A minimal investigation can establish that the wildcat strike begun at the Lindsey refinery in Great Britain is based on legitimate demands. Rather than tackling real problems, and out of class reflex, the media and politicians have chosen to systematically accuse the strikers of being racist.
Deconstructing the myth and reestablishing a few truths
This will come as no surprise, but it bears noting: in the case of the wildcat strikes organized at the Total oil refineries in Great Britain, the media lies. It bears noting, because the propaganda is such that many are misled about the terms and goals of the strike.
We are told that the workers are striking against the use of foreign labor, more specifically Italian and Portuguese workers employed by the sub-contracting company IREM. Understand: the British worker does not want his job stolen by an Italian. Understand: the basic worker is racist. The cliché is not that original, but journalists use it with impressive ease. The myth is well rooted in the minds of the middle and upper classes. It has been built through years of education spent in the most prestigious institutions. The problem is that when you spend a little time looking into it, it turns out that this strike is not against employing foreign labor, but rather to promote equitable access to jobs for all and against mass layoffs of workers already employed locally. In effect, these workers will indeed be prevented to apply for jobs and be replaced by IREM workers, who will of course be paid less, even if the company refuses to admit it (and also refuses to make the terms of the agreement public).
Why don’t journalists call this strike “a strike against abusive layoffs” or “strike for the respect of minimum rights”, then? Why would they rather play the racism card, pretend that workers are attacking other workers? Why did they accuse the strikers of conniving with the British National Party (England’s main far right wing party) even as the members of this party that did try to intervene were removed at the workers’ request?
A stunning demonstration of the techniques emplyed by the BBC to get their message across can be found in this video. In the first clip, aired on BBC1, the striker’s soundbite is truncated so as to suggest that he does not want to work with foreigners. Transcript:
Voice over: “Beneath the anger, ministers fear, lies straightforward xenophobia.”
Striker: “These Portuguese and Eyeties, we can’t work alongside of them.”
In the second clip (BBC2), the striker is quoted at length:
“These Portuguese and Eyeties, we can’t work alongside of them. They’re segregated, they’re coming in in full companies”
The quote is obviously understood differently, and the fact that the BBC cut it short can only be explained by their desire to make this striker, and the whole movement behind him, sound racist. As explained in a forum comment left on bearfacts, a very informative website used by workers and strikers, what the striker indeed meant was that “we can’t work with the Italians and Portuguese because they are segregated from us as they do not share the same onsite facilitys ie cabins, canteen etc: The fact that their kept away from the local community on that barge and bussed into site only helps to widen that divide.”
The point is not to support the strike unconditionally or to suggest that the working class is pure and always right. Surely the slogans used during the strike (“British jobs for British workers”) were harmful, silly and contrary to basic [principles of international solidarity. We can only regret that the strikers did not choose better words. This said, these were the words of Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown, ironically thrown back at him with demands for results, as if to say “keep your promises.” While it is hard to find out who came up with these slogans, who approves of them or not, it seems that they originated among union representatives from Unite. The signs bearing these words also bore the union’s logo, and one can think Unite played this card in order to get heard, without thinking about the consequences.
And then you can decide to say that the basic worker is racist, but you can also note that he is the one suffering from the liberal policies that let companies hire foreigners on the cheap, granting them reduced working rights, and playing one nationality against another... His discontent is legitimate and what needs to be understood here is how this discontent is instrumentalized by the middle and upper classes, whether they be politicians, journalists or union representatives.
Once again, the point is not to excuse the errors or slip-ups of this strike. It is obvious that some among the strikers show nationalist tendencies. But a strike is a complex collective process that engages numerous individuals. It is important to question the erroneous image of the movement spread by the mainstream media and to underline its legitimate demands. In order to do so, reading bearfacts’ forum, where strikers communicate with each other, proves very useful and reveals that the strikers’ demands have little to do with the way they have been portrayed in the news. The presence of two members of the Socialist Party (which in England is much to the left of the eponymous French party) in the strike committee is also telling of the stance of this movement. The information found on the party’s website sums up the events and clearly contradict all the misconceptions broadcast left and right about the strike:
“The workers of LOR, Conoco and Easington did not take strike action against immigrant workers. Our action is rightly aimed against company bosses who attempt to play off one nationality of worker against the other and undermine the NAECI agreement.”
In the light of these declarations, it is highly regrettable that the London-based Campaign Against Immigration Control (CAIC), an activist group with members from all political horizons, called for a picket against this strike. This action shows a misunderstanding of the strike’s goals, no questioning of the image given of the strikers, and a failure to support their legitimate demands.
Before some other Trotskyist militants decide to attack the movement on the basis of its “counter-revolutionary” nature (making use of their innate right to lead the working class), it might be useful to cite a few of the unofficial strike committee’s demands:
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
Here again, we are far from the way the conflict has been generally portrayed. The emphasis is on the protection of all workers, including immigrant workers, and on opposing potential retaliation against strikes started in support of this one on other work sites-such movements being very rare since they were made illegal under Thatcher in the 1980s.
But since mainstream media journalists will never talk about this, since they will only parrot what they have been taught and invite on their shows politicians that share their worldview, since they will edit the words of the population they accuse and attack, I will end with the words of a striker taken (almost) at random on one of the the bearfacts forums. It explains in clear terms on which side of the barrier one can find scorn, injustice and inequality:
“i have no complaints about working with our foriegn brothers as i have worked abroad myself but what has to be said is unscrupulous employers explioting our brothers ive seen first hand how they are treated by them example slough incinerater last year ask anyone on that job, cheap labour and cramed into poor cramped accomodation that was before the contract was taken off said contractor there is where we have the unfair footing for the basis of employment.”