Back to the future?

We know in our guts that the strikes supporting the Lindsey oil refinery dispute make a powerful point. As they reveal deep fears of wider unemployment, they also expose government weakness. The immediate official response does no more than play for time.

Employment Minister Pat McFadden last night said he had asked Acas to examine claims that British workers were being illegally excluded from some major engineering and construction projects.

This is a dangerous moment. The first wave of sympathetic action involving Kilroot workers give an echo however faint, of the UWC strike of 1974 which brought down the first power sharing Executive and tempted the Labour government into seriously considering pulling out of Northern Ireland.. +Mass action like the miners’ strikes of 1973 –4 and 1983 -4 died with the coal industry. Therefore the historic parallels are inexact. These days, strikes can be far more targeted and less wasteful of workers’ wages and yet make an equally powerful impact. The example of the French-style road hauliers’ action of 2000 at oil refineries is the best precedent we have of how the already beleaguered economy could be brought juddering to a halt. It gave the first Blair administration the fright of its life. And that was in the good times.These protests, labelled petit bourgeois in character rumbled on during the decade but without the same impact. Full blown workers’ strikes would be action of a different order.

How much more serious could spiralling action become, based on the potency of the dangerously misleading slogan of “British jobs for British workers?” Volatile prices, just-in-time fuel distribution and inadequate storage render the supply of all types of fuel at least as vulnerable to angry workers’ action today as was the national grid in the days before Thatcher ordered the stock-piling of coal at power stations to guard against another defeat at the hands of the miners.

Up to a few weeks ago, workers’ action had hardly been thought of as a factor any more in running the new service economy. Yet in some ways, government is even more exposed than it was in 1974. At least then, North Sea Oil was coming on stream . Today it’s running out and the UK is Europe’s most vulnerable energy economy. As between disgruntled workers and bosses, whether of industry or government, the power equation is changing back in workers’ favour for the first time in a generation.

The big task now is to ease the situation. The moderate left champion Jon Cruddas is no protectionist, but his call for a social wage on the precedent of the minimum wage may be worth developing, if the UK is to avert serious industrial unrest, as the jobless total climbs.
We need to create new forms of economic citizenship, and bring the economy and work under greater democratic control. That should be the agenda, not “British jobs for British workers”.

  • Yokel

    The UWC link is essentially irrelevant Brian.

    Sure we are going to hit unrest, the UK Left have been gearing for their moment because they know they’ll get more out of a Labour government in trouble (could ever see the kind of Public sector cuts being proposed by the Irish governmenet even being tried by UK Labour?).

    But bringing the UWC into it? Nah.

  • credit crunch

    Yes, it seemed promising until the UWC mention.
    Then again at least it reminded me of why I stopped buying the Tele all those years ago.

  • Kathleen

    If its a dangerously misleading slogan some one ought to have pointed that out to the pm or his speech writer before he said it. Politicians shouldn’t say things they don’t mean, thats a huge part of the problem here. Either Gordon Brown meant what he said or he didn’t… He’s been taken up on his word.

    I can’t disagree fundamentally with the substance of your post Brian, but there is something awfully arrogant about a French firm getting an Italian firm to bring in its own workers while skilled locals who could do the work are sitting idle…

    If they’d even given a few of the jobs.. but nothing. Workers are workers no matter where they are, people need money no matter where they are, but something lacks in this situation. Otherwise the original strikers wouldn’t be getting the support they are.

    *submit the word you see below: herself.

    That must be me 🙂

  • Brian Walker

    Oh come on guys, don’t use the “faint echo” of the UWC to mount a flank attack. The only point there is the echo of industrial muscle not the cause – don’t distract yourselves. At the time long ago, I was reporting the UWC strike on TV and radio on the BBC, nothing to do with my brief time with the Bel Tel so your little dig is misdirected. End of exchange.

  • Eddie

    How much reporting of the UWC strike did you do, Brian?

  • The real issue here, now revealed to the working man, is that UK membership of the EU means there is no such thing as “British jobs for British people.” Brown lied through his pearly white teeth when he implied otherwise and we all know it. So now the substantive issue is how does a Nation cope with rocketing unemployment of those born and bred within its borders, whilst foreign workers legally get the jobs? What societal stress lines may fracture? Protectionism, in my view, is wrong but then again so is the reality of mass unemployment amongst nationals whilst immigrants take over the jobs! What to do? How about a little…honesty?

    1. Politicians should make it clear that our membership of the EU means that an employer cannot legally discriminate in favour of a British worker over a foreign worker.

