Workers Hammer No. 208
Down with chauvinist campaign against foreign workers!
Defend unions in the construction industry!
The following article was first published in Workers Vanguard no 939, 3 July 2009. On 4 August the GMB union announced a strike ballot of selected emgineering construction sites, in part because the Total oil company reneged on the agreement reached as a result of the June strike at Lindsey oil refinery referred to in the article below.
LONDON, 28 June — Powerful solidarity strikes of construction workers at many of Britain’s power stations, oil and gas facilities over the past week have defeated a union-busting effort by the bosses and secured the reinstatement of some 647 construction workers at the Lindsey oil refinery in Lincolnshire, run by oil giant Total. These workers were fired on 18 June for having walked out on strike in protest when one subcontractor laid off 51 workers who, according to Socialist Worker (20 June), were “stewards, activists or union members”. At the same time, a different subcontractor hired a different set of roughly 60 workers who had almost identical skills as those who had been laid off. The sackings were rightly seen as an attack on the union and sparked sympathy strikes which spread to plants across England, Wales and Scotland in a show of solidarity that appears to have forced a complete climbdown by the bosses.
These sympathy strikes were necessary in order to defend the existence of the unions, and the outcome was certainly in the interests of the working class as a whole. But at the same time, the unions in these construction sites are spearheading a chauvinist campaign against foreign workers that can only fuel racist attacks on immigrants and is poison to class consciousness and working-class solidarity. Pitting British workers against their class brothers from other countries, this crusade undermines the fighting capacity of the unions and is detrimental to the interests of the multiethnic working class as a whole. The bosses will always seek to exploit every division among workers to go after all workers; this chauvinist campaign against foreign workers gives the bosses yet another means to attack the unions.
Beginning in January, construction workers at the Lindsey refinery staged a wave of reactionary strikes against Italian and Portuguese workers under the slogan “British jobs for British workers”, a cry long associated with the fascists. Among the leaders of these strikes was Keith Gibson of the Socialist Party, who is a prominent member of the GMB union. The Socialist Party has tried to airbrush that slogan out of the picture. In the January strikes, the demand for “British jobs for British workers” became “local” jobs for “local” workers, but the content remained the same. The reactionary strikes and protests received enthusiastic backing from rabidly anti-union, anti-immigrant newspapers such as the Daily Mail and from the fascist British National Party (BNP). The outcome of the January strike at Lindsey says it all: over 100 jobs that were expected to go to Italian workers were allocated to British workers.
From the outset we have insisted that the struggle against protectionist poison is vital to the interests of all working people. In contrast to the majority of the left, we opposed the January strikes at Lindsey, noting in “Down with reactionary strikes against foreign workers!” (Workers Hammer no 206, Spring 2009): “The strikes were not intended to secure more jobs or indeed any gains for the working class as a whole, nor to defend existing jobs. They were about redividing the existing pool of jobs according to the nationality of the workers. These reactionary strikes, pitting British workers against foreign workers and immigrants, are detrimental to the interests of the multiethnic working class in Britain and those of the workers of Europe as a whole.” The reactionary politics of this crusade are shared by the Labourite leadership of the Unite and GMB trade unions, who embraced this patriotic crusade as naturally as they embraced Labour’s racist “war on terror” that is directed against Muslims.
The bottom line for the trade union movement must not be who the contractors hire, but at what rate of pay and under what conditions. The way to undercut attempts by the bosses to “level down” the wages and working conditions, including safety standards, of all workers by playing off one nationality against the other is for the unions to demand: Full union pay for all work at the prevailing rate, no matter who does the job! Equal pay for equal work! What’s needed is to mobilise the multiethnic working class against Gordon Brown’s Labour government in a fight for jobs for all, through a shorter workweek with no loss in pay, and to undertake a union organising drive to draw into their ranks all workers, including those in dangerous and low-paying jobs.
The chauvinist anti-immigrant campaign takes place in the broader climate of a worldwide economic recession in which virulent racism against immigrants is on the rise. A chilling example is the recent provocative attack by the state on immigrant cleaners at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). Outrageously, when the cleaners turned up to a 6.30 am meeting on 12 June, ostensibly called to discuss working conditions, 40 immigration police in riot gear who had been concealed in the building descended on these low-paid, vulnerable workers. Many have since been deported or await deportation, mainly to Latin America. The real “crime” of these workers was that they had been organised into the Unison union.
Immigrants from Eastern Europe in particular are being viciously scapegoated for the economic crisis that stems from the capitalist system itself. Thus in Belfast, over 100 Romanian immigrants, mainly Roma (Gypsies), were driven from their homes this month by violent racist mobs, who also attacked a rally in support of immigrants. These atrocities show that there is a vital need for the unions to defend immigrant workers! To bring the unions’ strength to bear in defence of immigrants means fighting for an end to the reactionary strikes against foreign-born workers on construction sites. We say: Down with racist attacks on immigrant workers! No deportations! Down with work restrictions on workers from EU countries in Eastern Europe! Full citizenship rights for all immigrants!
Mobilising the working class in defence of immigrants requires a class-struggle leadership in the unions, forged as part of the struggle for a Leninist party that would act as a “tribune of the people”. This party must be built in opposition to the existing trade union bureaucracy and pseudo-socialists like the Socialist Party, which tries to claim that the original strikes were not aimed at foreign workers. But the truth is there for all to see. At a protest in Newark, Nottinghamshire, on 24 February against jobs being awarded to Spanish and Polish workers at the Staythorpe power station, a section of the demonstrators chanted “foreigners out”. Last month in Milford Haven in South Wales, another anti-immigrant strike resulted in some 40 Polish workers losing their jobs. According to the Guardian website (21 May), the strike was settled when “the Dutch-based employer, Hertel, agreed to withdraw 40 Poles and replace them with UK staff at the terminal owned by ExxonMobil and Total”. While admitting that “Hertel faxed the media that the Polish workers [had] been removed from the site”, the Socialist Party dismissed this by saying merely that “this was never a demand of the union”. The Socialist Party proclaimed the outcome as another “victory” and blatantly admitted that the British workers “were not opposed to laggers from Poland getting work on the site as long as local laggers were given the opportunity of the work first as under the union agreement” (Socialist, 28 May-3 June).
