Sunday 1 February 2009

Construction strikes, defending jobs, nationalism

The wave of unofficial strikes by construction workers has sparked widespread debate. The strikes represent the first really major eruption of militant action against job losses in the UK since the recession began. But the central slogan of the dispute - "British Jobs for British Workers" is one that can only lead to division and disaster for working people.

Slogans like "United We Stand, Divided We Fall" have survived many decades because they encapsulate a fundamental truth. To win against employers (and the governments who back them) we have to unite working people regardless of race, nationality etc. This isn't always easy, but it always has to be our aim. A campaign that runs in the opposite direction may seem an easier way to get support in the short term, but we will pay a terrible price if we allow such divisions to take root.

The very fact that the Tory press and the BNP are all over this dispute should set the alarm bells ringing. Since when are they pro-trade-union? Since when do they support unofficial action? Since when do they oppose the anti-union laws? These anti-union forces are sympathetic to the dispute precisely because they want the anger workers feel over job losses to be directed against other workers, dividing us and protecting the rich and powerful.

It is the responsibility of all decent trade unionists to encourage a serious fight-back over the effects of the recession, and to fight tooth and nail against any effort to direct anger against the wrong targets. It is clear that slogans like "British Jobs for British Workers" used by Gordon Brown and, regrettably, some in the trade union movement, have opened the door to this. We have to learn from what has happened and stamp out such slogans from the labour movement.

The issues underlying the dispute are real and serious and need to be tackled.

Construction workers move around the country and the world, following the big projects. This is why they have the sort of networks that have allowed the action to spread so quickly. Big construction projects are organised through chains of subcontracting companies, many of them huge corporations making hefty profits.

The issue in dispute isn't primarily the ability of individual workers to move from country to country in search of work. It is about the ability of subcontracting companies to operate across borders and the rules which govern them.

The neo-liberal free-marketeers want to drive down pay and conditions through what they called the "country of origin principle". This is the idea that a worker or company should be governed by the law of the country they are from, rather than the country they are operating in. This would accelerate the "race to the bottom" in employment law and in pay and conditions. It would in practice mean little or no regulation - who would be enforcing Polish employment law in the UK, for example? The neo-liberals tried to get the country of origin principle enshrined into EU law through the Services Directive, popularly known as the Bolkestein Directive after its Dutch proponent (a former head of Shell). Unions and the left managed to defeat this (you can read the bulletin from my own workplace at the time here).

As usual, the bosses didn't just give up. They used the European Court of Justice (ECJ) to get a series of rulings in the Laval, Viking and Ruffert cases which meant that the right of a company to trade freely across borders was placed ahead of workers rights. This not only helped bring back the country of origin principle, but even worse, suggested that any industrial action which sought to impose higher labour standards from the host country might be illegal even if the workers had complied with all the anti-union laws. UNITE regards these ECJ cases as a more serious threat to workers' rights than all the Tory anti-union laws which New Labour has left on the statute book, and has set up a web site to campaign against them: And if anyone is thinking these cases only affect workers in construction - think again.

At the Staythorpe power station site, the subcontracting company publicly stated they would not employ any UK workers. They claim they pay the normal UK pay rates, but nobody involved in the campaign seems to believe this. The subcontractors have undercut UK firms by a very large margin, and people can't see how that would be possible when you add on travel and accommodation costs. The widespread belief is that the companies are paying much lower wages and are avoiding having any UK workers so that there is no "comparator" for a race discrimination claim for the low wages being given to the migrant workers. UNITE is looking into whether a policy of banning recruits of one nationality is discriminatory in itself - it certainly sounds it.

The practice of the subcontractor company bringing all its labour from overseas is spreading, and workers in the industry see it as a systematic attempt to smash union agreements and slash pay and conditions. Many big construction sites (refineries, power stations) are on the coast and companies are keeping migrant workers in accommodation barges (prison ships?) moored offshore, completely segregated from the community and local workers. This is a recipe for stoking up conflict.

On the news tonight, I heard reports that government minister Alan Johnson is now saying that "if" European law is harming UK workers, it should be changed. This is progress, but it is also rank hypocrisy. These awful laws are not something the EU has imposed on the UK - the "New Labour" UK government lobbied hard in favour of the ECJ rulings, just as they lobbied hard against tightening up the Working Time Directive, improving Works Councils etc. The UK government has been the champion of the free-market and deregulation in Europe - it sent Mandelson to the EU to ram this message home.

What recent events show is that militant mass action can achieve more in a few days than months or years of patient "lobbying".

I hope the strikes result in improvements in workers' rights and the overturning of the ECJ rulings. Contrary what the Liberal Democrats have been saying, this doesn't mean abandoning EU employment law, it means giving it priority over the rights of companies to make bigger profits regardless of the social consequences.

Just as importantly, I hope that union activists learn from this the dangers of giving an inch to nationalism in our campaigns. UNITE proudly claims that "internationalism" is one of the three pillars of its strategy, along with "organising" and its "political" strategy. Internationalism has to mean more than the very important solidarity work we do with workers in other countries. It has to mean a deep commitment to unity between workers in the UK, regardless of their origins. That can be the only sound basis for an effective fight to save jobs or over any other issue.


Anonymous said...

Generally UNITE seems to have tried to distance itself from the divisive and nationalist "British Jobs For British Workers" slogan at the centre of this dispute.

Derek Simpson seems to be letting the side down somewhat if this photo is to be believed.

Anonymous said...

What's wrong, it looks like a really nice scarf. Oh I get it, he never brushed his teeth...