Some are workers, some are not

There was a curious piece in the ‘Work’ section of Saturday’s Guardian (I only read it for the problem page). It was headed

10 things we’ve learned so far

We send our reporters around the UK to see what happens in a downturn

but on inspection there were only three things that they’d learnt from their roving reporters; the other seven were single-paragraph makeweights. The three big investigative findings were

1. We innovate more
Kate Burt meets the start-ups who won’t be put off by a credit crunch.

2. We’re willing to lower our sights
Lydia Stockdale and Huma Quereshi interview workers who swallowed their pride to do a job they previously thought beneath them.

and

3. We don’t like ‘foreigners’ taking ‘our’ jobs
Hsiao-Hung Pai visits migrant Italian workers living on a barge in Grimsby.

OK. Now, I’ll admit to having taken a fairly optimistic view of the Lindsey strike from day one. I’m in favour of people being able to travel to look for work, but I’m even more in favour of people not having to travel any further than they want to. I don’t see anything inherently problematic in a workforce in location X objecting to being replaced by a workforce which the employer has bussed in (or shipped in) for the purpose; I certainly don’t think any such protest is inherently racist or xenophobic, as Pai’s scare-quotes rather strongly suggest. (“We don’t like the boss taking the jobs we were doing off us” wouldn’t have quite the same ring to it.)

But it can’t be denied that the strike did acquire some definite nationalist overtones, thanks not least to some of its supporters on the mainstream Left. So it was heartening to see the demands which (thanks to Socialist Party members) the strike committee adopted – demands which rather pointedly don’t frame the strike in nationalist terms.

• 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
• Government and employer investment in proper training / apprenticeships for new generation of construction workers
• All Immigrant labour to be unionised.
• Trade Union assistance for immigrant workers – via interpreters – to give right of access to Trade Union advice – to promote active integrated Trade Union Members

There have been different views on what the strike achieved. The Socialist Party remained upbeat:

the original contractor, Shaw, had been told that they had lost part of the work to an Italian company, IREM, who would bring in their own workforce from Italy and elsewhere to do the job. As a result, Shaw had told the shop stewards on the site that some of their members would be made redundant from 17 February to make way for the Italian workers.

What was crucial in this was not the fact that they were Italian or Portuguese but that they would not be part of the National Agreement for the Engineering and Construction Industry (NAECI). Why? Because under the EU directives, backed up by the European Court of Human Rights, employing those workers under NAECI conditions would be seen as a “restraint on trade” and therefore against the freedom of movement of labour and capital enshrined in the EU capitalist club’s rules and regulations.

It was clear that the IREM workers were not in a union, Italian or otherwise. Italian union confederation CGIL leader Sabrina Petrucci was quoted in the Morning Star on 6 February saying that IREM is a notorious non-union firm.

In a major breakthrough, part of the deal allows for the shop stewards to 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. The Lindsey oil refinery is what is known as a ‘blue book’ site and all workers on it should be covered by the NAECI agreement. This means in practice that the union-organised workers will be working alongside the IREM-employed Italian workers and will be able to “audit” whether or not this is the case.

Unite’s statement is rather less gung-ho; but then, it wasn’t a union strike, and as such there must have been an element of relief when it was over. But even Derek Simpson stops short of trotting out the “British jobs for British workers” line again:

Unite joint general secretary, Derek Simpson said, “This is a good deal which establishes the principle of fair access for UK workers on British construction projects. We now expect other companies in the construction industry to level the playing field for UK workers. The workers involved in the unofficial strike can now get back to work.

“Lindsey is part of a much wider problem that will not go away just because the workers at Lindsey have voted to go back to work. There are still employers who are excluding UK workers from even applying for work on construction projects. No European worker should be barred from applying for a British job and absolutely no British worker should be barred from applying for a British job.”

Some on the left have pointed to what IREM told ACAS, suggesting that the strike was based on a misapprehension: supposedly IREM already were abiding by the provisions of the ‘blue book’ (even though they didn’t have to), and the only substantive difference in pay and conditions had to do with the timing of meal breaks. On the other hand, ACAS do concede that IREM couldn’t provide documentary evidence of what they were claiming; on those grounds alone, the role which the settlement grants to shop stewards is a step forward. I also think that, if it’s a choice between “hiring decisions made by corporate management” and “hiring decisions made by corporate management and local unionised workers”, anyone on the Left should prefer the latter in almost all circumstances.

In short, what the strike achieved was: to make the demands of local workers a factor in corporate decision-making; to ensure that all workers, whether locally-based or brought in temporarily, are employed on terms better than the minimum required by EU law; and to give the unions a role in policing this agreement. (The unions hadn’t done a lot to earn this – but then, the unions do tend to turn up in time to take the benefits of wildcat actions, even when they’ve been sitting on the sidelines all the way through. Oops, little bit of workerism, my name’s Toni Negri goodnight.) On a broader level, the strike also legitimised the idea of wildcat industrial action and demonstrated that anti-union legislation can be ignored if you’ve got the numbers. Basically, the job’s a good ‘un. But you wouldn’t know it from Hsiao-Hung Pai:

Francesco and Gianluca are two of the 100 Italians who arrived in late January on a four-month contract to work at the French oil giant, Total, at Lindsey oil refinery in Immingham. Francesco, in his late forties, has worked as a welder in Tunisia and Libya. Gianluca, in his thirties, has worked in Croatia and Germany. “This is my first time in the UK,” Francesco says, “and it is the first time in my 20 years of working abroad that I’ve experienced anti-foreign feelings.”

