The June strike movement by construction and maintenance workers on 30 energy industry construction sites across Britain, demanding the reinstatement of their 640 sacked comrades at Lindsey oil refinery, Lincolnshire, demonstrated the collective strength of workers' solidarity.
These unofficial strikes, called in many cases by workers' mass meetings, forced the Total oil company to withdraw the sackings. They also won the jobs back for the 51 construction workers whose redundancies sparked a walkout by 1200 other workers on the site, in turn leading to Total's provocative sacking of hundreds of strikers. At a time when workers are being told they can do nothing about the rising tide of unemployment, this solidarity movement will remind the class of its potential strength.
This struggle's foundation in solidarity gave it a much firmer foundation than the smaller strike movement around Lindsey at the beginning of the year, when it seemed to many that the issue behind the strike was the reactionary slogan ‘British Jobs for British Workers', an idea that can only sow divisions within the working class. The evident display of class solidarity with the sacked workers gave the June strike a clearer echo throughout the whole working class.
As it happens, despite the undoubted weight of nationalism, the January struggle already contained important positive aspects: solidarity strikes, mass meetings, the emergence of a move towards breaking divisions between ‘British' and ‘foreign' workers. These characteristics enabled the struggle to force the bosses to back down, and their expression in a wider, more dynamic manner this time have done so again.
Solidarity: the collective power of the working class
"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." (‘Construction workers at the centre of the class struggle', ICC online) We wrote this during the first weekend of the movement; by the end of the next week all the workers had been reinstated.
The ruling class were faced with a strike wave spreading out across some of the most vital energy construction sites in the UK. Construction work at oil and gas refineries, power stations including the Sellafield nuclear power complex, oil terminals, petrochemical construction sites, was brought to a halt as workers held mass meetings and walked out. 900 workers struck at Sellafield nuclear power complex, 1,100 at the Ensus biofuels site at Wilton, Teesside. Four hundred staff walked out at two LNG plants in West Wales, including the vital terminal facility at South Hook. There were walk outs by construction and maintenance workers at Longannet power station, Fife in Scotland, Aberthaw power station, South Wales, by 200 contractors at Aberthaw power station in West Wales, maintenance workers at the Shell Stanlow Refinery in Ellesmere Port, Cheshire, contractors at Drax and Eggborough power stations near Selby, North Yorkshire, Hinkley Point nuclear power station in Somerset, the Coryton oil refinery in Essex and the Isle of Grain in Kent. Some of these strikes only lasted a day or two; others stayed out as long as their Lindsey comrades were still sacked.
As in January the struggle also gained support from ‘foreign' workers. Polish workers joined the strike at Drax power station.
The courage of such actions should not be underestimated. The construction sector is being very badly hit by the recession. These workers work for contracting companies and are faced with moving around the country looking for work, and these companies are known to keep blacklists of militant workers. Such solidarity actions are illegal and thus they could not only be arrested but also lose their jobs for breaking the law. These workers risked a great deal in order to defend their comrades.
The spreading of the struggle
This movement was spread not only by word of mouth but also by the Lindsey strikers sending flying pickets to call other workers out. Again, completely illegal, but the workers understood the vital necessity to spread this struggle. Such pickets mean that discussions can take place between the strikers and other workers, breaking down barriers that the media and unions try to erect. We can only speculate, but it is feasible that the experience of the media's gross distortion of their previous struggle led the Lindsey workers to want to explain their struggle directly. Whatever the reason these flying pickets expressed a determination to spread the struggle
In contrast to the beginning of the year the media did not show much of the mass meetings at Lindsey. Then they showed the meetings because of the presence of Union Jacks and the ‘British Jobs for British Workers' banners, and they could always find a striker to defend this reactionary slogan. This time they had no interest in showing workers discussing how to spread their struggle, welcoming the solidarity of their comrades. There were one or two nationalist banners and Union Jacks, but the question of solidarity pushed these into the background.