Having embraced the reactionary campaign against foreign workers, the Unite and GMB union bureaucrats are now conducting a strike ballot that would bring future strikes within the provisions of the anti-union laws. The Unite statement motivating strike action repeats the claim that British workers are being discriminated against: “UK workers want fair access to UK construction projects” and alleges that “at a time when the engineering construction sector has the ability to be offering quality jobs to working people, UK workers are being excluded from these job opportunities” (unitetheunion.com). As we said regarding the January strikes, no British workers were fired at either Lindsey or Staythorpe. We also insist that until the workers take state power, the proletariat will not be in a position to worry about the ebbs and flows of labour migration, which is subject to the world economy more generally.
The prospect of continuing strikes has enraged the construction bosses, who are incensed that projects such as the de-sulphurisation plant at Lindsey are behind schedule, which means extra costs. Strikes could also disrupt major infrastructure projects such as new power stations and London’s Crossrail scheme. The Financial Times described the issues behind the construction strikes: “Unemployment is a big factor behind the disputes. This is a cyclical industry and 25-30 per cent of the 30,000 workers are jobless after projects dried up in recent months. There are more than 1,500 foreign workers on UK sites, which has fuelled the stoppages” (ft.com, 19 June).
Unions must defend immigrant workers!
Our articles have warned that any mobilisation of workers on the basis of protectionism is poisonous to class consciousness and plays into the hands of the fascists. In the recent elections to the European parliament, the fascist BNP secured two seats, while the right-wing populist UK Independence Party beat the hapless Labour Party, which fell into third place. We said no vote to the No2EU campaign that was led by RMT rail union leader Bob Crow in alliance with the Socialist Party and others. No2EU was supposed to provide a “left” alternative to the BNP but was centrally based on support to the anti-foreigner Lindsey strikes — the “British jobs” crusade that the BNP was riding high on. A protest rally on 6 May at the 2012 Olympics building site in Stratford, London, addressed by Bob Crow and Keith Gibson, was an orgy of nationalist protectionism. Many protesters had been brought in from Lindsey and some sported signs saying “British Jobs for British Workers” and “Fairness for British Workers”. This is particularly provocative at the Olympics site where some 200 Romanian workers have been removed in a clampdown on immigrants in recent months.
As Marxists we oppose the European Union, an imperialist trade bloc and a vehicle for European capitalist classes to co-operate against the working class and oppressed minorities of each country. Our opposition is based on proletarian internationalism, which is counterposed to the “little England” nationalist opposition to the EU that is associated with old Labour reformism, to which the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the Socialist Party are wedded. Old Labour’s erstwhile claim to “socialism” amounted to nothing more than a commitment to nationalised industry under capitalism, which is inherently protectionist. The extensive nationalisations of industry carried out under Clement Attlee’s Labour government in the post-World War II period had nothing to do with socialism but were a “rescue package” for British capitalism, which was in profound decline against its rivals.
Compared to the Socialist Party, the SWP has taken a more critical stance on the anti-foreign-worker crusade. A recent headline says: “‘British jobs’ slogan pushed back but its argument remains a danger” (Socialist Worker, 27 June) and the article notes, “Socialist Worker has always firmly insisted that this is a divisive slogan that feeds racism and pits workers against each other.” This is a cover-up of the SWP’s actual support to the reactionary strikes, which is expressed in a petition being circulated by the SWP. On the one hand it says:
“The slogan ‘British jobs for British workers’ that has come to prominence around the dispute can only lead to deep divisions inside working class communities. The slogan, coined by Gordon Brown in his 2007 speech to Labour’s conference, is being taken up by the right wing press and the Nazi BNP. These are forces that have always been bitterly hostile to the trade union movement.”
But the petition also says clearly: “We support the demands of the Lindsey Oil Refinery strike committee” (“Unite to Fight for Jobs Petition” at petitiononline.com). Those demands include: “Union controlled registering of unemployed and locally skilled union members, with nominating rights as work becomes available”, which is merely another version of “British jobs for British workers”.
For the trade union bureaucracy, the Socialist Party and the SWP, support for these “British first” strikes stems from their reformist programme, which accepts the framework of nationalism as opposed to proletarian internationalism. They have no answer to the worldwide capitalist crisis other than to rally in defence of British capitalism. In virtually all major capitalist countries, the union tops have responded to mass job losses and unemployment with chauvinism and calls for increasing protectionism. As we wrote in “Down with reactionary strikes against foreign workers!”: “For the bourgeoisie, ‘free trade’ and protectionism are options they can debate, but for the proletariat, protectionism is poison. It is a classic means of channelling discontent over job losses into hostility towards foreign workers and immigrants while building illusions in the benevolence of our ‘own’ capitalists
. There is no answer to the boom-and-bust cycles of capitalism short of proletarian socialist revolution that takes power out of the hands of the irrational capitalist ruling class and replaces it with a planned, socialised economy. Only the achievement of a world socialist order can eliminate the age-old problem of poverty, scarcity and want.”
We seek to build a multiethnic revolutionary workers party, forged in opposition to Labourism, to overthrow the bloodsoaked British capitalist order and replace it with working-class rule. Down with the reactionary “United Kingdom”! For a federation of workers republics in the British Isles! For a Socialist United States of Europe!