Lindsey oil refinery strike: Workers score important victory

Lindsey oil refinery strike

Workers score important victory

Socialist Party industrial organiser Bill Mullins writes on the deal done between the Lindsey oil refinery strike committee and the Total oil company, the refinery owners.

This deal has set the benchmark for dozens of other sites throughout Britain and in fact throughout Europe. This heroic struggle by 1,000-plus construction engineers in the refinery, supported by walk-outs at 20-plus other sites, has resulted in a victory for the workers. They are on different contracts throughout the site in north Lincolnshire.

It was a victory against the bosses of Total, the French oil company that owns the site. But also against the whole neoliberal regime that operates across the EU. In the process, it exposed the anti-union laws as irrelevant when a mass of workers move into struggle.

The workers have been guaranteed 102 of the 198 jobs that are available in the part of the contract for building a new chemical facility, HDS3.

As Keith Gibson in his article in last week’s The Socialist explained, the original contractor, Shaw, had been told that they had lost part of the work to an Italian company, IREM, who would bring in their own workforce from Italy and elsewhere to do the job.

As a result, Shaw had told the shop stewards on the site that some of their members would be made redundant from 17 February to make way for the Italian workers.

What was crucial in this was not the fact that they were Italian or Portuguese but that they would not be part of the National Agreement for the Engineering and Construction Industry (NAECI).

Why? Because under the EU directives, backed up by the European Court of Human Rights, employing those workers under NAECI conditions would be seen as a “restraint on trade” and therefore against the freedom of movement of labour and capital enshrined in the EU capitalist club’s rules and regulations.

Bosses’ charter

It does not take a rocket scientist to work out that this is a bosses’ charter and nothing else. The bosses like nothing better than to have full freedom to do what they like without the trade unions interfering. In this case the British trade unions but it goes for any European trade union as well.

The press gave prominence to the slogan used by some workers of: “British jobs for British workers”, held up on posters by some of the strikers at the mass meetings. They failed to see, and how could you expect the rabid capitalist press to do anything else, that the strikers’ case was simple. They were being excluded from jobs on the site by the sleight of hand of the bosses under the cover of “the right of labour and capital to be shifted without restriction to any part of the EU.”

As said in last week’s Socialist editorial: “No workers’ movement is ‘chemically pure’. Elements of confusion, and even some reactionary ideas, can exist, and have done in these strikes. However, fundamentally this struggle is aimed against the ‘race to the bottom’, at maintaining trade union-organised conditions and wages on these huge building sites.”

The existing one-sided EU laws and directives give the bosses complete carte blanche to bring in workers to work on less pay and worse conditions in the “host country” as long as the minimum conditions of their home country are applied.

They do not have to be in a union. It was clear that the IREM workers were not in a union, Italian or otherwise. Italian union confederation CGIL leader Sabrina Petrucci was quoted in the Morning Star on 6 February saying that IREM is a notorious non-union firm.

But the struggle was more even than this. It was a struggle for control of the workplace by the workers themselves. If the Total managers, as owners of the site, and the Italian contractors IREM, could have had their way, they would have driven a huge wedge into the elements of workers’ control that had been wrested from the management.

In a major breakthrough, part of the deal allows for the shop stewards to check that the jobs filled by the Italian and Portuguese workers are on the same conditions as the local workers covered by the NAECI agreement. The Lindsey oil refinery is what is known as a ‘blue book’ site and all workers on it should be covered by the NAECI agreement.

This means in practice that the union-organised workers will be working alongside the IREM-employed Italian workers and will be able to “audit” whether or not this is the case.

This was a fundamental demand of the strikers when they adopted a central list of demands at the mass meetings: “All workers in UK to be covered by NAECI Agreement and all immigrant labour to be unionised”.

As an extra safeguard to maintaining trade union organisation in the sites, the strikers also accepted a demand put forward by the strike committee of the need for “Union-controlled registering of unemployed and local skilled union members”.

This is exactly what the capitalists do not want and from their point of view it is indeed a “restraint on trade”, ie their right to exploit their workforce without the union having any say.

Liaison meetings

Built into the deal is that the shop stewards on the site will be able to keep the Italian company in check by regular liaison meetings.

In the 1970s, some of the best organised workplaces were in effect closed shops, either pre-entry or post-entry – you had to be a union member before applying for a job, or you had to join a union as soon as you started work.

What the Lindsey strikers were demanding quite correctly is a form of pre-entry closed shop. That means that if the contractors on site need more labour then they have to go to the union for this labour from its unemployed register. In other words you have to be in the union to be on the register.

The alternative to trade union control over ‘hire and fire’ is the bosses having that right to hire and fire instead – and who will they give jobs to? Not the trade union activists. As is too often the case, a bosses’ black-list is widely used in the construction industry. The fight for this demand to be put into practice will be part of the ongoing struggle between the workers and the bosses. This is a struggle over who controls the workplace and, therefore, in whose interests the workplace is run.

To their shame, some on the left were completely taken in by the headlines in the capitalist press which highlighted the “British jobs for British workers” element of this struggle. What they did not realise, or refused to face up to, was that the whole previous period has led to this battle. If this had developed a year ago then it is likely that it would not have happened as it did. What was new in the equation was the rapid onset of mass unemployment, threatening every worker in Britain and across much of the globe.

The economic crisis has created a fear amongst workers, not just for their jobs today but on what jobs there will be for their children in the future.

In the previous period it was possible for these workers to get jobs on other sites, though a feature of the sites was the blacklisting of union activists, which has led to localised battles.

