Workers Vanguard No. 930
13 February 2009
Unions Must Defend Immigrant Workers!
Down With Reactionary Strikes Against Foreign Workers!
Full Union Pay for All Work!
LONDON—For over a week, thousands of construction workers at oil refineries and power plants across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland staged a series of strikes demanding “British jobs for British workers.” 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 main strike slogan, “British jobs for British workers,” long associated with the fascists, was recently affirmed by Labour prime minister Gordon Brown at the 2007 Labour Party conference. The strikes received gushing sympathy from the likes of the virulently anti-immigrant, anti-working-class Daily Mail and were actively supported by the fascist BNP who churned out racist garbage, including the claim that British workers were losing out to foreigners.
The strike wave centred on Lindsey refinery in Lincolnshire, owned by French oil giant Total. Part of a construction project was subcontracted to IREM, an Italian contractor, which brought in Italian and Portuguese workers, and did not hire any British workers. A similar situation exists at Staythorpe power station in Nottinghamshire where Spanish subcontractors brought in their own crews. According to reports of the settlement, over 100 “new” construction jobs have been created at Lindsey, earmarked for British workers. The real outcome however will reverberate against foreign and immigrant workers, not least on building sites such as the 2012 Olympic projects where over a third of the workers are immigrants and where in recent months some 200 Romanian workers were removed during a clampdown on “illegal” foreign labour. More broadly, the protectionist poison emanating from the strikes sends a chilling message to all immigrants and minorities, fuelling racism and reinforcing national divisions between workers in Britain and their class brothers in other European countries.
The responsibility for this social-chauvinist crusade lies with 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. Particular blame lies with Peter Taaffe’s Socialist Party, which had a member on the strike committee and authored its key demands, while whitewashing its chauvinist character. Throughout what the Socialist Party calls “one of the most significant strike waves in recent times,” Italian migrant workers have been holed up in a rusting barge in Grimsby, fearing for their lives, not without reason: according to the Times (31 January), 40 striking construction workers from Lindsey oil refinery in Lincolnshire—the hub of the racist strikes—visited the Italian workers to tell them to “go back to your own country.” Generalised insecurity and fear about job losses caused by the worldwide economic recession provide fertile ground for the kind of chauvinism that this strike wave has unleashed.
Trade-union leaders have been cynically banging on about British workers being discriminated against. Derek Simpson, co-leader of the union Unite, addressed “the growing problem of UK workers being excluded from important engineering and construction projects” and demanded that “companies involved in engineering and construction projects give UK workers equal opportunities to build Britain’s infrastructure” (Unite statement, 30 January). The Labourite bureaucracy’s touching concern for “equal opportunities” for British workers stands in sharp contrast to their abject betrayal of class struggles by Britain’s multiethnic working class, from the Grunwick strike by Asian women in 1976 to the Labourites’ knifing of the great miners strike of 1984-85, to the sellout of the Heathrow airport strike in 2005 in solidarity with over 600 Asian women who were sacked.
The bureaucracy’s claim that British workers are being “discriminated” against by foreign contractors rests on a “posted” workers directive in European Union (EU) law, under which subcontractors can supply their “own” workers to work on short-term projects in other EU countries. No British workers were fired at either Lindsey or Staythorpe. Until the workers take power, we will not be in a position to worry about the ebbs and flows of labour migration or the world economy more generally. The bottom line for the trade-union movement must not be whom the contractors hire, but at what rate of pay and under what conditions they work. 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! This poses the need for international collaboration between construction workers across European countries.
The chauvinist nature of the “British jobs” campaign is starkly obvious when viewed through the lens of workers across the channel. Indeed, protectionism cuts both ways: Italian workers (including IREM workers!), who are currently working alongside British construction workers in northeast Italy, could easily retaliate with strikes and mobilisations demanding “Italian jobs for Italian workers,” which would undoubtedly get the support of the Italian fascists. According to figures from the European Commission, 47,000 British workers were temporarily “posted” to other EU countries in 2006, which is three times more than the 15,000 foreign workers “posted” to Britain at the time (Financial Times, 3 February). Regarding the British strike, a spokesman for the General Confederation of Italian Workers (CGIL), Guglielmo Epifani, said, “we have to be careful, because if unemployment is used against workers from other countries” it would mean “Italians could only work in Italy, English in England and the French in France” (Reuters, 5 February).
The capitalist system is based on the brutal exploitation of all labour, and the ruling class inflames racial and ethnic hostilities to keep the working class divided and thus ensure greater profits. When construction is booming it relies on immigrants, who in Britain were historically Irish but today are drawn heavily from East Europe. With the advent of a severe global recession, the scramble for a diminishing number of jobs is becoming more intense. This scramble is particularly acute in construction where temporary contract work and job insecurity are endemic and where the system of subcontracting drives wages down lower and increases the bosses’ opportunities for divide-and-rule.
Labourite Reformism and Protectionism
Rather than wage a fight for jobs for all construction workers, which requires an internationalist perspective, and championing the rights of immigrants, the reformist trade-union bureaucracy pandered to the reactionary demand “British jobs for British workers,” even as they have condemned BNP incursions into the strike. On behalf of Unite, Derek Simpson issued a statement saying: “Trade unionists stand against everything the BNP stand for. We have warned union members on construction sites to remain vigilant when it comes to ultra right wing leeches,” while asserting that the industrial action was “not about race or immigration, it’s about class.” But any mobilisation of workers on the basis of protectionism is poisonous to class consciousness and plays into the hands of the fascists. It serves to reinforce anti-immigrant racism and weakens the capacity of the working class to defend its own interests. The bureaucracy uses protectionism as a cover for rejecting class struggle in favour of class collaboration. What’s needed is to mobilise the multiethnic working class against the Brown-led Labour government for jobs for all. This requires a political fight to replace the current union misleaders—the labour lieutenants of capital—with a class-struggle leadership. Trade unions must oppose anti-immigrant racism! Down with protectionist poison!
