lessons of the oil refinery wildcat strikes

by Professor Gregor Gall, University of Hertfordshire

Introduction

The engineering construction workers’ strike has been the most significant instance of workers’ resistance to the recession and its effects so far. Its significance is not just to be found in that it was a strike taking place in a recession – when conventional wisdom suggest workers do not strike because of their weakened labour market position. Rather, its significance is to also be found in the militant and successful collective action which took place and the dynamics of this which were driven primarily by the grassroots. It threw up critical issues of workers’ collective leverage, how labour markets operate, xenophobia, neo-liberalism and state regulation of labour.

Origins and Background

Redundancy notices were issued in late 2008 at Lindsey oil refinery for Shaws’ workforce after Shaws lost part of a Total contract at the site. Just before Christmas holiday, Shaws’ shop stewards were informed this work had been contracted to IREM, an Italian non-union company. Stewards explained to members that IREM would employ its own core (non-union) Portuguese and Italian workforce so the redundant workers would not be re-employed on the contract. This precipitated meetings with IREM to press the case for re-employment. Stewards were also told that IREM would pay the national rate for the job but this was met with suspicion.  

Meanwhile, the National Shop Stewards Forum for construction met in early January to discuss Staythorpe power station where Alstom was refusing to hire local labour and relying upon non-union Polish and Spanish workers instead. It was decided that all ‘Blue Book’ sites covered by the National Agreement for the Engineering Construction Industry (NAECI) should send delegations down to Staythorpe to ramp up the protests against Alstom. And, since last October, Unite – under pressure from stewards – had organised demonstrations at Staythorpe for the employment of local labour.

Then, on Wednesday 28 January 2009, Shaws’ workers were told by their stewards that IREM had definitely stated it would not employ local labour. Between 800-1000 workers met and voted unanimously to take immediate unofficial strike action. In this meeting, calls for striking were met by the stewards’ committee recommending to workers to stay within the national disputes procedure. But when workers voted for a strike anyway, the entire shop stewards’ committee (on advice from Unite officials) resigned to distance the union from unlawful action.

The following day over 1,000 construction workers from Lindsey, Conoco and Easington sites descended to the refinery’s gate to picket and protest. This was the spark that ignited the unofficial walkouts of construction workers across the length and breadth of Britain, amounting to over twenty groups of workers and involving up to c6,500 workers for a week.

On Monday 2 February, the Lindsey strike committee put the following proposals to the strikers to be adopted as their demands (which they were): no victimisation of workers taking solidarity action; all workers in Britain to be covered by the NAECI agreement; union controlled registering of unemployed and locally skilled union members, with nominating rights as work becomes available; government and employer investment in proper training/apprenticeships for new generation of construction workers – fight for a future for young people; all migrant labour to be unionised; union assistance for immigrant workers – including interpreters – and access to union advice to promote active integrated union members; and build links with construction unions on the continent.  

Dynamics of Revolt

The internal dynamics of the revolt were complex and intriguing. The dispute was driven by stewards and activists in terms of the Lindsey strike and how it spread. Yet, it seemed that the two unions involved (GMB, and Unite in particular) were giving support to it, publicly representing the strikers and negotiating on their behalf despite the strikes being unofficial and unlawful. What happened was that the strikers were pushing in an industrial direction while the unions were pushing in a political direction in a way that played to their respective strengths and objectives. However, while there was compatibility with this, there was also friction over means and ends.

In the absence of threats of injunctions (and thus the options of compliance or defiance) and lawful dismissal of strikers (for unofficial action) because the employers knew this would inflame the situation, the unions worked with the strikers – as opposed to strenuously and seriously calling on them to go back to work – even though they distanced themselves from it in other ways (see below).

Sympathy walkouts and the congregations of protestors and strikers were coordinated by grassroots activists through mobile phone, email and the web, and the Bearfacts website. Given the degree of support flying pickets did not seem necessary given the technologies deployed. Mass meetings at sites took place with show-of-hand votes on what course of action to take.

