The sacking by the Total corporation of 900 construction workers at the Lindsey oil refinery in Lincolnshire last night, who were on strike in defence of their jobs, is part of a growing employers’ offensive against trade union organisation which is also behind today’s strike by 8,000 postal workers in London.
The 900 were constructing a new plant at the refinery in Lincolnshire and were part of about 1,200 contract workers who had taken strike action in a dispute over jobs when, as one part of the project ended, 51 redundancies were announced. Shop stewards say that normal practice would have been to offer the workers vacancies on other ongoing contracts on the site but this was not done.
Victimisation is suspected because the 51 worked for Shaw, the contractor that was at the centre of the dispute earlier this year about the employment of foreign labour. Managers started hiring Italian and Portuguese workers. This sparked walkouts at refineries, gas terminals and power stations across the country.
The strikes at Lindsey have spread to other power stations at Drax and Eggborough in Yorkshire and Ratcliffe in Nottinghamshire, and BP's Saltend refinery near Hull. Workers have also walked at the BOC oxygen plant at Scunthorpe, Fiddlers Ferry in Cheshire and Aberthaw in south Wales, the trade union Unite said. Energy company E.ON said up to 150 contract workers at the Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station also walked out in support of the Lindsey oil refinery strike.
Total, the French-based global oil corporation, directed its main contractor to end all sub-contracts on the project, thus terminating the employment of all 900 workers involved. They were vulnerable to unilateral action by the company because officials from the GMB and Unite unions had refused to make their strike action official out of fear of the restrictions imposed by anti-union legislation.
In fact, the company said the workers had been involved in "an unofficial, illegal walk out" that was "repudiated" by both Unite and the GMB union. All a spokesman for Unite could say was: "We are extremely concerned about the ramifications of the employer's actions. We are urging all parties to get back around the negotiating table to resolve this situation." Not exactly fighting talk and unlikely to concern Total.
Meanwhile, the Communication Workers Union (CWU) said up to 8,000 members in London were due to walk out this morning with workers in Scotland due to strike on Saturday. The union has accused Royal Mail of cuts which break a national agreement and threatened modernisation. Deputy general secretary of the CWU Dave Ward said: "We are now seeing cuts but not modernisation in the postal industry and there's only so long before this is going have a major impact on services.”
Here again, union leaders are begging rather than fighting. They have offered the employers and the government a three month no-strike deal if they agree to work with the union on modernisation and, according to Ward, “move to get the company on a sound footing for the future".
The Lindsey sackings and the postal workers’ struggle demonstrate that the refusal of union bureaucrats to fight the employers and, in the case of the CWU, the government which is going ahead with plans to part-privatise the service, is one reason why unemployment is soaring throughout the country. Employers are aware that union “leaders” live more in fear of the anti-union laws than them and are acting accordingly to impose the economic crisis on the backs of workers.
Ending the wretched system of sub-contracting in the construction industry and defeating New Labour over privatisation requires policies of social ownership and workers’ control of the corporations and the mail service – and leaders that will fight to carry them into practice.
AWTW communications editor