engineering construction strikes: days of defiance

by Gregor Gall, professor of industrial relations, University of Hertfordshire

It’s the dispute that just won’t go away. For the third time this year, thousands of engineering construction workers have gone on unofficial strike, fighting for the right to work. This time round the dispute escalated dramatically unlike before, with the mass sacking of some 647 strike workers by the two of contractors working for Total, the Lindsey refinery operator.

On June 11, some 1200 contractors at Lindsey walked out unofficially after a contractor gave notice of redundancies to 51 workers while another contractor on the same site was looking for 60 workers to fill vacancies. This broke the agreement that settled their earlier strike in February this year which compelled vacant work to be made available to those under threat from redundancy. The contractors and Total stated this was not the case.

And, the issue of the right to work, and the engineering construction workers’ willingness to fight for this, was again to the fore in May as a strike by 50 laggers at Milford Haven started to snowball across other sites in Britain.

During the June 2009 strike, a growing number of engineering construction workers took solidarity action in support of their colleagues at the Lindsey refinery. At its height of 22/23 June, the strike wave involved over 4,000 workers on just over 20 sites at power stations, chemical plants and oil refineries. The solidarity action spread by flying pickets going out from Lindsey, through using mobile phones, the networks between different sites established in the previous strikes and decisions taken at mass meetings. Picketing and mass picketing was in evidence.

The June 2009 dispute had two foremost dimensions. One was that the workers concerned were capable and willing, unlike many other workers (unionised or not), to take robust collective action to defend their right to work in the midst of a recession. This came down not just to being unionised but being well organised at the workplace level with shop stewards, mass meetings and a collective confidence to act. Underlying this is the nature of the labour market in the industry where job security is absent with building projects beginning and ending when completed, with employment contracts based on this.

The second was that the employers were militant and hardnosed. During the first strike in January-February this year, Total and its concerned contractor (IREM) said they would not negotiate with the strikers’ unions unless the workers went back to work. Shortly after they relented and a deal was eventually struck before the workers’ returned to work. This time round, the situation has gone one step further for the nuclear button was pressed with the sackings: reapply for your job by June 22 5pm on the condition of ending the strike or consider that you’ve dismissed yourself. The nuclear option has been backed up by refusing to allow the conciliation service, ACAS, to get involved to resolve the dispute.

It is difficult not to read this as the employers wanting to take on, face down and defeat an assertive workforce once and for all. The reasons for this? The managerial prerogative – the right of management to manage as they see fit – is an obvious one. But behind this is surely the pressure to pursue profitability in a deteriorating economic environment. Common to all three disputes has been the keenness of the employers to undermine the national agreement for the industry that sets wage rates. In the first two disputes, the spark was the use of non-domiciled workers to do this. In the third, it was the more old-fashioned tool of aggressive management threatening job security to undermine the workers’ demands.

This assessment is supported by the revelation that Total managers acted in a deliberate way to provoke an unofficial strike by stopping the transfer of soon-to-be made redundant workers to another contractor who was taking on exactly the same type of skilled workers. According to the GMB, Total managers went out of their way to make sure that what they (the managers) described as an ‘unruly workforce’ (i.e., those employed by the Shaws contractor) did not get further work. Provoking an unofficial strike means that workers can be sacked with impunity – unlike strikers on official lawful strike who cannot be sacked for the first eight weeks of a strike. This looked suspiciously like trying to lure workers into a trap.

One of the significant features of the strikes (again) was that the strikers threw caution to the wind by defying the anti-union laws: no ballots, no notification to the employer and so on. Instead, they voted with their feet. The strikes are unlawful on another account. The walkout at Lindsey in support of the 51 workers was solidarity action as was that by all the workers outside Lindsey, and by law, the workers erred here and because they had no ‘trade dispute’ with their own employer. On top of that, the laws on picketing and obstruction have been broken continually.

What then stands out is that no injunctions were threatened or applied for by any of the concerned employers, especially those affected by solidarity action outside Lindsey (as has their unwillingness to sack anyone either – although there was an unconfirmed report that some at Staythorpe had been sacked). This must have bene for the fear of even further escalation producing a minor political crisis. Again, Unite and the GMB repudiated the action but in the same way as in January-February (with several inherent tensions), they still acted as negotiators for their striking members. What was different this time round was that both unions make the dispute (or a part of it) official when their members were sacked.  Moreover, the GMB has launched a £100,000 hardship fund and said the dispute was official from the point that the sackings were made.

The mood of the Lindsey strikers showed no willingness to back down. The majority did not re-apply for the jobs by the deadline set by the company. Some went further and burnt their dismissal notices in a public display of protest.

In a time of general recession and with unemployment of some 25-30% in the engineering construction industry, this is serious stuff. Conventional wisdom say workers don’t do this in these situations. Here the threat of unemployment and undercutting by non-domiciled workers has led these workers to do the opposite of what is the norm today.

Towards the end of the strike, both the GMB and Unite also pledged to organise a national, official ballot for industrial action on the issues of issue on pay and job security throughout the industry. This is likely to see a national strike by between 20,000-30,000 engineering construction workers.

A sign of the pressure on Total was that it changed its position on holding talks while the strike continued on 23 June 2009. Previously, it had insisted that these could only take place was the strikers returned (and on its terms). Delay to its desulphurization construction project had some bite and the contractors may well have been penalized for this by Total through the terms of the building contract.

Talks between the unions, Total, the two contractors and the employers’ federation led to a climbdown by the employers and a victory for the strikers: re-instatement of the 647 sacked workers, employment for the 51 redundant workers and no victimisation for those taking part in solidarity action. But this was not a ‘Total’ victory for the issues that gave rise to the strike have not been settled. In other words, this is just one battle in a much longer war.

Thus, the 51 Lindsey contractor workers at the centre of the dispute were offered just four weeks work, representing the ‘natural’ end to the project they were working on. Rather, what is needed is an agreement that leads to any ‘at risk’ workers being transferred to any new work available on the Lindsey site so that job security is manifest. Then, a national agreement along these lines is needed so that domiciled labour, British or otherwise, is employed and not spurned through the use of labour specifically brought in from abroad and paid on lower terms and conditions. Thus, an explicit and binding industry agreement that is not only watertight on this issue of job security but also has an independent body to monitor and enforce it is needed. This is what the unions mean when they talk about labour audits (but they have made no progress on this so far other than at Lindsey where the agreement was broken). Furthermore, the legal basis of the right of employers through the Posted Worker Regulations do exactly this must be overhauled.

Unless these conditions are met, and notwithstanding the disincentive to employers to undercut as a result of the militant action, the engineering construction workers will be bound to have to fight these battles again and again. In doing so, they will lose a considerable amount in wages and this is likely to disincline them to take sustained action.

One big push through a national official ballot, leading to action if necessary, to resolve these issues once and for all is what is really needed. But already the employers are saying they will play hardball by challenging the ballot. Skill, strategy and determination will be needed to see this fight through to the end.

One can speculate that a quicker and more fulsome victory could have been gained if the strikers had managed to get the production workers at the Lindsey oil refinery (or any other of its refineries – like in France) to come out in support. This would have kicked Total immediately in the pocket where it hurts and land the killer blow. The problem here is that these production workers were not in dispute and not affected by the same issues, particularly job security. Rather, they are employed on permanent contracts with reasonably well paid conditions.

So the June 2009 strike was a victory and builds on the earlier victories in the industry (and those at Visteon and Linamar) but we also need to see it in the cold light of day to realize that the underlying issues are far from settled.