As unemployment rockets around the world, with Britain the hardest hit major economy, workers on both sides of the Channel are beginning to take action against job cuts and attacks on living standards.
World output is forecast to fall for the first time since World War II as each day reveals an ever sharper decline of the capitalist economy. The International Labour Organisation is now forecasting that the global recession could cost up to 50 million jobs worldwide.
In France, yesterday’s “Black Thursday” saw up to two million people taking part in demonstrations around France, in protest against Sarkozy’s handling of the economic slump. Around a million public sector unions struck work, demanding extra help for ordinary families in place of state aid for the banks.
They called for an end to civil service job cuts, better pay and conditions, and rises in the minimum wage and welfare benefits to support consumption. Banners and chants showed a larger range of grievances, including demands for collective bargaining and opposition to the relaxation of Sunday trading rules.
But, closer to home, the unofficial strikes which broke out across the UK earlier this week, are taking an ugly, nationalist form. A dispute over the use of foreign workers at a UK refinery has spread to other sites, involving around 1,000 workers.
Before dawn this morning, several hundred demonstrators gathered outside Total’s Lindsey oil refinery at Immingham, near Grimsby, one of Britain’s biggest oil refineries. Angry building workers denounced the arrival of more than 200 Italian and Portuguese staff, brought in to construct a new unit.
A decision to bring in hundreds of Italian and Portuguese contractors to work a new £200m plant at the refinery at North Killingholme, North Lincolnshire, originally led to the protests. The British National Party (BNP) tried to hijack the walk-outs, which were not supported by the trade union Unite, to which many of the workers belong. Unite and the TUC itself, which has sat on its hands as the economic crisis rages, have provided no leadership whatsover.
Over past years and months the government and trade union leaders have helped set worker against worker by repeating the mantra, “British jobs for British workers”. The trade unions’ lack of action has led to frustration and provided fuel for the nationalists and racists. They have now made their move by sending BNP activists to join the picket lines. A BNP spokesman claimed that the strike against foreign labour was “a great day for British nationalism.”
But Bobby Buirds, a regional officer for Unite in Scotland, refused to denounce the rampant nationalism. He claimed that the workers at Grangemouth were striking to protect British jobs not to confront the foreign workers, but also reignited nationalism by claiming that “The argument is not against foreign workers, it’s against foreign companies discriminating against British labour,” he said. “This is a fight for work. It is a fight for the right to work in our own country. It is not a racist argument at all.”
New Labour has played fast and loose with nationalism in order to defuse attention from the way it has mortgaged Britain’s future to the bankers, financiers and global corporations. Environment secretary, Hilary Benn, claimed the angry workers were ”entitled to an answer”. And the chief cynic is of course Gordon Brown who set the fuse promising ‘British jobs for British workers’, a slogan taken up by some workers on strike outside refineries and power stations. Meanwhile at Davos, Brown is denouncing protectionism and calling “for the world to come together as one”.
Dr Johnson’s nostrum that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel” never rang so true as now.