The whole workforce of some 25,000, who specialise in the skilled construction engineering required on major projects, such as oil refineries and power stations, were becoming increasingly aware that things were changing. In fact, some 1,500 at least were unemployed.

Recently, the trade unions were preparing, through shop stewards organising on a national level, to take on the bosses. But the whole thing was precipitated suddenly, as Keith Gibson explained in last week’s Socialist, when Total gave a contract to IREM before Christmas. Or rather, they gave it to an American company, which, in turn, sub-contracted out to IREM.

The timing of this was not an accident. The Total bosses were using the downturn in the economy to give the work to a contractor who did not have to bother with trade unions, as most of the British contractors on these major building projects had been forced to do.

The capitalist politicians, like Labour business minister Pat McFadden, bleated that the principle of free movement has been breached by the deal. He meant ‘freedom’ for the bosses to move labour about the continent, hiding under the EU laws backed up by the courts. This is against the interests of the workers everywhere and undermines trade union organisation.

This ‘freedom’ has indeed been breached by the strike, which has in the process struck a blow against the ‘race to the bottom’ which is undermining wages and conditions.

What is needed now is much more coordination amongst all the European unions. In particular, coordination of the shop stewards’ organisations at site level but also at national and an all-European level.

This should come together in a massive campaign to spread the victory of the Lindsey oil refinery workers across the whole of Britain and the EU.

What next after the Lindsey victory?

This is the text of a Socialist Party leaflet given out on 9 February, at a national meeting of shop stewards involved in the engineering construction industry.

Socialist Party supporters think that the best way to consolidate and extend the Lindsey Oil Refinery agreement on a national industry-wide basis, is for the national shop stewards to adopt the following policy:

Organise a march on Parliament on a weekday in the next month around a clear set of demands.

Call a one day industry-wide national strike on the same day as the march, of all workers covered by NAECI, including repair and maintenance, with emergency cover organised by trade unions.

Publicise the following demands as widely as possible amongst our members, European unions and the media, to counter the deliberate mis-reporting of the last strikes as anti-foreigner:

  • No victimisation of workers taking solidarity action.
  • All construction engineering workers in UK to be covered by the NAECI agreement.
  • Union controlled registering of unemployed and local skilled union members, with nominating rights as work becomes available.
  • Government and employer investment in proper training/apprenticeships for the new generation of construction workers.
  • All immigrant labour to be unionised.
  • Union help for immigrant workers – including interpreters and union advice – to promote active integrated union members.
  • Build closer direct links with construction unions in Europe.
  • The government must change or withdraw from those EU directives and court rulings that exempt non-UK companies from abiding by industry national agreements.

The Socialist Party’s role

Alistair Tice, Yorkshire Socialist Party, adds:

Pressure has been building on the need to defend jobs and conditions, due to Alstom’s refusal to employ any UK labour on the Staythorpe power station construction site in Nottinghamshire. Several protests have taken place, in which delegations of workers from the Lindsey oil refinery have participated.

Confirmation that IREM would not employ any UK labour was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The shop stewards recommended that they stay ‘in procedure’ ie abide by the anti-trade union laws, but a meeting of Shaw’s workers demanded immediate action and voted to walk out.

This meant that the unofficial strike began without any leadership and without any clear demands. The vacuum that existed in the first two or three days was filled by home-made posters downloaded from a construction workers’ website calling for British jobs for British workers – throwing Gordon Brown’s words back at him. Whilst this slogan was never a demand of the strike, the media seized on this to present the strike as anti-foreign labour.

This misrepresentation of the strike in the media caused a reaction amongst the strikers. They made clear in interviews and conversation that the strike was not racist or against migrant labour but against the exclusion of UK labour and against the undermining of the national agreement. The British National Party, contrary to media reports, was not welcome on the picket line

A crucial factor was the active intervention of the Socialist Party. Socialist Party member Keith Gibson, who was not a steward, was elected onto the strike committee that was set up on the Friday and by that afternoon had become its spokesperson. This was due to Keith’s reputation over many years as a militant trade unionist.

One worker was overheard saying: “Gibbo’s up there now. He’s top-drawer. He’ll get it sorted.”

The Socialist Party distributed nearly 1,000 leaflets to strikers on Monday which stated that the strike was not against foreign labour but to stop the race to the bottom and that: “Trade union jobs, pay and conditions for all workers” should be the slogan and not “British jobs for British workers”.

Also proposed was a clear set of demands which Keith got adopted by the strike committee and which were carried at a mass meeting. Keith’s speeches always emphasised the common interests of all workers against the bosses.

By Tuesday and Wednesday, although there were still a couple of union jack flags, all the “British jobs for British workers” posters had gone. In their place were placards in Italian appealing to the Italian workers to join the strike and another which stated “Workers of the world unite”, as commented on by Seamus Milne in a Guardian article.

What this shows is the mixed consciousness that exists. And the effect that the intervention of socialists can have in bringing forward class demands and pushing back any reactionary ideas that exist as a result of years of little struggle and the absence of class politics.

Ultra-left critics, both of the strike and of the Socialist Party, did not engage in discussions with the workers. They preferred to believe the capitalist press. As a result they dismissed the strike as reactionary, racist or xenophobic.

If the Socialist Party had not participated actively in the dispute, there were dangers that such attitudes could have gained strength. Instead, a marvellous victory has been achieved, which lays the basis for unionising the foreign workers and strengthening class unity.