by David Broder
Political confusion and London’s most severe snowfall for a decade conspired to undermine a picket of the Unite headquarters called by opponents of the oil refinery strikes. The two people who had organised to counter the picket were the strongest force at the union’s Holborn building throughout most of the evening.
The initiative for the picket came from a prominent member of the Trotskyist group Workers’ Liberty (AWL), who sent out a text and mass email on the evening of Sunday 1st: “Please let me know if you can come tomorrow for an urgent picket of the Unite union office to demand that this wave of nationalist protests stop. Theobalds Road, Holborn. Workers should fight the bosses not migrant workers and demand freedom of movement, equal rights and jobs for all… [details]… Nothing so seriously reactionary has happened in the movement while I’ve been alive…”
On strikers’ forums such as BearFacts.co.uk there are lively debates over the course and slogans of the wildcat actions, raising grave doubts over the positions of Trotskyist groups who have demanded that the strikes end, thus cutting them off from the left-wing of the grassroots. A more open position was also the dominant perspective voiced on LibCom.org, as evidenced by this collaboratively produced bulletin. What is the value of calling on the union bureaucracy to break up a strike over genuine grievances about the undermining of the workforce’s organisation by the employer?
During the day I was in touch with various people who support the strikes despite their opposition to the slogan “British jobs for British workers”, and Sandy from the anarchist group Liberty and Solidarity and I agreed to go along and make the case for backing the strikers while (and as a necessary part of) opposing chauvinist forces in the movement. We unhesitatingly support the workers against the government and the employers at the same time as opposing the take-over of the strike by nationalist forces.
With a banner with the slogans “Strike on – support the workers – smash the BNP” and a leaflet whose text is reproduced below, we were surprised to see just one person turn out for the Unite HQ picket. Thirty minutes later a second person arrived… and fifty minutes late, the Workers’ Liberty activist himself. Other Trotskyist groups who have adamantly opposed the strikes, such as Workers’ Power and Gerry Downing’s Socialist Fight, failed to turn out.
Surprised by the poor turn-out for the picket, we leafleted the public, but when the AWL member arrived we were angrily denounced. Refusing to discuss the issues with us, he barked “Shame on you” at us repeatedly, and when he did argue it was only to insist that it was possible to relate to the strike while calling for it to stop at once, and he said that he opposed the strike until it changed its slogans… but would support it after the people arguing for internationalist positions took leadership of the movement. This amounts to sectarian abstention from the debates actually taking place until the right side has already won. Again though, he refused to discuss this, as well as the fact that the demo was essentially a call on the Unite bureaucracy to suffocate the movement.
Bizarrely, the AWL – whose activist initiated the picket – has distanced itself from the action, and insist in comments on their website “To clarify, the AWL did / does not support the proposed pickets of UNITE head office by [the Campaign Against Immigration Controls] – proposed pickets because we’re not sure they took place.” The fact that the pickets’ taking place was put in question by snow is certainly not the reason for this vacillation. The same post also claims that CAIC’s leaflet did not call for the strikes to stop… well, the AWL activist explicitly did call for this, several times. So what are they afraid of?
All in all this was rather a pathetic series of events, and the increasingly evident contradictions in the strike movement and fight by a section of the rank-and-file to oppose nationalist slogans make the calls for the strikes to stop look ridiculous.
Below appears the leaflet we distributed:
Support the strikes! Fight the BNP!
A statement by internationalist anti-capitalist workers
The wave of wildcat strikes that have lit up Britain in the last
week has been the first significant working-class response
to the recession and mass lay-offs. After months of neartotal
quiescence, the working class has burst onto the political
At a stroke casting aside the idea that we are absolutely
hamstrung by the anti-union laws or that the bureaucracy
makes strike action impossible, construction and refinery
workers have taken mass collective action in the teeth of
opposition from the political establishment and union leaderships.
