The red shoots of resistance? Recession struggles in the UK

The Lindsey refinery wildcat strike

Article written in 2009 examining key workers' struggles in the UK as the recession took hold, including the Ford Visteon occupation and Lindsey refinery wildcat strikes.

Introduction

The economic crisis has led to not so much a wave, but certainly a resurgence of workers’ struggles in the UK. Wildcat strikes have rippled across the country, factories have been occupied by laid-off workers, and schools by parents protesting against their closure, while official and unofficial postal strikes have taken place all over the country as the dubious ‘victory’ of the 2007 national strike settlement begins to take effect. In Brighton, the council are going after one of the most militant sections of the working class in the Cityclean refuse workers and street cleaners – who have a history of wildcat strikes and occupations.1 The council’s threat to impose pay cuts of up to £8,000 per person (from a maximum salary of under £20k) has already provoked demonstrations by Cityclean workers with further action promised if the council presses ahead.2 Are these the red shoots of a revival of working class militancy? Or the last gasps of a class still weakened by capital’s assaults of the 1980s?

This short article will look at the Lindsey Oil Refinery Strikes, the Ford-Visteon and Vestas occupations and the parents’ occupations of schools in Glasgow and Lewisham Bridge. These struggles are chosen as they raise interesting questions which will no doubt remain pertinent as the mooted economic recovery provides the cue for the raft of further cuts that are planned. In describing these disputes, old themes are to be found: nationalism versus internationalism, trade union versus extra-union action, mass meetings versus back-room deals and the role of leftists and revolutionaries. However, there are also relatively new dynamics, such as the intersection of environmental struggles with class struggles. How do these play out against the backdrop of the economic crisis?

The Lindsey Oil Refinery wildcats

In January 2009, 600 workers demonstrated at the Lindsey Oil Refinery (LOR) in Lincolnshire. The BBC described it as “an escalating protest over the use of foreign labour.”3 Workers were pictured with placards repeating Gordon Brown’s “British jobs for British workers” slogan, itself stolen from the National Front. Some of these placards were clearly not official union ones, but home made. Together with prominent media coverage of the odd Union Jacks in the crowd and the far-right British National Party swinging into full opportunist mode, it seemed like the first outbreak of open class struggle of the crisis was a return to the nationalist strikes of the 1970s. 4

The trigger for the dispute was the decision by the refinery operator Total to subcontract to an Italian firm IREM, which brought in its own Italian workforce. This was the source of the ‘against foreign labour’ line favoured by the media. Total was apparently making use of the EU posted worker directive that makes it legal to pay subcontracted EU workers the minimum wage of their state of origin, not their place of employment, and therefore allegedly not allowing local workers to apply for the jobs. The construction contracting industry remains one of the most heavily unionised in the UK, and a national agreement on pay and conditions – NAECI – was in place.

Total took advantage of the existing outsourced, subcontracting arrangements together with the EU directive to bring in Italian workers, who were assumed by the existing LOR contractors to be on inferior conditions, undercutting NAECI. This proved difficult to confirm, as Total was silent on grounds of ‘commercial confidentiality’, and was sure to house the Italian contractors in an off-shore barge, bussing them to and from site to prevent any contact with the local workers even before the picket lines began.

Solidarity walkouts rippled across the country at 13 refineries and power stations from Longannet in Fife to Milford Haven in South Wales to Langage Power Station near Plymouth, involving in total upwards of 4,000 workers.5 Reports that Polish workers had joined them at Langage,6 and the emergence of banners amongst pickets written in Italian and others bearing the slogan ‘workers of the world, unite!’ began to shed doubt on the official narrative of a simple racist strike for national protectionism. The actual demands of the LOR strike committee, overwhelmingly endorsed by a mass meeting were in many ways typical trade unionist ones. They were as follows:7

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, with nominating rights as work becomes available; Government and employer investment in proper training/apprenticeships for new generation of construction workers - fight for a future for young people; All immigrant labour to be unionised; Trade union assistance for immigrant workers - including interpreters - and access to trade union advice - to promote active integrated trade union members; Build links with construction trade unions on the continent.

The result was that 102 new jobs were created on top of the existing ones, with no foreign workers losing their jobs, on which a member of the strike committee commented that, “I'm glad the lads are back at work, earning money again, and the Italian lads are still here.”8 According to the Socialist Party the strike was "a stunning victory" in which all the workers' demands were met. They also reported that "the 647 dismissals have been withdrawn, the 51 redundancies rescinded and all employees have been guaranteed a minimum of four week's work i.e. as much work as is probably available."9 The last point does put this ‘stunning victory’ into perspective, but the LOR dispute did demonstrate that workers can take unofficial action and break the laws on secondary picketing with impunity, and win.

