Thousands upon thousands of words have been written about the dispute that started at the Lindsey oil refinery and spread across the nation from Plymouth to Fife. From the revisionist Morning Star through the Guardian and other broadsheets, to the murky recesses of the Daily Mail and the race-hate sheets of Britain’s ultra-racist BNP this dispute has had extensive coverage. Most of those written words are supporting racist and xenophobic ideas. Others try to claim that no racism or xenophobia exists at all in the ranks of the organised working class. The writers of both views are guilty of wilfully wasting ink and paper and the time of their readers.
The underlying cause of this dispute, like so many others around the world at present, is the world crisis of overproduction within capitalism and the aim of all national bourgeoisies is to make the workers pay the cost of this crisis.
Lindsey refinery is operated by Total Oil. The tender for one of its contracts for building work was won by an Italian company, IREM, which, in line with EU law, brought in their own Italian and Portuguese workforce to do the work. EU law does encourage this practice because, under that law, the contractors who bring in their own workforce, rather than employ locally, are not then bound by any local or national agreements on wages or conditions that have been negotiated by unions for that site. At the moment, it has to be said, there seem to be more British workers employed around the EU on these contracts than there are other EU members’ workers working in Britain. The idea behind this law is not to make sure that workers get to travel to new places to broaden their horizons or to learn new cultures and languages; it is simply an attack on all workers’ wages and conditions by circumventing trade union organisation and collective bargaining. Of course this law must be opposed! However, it would be better opposed by uniting with all workers and raising the slogan of ‘work for all at local trade union rates throughout the EU!’ As opposed to the racist and xenophobic slogan of “British jobs for British workers” which is an attack on any and all foreign workers.
That the workers at Lindsey were angry is only to be expected but it is not at all clear even now at just who their anger was mostly aimed. Some have claimed it was aimed at the EU which made the law, others say it was primarily at the British Government who supported the law, while others maintain it was directed at the two companies that used the law. Most of the apologist commentators who take one or all of these views – and either ignore or deny any suggestion of racism when confronted by the placards stating “British jobs for British workers” – still insist that this was just a poorly chosen slogan which had been designed to embarrass the Prime Minister by quoting his own words back at him. However, what was plain was that the protesters/strikers were not complaining at the slogan – they were just complaining that he had not delivered. Also that was not the only slogan on the placards being held aloft: another which was seen in equal numbers stated “put British workers first”. There is only one logic emanating from either of these slogans and that is that foreign workers should be denied jobs or sacked if they have the temerity to secure one to make way for British workers. Whatever the apologists may say about the positive aspects of this action, these slogans are both racist and xenophobic and reflect the fact that these faults do exist to a considerable extent in the British working class movement. To deny this is to bury one’s head in the sand and ignore reality. We have a job to do in this country – the same as workers in every country – and that is to overthrow our bourgeoisie and replace it as the ruling class so that socialist planning can take the place of the anarchy of production that now exists and is threatening the livelihoods of all workers. We can only do that job properly when we accept foreign workers as our brothers and sisters alongside whom we will rule one day, and alongside whom in the meantime we will fight against the encroachments of capital. We must enlighten our follow workers so that when we are squeezed even harder than at present we all recognise who our real enemies are and who are our friends and comrades in our struggle. We do not need to see any more spectacles of British workers doing their masters’ bidding and turning on foreign workers as happened when crowds gathered at the barges, where the Portuguese and Italian workers of Lindsey were being housed, and shouted racist and threatening abuse.
This is not to say there were no positive aspects to the strikes. These included (1): British workers not only going on strike but doing it in defiance of the anti-trade union laws. And (2): A deal finally being struck that did not see any job losses among the Italian and Portuguese workers while creating many extra ones. The pressure by capital to minimise working-class living standards will, however, become heavier and heavier as the current economic crisis drags on. For the fight back, workers need maximum unity, while the class enemy needs us to be divided among ourselves – on grounds of race, nationality, creed – anything that the enemy can use to capture the popular imagination in order to defeat working-class actions. Let us adopt slogans that unite us, not slogans that divide us.