Much of the Labourite reformist left managed to take an elementary position of opposition to the reactionary strikes. In a 31 January statement, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) correctly noted that these strikes “are based around the wrong slogans and target the wrong people,” adding that “those who urge on these strikes are playing with fire.” Workers Power “unreservedly oppose” the strikes saying, “the strikers’ target is not their employers but 100 Italian and Portuguese workers” (Workers Power, February 2009). A leaflet (undated) issued by Gerry Downing, a member of the Socialist Fight organisation, says, “Socialist Fight (SF) unequivocally opposes the ‘wildcat’ strikes and their outcome because they were called on the reactionary basis of ‘British jobs for British workers’” and “it was on this xenophobic basis they were spread, with the assistance of the right wing media and on this basis they were tacitly endorsed by the entire Unite and GMB leaderships. And it was on this basis they were settled.”
But the Socialist Party, whose supporters were a key part of the strike leadership and which proposed the demands adopted by the strike committee, was up to its neck in this shameful campaign. The strike demands, while paying lip service for “All immigrant labour to be unionised,” do not defend job rights for foreign workers. They include the demand for “Union controlled registering of unemployed and locally skilled union members, with nominating rights as work becomes available.” In other words, jobs would be filled from “local” (i.e., British) applicants. This is a version of “British jobs for British workers.” In contrast to a Leninist vanguard party that fights against all manner of chauvinism, the Socialist Party is mired in it.
As part of the fight for a class-struggle leadership, the trade unions must oppose the “war on terror” and racism against immigrants and minorities. We oppose all the bourgeoisie’s anti-immigrant laws and regulations, including work restrictions on workers from EU countries in East Europe. We demand: Full citizenship rights for all immigrants! A class-struggle leadership in the unions would demand jobs for all, through a shorter workweek at no loss in pay, and undertake a union organising drive to draw into their ranks all workers, including those in dangerous and low-paid jobs.
Workers of the World Unite!
In the face of world capitalist recession, protectionism is increasing. Thus Barack Obama included a “buy American” clause in his “rescue” package for American industry. 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. The global economic crisis has exacerbated tensions between capitalist governments within the EU who are jostling to “save” their own economy. The EU directive that allows contractors operating in other countries not to hire local workers has fuelled opposition to the EU among construction workers. Contrary to the trade-union bureaucracy’s pledge that EU laws can be amended to serve the interests of workers, levelling down of wages and conditions for workers is part of the purpose of the EU. As revolutionary, proletarian internationalists, we oppose the EU, an imperialist consortium designed to improve their competitiveness against their American and Japanese rivals, at the expense of the working class in Europe, including its minority component. Our programme is for workers revolutions leading to a Socialist United States of Europe.
Our programme is completely counterposed to “little England” nationalist opposition to the EU that is associated with old Labour reformism, to which the SWP, Workers Power and the Taaffeites are all wedded. Old Labour’s erstwhile claim to “socialism,” as upheld by former miners leader Arthur Scargill and Tony Benn—a commitment to nationalised industry under capitalism—is inherently protectionist. The extensive nationalisations of industry carried out under Clement Attlee’s Labour government in the postwar period had nothing to do with socialism; rather they were a “rescue package” for British industry which was in profound decline against its rivals.
The further expansion of the EU imperialist trade bloc into the former deformed workers states of East Europe provided the European bourgeoisies with a vast supply of very cheap skilled labour. This expansion was made possible by the series of capitalist counterrevolutions that swept across East Europe and the Soviet Union between 1989 and 1992 creating massive unemployment and social immiseration. This historic defeat for the workers and oppressed was supported by the Socialist Party, SWP, Workers Power and sundry other reformists. In contrast, we Trotskyists of the International Communist League fought to mobilise the working class in defence of the gains that those states embodied.
Protectionism is doubly pernicious when directed at the People’s Republic of China, where Britain, the U.S., and other imperialist powers have had as a central goal the restoration of capitalist rule. The fact that capitalism was overthrown in China by the 1949 Revolution, leading to the building of a collectivised economy, represents a historic gain for the working class internationally. We continue to fight for the unconditional military defence of China against imperialism and capitalist counterrevolution, and for proletarian political revolution to oust the parasitic Stalinist bureaucracy and replace it with the rule of workers and peasants councils.
The workers movement has seen many examples of trade-union solidarity against the capitalists’ attempts to use low-wage immigrant workers as a club against the unions. In Dublin in 2005, workers throughout Ireland demonstrated against Irish Ferries—and in solidarity with immigrant workers—when the bosses tried to hire East European workers at a fraction of Irish workers’ wages. Our comrades issued a leaflet calling for the power of the working class to be harnessed behind defence of immigrants, declaring: “Unions must organise immigrant workers! Full wages and benefits for immigrants!” Another example was the Heathrow strike in 2005 when, in response to the sacking of low-paid catering workers and replacing them with immigrants at even lower wages (which did not happen in the construction sites at power stations), the workforce at British Airways staged an immensely powerful wildcat strike that crippled BA’s international operation. But the trade-union leadership under Tony Woodley snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by ending the strike without having obtained the reinstatement of the sacked workers.
As far back as 1866, under Karl Marx, the International Working Men’s Association prevented an attempt by London master tailors, who were big capitalists, to replace journeymen tailors in London by recruiting journeymen in France, Belgium and Switzerland. Marx wrote that the secretaries of the International “published in Belgian, French and Swiss newspapers a warning which was a complete success. The London masters’ manoeuvre was foiled; they had to surrender and meet their workers’ just demands” (“A Warning,” 4 May 1866).
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!