The Ford-Visteon occupations

Visteon was a company created in June 2000 when the Ford Motor Company outsourced some of its sub-assembly work. However, Ford retained a 60% controlling stake. Existing workers were promised ‘mirrored conditions’, i.e. the honouring of their existing Ford terms and conditions. New staff were employed under inferior contracts. On the 31st March 2009, Visteon entered receivership. They announced the closure of their three UK factories and the lay-offs of 610 workers.

Workers were made to work up to the end of their shifts, then given only a few minutes notice of the lay-offs – with no compensation or even wages due, breaching the ‘mirrored conditions’ since they were not treated like Ford employees. In Belfast, this triggered a spontaneous occupation of the factory. The following day on hearing the news, the plants in Enfield (north London) and Basildon (Essex) were also occupied by their respective workers. Although the workers were all members of the Unite union, the union provided little-to-no support apart from token visits by union bosses. The occupations weren’t even mentioned on Unite’s website.

There had been little militant history at Visteon, although disputes in the late 70s were in living memory of some of the older workers. The Basildon plant contained little stock or plant of worth to the company, so workers set about trashing the offices. They were ‘persuaded’ to leave by a squad of riot cops, and began a 24-hour picket of the site. In Enfield, the occupation lasted until Thursday 9th April, when Unite – using a combination of dubious legal advice and the promise of a ‘deal’ that they refused to announce until the following Tuesday – persuaded workers to vacate the plant. They also began a 24-hour picket to prevent asset stripping.

Only the workers in Belfast remained in occupation. It was probably no coincidence that the Belfast workers had the closest ties to the surrounding community – hundreds of local supporters had visited within hours of the occupation beginning. In Belfast, workers mostly lived in the immediate surrounding area whereas the Enfield and Basildon workers mostly commuted to work from further away.

Unite and Visteon bosses carried on negotiations for the supposedly already done ‘deal’ in the US. Ford bosses refused to participate, denying any responsibility to honour the ‘mirrored conditions’ agreement. Most of the negotiations were carried out in a backroom manner; it was reported that Enfield convenors who had accompanied Unite officials to the US negotiations were left in the bar while Unite and Visteon bosses negotiated the workers’ future over their heads. The result of all this was an offer of 90 days redundancy pay – the statutory minimum.

This prompted Enfield workers to reinforce their barricades at the exits of the plant, and encouraged Belfast workers to maintain their occupation. Visteon workers and their Unite convenors were also preparing to send delegates to the only other Ford UK factory in Bridgend. The factory was profitable and a vital part of Ford’s supply chain. This finally brought Ford to the negotiating table, and Unite put pressure on workers to call off the Bridgend delegations. The final settlement was a partial victory insomuch as it was an improvement on the legal minimum. However many areas, such as pensions were left unresolved.10

The school occupations

In February parents occupied the roof of Our Lady of the Assumption primary school in north-west Glasgow. Their action was in response to council plans to close 25 primary schools and nurseries across Glasgow that had already provoked protest marches and parents blockading a council meeting. This was followed in April by the occupation of St Gregory’s and Wyndford primaries by parents, after recognising the ‘public consultation’ launched by the Council in response to earlier protests as a stitch-up.11

Meanwhile, April also saw the occupation of the roof of Lewisham Bridge primary in south London by parents and supporters angry at council plans to demolish the school. Lewisham council had already closed the school, bussing children to another school instead. They planned to demolish the school and replace it with one for 3-16 year-olds and twice the number of students, forcing play areas and room sizes down below government standards. The new school was to have ‘Foundation’ status, with admissions policy set by the independent governors backed by private capital.

The Lewisham Bridge occupation was inspired by the Glasgow ‘save our schools’ campaign and the Visteon occupations. Workers from Visteon’s Enfield and Belfast plants visited the occupation, donating their warm, hi-visibility jackets to the occupiers camped out on the roof. In turn, the Lewisham Bridge occupation inspired parents to occupy Charlotte Turner primary school in nearby Deptford, which the Council planned to close despite another sham ‘consultation’ returning 296 out of 297 responses opposed to closure.12 All campaigns are ongoing as we write (October 2009), although the occupations have ended – for now.

In the case of Lewisham Bridge, the occupation was a total victory – although not entirely due to direct action. The occupiers applied to have the school building listed, which was successful. This scuppered the Council’s demolition plans. In the case of the Glasgow schools, the occupations were adopted as a tactic of the ongoing campaign and may yet recommence.