The reason why these means of organisation have been so effective was because of i) the prior and heavy unionisation of these workers, ii) the inter-site network of shop stewards as an authentic and organic voice of members, iii) the intermingling of these workers through working together on different projects, thus helping to create a common shared sense of interests and grievances. Also of note was that many unemployed construction workers took part in the protests, indicating that the gap between being unemployed or working or not is not a great one given the nature of the projects and employment in the industry.

The unions began to recommend returns to work by the sympathy strikers after the first two or three days but these were often rejected because the Staythorpe workers were still out. The argument of the unions concerned returning to work and balloting on official action as well as raising money to support the Lindsey strikers. The reasoning behind this seemed to be that the strikers had made their point, the Lindsey strikers were in meaningful negotiations, and, with the head of steam built up, the unions could take over and use this to push the political agenda.

In the media, the unions made it clear that the action was not official and that they could not support it. That aside, they did not condemn it. But more than that, they as national unions were one of the main voices of the striking workers and their urging of returns to work were not particularly vehement. Practically, the two unions at their national officer levels were amongst the negotiators in talks aimed at resolving the Lindsey dispute as well as the political dispute over exclusive use of non-domiciled labour and the Posted Workers’ Directive.   While one would expect national officers to be less involved on the ground, it was noticeable how involved regional officers were. Some reports suggest that there were meetings between union officers and stewards on constructions sites and that information about the strikes was spread between the sites via official channels, effectively encouraging solidarity action (although there seemed to be little coordination between Unite and the GMB).

However, there were significant tensions at Lindsey between the striker and the national unions over the way to resolve the dispute and on what basis. For example, in the first meeting between Total and the strike committee, the employers kept looking at their watches. When asked why the meeting was being cut short, they said they had a meeting to go to with Unite officials and ACAS in Scunthorpe. This was news to the strike committee and they immediately organised to go up to the Hotel with other strikers and demanded to be let into the negotiations.

Another report recounted: ‘The strike committee only found out through the management that two national officials from Unite and the GMB were in talks with ACAS in Scunthorpe. Fifty strikers set out for Scunthorpe, where the officials were ensconced in a hotel with ACAS. When the strikers got there they were blocked from the hotel by police. Only by smuggling a note past the police did the strikers get the national officials to come out and talk to them. As a result the strike committee forced their way to the table to ensure that no deals are done behind their backs.’  

Responses and Outcomes

Politicians of mainstream parties (Tories, Liberals, SNP) by Friday 30 January repeated the lines like ‘strikes are not the best way to sort this out’, ‘you’ve made your point now so get back to work’ and ‘this will start to damage the economy’. None outlined just how the strikers could continue to exert pressure without striking. Only Labour called the strikes ‘indefensible’, ‘xenophobic’ and mounted an attack on them (although some ministers commented the strikers had legitimate concerns). The pressure the strike created led the government to instruct ACAS to investigate the claims of wage undercutting and to mediate in the Lindsey dispute as well as an investigation into the sector’s productivity.

Total was involved in the talks despite the issue being with IREM. Initially, it refused to negotiate with the strikers until they had returned to work. However, it conceded and cajoled IREM into offering a third of the 198 disputed jobs to local workers. This was rejected leading to a new offer of of 102 jobs available for local workers of any nationality but primarily for the soon-to-be redundant Shaws workers, with no redundancies of the Italian workers and with all workers paid on NAECI rates.

Two further aspects of the agreement were that stewards can check that the jobs filled by the Italian and Portuguese workers are on the same conditions as the local workers covered by the NAECI agreement, and that unionised workers will work alongside the IREM workers in order that further verification of NAECI rates being paid.

Politically, a case was being built – and support gathered for it – for the government to revisit and revise its extremely neo-liberal 1999 interpretation of the Posted Workers Directive into national regulations. These stipulated that terms and conditions should not be below the legal minimum as per the minimum wage and the like rather than not be below the collectively bargained industry rates. It is this revision – to the collectively bargained industry rates – to the British regulations which seems more likely to be achieved rather the revising of the EU directive itself or the European Court of Justice rulings which mean that it is unlawful to prevent a company using the Directive to undercut union rates.  

