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Posted on 21 April 2011 at 10:53 GMT

Saltend - construction workers' struggle continues

On Wednesday 20th April, the Redhall construction workers, locked out from BP Saltend for the last six weeks, met to decide whether to accept a 1 million financial compensation package from BP/Vivergo.

This offer was the result of four days of talks between the trade unions and Vivergo and Akers, the employers on the bio-ethanol project who cancelled Redhall's contract leading to 400 workers being locked out.

At Wednesday's mass meeting of the locked-out workers, Vivergo's offer of cash was rejected and it was agreed to restart the protest on Thursday morning.

If the deal had been agreed, it would have entailed the two unions GMB and Unite signing a collective bargaining agreement preventing any worker from taking further action either legally at a tribunal or taking part in protesting outside the BP/Vivergo site or anywhere else for that matter.

Workers are adamant that this dispute is about defending the NAECI agreement, fighting to get back their jobs and implementing their TUPE rights. Agreeing the deal would have meant that whoever took on the Redhall contract would have been able to to cherry pick employees, intimidating these workers further via the selection process in the hope of creating a weakened, subservient workforce.

The hard won demand of 'first in, last out' during a redundancy situation secured some weeks ago after taking strike action would have been jettisoned.

The mood at the mass meeting was really positive and determination to escalate the dispute resounded around the room. While it was good that the GMB officer argued against the deal, shamefully Unite advised the men to sign up.

The men rebuked the Unite officer and ordered him to approach the electricians and scaffolders who had been allowed to go onto the Vivergo site while talks with the employers had ensued.

The Unite officer was told to ask these workers to re-join the protest outside the site as had originally been agreed if talks with the employers came to nothing.

The meeting also agreed that the national NAECI combine stewards committee that was unilaterally cancelled by Unite on Monday be convened to discuss how to win this dispute.

Action was suspended during talks

The talks that led to the offer took place after the workers agreed to suspend their protests at the Saltend gates and allow the workers striking in support of locked-out construction workers to go back to work, initially for 48 hours but later extended to a week.

Socialist Party and lock-out committee member Keith Gibson had argued against ending the protests and the supportive strike action.

However, urged to by the Unite full-time official, a majority of the workers had at that stage agreed to stop the protests under the guise of trying to prove that the locked out workers were not disruptive and that a chance should be given for negotiations to proceed with the employers; and with the promise of an imminent national shop stewards meeting (days later called off by Unite without even consulting the GMB officials let alone the locked-out workers).

Also there was concern at the threats of dismissal being made to the repair and maintenance workers who had taken solidarity action.

Vivergo (40% owned by BP) has always maintained that the locked out workers are not its responsibility. But five weeks of militant protests and solidarity action forced the bosses to come up with their offer of 1 million to get the workers off the gates.

If the deal had been accepted, it would have set a very dangerous precedent in the industry, undermining the NAECI national agreement and TUPE rights.

Unite official McAulay has pursued a strategy of de-escalating the action and getting the workers to sell their jobs. Many Unite members are also asking where their general secretary, Len McCluskey, has been and how he can allow McAulay to try to sell them down the river.

Despite the trade union bureaucracy running scared of the anti-union laws, workers have done 'illegal' secondary picketing and unofficial walk-outs over five weeks and this will now resume.

Following Wednesday's rejection of the offer, an urgent campaign of explanatory leafleting and meetings at other NAECI sites is now needed to win support for solidarity action across the industry.

This can force the employers to back down and guarantee jobs for all the locked-out workers.

Extracts from a statement by Keith Gibson posted on Bearfacts website on Tuesday 19 April

On principle I have not signed up to accept Redhall's 'compromise agreement' which offers the paltry sum of 3,300 to curtail the possible TUPE liability of this company regarding any future claim at a tribunal.

Nor will I be accepting the next compromise deal being put on the table to date by the Vivergo/Aker Solution companies who hope, in my opinion, that their 'compromise/ compensation offer' will also limit their liability under a possible TUPE claim (although these employers during the negotiation process have consistently denied that TUPE applies).

To date the locked out construction workers have been told by union bureaucrats that our fellow construction workers on other sites will not support taking industrial action against what is the most blatant attack on NAECI consultation process and TUPE rights.

Without any consultation 400 workers have been thrown off the job, locked out of the workplace and the only mass meetings that have been called for from both unions at the Trades & Labour club have entailed discussions around a 'compromise greement'.

All efforts to escalate industrial action have been met with claims that the workers on other sites will not come out in support of this struggle. Rumour and innuendo have served to divide the 400 blacked workers from the rank and file brothers in the rest of our industry.

Yes, we dared to call for one-day national industrial strike action! Why did we adopt this line? Put bluntly the individual blackings of trade unionists up and down the country on construction sites had cascaded into an avalanche of 400-plus Vivergo workers.

Acceptance of a compromise deal will mean these companies have the green light to not only do it again but will be further encouraged at a later date to limit their financial liability regarding TUPE and breach NAECI consultation.

I for one will never condemn my fellow brothers who have accepted jobs elsewhere or signed up for the Redhalls compromise agreement because during our attempts to organise the protest/picketing of the BP gate at Saltend we have faced a farcical intervention of trade union indecision and at times what has seemed like blatant scuppering of all efforts to take this struggle forward, thus at times exhausting and frustrating the heroic efforts of construction worker attempts to take this struggle forward.

It is easy to condemn our brothers but it is important to understand that when it's a question of financial ruin for yourself and your family then who are you or I to sit in judgement? When you feel you have to fight your own union to prize out the legalities of TUPE that to date are still not forthcoming while at the same time a compromise agreement is being thrust down your neck with approval from Unite and while wider industrial action is being scuppered amid innuendos and rumour, then you can see why confidence in winning the battle alongside potential long term monetary problems have made some brothers in the short term put their families first.

Make no mistake, if this struggle is lost then the construction industry and workers in general in the UK will come under the same attack! Nothing short of national industrial action within the construction industry will do and you just need to contemplate the Lindsey dispute to understand that, because without industrial action we wouldn't have acquired the partial victory gained.

Worker solidarity action is the key to defeating the Vivergo lock-out. United we stand and divided we fall.

We need solidarity action to defeat the three multinationals incorporated into Vivergo.

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