The Vestas occupation

Danish-owned Vestas Blades, manufactures wind turbines, and operates three sites on the Isle of Wight and in Southampton. Despite reporting healthy profits and increased sales, Vestas announced in July 2009 that it was closing its manufacturing facility at Newport in the Isle of Wight with the loss of 625 jobs. 19 workers responded by occupying the plant (although they led the press to believe there were nearer 30 of them to deter eviction efforts). They immediately pointed out the irrationality of Vestas’s ‘rationalistion’ - closing the UK’s only turbine factory at a time when the government had announced a policy of expanding renewable energy production in the face of undeniable anthropogenic climate change. Vestas had also recently received a multi-million pound grant from the UK government for research and development. Consequently, the workers made nationalisation in order to secure ‘green jobs’ one of their main demands.13

An interesting aspect of the occupation was the age of the occupiers – mostly under 25, and the fact they were non-unionised and had little history of militancy. As one of the workers who left the occupation early for family reasons said; “we don’t have any choice. If we lose these jobs we won’t find others here on the island. How are we meant to support our families then?”14 The occupation attracted support from a climate camp which set up on the roundabout outside the factory gates, as well as from the RMT union, which took on a lot of the organising on the outside, since the most militant workers were trapped inside the occupation by a fence erected by police and security to try and prevent supplies getting in – and to starve the occupiers out.

The occupation lasted three weeks, during which time various support groups were established in other towns. In Brighton, where we were involved, this consisted of a mixture of people from the Solidarity Federation, Socialist Party and Green Party, as well as non-aligned individuals, meeting on a weekly basis. Instead of being donated to the TUC-controlled fund, £100 raised in street collections was used to purchase supplies which were smuggled in to the occupiers after supporters staged a distraction at the perimeter fence. The previous day one worker had left the occupation “pale and shaky.” Paramedics sent him to hospital after detecting dangerously low blood sugar levels. 15

Unfortunately there was no attempt to spread the struggle to other workplaces – although deliberate efforts to set up support groups across the island were made. This was especially striking since the adjacent factory supplied much of its output to Vestas, and jobs were subsequently at risk there too. This seemed like a missed opportunity. The occupation ended without clear concessions; and the campaign appears to have wound down now that the final blades have been removed from the factory. However, some of the occupiers have been visiting picket lines of other disputes which suggests the experience has had a transformative effect on them.

Certainly in Brighton, the combination of the job losses and the environmental angle seemed to strike a chord with people during street collections, with the 1984/5 miners’ strike a common reference point for those who stopped to chat as we shook buckets outside Brighton train station. We found it interesting that the strike remains as much as a cultural reference point for ‘the general public’ as amongst the left.

Class struggle is never pure

The first interesting thing to note is about the ‘purity’ of struggles. Some leftists and even communists were quick to condemn the LOR wildcats as a ‘racist strike’, when the reality was much more complex. Likewise, some expressed doubts about the Vestas struggle due to the centrality of the demand for nationalisation, which although born out of a healthy distrust for Vestas bosses does perhaps express the influence of the members of ‘Workers’ Climate Action’ (a group set up by the Trotskyist Workers’ Liberty) who were present in a climate camp before the occupation and who were reportedly influential in the workers’ decision to occupy. Even when disputes are orchestrated to the timetable and strategy of union leaders, the actual factors that motivate workers to struggle are often varied. When struggles are initiated by workers themselves, this dynamic is amplified. There is rarely, at least to begin with, a singular struggle to support or oppose. Rather, there tends to be lively debate about just what demands to make, what tactics to employ and so on. In the case of the LOR strikes for example, an anarchist worker at LOR wrote:

I can't deny there was no nationalist element to the dispute at all. What you have to realise is that the engineering construction industry is not a homogenous mass, it is however the one remaining section of the construction industry which is still heavily unionised. Most of the lads I know and work with saw it as a working class issue not a nationalist issue, in fact one of the strike committee is half Italian, hardly the image portrayed in the national media, but then what do you expect?