    2. They should then seek the will of the British people via a referendum on the EU. Do we stay or do we go, to quote The Clash?

    3. If we have no borders, no ability to determine the structure of our workforce, we are not a nation, just a sub-branch of Brussels. Let’s admit this and stop the subterfuge.

    I feel sorry for any worker losing their job but at the heart of this issue lies national self-determination. We need to deal with this.

  • anne warren

    The Italian and Portuguese workers (among the lowest paid in Europe) were brought in by this Sicilian company to live on ships while on this 3-4 month contract. Presumably they were going to take most of their salaries back to their home countries.
    It does seem very unfair while local workers are unemployed but, given the EU laws, I suppose British workers could go and work under similar conditions in other EU countries – if they could find the jobs which is not easy in today’s world.
    The situation does raise questions about the social value of work/wages in the local community; short term contract working conditions; whether tenders should necessarily be given to the firm that undercuts the most with no consideration given to effects on the local community and workforce; and whatever happened to the idea of uniting the workers of the world? Survival of the fittest in the current economic climate? Or should perhaps the doctrine of free movement of labout be re-assessed in a changing/changed EU?

  • Quagmire

    “at the heart of this issue lies national self-determination. We need to deal with this.”
    Posted by David Vance on Jan 31, 2009 @ 10:49 PM

    We tried to deal with the question of self determination in 1918 with the General Election but alas democracy was suspended and this right was denied the Irish people, but have no fear for it won’t be long now. The UWC strike of the early 70’s was just a case of history repeating itself i.e. Unionists don’t likey, so they throw the rattle out of the pram and the whole place comes to a standstill. Thank God those days are gone forever. It must have been great to be a Unionist back in the good oul days. Was it David? Back when those irritating fenians knew their place and not to speak out of turn. Indeed a foreign national would probably have had more chance getting a job back then, more than a fenian anyway.

  • SDLP supporter

    Will agree with you on one point: Brown is wrong to dissemble and talk about “British jobs for British workers”, given that we are in the EU. After that, I part company with you. We’re in a whole new world where we either retreat behind enormous tariff walls, as the world did in the 1930s, or as the Republic did up to the 1960s, and die a slow death.

    Up to the seventies, maybe eighties, RoI was the only state in the world whose population was falling, yet it had enormous foreign currency reserves through emigrants’ remittances. TK Whhittaker pointed out that, effectively, the last person standing would keep all the money, but it would be no use.

    The next big tsunami, with the shrinking of the tax base, is less money to pay out to people who are-maybe not through their own fault-practically unemployable. In NI we have 26% of the population operating at the lowest level of literacy and lots of young people without 5 A-C GCSEs. That, sadly, makes them unfit for anything except basic manual work, and that’s getting scarcer all the time.

    We’ve many people who have taken themselves out of the workforce and are applying for DLA. We have jobs here, as 30,000 Poles working here, mostly in the food industry. Yet you hear people on ‘Nolan’ say “I wouldn’t work for less than £7-8 an hour”.

    The future for us has to be tradeable goods and services. The protected public sector is going to get hit soon, too, because of the shrinking tax base. We have to deliver goods and services that other nations want to buy.

    In answer to your three numbered points:

    1. Agree-politicans should make clear what UK/Irish obligations are.
    2. No problem about a referendum. It could, at least lead to an informed debate. Many in Britain are deluded by the legacy of Empire. I predict that the RoI Lisborn Treaty re-run will pass. All the stuff about RoI “being the richest country in Europe and we can stand alone” was sbullshit.
    3. The EU is the greatest project in democracy the world has ever seen. You have to be a democratic state to be in the EU. It’s up to the people to take power through their elected representatives.

    Here in NI we could make a start by getting rid of the three dummy MEPs:

    Allister-who is rabidly against anything EU, but doesn’t forget to draw his salary.
    Nicholson-who doesn’t even know what group he’s in, but the best of a poor lot.
    De Brun-who’s silent in two languages. As Alban Maginness said last week, he’d like to discuss policy with her, but he doesn’t want to intrude on her privacy.

  • Dave

    “If its a dangerously misleading slogan some one ought to have pointed that out to the pm or his speech writer before he said it. Politicians shouldn’t say things they don’t mean, thats a huge part of the problem here. Either Gordon Brown meant what he said or he didn’t… He’s been taken up on his word.”

