Friday, 30 January 2009

Striking oil workers: race or class?

Oil industry strikes are spreading across Scotland and northern England as British refinery workers protest over use of “foreign workers” to the exclusion of locals.

Angry workers at Lindsey and Conoco Phillips refineries in North Lincolnshire are striking over a new contract awarded to an Italian contractor who is only using Italians.

The big question is this: will the dispute continue to nail the employers for their profit-driven pursuit of cheap labour? Or will it tip over into an “Us” versus “Them” race diversion as being pushed by various right-wing forces and media?

A Very Public Sociologist points out in his latest post:
Drafting in migrant labour from overseas is a tried and tested method of undermining the pay and conditions of workers. Turning on the workers who come in to take advantage of employment opportunities opening up plays directly into the bosses' hands - it obscures the fact it is they who are attacking and driving down wages, and therefore the responsibility lies with them.

Another worker at Grangemouth says they were not objecting to foreign workers being used. He explained: "The objection is foreign companies clearly stating they will not start British workers on the job. We have no problems working with foreigners of any kind - we have Poles working here recently with us."

Which is a lot more enlightened than some on the left. One Socialist Workers Party and Stop the War Coalition leading light, John Rees, told me in a meeting that racism against the Chinese was of no consequence to them because “the axis of racism is black and white”, and that “it’s British workers who count, not Chinese.” They've never retracted these statements so, as far as I know, they still stand.

I'm reminded of the crap the Chinese had to go through when they were shipped into the US to build the railroads in the 1860s, and right into the 20th Century. The Labour movement at the time defined it as a matter of race, not class, and it weakened everyone. The Wobblies were far more enlightened and sought to bring the Chinese into the fold to take their place in the class alongside all the other workers. Even in Britain the unions attacked them, leading to nasty riots in places like Cardiff.

So let’s see how the left deal with this and if those striking workers like the guy from Grangemouth can turn this protest into something wonderful that helps all of us in the long run. All power to him.

STOP PRESS: Important point made by Eddie at the oil strike thread on Socialist Unity website. "I just spoke to a national GMB official and he was saying that a number of agencies involved in the sector are point blank refusing to hire UK workers in a deliberate attempt to smash union organisation and drive down wages."


harpymarx said...

I linked to your post btw on my blog as you give a very good reminder of the shite migrant workers have to go through (indeed, the Wobblies were good organisers!)

To be honest, I am worried about the political implications of this strike. It can go either way at the moment.

Unite seems to back that appallingly racist slogan: 'British Jobs for British Workers..'... They shoulda argued against that slogan from the start as you can see workers on those picket lines holding up placards with those statements. Even if it is one person you still argue the politics with them and why it is divisive. And you explain why it is about international solidarity and that isn't mentioned by the Unite elite.

That's why I sympathise with the SWP press release on this because this slogan is overshadowing the real demands of the strike and because of that it can have some nasty consequences.

The Left needs to stop that from happening but not that optimistic!

Mick Hall said...

Funny how some on the left get upset when workers throw Browns words back in his face but never said a word when he first made the speech.

What is happening at Findlay is an attempt by the employers to destroy the national agreement that Engineering construction workers trade unions have agreed with management.

These workers are struggling for their jobs and the right to work within the country that they live and be paid a reasonable wage. if comrades are not prepared to support them, then they should fuck off and stop hindering them and poisoning the debate with talk of them being racist.

What we are seeing here from some on the left is that not only do some middle class leftist not understand working class people; but they do not even like us.

How British jobs for British workers is racist is beyond me. We workers are not some solid block of white Christian humanity, we come in all races and religions and none.

Will some racists and anti EU bogots attempt to make capital out of this slogan, yes perhaps, but if they do I am confident that the trade unionists involved in this dispute will send them packing with a flea in their ear.

If anyone waits to tick all the politically correct boxes before they join or support workers in struggle, they will still be waiting when hell freezes over.

Madam Miaow said...

Mick, we have a right to be concerned and find out the exact nature of the protests. There is a race element to the action that the media is emphasising over the central issues, namely the employing class pushing down wages for everyone regardless of nationality.

