The Socialist 13 February 2019 |
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Lindsey oil refinery strike ten-year anniversary
When militant action stopped the 'race to the bottom'
Lessons for workers' struggles today
Lindsey oil refinery construction workers striking against EU-backed undermining of nationally agreed trade union conditions, photo Sean Figg (Click to enlarge)
Keith Gibson, Lindsey strike committee member (2009) and Hull Socialist Party
On the tenth anniversary of the Lindsey Oil refinery strike it's important to reflect on the momentous strike wave waged by 1,000 steel construction workers in opposition to the EU Posted Workers' Directive (PWD).
At the heart of this struggle lay the issue of protecting the NAECI* agreement - the nationally agreed trade union right to standardised pay, terms and conditions. PWD workers are only entitled to 'minimum' labour standards, not NAECI standards.
In December 2008, workers were notified that one-third of the jobs at Lindsey would be given to the Italian firm IREM (an anti-union employer).
The PWD was, and still is, heralded by the bosses to be a right to 'freedom of movement' for all EU workers. Under this guise IREM brought Italian and Portuguese construction workers onto the job.
This 'freedom of movement' immediately set about segregating these overseas workers from their UK brothers.
Their living quarters? An isolated barge in Grimsby docks. Their work? A specified area at Lindsey refinery segregated from UK construction workers. The works bus - for overseas workers only - completed this worker segregation.
Suspicions of a breach in trade union-agreed NAECI pay was sought on many occasions and later confirmed.
The shop stewards called a meeting and advised the workforce to use the set grievance procedures. This was rejected and the workers took control.
A proposal for immediate strike action was overwhelmingly supported. Lindsey construction workers took unofficial strike action beginning on 29 January 2009.
The shop stewards stood down after having been overruled by the unofficial action. In this leadership vacuum IREM bosses continued to utilise the PWD in the hope of dividing the Lindsey workforce along 'nationality' lines in an attempt to weaken NAECI.
The capitalist press all sang in chorus. Labour prime minister Gordon Brown's infamous statement - "British jobs for British workers" - rang out on BBC news bulletins and via the pages of the capitalist press, in the hope of sowing division in the ranks of the Lindsey workforce.
Without any trade union resources to hand, a couple of strikers gave out posters brandishing Brown's statement.
On 2 February the newly formed Lindsey strike committee, including me, moved into action. The committee called for solidarity action on NAECI sites around the country on this same day, with over two dozen major construction sites walking out.
A whole series of wildcat (unofficial) strikes spread like a bolt of lightning throughout the country.
This 'spontaneous' strike wave, as described in the capitalist press, was in reality a collective workers' response from below: to strike in unity against IREM bosses' use of the EU's PWD legislation supported by its 27 capitalist heads of state.
The beginning of this leaderless unofficial strike had seen a few posters with the slogan 'British jobs for British workers'.
However, once the strike developed its own democratically elected strike committee, which pushed me forward as spokesman, things began to change.
The far-right BNP, now emboldened by Brown's nationalistic slogan and whipped up in the media, made the mistake of visiting the picket line. The construction workers didn't waste time in enforcing their eviction notice!
The Brown posters were rapidly replaced by posters and leaflets written in Italian appealing to our European brothers for unity via UK trade union membership, the right to a trade union interpreter, and the right to immediate protection under NAECI pay, terms and conditions.
Lindsey workers won their dispute and all their demands were met! Not one job loss occurred. Equal opportunities to work in the UK were secured via the 'worker strike committee formula' which agreed that: "For every UK worker employed on Lindsey an overseas worker would also be recruited".
Of the 198 construction jobs involved, 102 would go to local, previously unemployed construction workers - none of the migrant workers would lose their jobs for IREM.
Scandalously, the Socialist Workers' Party and some other left groups refused to support the struggle, falsely claiming that the Lindsey strikers were acting against migrant workers.
Each morning saw another leaflet produced by the Socialist Party explaining the issues - raising the demands which brought complete workers' unity against IREM bosses and the EU's PWD.
Each morning, alongside other members of the strike committee, I would address the workers and relay the solidarity messages pouring in from workers throughout Europe.
One message carried the invitation from the metal workers' union in Italy asking me to address a trade union workers' conference. To great applause of unity I addressed the conference later that summer.
Yet ten years on, the EUs' PWD is still being utilised, still being fought, amid promises of its removal.
In 2016 Unite, echoed by Labour, said any employer recruiting from abroad must ensure the workforce is covered by a proper union or collective bargaining agreement.
Ten years on and the 28 capitalist heads of state, including the Tory May government, continue to implement their austerity and privatisation programme that is pauperising millions throughout the EU - to benefit corporate elites.
The Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party, which could well be in office after the next general election, needs to learn from the Lindsey dispute.
Have faith in the working class to fight back! It is no use appealing to pro-capitalist MPs within the confines of parliament to act benevolently.
Labour, like the Lindsey strikers, needs to mobilise a campaign from below with a leadership that has the bottle to go all the way.
As long as the capitalist elites privately own and control our industries, utilities, banks and financial services, working-class people will continue to come under attack.
Labour needs to rally the trade union movement in the workplaces, on the streets, within our communities, raising the demand for a general election now!
There is a desperate need to politically arm the workers' movement with a Europe-wide socialist Brexit programme - against the EU's PWD; for trade union rights, repeal of anti-union laws, and defence of migrant workers against its brutal austerity and privatisation that daily pauperises millions to benefit the billionaires!
A socialist Europe, run for and by workers, would act as a mighty beacon of unity for a socialist world that could quickly organise, construct and maintain societies utilising science and technology to meet all our human and environmental needs.
On 11 June 2009 hundreds of Lindsey contract workers walked out on unofficial and 'illegal' strike action to stop 51 redundancies being imposed by site owner Total (the French oil giant) without consultation or the opportunity to transfer to another contractor.
In an act of defiance, the sacked construction workers burned their dismissal letters outside the refinery.
An elected strike committee, which included Socialist Party members, took the lead in organising the struggle for reinstatement.
Total responded to the unofficial strike by dismissing 647 workers. This forced the hands of the GMB and Unite trade unions to make the strike official.
After two weeks on strike, Total capitulated, withdrew the dismissals and rescinded the 51 redundancies. In addition, all workers were guaranteed a minimum four weeks work.
Once again, militant workers' action had paid off.