    The circumstantial evidence would suggest that he does mean it, but that evidence is deliberately misleading. As The Times points out: “Official figures have shown that immigrants have taken four out of every five new jobs in Britain since 1997.”

    You can instantly see that British workers have a well-founded grievance that they are being discriminated against in their own country from the fact that 80% of all new jobs that have been created in the UK in the last 12 years have been taken by foreign nationals. 80% of them, no less. That discrimination occurred under Labour.

    So what has Labour done about it in the last 12 years? Well, a couple of weeks ago the UK Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, announced that the British government would force specific categories of jobs to be advertised in UK Jobcentre Plus for a period of two weeks before they are advertised abroad. Err, that’s it. That’s all that Gordon has done to meet his promise to provide UK jobs for UK workers in the UK. Not much, is it?

    Labour did not opt for the 7 year derogation clauses in the 2003 Accession Treaty that would have prevented the free movement of labour to the UK, giving a clear signal that the UK government fully endorsed the policy of British jobs for EU workers. He can’t blame the transfer of the applicable British sovereignty to the EU for all his failure to act in the interests of the UK’s citizens because the EU accounts for just 1 in 4 migrant workers in the UK whereas the UK still has sovereignty to impose visa requirements on the non-EU nationals who account for 3 in 4 of the migrant workers. At a time when UK workers are heading for the dole offices at the rate of 2,500 a day, that is not good enough.

    In the Lindsey case, the foreign companies who own that facility that no loyalty to the host nation wherein they operate. They are allowed to employ foreign labour within the EU superstate and they will properly do this if it serves their selfish interest. You can’t blame the wolves for tearing the sheep to pieces. You should properly blame the shepherd who failed to protect them and who, indeed, left them to the wolves in an unguarded field because sovereign, territorial fences are now out of vogue.

    The ‘state’ that British workers are citizens of is the EU, and they must compete with other workers within that zone. Unfortunately, they must compete on an unlevel playing field because the amount of money it takes to feed the family of a UK worker for a week is the same as the amount of money that workers in more competitive parts of EU zone are paid in a month. That means that British workers must accept pittance wages or lose their jobs to migrant workers from more competitive zones within the EU or, indeed, lose their industry to those more competitive EU zones.

    British workers can’t compete with other EU zones where workers are paid a monthly pittance, so foreign-owned ‘British’ industry will vanish to those regions in the years ahead as they invest in their infrastructure (thanks to billions of the dwindling pile of British taxpayers money going to fund the pet projects of the EU superstate). There is no solution to that as long as the EU remains as just another region of the EU.

    Still, be grateful that you are not in Ireland. We have the highest levels of welfare payments within the EU (minimum unemployment benefit in Ireland is almost 4 times higher per week than the UK, for example) so as that backward region of the world slides deeper in recession, we can enjoy a huge injection of welfare-seekers transferring from poorer welfare state zones in Euroland to enjoy the higher Irish benefits and there is absolutely nothing we can do about it except work and borrow our socks off as a nation to pay for it.

  • Dave

    Typo: “There is no solution to that as long as the [b]UK[/b] remains as just another region of the EU.”

  • Harry Flashman

    Let’s see now an industrial dispute at heavy engineering plants against Labour government policy and centring around the issue of Britishness. The one place where workers in Northern Ireland joined this dispute just happens to be the industrial plant that was the cockpit in the last major politically motivated strike against Labour government policy which centred on Britishness as a core issue.

    A blogger on a Northern Ireland political weblog who happened to cover that previous dispute makes mention of it in passing and he is criticised for doing so. Blog on Brian and bugger the begrudgers.

    Anyway to the main issue at hand, we must examine the dog which did not bark in the night. Anyone hear anything from the Tories about this issue?

    *sounds of crickets chirruping*

    The Tories are in a complete mess now, they will probably win the next election merely by default but on a issue like this which is gold plated opposition politics (they can rant on about the rights of British workers without actually having to say what they would do) but like generals fighting the last war so are the Tories forever fighting the 1997 election. Terrified of being thought of as the “nasty party” and desperately wishing to keep in with their new best friends in the metropolitan media the Tories will contrive to look the other way.

    Meanwhile UKIP and the BNP will be licking their lips at the prospects of the upcoming Euro election.

