James Turley contrasts different left approaches to the ‘British jobs’ dispute
Protests against the effects of the economic downturn are becoming more and more widespread. The Greek youth rebellion, the sweeping away of the neoconservative government in Iceland, rallies across Russia, the 24-hour general strike in France, mass demonstrations in Latvia and Lithuania and now, Britain: serious industrial unrest, with workers walking out unofficially at various oil refineries and elsewhere in the energy and construction industry.
We would expect in such circumstances a number of things: government condemnations and threats; the tabloids frothing at the mouth and demanding heads on pikes; and a thousand leftwingers hovering around, telling the strikers things they already know and making demands that are either truisms or irrelevant.
This time, however, it is different. The Mail’s jealous rival, the Daily Express, led on February 2 with the headline, “On your bike, Mandy”, referring to Peter Mandelson’s criticisms of the strikers, whom he accused of bringing us closer to a depression. The Mail itself enthusiastically reported the strikes. The government responded critically, but there have been no threats to wield anti-union legislation, as might have been expected. Indeed it seems to have been acting behind the scenes to secure the compromise settlement that is now in the air.
And the left has been in a real state over it – some groups broadly or sharply opposing the strikes (Socialist Workers Party, Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and Workers Power), and others offering uncritical, or virtually uncritical, support (the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain; Socialist Party).
There are not many occasions when the left, or sections of it, can be seen coming out against a strike – but there are not a great many strikes like this one. It broke out initially in Lincolnshire, at the Lindsey oil refinery. A contract for a construction job had been awarded to an Italian company, IREM, which shipped in a corps of workers from Italy and Portugal. ‘Shipped in’ should be read literally – the workers live on the barges on which they arrived, moored in nearby Grimsby. They are driven back to the barges for their lunch. Although IREM has refused to disclose its employees’ pay and conditions on grounds of ‘confidentiality’, this is a clear case of capitalist undercutting – local union agreements and working standards are being overridden to get the job done more cheaply and profitably.
This was correctly interpreted by workers at the power plant as an attack on their pay and conditions. The unions – as long as they act in thrall to anti-union laws – are powerless, since it is illegal under both UK and EU law to strike against such actions. The walkout, when it came on January 28, was a ‘wildcat’ unofficial action – and sympathy strikes broke out in at least 19 other locations. Firstly the Humberside area, and then further afield – to the Grangemouth refinery in Falkirk, which was itself the site of a major strike in the summer of 2008; then to Aberthaw power station near Barry, in South Wales; a refinery in Wilton, Teesside; Kilroot power station in Carrickfergus, County Antrim; a gas terminal at Milford Haven, west Wales; the Fiddlers Ferry power station near Warrington; etc.
The fly in the ointment is that a prominent slogan in all these walkouts has been a direct quotation of the esteemed prime minister. “British jobs for British workers” was Gordon Brown’s promise to the 2007 TUC conference (though, as wily left philologists have pointed out, the slogan was also used by Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts). An utterly cynical and obviously empty chauvinist ploy, of course – but now thrown back in the premier’s face by the strikes. Needless to say, it is this that is at the root of the left’s unease – and rightwing glee.
A further complication is that nobody seems to agree on precisely how relevant the ‘British jobs…’ slogan actually is to the whole thing. The rightwing bourgeois media have been pushing the chauvinist angle – this is a strike against ‘foreigners’ taking ‘our’ jobs. The British National Party has promptly gotten itself involved (through a front website featured prominently and uncritically on Newsnight of February 21), although without making much obvious headway.
Those on the left directly involved, and many among the strikers,2 have tended to call it a dispute over pay and conditions with international implications. Indeed, the political background to the dispute goes to the heart of the EU project.
Viking and Laval
The story begins, by all accounts, over four years ago – in Vaxholm, a small island town off the coast of Sweden.