Xenophobia?

From the placards on the pickets and demonstrations, the one demand that stood out most clearly above all other was ‘British jobs for British workers’[1]. Indeed, at the outset of the strike it seemed to be the only demand from the workers, and due to the continued usage of these images by the media seemed to transcend more than just the first few days of the strike. Did this mean that some sections of the left (like the Socialist Workers’ Party) were right to say this was tantamount to a racist strike, the strike was playing with fire and that the wrong target of Italian and Portuguese workers had been chosen (rather than the correct target of the employers)? Or was the rest of the left (Labour left, SSP, Solidarity [Scotland], Communist Party and Socialist Party) correct to say this was a strike for the right to work and was a strike against employers, neo-liberalism and recession?

The original dispute at Lindsey concerned IREM’s practice of exclusively using Italian and Portuguese workers. In other words, IREM was bringing in new workers who were permanently employed by it to do the work and not permitting any other workers, whether British or non-British in the local labour market, to be eligible to apply for this work. So this was not a strike against the use of foreign workers per se. It was a strike against the exclusive use of certain workers at the expense of others workers in the local labour, or British, labour market. The strikers were not calling for the expulsion, repatriation or sacking of ‘foreign’ workers. And given the expanded nature of the labour market in Britain in recent years, it was not just British-born and British self-identified workers that were ineligible for the work but all other skilled workers already in Britain. The mistake by some on the left in the unions to criticise or oppose the strikes was down to their mesmerisation with the slogan ‘British jobs for British workers’.

Of course, this in and of itself is not conclusive proof as words and actions can diverge for a number of other reasons. The demand of ‘British jobs for British workers’ (and its other imitations) owes much to the attempt to make political capital out of the phraseology of the promise coined by Gordon Brown in 2007. The strikers did so in order to try to exert some leverage over the government by taking up its phrase an d trying to put pressure on them to deliver upon it. After spending billions of pounds of public money bailing out reckless bankers and indemnifying them against their losses, the strikers were seeking to make the point that they too demanded government protection.

So using the slogan was a tool of tactical leverage at the level of a single and simple slogan but which hid a much more complex phenomenon. The fuller demand that could not easily be encapsulated in a slogan and which would not fit onto a placard or banner, as alluded to above, concerned the right of workers in Britain – whether ‘British’ or not – to be eligible to apply for vacant work on construction sites in Britain (as opposed to demand the right to get the jobs).

The strike by some 600 workers at Langage Power Station, which included hundreds of Polish workers, again indicated that at base the strikes were about a demand for the right to work for workers who are domiciled in Britain.   Finally, and in recognition of the attraction of the BNP and the ability of the media to portray the strike as racist and xenophobic, some of the slogans began to change from Monday 2 February to demands for the right to work for local workers and workers in Britain. Thus, Bearfacts posters changed from ‘British jobs for British workers’ to ‘Fair Access for Local Labour’ where local meant existing workers in the local labour markets and was not a cipher for ‘British’ or white ‘British’ workers.

But just as telling as any of these factors was that understanding how the strike began explains why the few placards of ‘British jobs for British workers’ came to such prominence and threw many media and commentators off the scent of the actual demands. The resignation by the stewards on Wednesday 28 January led to a vacuum amongst the workers in terms of leadership of the strike and it was not for a two or three days that the unofficial strike committee was established and began to exert itself. Consequently, there were then almost no Unite banner and placards initially because of the unofficial, unlawful nature of the strike to which the stewards had acted to distance themselves. In was into this initial vacuum-cum-leaderless strike that some workers downloaded posters from the Bearfacts website to use on the demonstrations and pickets. It was not until the Lindsey strike committee asserted itself and its demands that the openly displayed demands changed.

