Oil refinery and power station strikes: Workers begin to challenge nationalism

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The wave of unofficial strikes sparked by the struggle of construction and maintenance workers at the Lindsey refinery has been one of the most important workers' struggles in Britain in the last 20 years.

Thousands of construction workers on other refinery and power station sites walked out in solidarity. Mass meetings were organised and held on a regular basis. Unemployed construction, steel, dock and other workers joined the pickets and demonstrations outside various power stations and refineries. Workers were not in the least bothered about the illegal nature of their actions as they expressed their solidarity for striking comrades, their anger at the rising tide of unemployment and at the government's inability to do anything about it. When 200 Polish construction workers joined the struggle, it reached its highest moment by directly challenging the nationalism that had surrounded the movement at the beginning.

The laying off of 300 sub-contracted workers on the Lindsey oil refinery site, the proposal that another subcontractor be hired using 300 Italian and Portuguese workers (whose labour came cheaper because their conditions were inferior), and the announcement that no workers from Britain would be used on this contract ignited a powder keg of discontent amongst construction workers. For years there has been an increasing use of contract construction workers from abroad, usually on lower wages and worse conditions, with the direct result of accentuating competition between workers for jobs, driving down all workers' wages and conditions. This, combined with the wave of lay-offs in the construction industry and elsewhere due to the recession, generated the profound militancy that found expression in these struggles.

From the beginning this movement was faced with a fundamental question, not only for the strikers involved today but for the whole working class now and in the future: is it possible to fight against unemployment and other attacks by identifying ourselves as ‘British workers' and turning against ‘foreign workers', or do we need to see ourselves as workers with common interests with all other workers, no matter where they come from? This a profoundly political question and one which this movement had to address.

From the beginning the struggle appeared to be dominated by nationalism. There were pictures on the news of workers with home-made banners proclaiming "British Jobs for British Workers" and more professional union banners emblazoned with the same slogan. Union officials were more or less openly defending the slogan; the media talked about a struggle against foreign workers and found workers who shared this opinion. This movement of wildcat strikes could potentially have become swamped in nationalism and turned into a defeat for the working class, with worker pitted against worker, with workers en masse defending nationalist rallying cries and calling for the jobs to be given to ‘British' workers with the Italian and Portuguese workers losing their jobs. The ability of the entire working class to struggle would have been weakened and the ability of the ruling class to attack and divide the class strengthened.

The media coverage (and what some of the workers were saying) made it easy to believe that the demands of the Lindsey workers were "British Jobs for British Workers". They weren't. The demands discussed and voted on by a mass meeting did not have this slogan or hostility towards foreign workers in them. Funny how the media missed this! They expressed illusions in the unions' ability to stop the bosses playing worker off against worker, but not overt nationalism. The general impression created by the media however was one of the strikers being against foreign workers.

The persistent weight of nationalism

Nationalism is integral to capitalist ideology. Each national capitalist class can only survive by competing with their rivals economically and militarily. Their culture, media, education, their entertainment and sports industries, spread this poison all the time in order to try and tie the working class to the nation. The working class cannot escape being affected by this ideology. But what is crucially important about this movement is that it saw the weight of nationalism being challenged as workers grappled with the question in the struggle to defend their basic material interests.

The nationalist slogan "British Jobs for British Workers", stolen from the British National Party by Gordon Brown, generated a lot of unease amongst the strikers and the class. Many strikers made it clear that they were not racists nor did they support the BNP, whose attempts to intervene in the struggle led to them being largely chased away by the workers.

Besides rejecting the BNP many workers interviewed on the television were obviously trying to think about what their struggle meant. They were not against foreign workers, they had worked abroad themselves, but they were unemployed or they wanted their children to have work so they felt jobs should go to ‘British' workers first. Such views still end up seeing ‘British' and ‘foreign' workers as not having a common interest and is thus a prisoner to nationalism, but they were a clear sign that a process of reflection was taking place.

On the other hand, other workers definitely underlined the common interests between workers and said that all they wanted was the chance for all workers to find work. "I was laid off as a stevedore two weeks ago. I've worked in Cardiff and Barry Docks for 11 years and I've come here today hoping that we can shake the government up. I think the whole country should go on strike as we're losing all British industry. But I've got nothing against foreign workers. I can't blame them for going where the work is." (Guardian On-line 20/1/2009).There were also workers who argued that nationalism was a real danger. A worker employed abroad warned, on a construction workers' webforum, about the bosses using national divisions "The corporate media that have stirred up the nationalist elements will then turn on you, showing the demonstrators in the worst light possible. Game over. The last thing the bosses and the government want is for British workers to unite with workers from overseas. They think they can keep fooling us into fighting each other over jobs. It will send a shiver up their spineless backs when we don't"; and in another post he linked the struggle to those in France and Greece and the need for international links : "The massive protests in France and Greece are just a precursor for what is to come. Ever thought of contacting and building links with those workers and strengthening a Europe wide protest against workers getting the shaft? Sounds like a better option than having the real guilty parties, that cabal of bosses, union leadership sell-outs, and New Labour continuing to take advantage of the working class" (Thebearfacts.org). Workers from other sectors also intervened on this forum to oppose nationalist slogans.

The discussion amongst those involved in the strike, and within the class in general, over the question of the nationalist slogans reached a new phase on 3 February when 200 workers from Poland joined 400 other workers in a wildcat strike in support of the Lindsey workers, at Langage power station construction site in Plymouth. The media did their best to hide this act of international solidarity: the local BBC TV did not mention this and nationally it was hardly mentioned at all.

The solidarity of these Polish workers was particularly important because last year they had been involved in a similar struggle. 18 workers were laid off and other workers walked out in solidarity, including the Polish workers. The union tried to make it a struggle against the presence of foreign labour, but the presence of the striking Polish workers completely undermined this.

The Langage workers thus launched this new struggle with some awareness of how the unions had used nationalism to try and divide workers. The day after they walked out a handmade banner appeared at the Lindsey mass meeting proclaiming "Langage Power Station - Polish Workers Join Strike: Solidarity", which would imply either that one or more Polish workers had made the 7 hour journey to get there, or that a worker from Lindsey wanted to highlight their action.

At the same time a banner appeared at the Lindsey picket calling on the Italian workers to join the strike - it was written in English and Italian - and it was reported that some workers were carrying posters proclaiming "Workers of the world unite!" (Guardian 5/2/9). In short we were seeing the beginnings of a conscious effort by some workers to put forward a genuine proletarian internationalism, a step which can only lead to even more reflection and discussion within the class.

All this posed the question of the struggle going onto a new level, one which would directly challenge the campaign to present it as a nationalist backlash. The example of the Polish workers conjured up the prospect of thousands of other workers from abroad joining the struggle on the biggest construction sites in Britain, such as the Olympic sites in East London. There was also the danger that the media would not be able to hide the internationalist slogans. This would have broken through the nationalist barrier the bourgeoisie had tried to set up between the struggling workers and the rest of the class. It is no surprise that the struggle was so rapidly resolved. In the course of 24 hours the unions, bosses and government went from saying it would take days if not weeks to resolve the strike, to settling it with the promise of an extra 102 jobs that "British" workers could apply for. This was a settlement most of the strikers appeared to be happy with because it did not mean any job losses for the Italian and Portuguese workers, but as one striker said, "why should we have to struggle just to get work?"

In the course of a week we saw the most widespread wildcat strikes in decades, workers holding mass meetings and taking illegal solidarity action without a moment's hesitation. A struggle that could have been drowned in nationalism began to call this poison into question. That does not mean that the danger of nationalism has gone: it is a permanent danger, but this movement has provided future struggles with important lessons to draw on. The sight of the banners proclaiming "Workers of the world unite" on a supposedly nationalist picket line can only worry the ruling class about what is to come.  

Phil 7/2/9