On LOR we kept an eye out on the pickets for any wankers from the far right trying to jump onboard for their own purposes (…) What I found very disappointing was the reaction of the left, to the first grassroots action in years, with the notable exception of the Socialist Party who gave us a lot of support (thanks peeps). It seems that the left can manage to support various questionable regimes around the world, but actually having to dirty their hands with class struggle in their own country seems a bit too much for them. The working class isn't perfect but then it never will be, but the left and anarchists are never going to achieve much sitting in their ivory towers tutting at the plebs.16

At LOR, the dispute could have gone either way. In the end, the internationalist, working class demands won out (as per the demands of the strike committee, endorsed by a mass meeting). This was because workers in the struggle who held these views – including those who were members of socialist or anarchist organisations – argued, as participants, that their best interests lay in workers’ solidarity not nationalism. The following exchange from bearfacts.co.uk - where the ‘British Jobs…’ placards originated - was typical of this debate:

#1 "We did not take this to a racial level, you did, now get ready to reap what you sow. I have worked in your country and respected your culture and industrial rules, just remember you drew first blood not us. Go home now, you have now outstayed the welcome we gave you by not involving you in our plight."

#2 "We want to be careful with the nationalism, lads, so that things don't turn nasty. I've got nothing [sic] against the Italian workers as such, they're just doing a job, putting food on the table for their families. They're not Wops (Without Papers- as they are EU citizens and are legally allowed to work here) - besides this is racist. Many of us have worked abroad - Germany, Spain, Middle East - did we think or care about jobs in those countries? Getting at the workers is just going to give us a bad reputation, and turn the public against us.

The problem is with the tenders, Total management and probably the govt. for allowing foreign companies to undercut. The govt. shouldn't allow this to happen. They haven't thought about the social price to the area, only the price of the contract."

Compared to the attempts by outside communists to influence the dispute, for example the Tea Break bulletin which was no sooner ready as the dispute was over,17 these internal ‘interventions’ had an immeasurably greater impact. The influence the Socialist Party apparently had at Lindsey (and the demands do very much read in their leftist, rank-and-file trade unionist vein) was largely down to the presence of one of their members on the strike committee, not successful paper selling at the gates. Keith Gibson’s presence on the strike committee, like the presence of anarchist workers at South Hook LNG and LOR may well be a coincidence. However it does demonstrate the importance of participating in struggles if you wish to influence them, an approach juxtaposed to the Leninist caricature of a purist, ‘infantile disorder’ position that was ironically in this instance exemplified by the Trotskyist Workers’ Power.18

It is also notable that all of these industrial disputes took place in traditional, manual sectors. Despite the widespread redundancies in the service sector, and financial services in particular, there have been no comparable struggles. This may well reflect the legacy of past militancy in ‘blue collar’ jobs, where a degree of job security is expected and wages are often higher than comparably qualified service sector jobs. It may be the violation of these expectations with outsourcing and short-notice redundancy without compensation that provoked the spontaneous, direct reactions of the workers. By contrast service sector workers, lacking these expectations seem to have been resigned to their fates and suffered them as atomised individuals. Admittedly this is a somewhat speculative explanation. There’s no obvious short-term solution to this impasse besides the long-term efforts of service sector workers to self-organise.19

The role of the left

A supporter involved in the Enfield occupation concluded that Unite had functioned as “a force for isolation”:

Most of the finances were coming from local union branches (not just car workers) sending donations via the support group; though the union finally, after 3 weeks, coughed up some cash. Unite also failed to mention the dispute on their website or send out information to local union branches - showing their real attitude to the dispute and concern to keep it isolated. As the dispute went on, ex-workers' disillusionment with the union increased to a permanent cynicism - unsurprisingly, given their lack of support and Unite's failure to keep ex-workers informed. Many felt their convenors were too close to, or influenced by, the union bosses and that this affected their ability to act in the best interests of all. But, without having space here to say much, we must note that any criticism of the union must recognise that it is not simply - as some supporters and workers have implied - that the union is 'not doing its job properly', but that it is doing its job all too well as a capitalist institution. As always, it has prioritised its own organisational interests and tried to limit workers' gains to what can be accommodated to those interests and to the wider interests of the economy.20

We agree with the conclusion. At LOR things were similar. Union officials were happy to opportunistically echo Gordon Brown’s nationalism back to him, the most internationalist sentiments emerging from the strike committee itself and the wildcats elsewhere, including the Polish workers at Langage (although these undoubtedly involved union shop stewards, often among the most militant workers).

However, we would warn against seeing the strike committee as some organic, spontaneous expression of proletarian internationalism. Unite had previously been involved in a campaign against the EU posted workers directive, and the strike committee was largely made up of reps who had been involved in that. Likewise the ‘spontaneous walkouts’ across the country themselves drew on this pre-existing network of reps, which was assisted by the nature of subcontracting work where workers take jobs at different sites and build up informal networks which can then function as a communication channel in disputes such as this.