A school was to be built, and the contract was awarded to a subsidiary of Laval, a Latvian construction company. Byggnads, the builders’ union in Sweden, attempted to settle a collective bargaining agreement, but was rebuffed. Instead Laval struck a deal with the equivalent Latvian union, which – needless to say – undercut the going union rates in Sweden, the country that represents post-war social democracy’s stab at making paradise on earth.
Byggnads responded with a blockade of the site; Laval took the union to the European Court of Justice, arguing that it was an illegal restriction on its right to provide EU services. In the end, the company’s view prevailed; the outcome of the case enshrined, among other things, the confidentiality of wages and conditions, that the Posting of Workers Directive (outlining the rights of workers throughout the EU) is to be interpreted as a maximum rather than a minimum standard, and that industrial action to the contrary is illegal.3 A week before the ECJ’s decision, another case – Viking – established the right of private companies to sue trade unions.
The Viking-Laval combination is a recipe for what Amicus and others call ‘social dumping’ – bringing gangs of outside workers into a country for a particular contract. Capitalists always try to play groups of workers off against each other and these ECJ decisions effectively enshrine it as their right.
The building industry, conducted as it now invariably is on the basis of subcontracting, is particularly vulnerable to this practice. The present economic crisis was, in its early stages, naively thought by some as irrelevant to the ‘real economy’ – that is, material production and circulation of commodities, as opposed to the epicycles of fictitious capital in the finance industry. Even when this fiction was at all credible, it was understood that construction was the ‘exception that proved the rule’.
In Britain and the USA alike, the financial boom had increasingly centred on services related to home ownership, particularly mortgages. This boom had in turn underwritten a boom in construction. When the financial system collapsed, it was correspondingly the first sector of the ‘real’ economy to find itself in dire trouble. The sudden surfeit of underemployed construction workers is viewed by employers as an invitation to social dumping.
The strike wave has thrown into the limelight both a direly treacherous terrain for the left to navigate, and – through the Laval-Viking connection, the brazenly cynical partiality of the state at the level of both Westminster and Brussels. This ought to provide us with an excellent opportunity to highlight the international dimension of even the most basic struggles and to build for common workers’ action across borders.
But all class struggle throws down a challenge to the left – however strong it is going into the clash, and whatever the nature of the battle. And even for its present dire condition, the left has mostly been found drastically wanting. At one end of the scale, we have the smarmy cravens of the Labour soft left, exemplified by the MP Jon Cruddas. He has called for the 2012 Olympics construction project to be limited to British workers only.
The labour bureaucracy’s long-time toadies-in-chief, the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, bitterly complained that EU law has “effectively deprived British workers of the right to seek work in their own country”, while at least having the good sense to blame the bosses – or rather, the bosses’ Europe.4
Far at the other end of the scale, the Trotskyist group, Workers Power, issued a statement declaring the whole thing to be a nationalistic lash-up – “the strikers’ target is not their employers, but 100 Italian and Portuguese workers at the Lindsey oil refinery”.5 The comrades “unreservedly oppose” the strikes, and demand they be demobilised. The SWP does not come out openly against the action, but Socialist Worker centres its coverage on the ‘British jobs’ aspect.6
The Workers Power position is simply idiotic abstentionism. There is a great deal of empirical evidence that the chauvinist element is, at the very least, not overwhelmingly dominant – see, for example, the involvement of Polish workers in the Langage walkout, and a mass meeting at the original Lindsey refinery confirmed a set of strike demands that spurned ‘British jobs’, including “building links with construction trade unions on the continent”.7 There is also a specific and legitimate grievance at the root of it all – the intervention of the legal-political apparatus in favour of social dumping – which has been given a chauvinist coloration after the fact.
Moreover, Workers Power is particularly afflicted by the ‘action’ obsession common to much of the far left. It is forever demanding protests, fightbacks and strikes, and is wont to dismiss anything in the way of programmatic discussion as ‘propagandism’. Well, comrades – here is your ‘action’. Workers have spontaneously acted to defend their interests, but, unsurprisingly, many of them have come into it with backward – indeed reactionary – ideas.
