', we want decent jobs for all workers. We need workers of each country organising co-ordinated action with each other, not making demands against each other. The BNP are salivating over the last few days' events, seeing a nationalist struggle from which they can build their influence and through which they can spread their poison. And the xenophobic element is being played up by the press, who seem to be reporting 'wildcat strikes against foreign workers' rather than actions against contracting out and fear of job cuts.

For socialists, self-organised working-class militancy is the beginning of wisdom. That does not oblige us to support reactionary strikes: the most commonly-cited is London dockers walking out in support of Enoch Powell, and I also seem to remember telecoms workers refusing to work on the Gay Switchboard in the early 1980s for fear of catching AIDS. But although they are showing some unpleasant nationalist, even racist, manifestations, the current refinery walkouts are not straightforwardly reactionary.

There are two ways in which socialists and trade unionists could do a disservice to these walkouts: by cheering them uncritically, or by denouncing them. We need to get in there, and mobilise our support to encourage them in the direction of genuine militancy and international solidarity, rather than down the dead-end of nationalism. For these walkouts to become a rallying point to oppose contracting and defend jobs, they need to turn their back on counter-productive and poisonous nationalism.

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