Joe Thorne looks at the media treatment of the recent engineering construction workers’ strikes.
It is perhaps not surprising that the BBC and other mainstream media represented the Lindsey strikes in terms of nationalism, not class struggle. After all, the Corporation’s recent ‘White Season’ showed that, for the BBC, white British working class people are scared, vulnerable, and not a little xenophobic. The strikes – in overwhelmingly ‘white’ areas of the country, but involving many Irish and Polish workers – were therefore understood by journalists and editors unwilling to get to grips with details, as being simply against “the use of foreign workers” in inspiration.
This attitude was reflected in headlines, captions, articles and interviews. The starkest reflection of this preoccupation was the selective editing of a striking worker on BBC television (2nd February). The worker was heard to say “we can’t work alongside of them”, referring to continental workers. Later the same evening a fuller version was played: “we can’t work alongside of them: we’re segregated from them. They’re coming in in full companies.” Here, it seems, preconception passed to manipulation.
In fact, a basic logic of industrial struggle drove the strikes. According to the Financial Times (9th February) “companies working in the sector state privately that the attraction of using foreign rather than British workers is that they are much less likely to stage illegal strikes”. (As the in-house journal of the capitalist class, the FT is often fairly reliable; they lie to us, not to each other.) Strikers were aware that, though the Portuguese and Italian workers may have been employed on the same terms and conditions this time, the practice of posting workers represented a threat to the nationally negotiated agreements.
This concern was driven by the fact that ‘posted’ workers are systematically isolated from local workers in day to day work, making them harder to organise. Furthermore, two rulings by the European Court of Justice suggest that organising industrial action to defend national agreements, were they to be undercut through ‘posting’, would be unlawful. (The ‘Viking’ and ‘Laval’ cases.) In this context, the wholesale ‘posting’ of workers across Europe, as a substitute for local hiring, can be understood as a boss tool to undermine workers’ power.
There is, however, no need to paint the events redder than they were. Currents of xenophobia and sexism cut through the logic of the class struggle. Unite General Secretary Derek Simpson posed for the Daily Star with ‘page 3′ models holding British Jobs for British Workers signs. The same newspaper intervened at picket lines to set up photos with willing workers. Reports from Workers’ Liberty activists visiting the Grain picket suggest that understandings of the strike politics were varied. “On the ‘British Jobs For British Workers’ slogan, some seemed unrepentant and definitely chauvinist. Some obviously seemed to think it had been daft tactically, and some others that it shouldn’t have been used.” We need to recognise and challenge these currents, but not assume that they characterise the movement. One of the victories of the Lindsey strike was to ensure that ‘posted’ and locally hired workers would work alongside each other, allowing for better integration.
The role of the media is not only immediate misrepresentation to a passive audience. The fact is that many workers – not only those involved in sympathy wildcats, but those who have watched passively – will have been encouraged to understand the strikes in terms of nationalism, not class struggle. Communists have a responsibility to redress this.
This dispute should teach us to distinguish between strike objectives, political ideas, resolutions and slogans: to recognise that these things are dynamically related, but not the same – and that they can develop, even in the space of a week. Further, it should teach us that all these things are different from the idea that exists in the mind of the mass media; for whom class struggle is alternately frightening and impossible.