  • Dave

    ” The EU is the greatest project in democracy the world has ever seen. You have to be a democratic state to be in the EU. It’s up to the people to take power through their elected representatives.” – SDLP supporter

    This is brainwashed gibberish that is typical of Humeophiles from the SDLP. The EU is anti-democratic. It operates on the principle that the citizens of its member states have no right to self-determination, i.e. that they have no right to devise their own sovereign law. Instead, it holds that the sovereign powers of democracies should be removed from the citizens of states and transferred to a central bureaucracy that is not elected by and it not accountable to the people of those states. And before you respond with predicable brainwashed piffle that Ireland having 0.8% ‘power’ to devise its own laws via EU membership when it should have 100% in its own sovereign parliament is ‘democratic’ – don’t bother.

    Harry, Nice Dave (no relation) has already shot himself in the ‘public mood’ foot by accusing Gordon of stealing the slogan from the BNP and tut-tuting along the lines that believing that the British state still exists and exists with an absolute duty to promote the selfish, strategic interest of its own citizens is now deemed akin to racism.

  • The Raven

    Perhaps an underlying subtext should be the necessity to look at other forms of energy generation too…?

  • Harry Flashman

    Under Cameron the Nu-Tories will win the next election and like Nu-Labour they will later collapse in recrimination. Perhaps in ten or so years time some form of proper ideological politics might return to the UK.

    By then of course it will probably be too late.

  • Dave

    The Europhiles are operating to a political and not an economic agenda. The free movement of labour (and right to permanent residence) was promoted by the EU as a means of achieving its constitutional aim of “ever-closer unity” (the Treaty of Rome) by forcing the citizens to its member states to operate as citizens of the EU (also in the Treaty of Rome) since having free movement within the EU (a right of states) makes it a de facto state. That’s political. It is political policy that is promoted under the guise of economic policy, i.e. of being one of the ‘four freedoms’ of its internal market (as if it was ever necessary to give free movement to the citizens of other sovereign states before you could trade with them).

    So, you have Euro-federalits using economic policies to promote stealth political agendas, and you end up with competition without convergence and without ever planning for it. That is the bind the British workers are now in since the EU expanded to include low wage economies: they must compete with low wages and lower wage workers from other EU countries that there is no economic convergence with, so they are forced into competing on an unlevel playing field.

  • Dewi

    Independent nationalist trade union Solidarity – First I’ve heard of this particular organisation.

  • Karl-Heinz

    @Up to the seventies, maybe eighties, RoI was the only state in the world whose population was falling, yet it had enormous foreign currency reserves through emigrants’ remittances.”

    The DDR had no one sending back foreign currency because no one would want to leave the workers paradise no would they?

  • Simon

    “First I’ve heard of this particular organisation. ”

    They’re a bit of a BNP joke.

  • Reader

    Quagmire: Indeed a foreign national would probably have had more chance getting a job back then, more than a fenian anyway.
    Your memory is poor if you think that. Even English and Scottish workers needed to apply for a work permit if they wanted to work in NI in the 1960s

  • Max Webbing

    The scope of this debate seems to be rather parochial (ie we’re limiting it to the EU). Bring it up to the global scale and then re-assess.

    European workers scrapping over the best paid jobs in the world while millions of unfortunates outside of fortress Europe consider risking their lives to get in.

    Elsewhere the emerging middle classes of India, China and the other pacific states (in their billions) will be quite happy to take our financial and knowledge sector jobs.

    Like it or not, only the EU has the weight and clout to deal with these global forces- and we’re safer inside (that goes for both UK and the Republic).

  • Dewi

    ~From the Solidarity Website

    “Most notable was the attempt of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or the Wobblies) to organise One Big Union in the United States, Canada, and Australia and the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) in Spain. We have no particular ideological affinity with either group”…….you don’t say!!!

  • cynic

    The UWC analogy in itself is a parochial nonsense but Brian’s core point is a very very good one.

    These strikes are hitting at a strategic weakness in the UK economy and that’s why the Government see them as so very dangerous. As we found out in the last refinery strike and the farmers and truckers blockades of fuel supplies (remember those) there was a palpable air of panic in Whitehall.

    This shambolic Government has suddenly realised that we have virtually no strategic reserves of fuel – not event the capacity to store them any more. The whole industry runs on a very efficient ‘just in time’ model, which is great until there is a delay in the supply chain.

    That’s why Gordon is getting involved. The foreign worker is secondary for them. They know they are weak and that disruption to supplies could have major consequences elsewhere in the economy.

    There must be an election now within 18 months and Labour realises that it’s doomed. The only question is when the axe will fall and what will precipitate it. So it’s the memory of 1979 (not 1973-4) lingers long in Labour’s mind.