Now, of course, none of this is not to suggest that there was no racism or xenophobia involved. There was inevitably some amongst the workers at Lindsey because these workers are a reflection of workers (and people in Britain in) in general who, in turn, reflect some of the dominant views that exist in society. The same can be said for the wider numbers of strikers and those out of work construction workers that became protesters.

But where much more evidence of this was seen was amongst those people who left comments on newspaper websites and the like and who were not directly involved in the dispute as well as the attempts by the BNP through their specially created website, British Wildcats, to encourage and support t he ‘little Englander’ attitudes.

Conclusion: difficult next steps

Having highlighted and created a political sensitivity to the issue as well as achieving a good compromise at Lindsey, the next difficult steps facing the activists and national unions is not just to maintain the pressure and profile but make genuine advance in achieving union objectives.

The history of building up heads of steam only for them to dissipate is an age old problem. If we recall the Gate Gourmet dispute of 2005, the ability of the union movement to secure a change in the employment law that restricted secondary action was unsuccessful when the Trade Union Freedom Bill was rejected on several occasions in Parliament as a result of the Labour government’s opposition.

Since the strike revolt ended, weekly demonstrations have continued at Staythorpe and Isle of Grain sites and there have been lobbies of Parliament, meetings of sponsored MPs in different union parliamentary groups and so on. Indeed, on one occasion, some 60 workers at Staythorpe walked out to join the demonstration despite being threatened with dismissal and were joined by 250 workers from Easington, East Yorkshire who struck for the day to join the protest. Of greater significance is that grassroots pressure is building for an industry-wide one day national strike and march on Parliament to stop employers from exclusively using foreign workers to undermine the Blue Book, and the GMB stated it is prepared to sanction an official strike ballot to that end if its shop stewards decided that was an appropriate course of action.

So momentum has been maintained and may step up a gear or two. But the problem remains that the target of this pressure is a considerable distance away from it and thus any leverage or power over them from construction sites is diffuse. The Parliamentary Labour Party and Labour government as well as the European Commission and European Court of Justice are unaccountable to these workers in any direct sense.

For the required changes to be made, the struggle needs to be generalised amongst all unions and progressive social forces. In other words, there needs to be a broad leftwing alliance against neo-liberalism which can mobilise the numbers of people in Britain that we’ve seen mobilised in recent years in Ireland, France and the Netherlands when their populaces voted against the EU treaty. Thus, the strikers and their unions need to make common cause with other progressive forces that oppose the other results of the EU’s neo-liberalism. And if they seek to change the EU position and the court verdicts another necessary component of this alliance has to be action with their brothers and sisters on the continent for the mathematics of the EU means one country cannot change things on its own.

All this means Britain is going to have to see sustained and escalating demonstrations, protests, strikes and shutdowns of the like not seen since the poll tax and before. British workers will have to shed their conservatism as a labour movement and act more like their continental cousins who are schooled in direct, mass action.

Originally written for Frontline – appearing shortly


[1] Consequently, rightwing forces ranging from the Daily Mail to UK Independence Party and BNP were quick to lend their support and champion the strikers’ cause. Indeed, the BNP attempted to join the picketlines and protests and recruit out of the revolt but was ejected and rejected.

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One thought on “lessons of the oil refinery wildcat strikes

  1. Everyone should read this article, because it contains alot of original material, and is excellent on the dynamics of the strikes – particularly the relation between the strike committee and the official unions.

    On the conclusion, when I first read it, I thought that I disagreed with it. Particularly, I picked up on the phrase “a broad leftwing alliance against neo-liberalism” which I identified with the idea of a lash up of everyone defining as ‘left’, without reference to the necessary internal tensions of that category, and implying a focus on the ‘left’, as opposed to the so-called ‘non-political’ workers. Reading it again though, Gregor does seem to be focused on “direct, mass action” rather than just an electoral coalition (though the reference to votes against the EU treaty suggest that this is something he has in mind as well – fair enough, though I think it would have to be based on a movement characterised by the former).

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