On Thursday 30 May construction workers at the Tees Renewable Energy Plant, owned by MGT Power, walked out in a wildcat action over safety conditions at the site. When workers act on their own class terrain they begin to challenge the capitalist structure as a whole.
A safety incident seems to have initially sparked the protest. On Tuesday 28 May a suspended load moved unexpectedly during installation and, although no one was injured, the workers no longer felt safe at the site. Despite the area being quarantined, two days later they decided to down tools. The ongoing strike, which now enters its sixth day, has been covered by local media (which the workers, for the most part, have refused to speak to). Up to 400 workers have taken part in the action, gathering each morning as early as 5am, and dispersing around noon. Rather than stay within the privately owned grounds of the building site they have been blocking the nearby Tees Dock Road. This has caused massive congestion on the busy A66 and A174, impacting travel and business in the whole of Teesside. On Monday, the third day of the strike, the police stepped up their presence. Hundreds of police officers were called in as reinforcements from Cleveland, Durham and Northumbria, including riot police, dog units and a helicopter. Whether the workers themselves realise this yet or not, the reaction they have received from the establishment shows just how much of a threat workers pose to capital and the state when they act outside trade union procedures. It wasn’t until Wednesday that the police finally managed to keep the road open. One person has been arrested in connection with the blockade (the circumstances of the arrest are not clear however).
The workers seem to be mostly employed by Técnicas Reunidas, a Spanish-based contractor. This is not the first time they have gone on strike. Concerns over health and safety and the employment of foreign labour1 have already led to similar walkouts and blockades in February and November 2018. Regarding the current situation, MGT, which owns the site, had the following to say: "It is not clear what the workers’ demands are, and under the rules of the Blue Book agreement with the unions, the employers involved are not allowed to discuss a resolution to the issues until the workforce returns to work." Meanwhile, the local Redcar MP Anna Turley (Labour), has, unsurprisingly, parroted the line of the employers: "This needs to be taken off the dock road and into a meeting room with workers, their union representatives and the contractor so that any issues can be properly discussed."
The protest has come to a stalemate. All compromise offers devised by the union reps and the contractor have so far been rejected, and the employers are unwilling to seriously negotiate unless workers go back to work. The workers are unwilling to go back to work – but since the rumours that inspectors from the Health and Safety Executive have finally deemed the site “unsafe” on Wednesday, workers said they will not block the road on Thursday, instead a mass meeting has been called at 6.30am to decide what action to take next. As the situation is still ongoing it is too early to draw any conclusions. We can however make two brief observations.
Like the struggle of the Durham teaching assistants of 2015-72 , the Teesside workers have organised their action outside the unions. The Durham teaching assistants however also created an alternative structure (although not fully independent of the unions) to carry out their struggle in the form of the “activist committee”. The Teesside construction workers conduct their struggle through assembly style gatherings, but a strike committee doesn’t seem to exist. On the positive side this does make it very difficult for the employers to conduct their sham negotiations, but it also opens the way for union reps and other self-declared leaders to step in as “workers’ representatives”, when they may not necessarily reflect the views of the strikers. As we said before,
“In real independent struggles we organise from the bottom. Mass meetings elect strike committees to coordinate the strike and link up with others in the same boat. The committee is responsible to the mass meeting and can be immediately recalled by it. Committee members can be replaced if necessary.”3
While this does not ensure victory by itself, strike committees provide workers with accountable structures and, when they spread from industry to industry, can pose the question of the organisation of this society. One of the strengths of the Durham teaching assistants was the solidarity they received from outside. The conditions the Teesside construction workers face are common across the region (and beyond!). In order to bring the stalemate to an end in workers’ favour, this could be the next logical step.
The second observation is that the building site will become a £650m biomass fuelled power station. For all the cheerleaders of the Green New Deal and similar policies that attempt to deal with the looming environmental crisis through reforming capitalism this should prompt some reflection. The hundreds of thousands of “green” jobs that are to be created will require a mass mobilisation of the working class by the state. Just because these jobs are “green” does not mean they will be any less exploitative or unsafe for the working class. In short, until workers challenge the system en masse with their own vision of a new world free of exploitation and profit, the struggle will continue.
5 June 2019