Wildcat strikes in energy sector

February 15, 2009

The recent wildcat strikes, which began at the Lindsey oil refinery, were based on legitimate demands. Just a small amount of research would reveal this.  However, rather than addressing real issues, politicians and the media have chosen to systematically accuse the strikers of being racist.

Deconstructing the myth and re-establishing a few truths

This will come as no surprise, but it bears noting: in the case of the wildcat strikes organised at the Total oil refineries, the media lied. It bears noting, because the propaganda is such that many are misled about the terms and goals of the strike.

We are told that the workers are striking against the use of foreign labour, more specifically, Italian and Portuguese workers employed by the sub-contracting company IREM. Understand: the British worker does not want his job stolen by an Italian. Understand: the basic worker is racist. The cliché is not that original, but journalists use it with impressive ease. The myth is well rooted in the minds of the ruling, capitalist classes. It has been built through years of education spent in the most prestigious institutions. The problem is that when you spend a little time looking into it, it turns out that this strike is not against employing foreign labour, but rather for promoting equal access to jobs for all and against mass layoffs of workers already employed locally. In effect, these workers will be prevented from applying for jobs and be replaced by IREM workers, who will of course be paid less, even if the company refuses to admit it (and also refuses to make the terms of the agreement public).

Why don’t journalists call this strike “a strike against abusive layoffs” or “a strike for minimum rights”? Why would they rather play the racism card and pretend that workers are attacking other workers? Why did they accuse the strikers of conniving with the British National Party even as the members of this party that did try to intervene were removed at the workers’ request?

A stunning demonstration of the techniques employed by the BBC to get their message across can be found in this video. In the first clip, aired on BBC1, the striker’s soundbite is cut so as to suggest that he does not want to work with foreigners. Transcript:

Voice over: Beneath the anger, ministers fear, lies straightforward xenophobia.
Striker: These Portuguese and Eyeties, we can’t work alongside of them.

In the second clip (BBC2), the striker is quoted at length:
“These Portuguese and Eyeties, we can’t work alongside of them. They’re segregated, they’re coming in in full companies.

The full quote is obviously understood differently, and the fact that the BBC cut it short can be explained by their desire to make this striker, and the whole movement behind him, sound racist. As explained in a forum comment left on bearfacts, a website used by workers and strikers, what the striker meant was that “we can’t work with the Italians and Portuguese because they are segregated from us as they do not share the same onsite facilitys ie cabins, canteen etc: The fact that their kept away from the local community on that barge and bussed into site only helps to widen that divide.”

The point we are making is not to support the strike unconditionally or to suggest that the working class is pure and always right. The slogans used during the strike (“British jobs for British workers”) were harmful and contrary to basic principles of international solidarity. We can only regret that the strikers did not choose better words. That said, these were the words of Gordon Brown, ironically thrown back at him with demands for results, as if to say “keep your promises”.

Although it is hard to find out who came up with these slogans, who approves of them or not, it seems that they originated among union representatives from Unite. The signs bearing these words also bore the union’s logo, and Unite must have played this card in order to get heard, without thinking about the consequences.

Maybe you decide to call the basic worker is racist, but you should also note that the worker is the one suffering from the liberal policies that let companies hire foreigners on the cheap, granting them reduced working rights, and playing one nationality against another… The discontent is legitimate and what needs to be understood here is how this discontent is used by the middle and upper classes, whether they be politicians, journalists or union representatives.

Once again, the point is not to excuse the errors or slip-ups of this strike. It is obvious that some among the strikers show nationalist tendencies. But a strike is a complex collective process that engages numerous individuals. It is important to question the erroneous image of the movement spread by the mainstream media and to underline its legitimate demands. In order to do so, reading bearfacts’ forum, where strikers communicate with each other, proves very useful and reveals that the strikers’ demands have little to do with the way they have been portrayed in the news. The presence of two members of the Socialist Party in the strike committee is also telling of the stance of this movement. The information found on the party’s website sums up the events and clearly contradict all the misconceptions broadcast left and right about the strike:

“The workers of LOR, Conoco and Easington did not take strike action against immigrant workers. Our action is rightly aimed against company bosses who attempt to play off one nationality of worker against the other and undermine the NAECI agreement.”

In the light of these declarations, it is highly regrettable that there were calls from within the activist movement against this strike. This shows a misunderstanding of the strike’s goals, no questioning of the image given of the strikers, and a failure to support their legitimate demands.

At this point, it might be useful to list a few of the unofficial strike committee’s demands:

  • 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
  • Government and employer investment in proper training / apprenticeships for new generation of construction workers
  • All Immigrant labour to be unionised.
  • Trade Union assistance for immigrant workers – via interpreters – to give right of access to Trade Union advice – to promote active integrated Trade Union Members

Here again, we are far from the way the conflict has been generally portrayed. The emphasis is on the protection of all workers, including immigrant workers, and on opposing potential retaliation against strikes started in support of this one on other work sites – such actions being very rare since they were made illegal under Thatcher in the 1980s.

But since mainstream media journalists will never talk about this, since they will only parrot what they have been taught and invite on their shows politicians that share their worldview, since they will edit the words of the population they accuse and attack, I will end with the words of a striker taken (almost) at random from one of the bearfacts forums. It explains in clear terms on which side of the barrier one can find scorn, injustice and inequality:

“i have no complaints about working with our foriegn brothers as i have worked abroad myself but what has to be said is unscrupulous employers explioting our brothers ive seen first hand how they are treated by them example slough incinerater last year ask anyone on that job, cheap labour and cramed into poor cramped accomodation that was before the contract was taken off said contractor there is where we have the unfair footing for the basis of employment.”

Adapated from a translation of the following article: La classe ouvrière britannique n’est pas plus raciste que l’homme en costume qui parle dans ton poste de télévision)

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