I’ve held off writing anything about the refinery strikes up until now, partly because there was good work being done elsewhere (Phil has been particularly good, and there’s lots of stuff as always at SU) and partly because I needed to get my own ideas clear on the dispute. Facts have become clearer, the situation has developed, so I’m just going to sketch out a few tentative thoughts.
To begin with, I had mixed feelings about the strike. Some of that, I’m sure, was just down to lack of information. But mainly it’s been this “British jobs for British workers” slogan that everybody has been so het up about. This derives of course from Gordon Brown’s speech at the 2007 Labour Party conference, at a time when the media were giving him lots of stick about his Scottishness (they still are) and as a result he could barely speak for five minutes without throwing in the word “British”. The adoption of a slogan that could have come straight out of the BNP playbook has certainly come back to haunt him now.
And this is the sort of thing that worried me. At a time when there’s been large-scale immigration over recent years, and now there’s a rapid rise in unemployment, you would expect to see all sorts of racist eruptions. Certainly, New Labour are well aware that racism can be a useful safety valve in a recession. It’s not that I was prepared to condemn the Lindsey strike out of hand as racist, but there was clearly a potential for it to develop in an ugly direction. It didn’t help that the media have been keen to flag up the migrant workers angle, or that an assortment of racist wingnuts (the BNP in particular) have sought to associate themselves with the strike to advance their agenda. At the very least, that potential was something to be wary of.
Now, while I’m sure that in a substantial workforce you can find someone with some backward ideas about immigration, there are two major causes behind this dispute. The underlying cause is insecurity in a time of economic crisis, and the fear that will breed in somewhere like Hull that wasn’t very prosperous in the first place. The proximate cause is undercutting. Even Labour minister Alan Johnson, who knows a thing or two about trade unionism, was quite good on this on Sunday’s Andrew Marr show.
You have to start with the European Single Market, which is supposed to guarantee free movement of labour as well as produce within the EU. This applies to Poles or Italians working in Britain, of course, but also the million or so Brits working in other EU countries. (Johnson raised the analogy of a British construction company winning a contract in Italy and not being allowed to use its skilled workforce. In those circumstances, one might assumed the Sun and the Mail would go apeshit.) So, whatever Gordon Brown might say in a flight of rhetoric or whatever Sammy Wilson might want, you can’t legislate a preference for British workers over EU citizens or non-EU workers who are legally part of the workforce.
And that’s what raises the danger of undercutting. There are regulations, notably the Posted Workers Directive, that are supposed to guard against this, but the ECJ judgements in the Viking and Laval cases have seriously weakened these. Finally the British government – or Alan Johnson at least – have figured out that something needs to be done to strengthen legal safeguards.
So, there were the grievances. But, as we know, there are right ways and wrong ways to go about tackling grievances. It’s a bit like those towns in Cornwall where eighty or ninety percent of the housing stock is taken up with holiday homes, and as a result the town is dead for nine months of the year. But how do you respond – do you try to lay out a campaigning strategy around social housing and sustainable communities, or do you try to blow up Jamie Oliver? Annoying as Jamie can be, the latter is plainly a wrong strategy.
And so it’s been pleasing to see that the Lindsey strike hasn’t radicalised to the right. In fact, as the workers have clarified their demands, you’ve seen good old trade unionist demands coming to the fore. And, best of all, the BNP getting short shrift with their interventions, which will surprise those on the left who imagine workers to be unable to resist the blandishments of the fash. This of course hasn’t happened spontaneously, but has had to be argued for. A great deal of credit must go to the Socialist Party, who have been lucky enough to have a presence on the ground, and who seem to have been doing exemplary work in preventing the strike sliding into what could have been dodgy territory. It just goes to show the good that the presence of a couple of socialists in one of these disputes can do.
Finally, and apropos of this, a bit of a word on the left. Some interesting alignments have sprung up, and a lot of this (unsurprisingly, with a left full of ideologues) has centred around whether a strike with the BJ4BW slogan so prominently displayed is supportable. Andy writes:
There have been attempts by both left and right to play the race card. Obviously the BNP have tried to intervene, but have actually been given short shrift by the strikers themselves. The AWL tried to organise a picket of Unite headquarters and invited migrant workers to attend it, trying to pit migrant workers against white workers for their own interests.
The strikers slogan obviously did strike a chord – it was catchy, and ironic against Gordon Brown; but could also be expropriated by racists. To a certain extent the reaction to the slogan was opportunist from right-wing populist newspapers who sought to misrepresent the dispute as being anti-foreigner, and to a certain extent there was a prurient frisson from middle class trendies who loved having their anti-working class prejudices confirmed by that interpretation. But in terms of the strikers themselves and the wider labour movement, the class aspect has become better understood as the dispute goes on. The Morning Star, and left MPs like Jon Cruddas have stood by the trade unionists, and fought their corner. And the Socialist Party have obviously played an absolutely brilliant role, that should be reflected in improved prestige for that organisation, and respect for its judgments.
I agree with a lot of this. It’s no surprise to see the AWL or Students Power declining to support an industrial action that isn’t “internationalist” enough. Maybe, in a Brechtian sense, it would be better if the vanguard abolished the working class and replaced it with a more advanced one. On the other hand, the SP has been very supportive of course, as have both left formations in Scotland. There is also, and not for the first time, some excellent commentary from Permanent Revolution (the sensible faction of Workers Power, not the crazy faction who kept the name), who are not a million miles from my own thinking.
Where I would depart slightly from Andy is in terms of his polemic against the SWP. I read the SWP statement on Saturday morning and thought “Hmm, this isn’t too bad. A bit abstract, but not bad.” I think the issue here was that the misgivings expressed by the SWP leadership were not too distant from my own early reservations, particularly when it came to the dangers inherent in the BJ4BW slogan. Now, obviously the SWP would have looked vindicated had the strike indeed radicalised in a Powellite direction, but what’s actually been happening makes their statement look a bit behind the curve. Not to mention that, whatever about all the care that evidently went into the statement, some of the SWP’s more enthusiastic supporters in blogland have been eager to bang on about the “racist strike” and to hell with nuance. I hear that the position is being revised and the agitational material now being produced is more positive. This is good.
Anyway, this is the most important thing going on in the industrial sphere about now. If we can’t turn this in a progressive direction, we really are in trouble.