While the internationalist demands at LOR were overwhelmingly endorsed by a mass meeting, it is hard to decipher exactly how much this was a result of the internal discussions amongst the strikers reaching clear internationalist conclusions, and how much it was a reflection of the degree to which the struggle was controlled by union reps and political party members and not the mass meetings themselves. Visteon was another example where the form of the mass meeting functioned as a rubber stamp for decisions made elsewhere. Mass meetings which simply endorse decisions instead of making them may, for workers not familiar with having control of their own struggles, merely reinforce the role of the union as the ‘experts’ whose decisions the membership formally rubber-stamps. Such mass meetings are arguably more of a threat to workers’ control of struggles than diktats handed down from union full-timers, since at least the latter - by eschewing notional democracy - invites workers to reject it. We should not make the mistake of fetishising particular forms of organisation without regard to their content.

At Vestas, things were slightly more complicated simply because the workforce was initially non-unionised, but some of the occupiers joined the RMT as they supported the dispute with cash and legal advice from the outside. Although the RMT tried to channel the dispute away from the direct action route onto the terrain of bourgeois legalism (offering to fund the court cases, but not breaking the starvation blockade, which was nonetheless managed by a handful of anarchists21), their influence was difficult to determine. And when the occupiers ended the occupation, they did begin to take back a much more central organising role for themselves. Thus the RMT’s involvement probably makes the most sense in terms of Bob Crow capitalising on the militancy of the membership to highlight the RMT’s place as ‘Britain's fastest growing trade union’22 and cement their market niche as a radical, ‘fighting union’ (members’ RMT t-shirts at Vestas featured prominent red stars).

However at Vestas the threat of recuperation did not come mainly from the trade unions but from professional activists, including at least one Liberal Democrat politician, staging a takeover of the support group. A comrade who recently responded to an urgent call-out for assistance blockading the Vestas plant to prevent the removal of valuable stock reported that there was a total absence of anyone from a workers’ movement background save for a couple of Workers’ Climate Action/Alliance for Workers’ Liberty members.23 Instead, the ‘climate camp’ had fallen under the domination of a clique of radical liberals (apparently from the ‘Climate Rush’ group24) who treated the Vestas workers as nothing more than convenient media fodder and supporters as if they were subordinate volunteers for an NGO, for example dishing out orders but refusing to say to what end particular tasks were being done because it was ‘classified’.

A member of this clique also interrupted a news interview outside the court with a 70 year-old environmental activist charged with criminal damage and assault, shouting, “He’s not with us! He’s not with us!”, because the charges would ‘make the campaign look bad’. Never mind that they were picked up whilst trying to break the blockade that was attempting to starve the workers out of occupation. Said liberal continued to berate the supporters present for talking to the media without going through her first; the politics are liberal-green, but the modus operandi is classically Leninist. People who criticised the cosmetics firm Lush25 - whose boss was reportedly now paying staff £50 a day to staff the blockade of the factory - were also shouted down since Lush is an ‘ethical green business’ and so ‘on our side.’ Lush is one of the sponsors of Climate Rush.26

This dynamic no doubt reflects the changing terrain of the struggle from one of workers’ direct action to one of issue campaigning, to which radical green liberals are so well accustomed. But it does show that workers’ self-organisation does not just face recuperation by traditional modes of representation (trade unions and political parties), but relatively novel ‘radical’ ones as well. This is something to bear in mind as an ecological dynamic to workers’ struggles may become more common given the level of public awareness of climate change and the obvious incompatibility between capital’s logic and the environment made clear by things such as the Vestas closure.

Some tentative conclusions

So are we witnessing a revival of working class militancy? It would be wishful thinking to say so based on the current evidence. There are certainly encouraging signs in the way workers have taken direct action outside of the unions, made links with the wider working class communities and worked constructively with revolutionaries while giving short shrift to attempts by politicos to use others’ struggles for their own ends. However perhaps what is most pertinent to a sober analysis of the recent struggles is how atypical they are. The massive wave of lay-offs that has driven up unemployment to levels unheard of for over a decade has been conducted largely without resistance, as almost a million workers have been thrown out of work since the recession began.27

Only time will tell if the development of the crisis, and the planned ‘clawbacks’ of working class living standards will provoke an escalation and extension of self-organised struggles, or a retreat into cynicism, atomised resignation and the carefully-managed defeats overseen by union representation. The most important thing we can consider now is how we can organise to increase the chances of the former outcome and minimise the chances of the latter. That debate goes far beyond the present article, but it is one revolutionary workers, readers and authors alike need to have.

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