Oil refineries’ strikes: ‘For’ or ‘against’, leftists undermine the struggle

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As the wave of unofficial solidarity strikes spread from the Lindsey oil refinery to other refineries, power stations, gas and electricity plants, a gas terminal, steel and chemical works, the media ensured that the ‘British jobs for British workers' slogan was mentioned at every opportunity, regardless of the fact that it wasn't actually one of the workers' demands.

This wasn't a nationalist movement but one of the most important working class struggles in recent years. However, the weight of nationalist illusions was undeniable, and it was essential for revolutionaries to oppose these illusions without any compromise. Indeed it's only internationalists that can mount an effective opposition to nationalism, in particular through the defence of international working class unity.

Leftists who denounced the strikes

Groups of the so-called ‘revolutionary' left, in particular the Trotskyists, are in no position to criticise nationalism with their defence of national ‘liberation', nationalisation and, fundamentally, plans for national capital. Yet, hypocritically, but unsurprisingly, some leftist groups insisted that the short-lived movement only had a nationalist dynamic. Workers Vanguard (13/2/9) headlined "Down with reactionary strikes against foreign workers!" Workers Power (February 2009) "unreservedly" opposed the strikes ("No to the nationalist strikes!") The World Socialist Web Site (2/2/9) agreed, "British unions back reactionary strikes against foreign workers."

The WSWS cited as evidence the British National Party hailing the action as "a great day for British nationalism." It is unambiguous on where it thinks workers should focus their attention: "The primary and over-riding concern of working people everywhere must be to oppose the spread of nationalism, chauvinism and racism."

These particular leftist groups also blamed the unions for their role in recent events. WV said "The responsibility for this social-chauvinist crusade lies with the Labourite leadership of the Unite and GMB trade unions." For the WSWS "legitimate grievances and fears" were "being manipulated by the union bureaucracy for the most reactionary ends". WP thought "The unions should have been giving a militant lead over the last year."

Yet despite these criticisms, and all the other evidence of how the unions act against workers' struggles, the leftists still proposed the unions as the guardian of workers' interests. "Unions must defend immigrant workers!" demanded WV. WP thought that the TUC and the big unions could launch "a militant campaign to defend every job" and call "a nationwide general strike and mass demonstration". At Lindsey the shop stewards said that workers should keep to the law on strikes. The workers ignored this advice and walked out. They have first hand experience of the unions' attitude to striking workers.

In this respect it's useful to turn to the approach of the Socialist Workers Party. It issued many warnings about the strikes without formally stating its opposition. Saying "these strikes are based around the wrong slogans and target the wrong people" (30/1/9 online only) it declared that "Those who urge on these strikes are playing with fire." Having warned of the threat posed by right-wing ideas it said that "everyone should be organising in a united way to pressure the union leaders to fight. And if the union leaders won't fight then workers will have to organise the resistance themselves."

The logic of this is hard to follow. If workers are organising themselves, why would they need to put pressure on union leaders? To do what? The illegal, unofficial strikes showed what workers are prepared to do without getting union approval. A subsequent Socialist Worker article (7/2/9) acknowledged that the strikes "have shown that unofficial strike action is an effective way to fight" but asked the reader to consider "how effective it would have been if trade unions had led such walkouts." In general the answer to such a consideration is ‘much less effective' and ‘doomed to failure'.

The SWP, like the other groups already mentioned, poses as the partisan of struggle out of the control of the ‘bureaucratic' unions, only to defend the union struggle as the only viable prospect. It's like Workers Power describing the strikes as the "first sign of a militant fightback against the effects of the recession" and "workers' first serious rebellion in this new period of conflict" ... while admitting it's against them.

Beware of leftist ‘supporters'

While the strikes' opponents portrayed them as motivated by nationalism, their ‘supporters' put everything in the framework of the trade unions. The Socialist Party is particularly interesting in this respect because one of its members, Keith Gibson, was on the Lindsey strike committee.

In an editorial in The Socialist (4/2/9) it said "No workers' movement is ‘chemically pure'. Elements of confusion, and even some reactionary ideas, can exist, and have done in these strikes. However, fundamentally this struggle is aimed against the ‘race to the bottom', at maintaining trade union-organised conditions and wages on these huge building sites." An SP leaflet said that the slogan of the struggle should be "Trade union jobs, pay and conditions for all workers".

Millions of workers who are in jobs where the pay and conditions have been agreed by the unions will know what this means in practice. The ‘negotiations' between unions and employers establish the conditions of workers' exploitation and the level of their wages. It is because of such conditions that workers struggle in the first place. Yet the SP trumpets the unions as the only force that can safeguard workers' interests.

Some of the specific demands of the Lindsey strike committee had initially been put forward by the SP. The SP wanted all workers to be covered by a national agreement, which obviously would boost the role of the union. It wanted "all immigrant labour to be unionised", that is, to extend the level of union control. It was for "union-controlled registering of unemployed and local skilled union members". Apart from smuggling in the idea of ‘local' workers, the SP claimed that "What the Lindsey strikers were demanding quite correctly is a form of pre-entry closed shop. That means that if the contractors on site need more labour then they have to go to the union for this labour from its unemployed register. In other words you have to be in the union to be on the register." This obviously strengthens the role of the union, but does nothing for workers and their struggles.

The SP made great claims about what the shop stewards will now be able to do. "In a major breakthrough, part of the deal allows for the shop stewards to check that the jobs filled by the Italian and Portuguese workers are on the same conditions as the local workers." In addition "Built into the deal is that the shop stewards on the site will be able to keep the Italian company in check by regular liaison meetings." Far from being kept ‘in check', companies that have ‘regular liaison meetings' with union officials (at any level) are more aware of what's going on in the workforce and therefore more able (in conjunction with the unions) to cope with expressions of discontent and undermine the potential of any struggle.

The SP claims to have been an indispensable part of the recent movement. It knows that others "dismissed the strike as reactionary, racist or xenophobic", but says that "If the Socialist Party had not participated actively in the dispute, there were dangers that such attitudes could have gained strength." In a meeting where Keith Gibson spoke, according to a report by the commune (14/2/9), he apparently said that "there were nationalist elements in the movement - arising spontaneously from the vacuum of union direction." This is a familiar refrain, the implication that ‘spontaneously' workers are ‘nationalist' and that they need leftists and unions to prevent them from going astray. In reality the initial strike and the strikes in solidarity showed what workers can do when they don't put their faith in the unions or their leftist supporters.   

Car 28/2/9