The Socialist Party has intervened directly in the strikes, and has a member on the six-strong strike committee thrown up by the wave. However, while the SP in a leaflet (drafted by strike committee member Keith Gibson) states, “rather than saying ‘British jobs for British workers’, we should say ‘Trade union jobs and conditions for all workers’”,8 it continues to downplay the danger of the ‘British jobs’ slogan. A similar line is taken by Respect, whose approach, like the CPB’s, seems to be to dismiss the significance of chauvinism altogether, and concentrate on the narrow trade union demands – this leaves the right an open goal.
And, last but not least, we have the AWL; Martin Thomas and Sacha Ismail’s initial agitational article effectively took a line similar to the SWP,9 but apparently the nuances of this position were lost on one comrade. Robin Sivapalan desperately tried to organise an anti-chauvinist picket of Unite’s headquarters. The AWL position is softening by the hour, particularly after the mass meeting at Lindsey refinery – apparently, these ‘new’ demands are no longer reactionary … but they were floating around when the strike was reactionary and basically unsupportable, according to the AWL. How about admitting the mistake, comrades?
The task of communists in this dispute has been the same since workers first walked out of Lindsey. Those workers rose in brave action against a genuine attack on their class interests; and it was and is incumbent on us to foreground at every step the class nature of this battle. It was inevitable, given the involvement of foreign labour, that chauvinists of various stripes would slime their way in. The media, from the outset, focused on nationalism, not class, and the likely settlement centres on this too – according to reports, half of the IREM jobs will go to ‘British workers’ and half to Italians/Portuguese, with the pay and conditions on offer not being disclosed. Meanwhile, Brown has stated that “some way” must be found to ensure that new jobs are sourced to local workers.
The ‘British jobs’ aspect to all this makes our intervention more necessary, not less. If the international dimension gives succour to chauvinists, it also points to our primary political duty. This paper carries on its masthead every week the slogan, “Towards a Communist Party of the European Union”. This is no lofty abstraction, but is posed as a pressing (and sadly absent) necessity with every new walkout.
We have seen a united and concerted attack by the legal and political bureaucracies in Brussels and London; any fightback has to be similarly united. The call by the Lindsey strikers for cooperation between construction unions is welcome, but limited.
As a matter of urgency we need EU trade unions fighting for EU-wide common pay and conditions. That would put a stop to social dumping. But most of all we need the highest form of political organisation: precisely a Communist Party of the European Union.
The legalistic form of the attack should not go unnoticed either. The system of binding precedents and the rule-of-law state are inimical to democracy and the proletariat’s interests. They act as a restriction to the popular will, and have in this case provided a neat tool for providing the bosses with cheap labour. Apart from anything else, the strength of the legal-bureaucratic cage around the unions has been exposed anew – Thatcher’s anti-union laws and the EU’s working in harmony. Many will no doubt have been surprised to find that the ECJ has kindly provided unions with a (very short) list of things they are allowed to strike about!
Similarly, the dispute highlights the question of workers’ control. The SP correctly calls for “Union-controlled registering of unemployed and locally skilled union members, with nominating rights as work becomes available.”10 But it frames this in the context of Britain alone, not the EU as a whole – and thus in a way which risks feeding into the call for ‘British jobs’. We must also bring to the fore the demand to open the books. What the bosses pay our brothers and sisters is not their own ‘confidential’ affair – it is the business of our class.
Treating the issue as a narrow economic dispute is wrong-headed. The strikers have instinctively grasped the international implications of their actions – whether this realisation is derailed into British chauvinism, wasted on jollies for union bureaucrats or converted into real steps (however modest) towards European working class unity will depend on the forthright intervention of the Marxist left.
1. See www.ministryoftruth.me.uk/2009/02/02/british-wildcats-exposed
2. See, for example, the web forum created by strikers – www.bearfacts.co.uk/Forum
4. Morning Star January 31.
6. Socialist Worker February 7.