The angry walk-outs by engineers and construction workers at refineries and power plants around Britain in defence of their livelihoods is the first major - and explosive - reaction to the economic crisis in the UK. That said, the form these strikes has taken urgently needs redirecting. They cannot be endorsed so long as they are aimed principally against foreign workers.
When strikers have the enthusiastic backing of the far-right British National Party because their main demand is “British Jobs for British Workers”, it is necessary to ask: What is going on here? When a few hundred Italian workers are too scared to show themselves in public, you have to say that this is shocking and unacceptable.
The contradiction between the essence of this struggle and the form it has assumed is not surprising. Getting right to the heart of the matter - the emerging capitalist slump and the crisis of governments as unemployment accelerates - demands a united, revolutionary stance against the joint rule of global corporations like Total and client regimes like New Labour.
Then, and only then, can we begin to find solutions to the immediate and pressing question of unemployment affecting workers who were passed over for jobs at Lindsey when the French-based global corporation Total awarded a contract to an Italian firm (which itself is sub-contracted by an American company) which brought its own workforce along.
If there were jobs available locally, then no one would be on strike. But how can employment, new jobs, be generated? That question won’t be answered by driving a few Italians home and lining up authentic “British” workers to take their place. If workers from Europe or elsewhere should not take “British” jobs does that mean that British workers in other countries should be driven home in similar fashion?
Brown, who took up the BNP’s “British Jobs for British Workers” policy, says there are no ready solutions to the global capitalist crisis to hand and no lessons to be learned from history. In that case, he and his wretched government should go now because it is of no use to man or beast. Ministers like Lord Mandelson, with his contemptuous remark that workers should get on their bikes and look for work elsewhere in Europe, are deservedly hated by the strikers.
Trade union “leaders” like Derek Simpson, who have done nothing to defend jobs during the recession and who now encourage nationalism amongst their members for the most opportunist of reasons, should also be got shot of. Simpson, on £200,000 a year plus a luxury house for life, free, is standing for re-election and is cynically using the dispute to help his campaign.
The issues involved in the walk-outs are all aspects of corporate-driven globalisation: contracting out, sub-contracting, flexible labour, a European Union run by and for the corporations and a trade union movement which has halved in membership and now largely led by donkeys whose respect for Tory/New Labour anti-union laws remains unbroken.
Dividing workers along national lines, as the Unite bureaucrats are happy to do, plays into the hands of the global corporations and the political parties that service them. Defending the action on the grounds that workers are the victims of globalisation, is simply kow-towing to backwardness, instead of raising the level of their struggle. Like it or not, there is a new internationalisation of labour. The point is to turn it against the employers, not go backwards to insularity and localism.
Workers in Iceland, Russia, Greece, Hungary, Latvia and France have demonstrated against their governments. In Ireland, workers at Waterford Crystal have occupied their plant, providing an inspiration to every worker by challenging the right of owners to decide their future. Now is the time to move against an unsustainable profit-based system based on exploitation of human and natural resources. The epochal character of the crisis means that the time for defensive actions is past.
It's not an accident that this sudden eruption of anger takes place in the oil industry - control over the use of fossil fuels is at the heart of the global crisis. If workers are unhappy at the way Total divides up jobs and plays one group off against another, then let the plant be occupied and the management driven out. Bring Total under permanent workers’ control and management as a first step towards reorganising the corporation. Decisions about the production and distribution of oil can be on a sustainable not-for-profit basis.
Bring down New Labour, the bosses’ government! The government is in secret talks with the army and the police and could spring an authoritarian national government on Britain as the crisis worsens. Don’t give them the chance. Replace Unite leaders with those committed to fighting New Labour.
Start to build local Assemblies to represent all workers of whatever nationality and origin, and other sections of the community, as a step towards transferring political and economic power to working people.
Launch a programme of publicly-financed building projects to create new homes, schools and other infrastructure so that work is available to all who need it.
Fighting for policies along these lines would take the strikes in a different, outward looking direction and inspire millions to join them in the project to transform society to one which puts the interests of ALL workers first.
AWTW communications editor