Feb 14, 2009

Future Shock, Pt. 2: British Wildcat Strikes - Class? Nation? Or Both?

Recent Wildcat strikes spread throughout Britain, Scotland and even in to the North of Ireland. Starting January 30th Wildcat’s hit at oil refineries, power stations and later into other trades - including construction. The strikes have been reported as actions against foreign workers, yet as the strikes continued it appears the reality is much more complex than the media has made it out to be.

The strikes have been a response to the influx of Italian and Portuguese skilled workers at the expense of local workers. Local workers let go by the companies were now being replaced by foreign workers for new building and operations jobs. The situation being that the companies - as is the case most everywhere in the global capitalist market - sought to cut costs and bring in the cheapest labor possible. In or out of the global economic crisis, the logic of capital is to reduce labor costs. Western Europe like the US have varying wage, health care and legacy benefits that represent a high price for business. A reduction of these benefits is what has been at the fore of the capitalist offensive - ie. “restructuring” - against labor.

Troubling with the strikes however was the mixing up of labor grievances with reactionary national chauvinist positions. Workers began showing up with British Union flags and signs reading, “British Jobs for British Workers.” Although a slogan oft used by British nationalists and the parliamentary-fascist party, the BNP, the workers claimed that their use of the quote was referencing a statement made by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. The emergence of nationalist and seemingly anti-foreign worker politics opened a window for the BNP to send members in to the pickets.

“Yesterday was a great day for British nationalism,” said a spokesman for the far-right BNP.

As workers addressed a crowd of around 600 outside Lindsey one of the workers shouted: “Get the BNP rep up there” but he was quickly shouted down.

Future reports seem to indicate that open BNP activity has been challenged by many workers. But strong showings by BNP in recent elections across England highlight that there is growing support for the BNP’s anti-immigrant politics. The question is how much a dovetailing can occur of anti-immigrant politics and rage at growing redundancies of the workforce - or replacement of local labor with transplant labor, in this case the Italian and Portuguese.

Initially various Left positions regarding the Wildcats emerged - some for the strikes with some opposed. Those in favor saw intervention and pushing internationalist position necessary. Those against feared that the strikes represented shifts towards protectionism and national chauvinism, rather than a class view. Here is sampling (taken form comrades off of another forum):

[AGAINST Strike] Workers Power statement:

Normally Workers Power would energetically support strike action by workers – including unofficial strikes taken without the formal support of the union leaders. But this strike is different. We unreservedly oppose it. Why? Because the strikers target is not their employers but 100 Italian and Portuguese workers at the Lindsey oil refinery in North Killingholme, Lincolnshire.

[FOR Strike] Socialist Party UK statement:

The main issue is not that "foreign" workers are being brought in by the employers, as reported in the media, but that there are thousands of unemployed construction workers. The Socialist Party is raising the demand that any worker should be part of the national engineering construction agreements that cover the wages and conditions on the sites. A six-strong strike committee has been set up with a Socialist Party member on the committee. At the time of writing the strikes are spreading like wild fire according to the BBC, currently covering something like sixteen sites from Scotland to Wales and from Northern Ireland to Merseyside.

[AGAINST Strike] Socialist Workers Party statement:

We need a fightback, with strikes and protests, and the unions have been scandalously slow to offer any sort of resistance to the jobs massacre. But these strikes are based around the wrong slogans and target the wrong people. Everyone should ask themselves why Tory papers like the Express and the Sun and Mail – which hate union power and urge on privatisation – are sympathetic to the strikes.

[FOR Strike] Libcom statement:

It appears that this increasing insecurity for skilled workers is behind the protest, not racism. We should be wary of the way in which the media reports such disputes.

[AGAINST Strike] Alliance for Workers Liberty statement:

To deal with the global crisis, workers need not a "British-first" mentality, but workers' unity and solidarity across Europe and the world. Right-wing union officials who have waged no fight for jobs except to plead with employers to reduce their cutbacks have supported the strikers' demands. Unite, the union that organises the industry, has played a disgraceful role.

As the strikes progressed new positions emerged that have attempted to defend strikers as well as cut against chauvinist and anti-foreigner sentiment.

An example is a resolution put forward by a strike committee to the mass picket at the Lindsey refinery in North Lincolnshire, Monday 2 February 2009. The demands were:

* No victimisation of workers taking solidarity action.
* All workers in UK to be covered by NAECI Agreement.
* Union controlled registering of unemployed and locally skilled union members, with nominating rights as work becomes available.
* Government and employer investment in proper training / apprenticeships for new generation of construction workers - fight for a future for young people.
* All Immigrant labour to be unionised.
* Trade Union assistance for immigrant workers - including interpreters - and access to Trade Union advice - to promote active integrated Trade Union Members.
* Build links with construction trade unions on the continent.

The mass meeting/picket overwhelmingly voted for the demands put to them by the strike committee.

Further on in the strikes more sympathy actions broke out. Significant was that polish workers walked off in support of strikers,

600 workers, including hundreds of Polish workers, have walked out from Langage Power Station near Plymouth in solidarity with the wildcat actions sweeping across Britain.

When five hundred site staff had failed to arrive by 10am, the small minority of other foreign labourers (themselves also mostly Polish) who had been bussed in were sent home by management, deciding it was unsafe for them to work by themselves.

Jerry Pickford, regional officer for Unite South West, said workers had walked out in "general sympathy with what’s happening in the construction industry… all the Polish workers have walked out as well, because this is not an issue against foreign workers.

“This is an issue against foreign employers using foreign workers to stop British workers getting jobs. Once they do that they will try and undermine the terms and conditions of employment in this country.”

It would be illegal for the union to support the strike or even hold a ballot, but workers are taking action off their own backs. Today strike action also spread to the Sellafield nuclear plant, while 400 contractors at Scottish Power’s Longannet power station in Fife (along with 80 workers at an Exxon Mobile plant there) and 130 at the Cockenzie Power Station extended their action until Friday.

The significance is that such action cut against the anti-foreign politics. Here we have foreign born workers seeing their interests tied up with those of “native” born workers. The Polish walk out could strengthen the position of labor and could draw out the needed internationalist perspectives.

The strikes seem to be a mix of varying sympathies. This is understandable. Were gonna see radical action mixing with reactionary positions. In many regions an anti-globalization and an anti-big business struggle takes on a nationalist and protectionist pitch. People see a trans national capital running over people at the local level. And in cases where a labor force migrates or an industry relocates, one sector focuses their anger on another sector of labor who are themselves being exploited by capital.

The mixing and confusion may also lead to a kinda reactionary social democratic politics. In the US this is quite evident in auto and heavy manufacturing struggles where socialist politics mesh with calls for, "Buy American" and much more explicitly anti-foreign politics. Without a protracted struggle to take on nationalist and reactionary positions, space is opened for - and legitimizes - the blunt racist and anti-immigrant ideas and movements already making headway in many areas. Their manifestation ranges from city ordinances against "illegal" workers to murders of immigrants to the ICE Raids to anti-immigrant paramilitary militia groups.