The Lindsey Oil Refinery strike – in which over 800 workers participated in unauthorised (wildcat) work stoppages lasting over a week, with thousands more power plant workers showing their solidarity across the country – will probably be remembered as a “xenophobic” strike which called for “British Jobs for British Workers”. But what politicians of all parties and the majority of the media have failed to report, however, is that the message coming from the striking workers has been that it is not about race, and that they do not object to foreign workers. In fact, Lindsey workers were angered because they felt they didn’t have a chance to get these jobs and they saw the new contract, awarded to IREM, an Italian company, as an attack on the National Agreement for the Engineering and Construction Industry (NAECI).

Local workers - who had previously done the work - were served a 90 day redundancy notice in mid November that expired on Feburary 17th. When IREM declared that it would only use its Italian and Portuguese workforce, workers took it to be yet another attempt by their employer to dismantle the NAECI. The entire onsite workforce voted to take immediate unofficial strike action. Both Total, who own the refinery, and IREM have said that the Italians will be paid the same as local workers - but this claim is contested and the Italians are housed by IREM in a former prison ship.

Of course, Total and IREM were acting perfectly within their legal rights, according to a series of EU judgements. A 2007 ruling caters for a company doing work in another EU country to ignore local pay rates, after a Latvian company tried to build a school in Sweden using Latvian workers on Latvian pay.

The key issue for the workers in Lindsey is one of access to work. It suits the media to portray the white working class as racist and backward and it suits politicians to discredit industrial action. But, while some involved in this have expressed racist sentiments most have realised that it’s about class, not nationality. Where bigotry rears its head, it needs to be challenged – but this is best done by workers involved, rather than people like Mandelson who have never had any worker’s interests at heart.
The actual demands of the workers do not make any mention of Italians or Portuguese:

  • No victimisation of workers taking solidarity action.
  • All workers in UK tobe 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

After a week of mass meetings on the picket lines which saw the “British Jobs...” slogan dropped as quick as the BNP were told where to go by strikers in favour of “Workers of the World Unite” and calls in Italian for the IREM workers to join them, the Lindsey strikers returned to work, having gained 102 jobs for locals. Among the solidarity actions, the strike in Plymouth - in which Polish workers supported their British colleagues - is most notable. A possible further development would have been to talk to workers elsewhere in Europe – these EU rulings benefit bosses all over, so co-ordinated action against them is a good idea. They’ve also taught a lesson to all those of us who don’t work in construction – just because solidarity action is unlawful, it doesn’t mean we can’t practice it!

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