It was not only at Lindsey that there were mass meetings. Other sites held them before coming out. A very interesting example is Sellafield. At the beginning of the second week, 22 June, the unions at the complex called a mass meeting and after it the workers walked out. The next day the union called off the strike, without a mass meeting. On the Wednesday some workers held their own meeting. "I thought it was only right to have a meeting that involved people - so we held a meeting and voted to stay out. Over 100 walked out that day, then we were joined by another 100. There was a mass meeting set for Friday morning and I think the site would have been all out again but by that point Lindsey had won." (a striker quoted on socialistworker.co.uk 30/6/9).
Mass meetings are vital to the struggle because they enable workers to collectively discuss the action they need to decide on. In this way there is a conscious solidarity about the course of action agreed upon. It is thus no wonder that it is illegal for such meetings to decide to strike. According to the law there has to be a secret ballot before any strike, that is to say, no collective discussions about the actions to be taken.
The unions try to contain the struggle
The active solidarity shown by this movement challenged the unions' ability to maintain its control of the workers. The Lindsey workers did not wait for the unions and their secret ballots to walk out in support of the 51 laid-off workers. Nor did their comrades at Drax and Eggborough, Ratcliffe and West Burton in Nottinghamshire, Fiddlers Ferry, Aberthaw and the contractors at a BP refinery near Hull who walked out when they heard about the 51 lay-offs and the strike in their support. The defence of their comrades was their prime concern. The unions were left running to catch up with a movement that was bursting out of its prison of rules, laws and divisions between unions. We are not saying that these workers clearly saw the unions as a prison or wanted to organise outside of its bars,. However, their desire to express solidarity meant they had to act illegally and outside of the union rules.
How did the unions respond? Rapidly.
Firstly, the Lindsey shop stewards played their role. Shop stewards are the militant face of the unions. The shop stewards committee seemed to transform itself into a strike committee and co-opt additional members. The workers were prepared to place their trust in the strike committee. Thus, while not being willing to put trust in the union leaders, the workers were willing to give the stewards control of the strike. These stewards certainly helped to spread the struggle, but always within the union framework. The idea was that spreading the struggle would put pressure on the union leaders to stand up to the bosses, strengthen their negotiating hand, give them some ‘back bone'. As for the mass meetings, they were also seen as a means of putting pressure on the union hierarchy while they negotiated, since they could reject any deal they might come up with.
At the same time, the union leadership, after initially calling on the workers to go back, ‘backed' the strike as soon as Total sacked the 640 strikers. They understood that this action would lead to a much wider extension of the struggle. To take the head of this movement the leaders of the GMB and UNITE immediately sought negotiations with Total, thus focusing the movement on the success of their talks.
Between them then the stewards and the leadership managed to contain the movement within the union confines. That said, if Total had not backed down, the unions would have had difficulty in continuing to keep a lid on the struggle. As the Sellafield striker said, if the settlement had not been reached the whole construction site would have met and joined the 200 workers already defying the unions' call to stay at work. The unions and the rest of the ruling class knew they were riding a tiger and the only way to tame it was by caving in.
The potential for the struggle to come
This dramatic and victorious solidarity movement has demonstrated to the working class in Britain and internationally that active solidarity through spreading the struggle is the only way to push back the attacks. Although it only involved a few thousand workers, its extension across the country, the involvement of Polish workers, the use of mass meetings, the tendency to defy union orders, the reappearance of flying pickets after 25 years, and above all the determination to defend your comrades are indications of the potential for the future struggles. This struggle also demonstrates that far from being passive compared to workers in France or Italy, the proletariat in Britain is fully part of the international upsurge in struggles. Workers around the world will take great strength from this movement. No matter where you live, it is not often that you see the bosses cave in so completely to working class resistance.
The solidarity of this struggle has also severely dented the image of construction workers as backward nationalists propagated by the media after the January strike. This will open up the potential for other sectors to follow their example.