Now that could be an exaggeration on the part of the media and wishful thinking by the governing forces — I hope it is. But it is absolutely right to be guarded against this becoming the main thrust of the protests while still engaging with the strikers over the very real issues at stake. I assume that in supporting them you are still having the arguments over who the real enemy is. If it isn't taking on a xenophobic dimension then all well and good.

Does it matter if the men being shipped in are Italian, Portuguese or from down the road? Non-union employees are being used to depress wages — that is the issue. BJ4BW takes it away from that.

You write:
"How British jobs for British workers is racist is beyond me. "
I've already been told by so-called socialist leaders that the Chinese workers in this country don't count as British workers, so I know first hand that element exists even on the left.

Is the action staying on track as worker against boss, and not worker against worker? Because that's what we all gain from in the long run. If it is, then they have my support. If it isn't then I'm not being that turkey voting for Xmas. That's one box I demand is ticked so I know they're not going to be kicking my head in further down the line because I don't look "British" enough.

Let's not forget there are 100,000 British working abroad, and something like 300,000 Brits living in Spain. We wouldn't be happy to see them scapegoated for the failures of the system.

You write:
"These workers are struggling for their jobs and the right to work within the country that they live and be paid a reasonable wage."

I haven't seen anyone arguing that shouldn't be the case. But the fight is with the companies, the government and the legislature: the whole ruling class.

"if comrades are not prepared to support them, then they should fuck off and stop hindering them and poisoning the debate with talk of them being racist."
I'm supportive but not at any price, and not if the xenophobic dimension dominates the argument. Trying to steer it away from that and head off trouble at the pass is surely what we should all be doing.

There's no point you being hostile to us. We're on the same side and want to see these men win their fight — but against the bosses, not other workers.

Mick Hall said...


Do you really believe these workers do not understand who the real enemy is? Do you think they need me or some paper seller to go along to the picket line or the site to tell them about class solidarity. When many of them have just given up a days pay in support of there fellow construction workers.

What this keffufle on the left web is really about, is that for all their pontificating, a section of the left having lost confidence in the UK working classes, are attempting to turn their own fears and prejudices on to a group of workers who are engaged in struggle.

A big issue is at stake here Anna, and a lot of peoples livelihoods will depend on the outcome.

Best regards.


By the way my comments were not aimed at you.

Madam Miaow said...

Mick, as I say in the main post, it's clear that there's a section of the protest that is directing its anger at the employing class and all the infrastructure that's backing them up. I have full support for them.

There's also a section — including, unfortunately, some of the unions — who see it as a matter of BJ4BW. Now, because I'm not down there on the picket line and have to be content in this instance with being an armchair/laptop socialist (yes, you can berate me for that) I don't know how it's slicing.

This is a source of confusion that I'm eager to cut through. Harpy is right to say it can go either way at the moment and I'm hoping that the SP, with their guys on the ground, and others can swing it.

As you say, it is a huge issue. The first time in so long that workers have finally had enough and are fighting back. It's amazing and I don't want to see it all wasted. But as Claude argues in his Hagley Rd post, we are way behind the French. It's almost as if we have to learn to walk again and part of that is making sure none of the xenophobic poison which has seeped in takes hold.

Today I saw the European Court of Justice ruling which strips us of any rights and it was awful. As it looks like there will be plenty of conflict around that ticking time-bomb, we might as well get our position right at this early stage. Nip it in the bud now and we won't have to deal with a monster further down the road when things really do heat up. Because with a depression staring us in the face, they will.

With respect as always, Mick.

Mick Hall said...


Sorry if I might have appeared sharp with you, but I genuinely was not angry with you. As to this dispute, I honestly do not believe it can go either way as far as racism is concerned, as I have confidence in these brothers doing the right thing.

Where I do agree with you is on this, "It's almost as if we have to learn to walk again." It seems to me the tragedy of the UK working class is 'almost' every generation has to re-learn the lessons of class struggle all over again.

As to berating people for not being 'at the coal-face,' we both understand where blind activism get us. I believe Bobby Sands words were wise when he said we all have a role to play, no matter how big or how small.

In my book you play an important role in making us look at ourselves and the community around us; and when I hear you have a play/documentary/whatever on the radio, etc, I am as proud as punch.

Madam Miaow said...

That's, OK, Mick. Everyone's passions are aroused over this. We'll see how it pans out soon enough.

Meanwhile, this is how American business is shafting its workers: