Why British Workers Are Angry

As the economic crisis has deepened and unemployment mushroomed, powerful voices opposing national action to protect jobs and industries, whether by governments or trade unions, have grown louder. From Davos to Detroit, the warning has gone out that “protectionism” is the path to 1930s-style perdition, opening the way to international conflict and decline. No matter that free-market globalization is almost universally recognized to have been at the heart of the financial meltdown that triggered the slump. Only through unfettered competition, many western politicians and pundits still insist, can growth resume and nationalist passions be restrained.

That was the media and political refrain that greeted multiple walkouts by thousands of engineering construction workers at oil refineries and power stations across Britain in January and February over the exclusion of local Labor from major new contracts. Strikes erupted again in late May, when Polish workers were brought in to replace local Labor at the South Hook liquefied natural gas terminal in Wales – and again in June, when 650 construction workers were sacked for taking unofficial industrial action, and then reinstated after thousands joined sympathy strikes across the country.

The fact that some pickets in the earlier stoppages held placards calling for “British jobs for British workers” seemed to confirm the worst: this was a spasm of chauvinist protest against foreign workers that had to be rejected and faced down. The unofficial strikes were denounced as “indefensible” by the prime minister Gordon Brown, while his business secretary, Peter Mandelson, warned against the dangers of xenophobia – and the most backward sections of Britain’s mass-circulation press oozed “understanding” for people they would normally castigate as selfish wreckers.

That alarm was echoed across Europe. In Italy, the chair of Italy’s employers’ organization Confindustria, Emma Marcegaglia, quoted Margaret Thatcher to appeal to Britain not “to go wobbly” on the free market in the face of “raw nationalistic instincts”. Even some who might have been expected to welcome a resurgence of working class action joined the criticism – such as the spokesman of France’s New Anti-Capitalist Party, Olivier Besancenot, who singled out the British strikes as one of several “worrying xenophobic movements”.

Given the way the dispute was reported, both at home and abroad, such reactions are scarcely surprising. But they reflect a serious misreading of what took place – and could very well happen again – as well as a wider response to the crisis that risks ramping up, rather than defusing, anti-migrant sentiment across Europe.

As Derek Simpson, joint leader of Britain’s biggest union Unite said at the time, the power construction strikes were in reality “not about race or immigration” but “about class”. The dispute was triggered when sub-contracted work on a new £200m ($300m) desulphurization unit at the Total-owned Lindsey refinery near Grimsby in Lincolnshire was re-assigned to a Sicilian company, Irem, which brought in a non-union Italian and Portuguese workforce to replace local Labor. The Irem workers were housed in a barge on the river Humber, bussed into the construction site every day and kept separate from other workers, who were convinced from the start that the contract had been won by bypassing union agreements on pay and conditions – though the company denied it (while failing to provide the evidence).

Equal access

With even clearer evidence of wage undercutting and exclusion of local workers from construction work, sub-contracted by the French company Alstom at Staythorpe power station in Nottinghamshire, and at the German-owned privatised energy corporation E.ON’s Isle of Grain site in Kent – using Polish and Spanish workers flown in for the purpose – wildcat strikes spread throughout the sector, from south Wales to northeast Scotland. Within a few days, they had closed more than 20 power plants and refineries across Britain.

The walkouts were all illegal. Under British anti-union laws, introduced by the Thatcher government and retained by New Labor, solidarity action is banned. But the strikers’ industrial muscle and the effectiveness of the stoppages ensured that no employer felt strong enough to take the two main unions that stood behind the walkouts – Unite and the GMB – to court. However, the unions could not openly endorse or lead the strikes without running the risk of heavy fines or sequestration of union assets. In that vacuum, some strikers initially used the “British jobs for British workers” slogan to mock the prime minister, who had cynically appropriated the far-right catchphrase at Labor’s 2007 conference.

But that was never a demand of the strike committee, which called instead for equal access for British-based Labor, of whatever nationality, and the enforcement of union-negotiated agreements in all engineering construction contracts. Within a couple of days, the more nationalistic slogans had been replaced, while posters were displayed on the Lindsey picket line in Italian calling on the Italian workers to join the strikes. Even “workers of the world unite” made an appearance.

There was clearly a danger that the dispute could have been diverted into a chauvinistic blind alley, but it didn’t happen. Union activists gave short shrift to far-right British National Party infiltrators. The strikers didn’t scapegoat the foreign workers; they blamed the government and the employers. And the real nature of the strikes was driven home by the hundreds of Polish migrant workers who joined the walkouts at Langage power station in Plymouth: this was a campaign not for privileges for indigenous over foreign workers, but against the use of foreign-based contract Labor to exclude or undercut all workers in Britain.

But the narratives of a protectionist threat and working class racism are so ingrained in the mainstream British media that news reports simply adjusted reality accordingly. In the BBC’s main evening TV news bulletin, one striker was shown saying, “we can’t work alongside of them”, in a reference to Italian and Portuguese workers. The second part of the sentence – “we’re segregated from them” – was cut, turning the meaning of what the man was saying on its head and giving the false impression that local workers were refusing to work with foreigners. Meanwhile, tabloid newspaper journalists tried to convince picketing workers to be photographed with Union Jack flags.

“The reporting of the strikes was based on a massive misconception,” Paul McDowall, Unite shop steward at the Lindsey site, insists. “The real purpose of our action was quite simply to protect the terms and conditions, pay, welfare and health and safety that we’ve built up over many years – and that remains the case. It had nothing to do with xenophobia.”

Reasons for anger

In the event, the strike at Lindsey refinery was settled with a deal that opened up jobs linked to the disputed contract to British-based workers without loss to the Italians and Portuguese, as well as creating the right for local union officials to audit the pay and conditions of imported Labor.

Already, the quarantining of the Italian and Portuguese workers has ended and, rather than increasing tensions between British and foreign workers, the strikes have at least ensured that they are now able to communicate, making it more difficult for the employers to set one group against another.

Nevertheless, disputes at Staythorpe and the Isle of Grain have continued, industrial action is possible at the Olympic village site in east London, and conflict has twice re-ignited at Lindsey, as evidence emerged that Irem had indeed undercut union agreements by employing lower-skilled, lower-paid Labor on the contract – while skilled engineering construction workers at the refinery now stand to lose their jobs. The eruption of renewed unofficial strikes at energy construction sites across Britain in May, which led to a rapid climbdown by Hertel UK over attempts to exclude local Labor at Milford Haven’s South Hook terminal, was repeated the following month, when 51 workers were laid off in violation of the agreement that settled the February dispute. Hundreds walked out in protest. When they were sacked, solidarity action spread across Britain until the contractor was forced to back down.

Meanwhile, the broader backlash grows against the deregulated, race-to-the-bottom neoliberal order on which New Labor was built and that is now being so comprehensively discredited by the economic crisis it unleashed. Underlying these strikes was not only rising joblessness, but also the continued erosion of the much-acclaimed European social model – and the posted workers’ directive in particular, supposed to protect workers from exactly the kind of social dumping through contracted Labor that was the focus of the dispute.

In Britain, as elsewhere, the government implemented the directive in the weakest possible form, requiring only the minimum wage and basic employment rights for workers shipped in from elsewhere in the European Union. Both the directive and wider worker protection have now been further undermined by a string of European Court of Justice judgments – in the Laval, Viking and Rueffert cases – which have tipped the balance still further in favour of corporate freedom to undercut pay and conditions. And despite the British prime minister’s insistence that he has turned his back on “untrammelled markets”, Brown’s government has opposed attempts in recent months to reverse the impact of the court’s decisions.

That enduring neoliberal mindset – the inheritance of Thatcherism – and the hire-and-fire Labor market it has nurtured, are part of the reason why these issues have come to a head in a sharper form in Britain than in some other parts of Europe. But the idea that encouraging European corporations to send groups of workers back and forth across the continent to live in segregated barges and hostels hundreds of miles from home, while others are thrown out of work, might be a progressive development – or even necessary to generate the productivity growth to propel Europe out of recession – is absurd. And it will clearly no longer be tolerated in the midst of lengthening dole queues and a deregulation-fuelled crisis.

That is what has driven the refinery and power station walkouts, not xenophobia – let alone racism. With more than 100,000 jobs a month being lost across the country, a closely-knit skilled workforce saw the prospect of secure work on a series of new construction sites melting before their eyes – while for the employers, growing unemployment and insecurity offered the opportunity to exploit EU competition rules and opaque sub-contracting chains to cut Labor costs.

That was understood by the European federations of engineering, construction and chemical workers’ unions, which described the original British strike campaign as part of a wider expression of “anger by working people at the prevailing EU settlement which prioritizes the needs of business and capital over those of Labor”. But just as the failure of European centre-left governments in recent years to represent working-class communities has opened the door to the far right, the insistence of the media and political class on branding workers who organize to defend their jobs and living standards as xenophobes could end up turning a fiction into reality.

Seumas Milne is a journalist at The Guardian, London.

This article appears in the current edition of this excellent monthly, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features one or two articles from LMD every month.