The media portrayal of these strikes has been that it is a
nationalist protest against foreign labour. Giving the impression
of a racist white ‘underclass’ standing up for “British
jobs for British workers”, the real issues at stake have been
ignored. In reality, this is a case of a set of workers being
undermined by their employers and their ability to work and
organise taken away. It is the employers who have denied
the strikers the right to work.
Some on the far left have declared absolute opposition to
the strikes, declaring them to be nothing but a racist outpouring.
It is true that many slogans raised by strikers are
reactionary and little-Englander, for example “British jobs
for British workers”.
But the BNP are not really so strong in the Unite union, and
the construction workers are not as stupid as the media
would have us believe. There are contradictions – there is at
once a campaign to defend jobs, and from others an attempted
nationalist mobilisation. Calling on the Unite leadership
to stop the strikes is disgraceful: they would never do
so out of internationalism, only ever out of their fear of the
rank-and-file becoming too strong. In reality, fighting the anti
-worker BNP and supporting the strike are interdependent
and both necessary.
In fact, while the bureaucrats voice protectionist sentiments,
within the grassroots of the movement there are sharp debates
over the demands that should be made and the
course of action that must be taken. To flatly oppose the
strikes or demand that they should end is a grave betrayal
of the left-wing of this divide and the positions they maintain
in this debate, handing the far-right the opportunity to make
headway by claiming the strike as their own. To dismiss the
real, existing movement and to wish it away (indifferent to
who crushes it and why) is simply abstract pessimism and
presents no better alternative.
Instead, we should support the strikes while adamantly –
with no shame and with no hesitation – opposing all nationalist
and chauvinist sentiments. The real picture is different
from what the ruling class’s press and the far left say… just
look at the contradictory sentiments on the strikers’ forums
such as BearFacts.co.uk. For example:
“We want to be careful with the nationalism, lads, so that
things don’t turn nasty. I’ve got nothin against the Italian
workers as such, they’re just doing a job, putting food on
the table for their families. They’re not W*** (Without Papers
– as they are EU citizens and are legally allowed to work
here)- besides this is racist. Many of us have worked
abroad- Germany, Spain, Middle East- did we think or care
about jobs in those countries? Getting at the workers is just
going to give us a bad reputation, and turn the public
[From Sellafield_bloke] “There’s nowt working class about
the [BNP] and if the strike had been about anything else
where they couldnt stick their spin on it then they wouldn’t
be supporting it. The strikes anti-racist. It’s the bosses being
racist and fascist. If the [BNP] turn up at our picket when we
walk out then I know a few of us won’t be standing for it and
will tell them to f**k off in no uncertain terms.”
The left is divided and very confused. In part that is understandable
given the contradictions of the situation: but some
principles are clear. We do not want the trade union bureaucracy
to suffocate the movement, and calling on the
TUC or union tops to organise some other strike is no substitute
for trying to win the existing strike movement to communist
and internationalist slogans. Trying to stop the BNP –
who fake with the language of trade union solidarity – while
carping from the sidelines and opposing the strikes is impossible.
We must be with the movement, against the bureaucracy,
and against the nationalist hijackers.
For a Portuguese language statement see
For a statement by a socialist strike committee member
Report from Lindsey Total refinery picket
The strike committee accepted the main demands of Keith
Gibson and John McKewan put to the mass meeting today.
Keith is a Socialist Party member on the strike committee,
and John is an SP supporter and victimised worker from
the refinery. The strike committee added an extra demand,
calling for John to be reinstated into his job. The demands
– No victimisation of workers taking solidarity action.
– All workers in UK to be covered by NAECI Agreement.
– Union controlled registering of unemployed and locally
skilled union members, with nominating rights as work becomes
– Government and employer investment in proper training /
apprenticeships for new generation of construction workers
– fight for a future for young people.
– All Immigrant labour to be unionised.
– Trade Union assistance for immigrant workers – including
interpreters – and access to Trade Union advice – to promote
active, integrated Trade Union Members.
– Build links with construction trade unions on the continent.
The mass meeting overwhelmingly voted for the demands
put to them by the strike committee. Prior to the meeting
some BNP members in the car park were chased off.