Construction workers at the centre of the class struggle

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Daily we are told that we have to tighten our belts, accepts jobs losses, pay cuts, lose of pensions, increased work rates for the good of the national economy, to help it cope with the deepening recession. At British Airways they have even pressured workers to work for nothing for a whole month, with the threat of unemployment hanging over them. The idea of struggling against these relentless attacks is faced with the terrible fear of unemployment and the endless media campaign which tells us there is nothing we can do about our worsening living and working conditions.

And yet in the first weeks of June the weight of passivity and fear has been confronted by clear evidence that this does not need to be case. In the second week of June London Underground workers struck in order to protect 1,000 threatened jobs. Then postal workers in London and Scotland staged struggles against lay-offs, broken agreements and cuts in services. At the same time 900 construction workers at the Lindsey oil refinery site walked out in solidarity with 51 of their comrades who were laid off. This struggle burst into a series of wildcat solidarity strikes at major energy sector construction sites across Britain, when Total sacked 640 strikers on the 19th June. These struggles show that we do not have to accept our 'fate'.

Nationalism against the workers, and workers against nationalism

At the beginning of the year the Lindsey refinery workers were at the centre of a similar wave of wildcat strikes over laying off workers on the site. That struggle from its beginning was hampered by the weight of nationalism, epitomised by the slogan ‘British Jobs for British workers' and the appearance of Union Jacks on the picket line, as some of the strikers said that no foreign workers should be employed when British workers were being laid off. The ruling class used these nationalist ideas to great effect, exaggerating its impact and presenting the strike as being against the Portuguese and Italian workers who were employed on the site at the same time as the other workers were being laid off. However, this strike was brought to a very sudden and unforeseen end when banners began to appear calling on the Italian and Portuguese workers to join the struggle or proclaiming ‘workers of the world unite', and Polish construction workers joined the wildcats in Plymouth. Instead of a long-drawn out defeat of the workers, with increasing tension between workers from different countries, the Lindsey workers gained an extra 101 jobs, kept the Italian and Portuguese workers' jobs for them, gained a promise that no workers would be laid off as there were jobs on the site, and went back united.

This new wave of struggles has broken out on a much clearer basis: solidarity with sacked workers. 51 contract workers were laid off at the end of the 2nd week of June because their contracts ended. At the same time, another contractor was taking on workers. The laid-off workers were told by Post-it notes on their clocking on cards that they were no longer needed. This brought an immediate response from hundreds of workers on the site, who walked out in solidarity. It was felt that these workers were being victimised for the role they had played in the earlier strike. Then on June 19th Total, the owners of the site, took the unexpected step of sacking 640 strikers. There had already been solidarity strikes on other sites but with the news of these sackings workers walked out on sites all over the country. "About 1,200 angry workers gathered at the main gates yesterday waving placards castigating ‘greedy bosses'. Fellow workers at power stations, refineries, and plants in Cheshire, Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, Oxfordshire, South Wales and Teesside walked out in a show of solidarity." (The Independent, 20/6/9). The Times reported that, "There were also signs that the strike action was spreading to the nuclear industry as EDF Energy said that contracted workers at its Hinkley Point reactor in Somerset had walked out." (20/6/9).

Faced with this movement it is harder for the media to play the nationalist card. It would be a surprise if there was not a weight on nationalism on some workers and the media know how to focus their attention on them. The BBC website has a picture of a picket line with workers holding up a banner saying "put British workers first not last", while The Guardian interviewed a striker who said "We've no grievance with foreign workers as such but we feel that they should supplement what we cannot provide" (20/6/9). On the other hand, right wing papers such as The Times and Daily Telegraph who would usually make full use of such sentiments do not mention them - rather they concentrate on Total's action and the danger of the struggles spreading.

The ruling class is extremely concerned about this struggle precisely because they cannot so easily distort it into a nationalist campaign. They fear it could spread into the construction sector generally and maybe beyond. Workers can see that if Total get away with sacking striking workers other bosses will follow suit. This poses the strike as a clear class issue, of real concern to all workers.

The obvious class nature of this struggle also encompasses a vision of solidarity with foreign worker. As a sacked worker makes clear: "Total will soon realise they have unleashed a monster. It is disgraceful that this has happened without any consultation. It is also unlawful and it makes me feel sick. If they get away with this, the rest of the industry will crumble and it will be like a turkey cull. Workers will be decimated and unskilled employees from abroad will be brought in on the cheap, treated like scum and sent back after the job is done. There is a serious possibility that the lights will go out because of this. We just cannot stand by and see workers discarded like an oily cloth." (The Independent 20/6/9).

This worker's indignation is that of the whole working class. Not only because of Total's actions, but all the other attacks they are suffering or seeing. Millions of workers are being cast away like so much rubbish by the ruling class now that they can no longer suck enough surplus value from them. Bosses expecting workers to accept wage cuts or even work for free and to be happy about it! Total's contempt is that of the whole capitalist class: how dare workers be so uppity, they must be crushed!

The need for a common struggle

No matter what happens in the coming days this struggle has demonstrated that workers do not have to accept attacks; that they can resist. More than that, they have seen that the only way we can defend ourselves is by defending each other. For the second time this year we have seen wildcat solidarity strikes. There are reports that the Lindsey strikes sent out flying pickets to Wales and Scotland. There are construction sites all over the country, particularly in the capital, where the Olympic sites group together large numbers of workers from many nationalities. Sending delegations to these sites calling for solidarity action would send out the clearest message yet that this is a question that affects the future for all workers, whatever their origin. The London postal and underground workers are also trying to defend themselves against similar attacks and have every interest in forming a common front.

The old slogan of the workers' movement - workers of the world unite - is often ridiculed by the bosses who can never go beyond their competing national interests. But the world wide crisis of their system is making it clearer and clearer that workers everywhere have the same interests: to unite in defence of our living standards and to raise the perspective of a different form of society, based on world-wide solidarity and cooperation.

Phil 21/6/9.

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