can the oil refinery strikers beat the industry?

An article by Gregor Gall on The Guardian site.

Click here to read Gregor’s analysis of January’s strike wave, which appeared in issue 3 of The Commune, and here to read his recent debate with Chris Kane on the current state of industrial struggle.


These are days of defiance in the engineering construction industry. The employers won’t give in and neither will the striking workers, even though the ante has been continually upped in the last week.

Total, on behalf of its contractors, refused to engage in any talks to settle the dispute while the unofficial strike at the Lindsey oil refinery continues. Last Friday, it spurned the use of the state conciliation service, Acas. It has also robustly supported its two contractors, IREM and Jacobs, who sacked their strikers (647 in all of them) and has made no play of its other seven on-site contractors who have not sacked their 500-odd strikers. For Total, this is a game of hard hardball.

This assessment is supported by the revelation that Total managers deliberately provoked an unofficial strike by stopping the transfer of soon-to-be made redundant workers to another contractor who was taking on the same type of skilled workers. An unofficial strike means that workers can be sacked with impunity – unlike strikers on official strike, who cannot be sacked for the first eight weeks. This looks suspiciously like trying to lure workers into a trap.

Meanwhile, the 1,200 striking Lindsey workers have sacrificed nine days’ pay over their right to work and to protect their hard-won terms and conditions under their national agreement. They’ve thrown caution to the wind by defying the anti-union laws: no ballots, no notification to the employer. Instead, they voted with their feet.

They are in no mood to compromise or back down. The majority did not re-apply for the jobs by the 22 June deadline set by the company. Some went further and burnt their dismissal notices in a public display of protest. On top of that, one of the strikers’ unions, the GMB, has organised a mass demonstration at the gates of the Lindsey oil refinery today. Together with the Unite union, the GMB is preparing to hold a national ballot for industrial action on the issues of pay and job security. This is likely to result in a national strike by 20,000-30,000 engineering construction workers. After the weekend and the solidarity action that greeted the sackings last Friday, even more workers at more sites – between 3 and 4,000 workers at power stations and oil refineries – have come back out on unofficial strike in support for the Lindsey strikers.

In a time of general recession and with unemployment at 25-30% in the engineering construction industry, this is serious stuff. Conventional wisdom say workers don’t do this in these situations. Where can the dispute go next? There are three options. The first is that the strikers succumb to financial hardship and decide to continue to fight the battle another day – maybe later in the summer through the official ballot. The second is that Total throws in the towel as it did in February this year. The final one is that we’re in for a prolonged deadlock, with the union movement starting to raise money to keep the strikers from having to be forced back through economic penury.

Already, there’s some sign that it may be Total that blinks first. Today it is emphasising that it has not sacked any workers – rather it’s the two contractors that have sacked workers – and it is actively encouraging talks between the contractors and the strikers to resolve the strike. So under the pressure of escalating action, the line that no talks could happen until the strikers returned to work has been shelved. Of course, talks neither guarantee an end to the strike nor the resolution of the issues that gave rise to it. All in all, it’s shaping up to be the mother of all battles for the union movement this summer.

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