Wild claims and wildcat strikes
The walkouts over foreign workers are neither evidence of a wave of xenophobia nor a re-emergence of trade union militancy.
Whatever else it is, the unofficial strike over foreign workers at Lindsey oil refinery in Lincolnshire, England, is not a throwback to the traditional trade union militancy of the past. Instead the strike and the reactions to it look like a snapshot of the newly confused and confusing responses to the recession, a mixture of inchoate anger and political incoherence. Or as one veteran of the left succinctly put it: ‘What a fucking mess’.
Such a messy affair does not seem to lend itself to simple agitational slogans, whether it be ‘British jobs for British workers’ or ‘Stop the xenophobia’. But we can at least try to identify some underlying issues. In that spirit, a few provisional thoughts.
Why has a small, wildcat strike involving a few hundred workers become such a major issue, sparking solidarity walkouts in various corners of Britain? One reason it has sparked excitement and anger on all sides is because it is just about the only public sign of resistance or anger over the impact of the recession in the UK. Some frustrated commentators have seized upon this to ask why Britons don’t riot or go on general strike like the rest of Europe. Others worry that this might be the first sign of a new wave of union unrest.
The lack of resistance to mass redundancies and cuts to date has certainly confirmed the direly depleted state of the trade union movement in the UK, compared to the relative residual strength in, say, France or Italy. The more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger response of many has revealed a far more atomised, defeatist state of mind than in the previous capitalist crises.
But what the workers’ support for the Lincolnshire walkout hints at is that there is a sort of ‘quiet riot’ going on beneath the surface of British society – a riot, after all, not being a formulated political response. There is a simmering unease and fear about the future among many individuals that might burst out in unpredictable ways when it finds something to focus on and throw a metaphorical brick at.
The issue of foreign contract workers at a Lincolnshire oil refinery and other plants has become such an outlet. But it seems clear listening to the rank-and-file workers involved in the dispute that the targets for their anger are prime minister Gordon Brown, the employers, the bankers. There have been no reported attacks on foreign workers to compare with the racist backlash against immigrants in the past. This is an incoherent outburst of anger and unrest, which shows how difficult it becomes to deal with everyday problems of jobs and pay when there is no political alternative on offer.
‘British jobs for British workers’ is of course a reactionary and divisive slogan, and it is no surprise to see right-wing commentators discovering a rare sympathy for striking workers or hear reports of the far-right British National Party (BNP) trying to cash in on the dispute. However, in political or certainly racial terms it seems to mean little here, any more than the more progressive-sounding ‘Jobs for workers!’ is a practical response.
Yet it has been seized upon by some in the political elite as evidence that the British working classes are just ignorant fascism-fodder. This was articulated by the obnoxious UK business secretary Peter Mandelson, who got on his high horse to accuse the Lincolnshire workers of pursuing ‘the politics of xenophobia’. This is the latest sign of the cultural contempt for the British working classes previously discussed on spiked, where Brendan O’Neill noted how many on the liberal-left these days people from abroad to the workers at home (see Why the elite prefers Poles to proles, by Brendan O’Neill). This view of the lower orders as lumpen, drunken, fat, feckless and proto-fascist compared to their Continental counterparts has dominated discussion in recent years, and has come to the fore over the foreign contract workers dispute. The irony is that such a gross caricature of those whom the elite call the ‘underclass’ bears no relation to the working men seen on our screens protesting for jobs.
On the other side of the debate, many have blamed Brown for provoking this anger by making his infamous ‘British jobs for British workers’ pledge in 2007. The prime minister certainly deserves to be hammered for that and for his performance over this dispute, telling the wildcat strikers that their action was ‘indefensible’, as if he has a clue about defending. But it is not just Brown. Leading liberal-left commentators have been arguing for more restrictions on foreign workers in recent years, worrying that the influx from new EU member states might spark a racist response from British workers. In this way they tried to put a progressive spin on anti-immigration arguments. It was arguably to these influential voices, rather than the marginal BNP, that New Labour was making concessions when it made Romanians and Bulgarians into second-class Europeans by capping the number of them that could come to Britain to work each year, and declared its commitment to British jobs for British workers. Wherever could those strikers have got the idea from that ‘xenophobia’ was legitimate?
These disputes have also revealed the trade unions as gutless shells of their former selves, indulging the fears of their members yet afraid to fight or support their illegal actions. So the union leaders run to the lawyers to fight their battles for them, while the local shop stewards make speeches declaring ‘I’m a victim, you’re a victim, there are thousands in this country who are victims of this discrimination, this victimisation of the British worker’. They sound more like a victims’ rights group than a collective organisation of the labour movement.
And the dispute has also confirmed once more the pernicious influence of the EU bureaucracy over life and work in Europe. The situation over EU law and workers/employers rights appears so complex that nobody really knows what has been going on in Lincolnshire or elsewhere. Yet the response is to turn to the Euro-lawyers and judges to sort it out. The pervasive intrusion of the EU can only divide and disorient by turning every relation between Europeans into a formalised legal dispute, rather than the real relationship between people from different places that it is in towns and workplaces across the UK today.
These disputes certainly illustrate the old Marxist argument about the limits of trade union consciousness, the way that spontaneous outbursts of working-class anger can be diverted and dissipated without a wider political outlook. More than that, they show that, while working-class people are suffering in this recession, and many are quietly angry, they lack a political voice of their own more than ever before. Why else would they borrow a slogan from somebody like Brown?
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.
Mick Hume remembered Dave Hallsworth, who was once victimised for his part in a strike by Asian mill workers against racism and low pay. Dave Hallsworth himself reflected on leading a major stike in 1982. Nathalie Rothschild accused Phil Woolas of exploiting the economic crisis to clamp down on immigration. Neil Davenport wondered why there are so many wannabe workers. Elsewhere, he explained why the elite still fear ‘rivers of blood’. Or read more at spiked issues British politics and Economy.
To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.