Their employment by Italian company Irem, for the building of a sulphurisation facility at Total, prompted a wave of nationwide wildcat strikes involving more than 6,000 workers on 20 construction sites – all angry that “foreign workers” are taking “British jobs”. The Unite union says the strikes are about challenging the Posted Workers Directive and ensuring service providers follow national agreements across the EU. And yet the unions have rallied behind the divisive slogan of “British jobs for British workers”, and alienated migrant workers in the process.

I think ‘divisive’ is a bit strong. ‘Potentially divisive’, fair enough, but it’s not an inherently divisive slogan: it’s perfectly possible to read that slogan as saying “people based here want to carry on working here (and we’re throwing Gordon Brown’s words back at him)”. Apart from anything else, I’m not aware of any evidence (and Pai doesn’t quote any) that migrant workers have been alienated; indeed, I know of some unionists who have gone to some lengths to try and stop this happening. More to the point, what’s with that ‘and yet’? There’s no dishonesty here, and not much in the way of contradiction. Yes, Unite – in the person of Mr Simpson – has ‘rallied behind’ that slogan, although (as we’ve seen) even he has backed away from it now. But the strike was about challenging the Posted Workers Directive; the worst you can charge Simpson with is inconsistency. Besides, Simpson and Unite weren’t even involved. The fact that the strike took place outside union structures, and that the strike committee itself disowned that slogan, would surely be worth mentioning in any reasonably complete account of the dispute.

Francesco says the real issue is about the system of subcontracting which isn’t specific to overseas firms and affects workers of all nationalities. “Irem pays differentiated wages to its workers,” he explains. “The hourly rate ranges from €14 [£12.50] in Bologna to €12 in the UK. Ten of us welders are on €12 per hour but the 80 labourers are on €7 per hour. And the new 100 British workers [starting work following an agreement with the unions] will be on the same rate.” Gianluca looks at my interpreter friend. “I remember migrants in Italy, like Bulgarian workers … They earn less than half our rate, for doing the same skilled jobs. I asked myself, the Bulgarians are also specialists like us, why are they only earning €5? All [posted] workers should be paid equally and have the same rights.”

Interesting information – although I don’t quite follow the bit about how a system in which The hourly rate ranges from €14 [£12.50] in Bologna to €12 in the UK isn’t specific to overseas firms. More to the point, the demand that all [posted] workers should be paid equally and have the same rights was exactly what the strike was about – and exactly what the victory of the strike achieved, albeit only in one location (so far – la lotta continua).

But instead of advocating equal conditions for all workers, British trade unions have bowed to nationalist pressure and fought for quotas for British workers. Picket line racist abuse was treated as acceptable. “I saw a Lindsey steward give out union jack flags to strikers here,” said local activist John Shemeld of the Staythorp power plant strike. “The leadership [of the strikes] is not racist, but they don’t challenge racism.”

This is extraordinarily misleading. First, as noted above, the strike took place outside any union structures; in this instance ‘British trade unions’ haven’t ‘fought’ for anything. Second, the strike committee fought for “equal conditions for all workers” and a one-off quota (not “quotas”) for locally-based (not “British”) workers; the two aren’t contradictory. (I suspect that the enforcement of equal conditions will make shipped-in labour less attractive anyway, but even if this weren’t the case I would see the quota as making British and Italian workers more rather than less equal.) Third, Pai doesn’t tell us anything about this “picket-line racist abuse” (what, when, how much); or who it “was treated as acceptable” by; or, for that matter, what the connection was between this abuse (whatever it was), its toleration (whoever did tolerate it) and that “nationalist pressure” (whatever that means). There certainly was “nationalist pressure” on the picket line, in the sense that the BNP turned up; the BNP turned up and they were told to clear off. Again, you wouldn’t learn this from Pai. There’s a general, woozy slippage between ‘racism’, ‘nationalism’ and ‘willingness to adopt patriotic imagery’ here, exemplified by that closing line from “local activist John Shemeld”. Shemeld seems to read tolerance of racism into the sight of a steward handing out Union Jacks – not ideal, certainly, but it’s worth noting that shop stewards couldn’t hand out anything with a union logo on, given that it was a wildcat strike.

In short, I think Hsiao-Hung Pai’s either got a very superficial understanding of the dispute or been misinformed. It’s great that she managed to talk to the Italian workers, but it’s a shame she didn’t speak to any of the local activists who were actually involved in the strike; I’m sure they could have helped her come up with something better. (I wouldn’t mind so much, only the other two articles were bobbins – especially 2. We’re willing to lower our sights. Apparently packing stuff in a warehouse doesn’t pay as well as being an investment banker, but you don’t have to get up so early. Or it might have been the other way round. Being a part-time lecturer in 2009 doesn’t pay as well as editing a magazine in 1998, I can tell you that, and you still have to get up in the morning. I wouldn’t go back, though – apart from anything else, that magazine doesn’t come out any more. But I digress.)

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One Comment

  1. splinteredsunrise
    Posted 11 April 2009 at 11:27 | Permalink | Reply

    Hsiao-Hung is quite good on migrant workers, and her stuff on undocumented Chinese can be brilliant. But going beyond that to the more traditional working class… I don’t know if it’s an SWP thing or a Taiwan bourgeoisie thing, but it’s not her natural milieu.

    FWIW, Unite/T&G round my way have done some really good work organising Polish workers. Ditto with the health unions and Filipinos. It’s one thing to say nationalist pressures exist in the labour movement, another to treat it as inevitable that they’re going to win out.

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