  • DC

    The Ballylumford power station was refitted out to run on gas from scotland mainly by italians who stayed about a year then left the running of it to locals.

    I am extremely disappointed that Labour have let this fester these news clips etc, GB is entitled to say that but he needs to explain that it was in context of british people creating british jobs. This is european energy with european and global employment networks.

    I agree with your views Harry totally about the Tories and David Vance seems more and more like the authoritative voice of moderation!

  • NP

    Roll on ….. the BNP have been abit slow in not jumping on the band wagon ?

  • Comrade Stalin

    Protectionism, in my view, is wrong but then again so is the reality of mass unemployment amongst nationals whilst immigrants take over the jobs! What to do? How about a little…honesty?

    This is an extremely dangerous line to be taking. Most of the NI high-value economy, and indeed the Irish economy, is built on jobs which have been outsourced from other places. Installing protectionist measures will lead to counter-measures from other nations, and the net effect will be to increase unemployment.

    The free exchange of labour units between different countries forces people to innovate and be efficient. If it is cheaper to ship people in from outside, pay their expenses and house them, than it is to pay local workers to do it, the question must be asked about how that situation has come about.

    A major recession followed by the erection of protectionist barriers between economies were the precursors to World War 2. We need to be extremely careful about how we proceed from here.

  • Quagmire

    “Your memory is poor if you think that. Even English and Scottish workers needed to apply for a work permit if they wanted to work in NI in the 1960s”
    Posted by Reader on Feb 01, 2009 @ 11:31 AM

    Apologies Reader. I wasn’t born until the mid 80’s. T’was a bit before my time.

  • Reader

    Quagmire: I wasn’t born until the mid 80’s. T’was a bit before my time.
    As is your list of grievances.
    But right now, there is a global recession with most of Europe in the EU. We haven’t seen this sort of complication before. And it isn’t just Gordon Brown who is going to feel the heat.

  • Comrade Stalin

    But right now, there is a global recession with most of Europe in the EU. We haven’t seen this sort of complication before.

    We did in the 1930s. And the thing which makes it more likely that we’ll get through it is the free movement of labour and trade.

  • Harry Flashman

    This story has gotten a little bit more interesting, it appears the initial defence by the company involved that the Italian and Portuguese workers were being paid the same as local British workers is wearing a bit thin, as would be obvious, how on earth could it possibly be cheaper to ship in workers from overseas and yet still pay them the same rate as local workers?

    It now appears that technically the foreign workers are paid the same but they are then having their food and accommodation “deducted” from their wages, given that the men are being “accommodated” in a rust bucket barge tied up in Grimsby port (and bussed to work, I wonder is “transport” also deducted?) I think we can take the “equal pay” claim with a large dose of salt. The foreign workers are essentially being employed in a mini-“company town” where, in the words of the old song, they owe their souls the company store.

    This being the case then any free trader, and I am one myself, can only have sympathy with the British workers and indeed British employers who presumably tendered for this work. If the rules state that all EU workers must receive the same terms and conditions then it ill behoves one company to exploit loop holes to subvert the market.

    It’s not a free market when not everyone is playing by the same rules. What next, shipping in indentured Sri Lankan child labour in diplomatic bags and claiming immunity from British labour laws?

  • Comrade Stalin


    The rules about equal treatment appear also to apply to non-EU citizens. In the software industry we have a lot of Indian contractors working with us. When their time here goes beyond a certain length they are required to be paid the same rates as their equivalents here.

    I still think there is a lot we don’t know about this case. It’s not only the cost of employing the Italian/Portugese workers and housing them; the company obviously decided that the cost savings in employing them would be worth running the risk of antagonising locals.

  • Harry Flashman

    Like I say CS, I am a free marketeer by instinct, thus it is that if people in Indonesia can make t-shirts cheaper than people in Derry well I have to recognise that such is life, but I’ll be damned if someone is going to open up a state of the art t-shirt making factory in Derry and ship in hundreds of Indonesians to work for a pittance while living in purpose built compounds in Pennyburn or somewhere.

    So it is with the Lindsey situation, it’s not like the British workers are demanding British only workforces, if some Italian bloke who happens to want work there and he’s qualified, then that’s fin,e good luck to him, nor is it a question of there being no qualified local labour available, there’s plenty of men who want the work, nor is it a question of doing jobs that the British won’t do, again the local men are screaming out for the work.

    No this situation is a disgrace and it’s what gives both the EU and multi-national capitalism a bad name, trust me I’m a free market capitalist tooth and nail but I also recognise the rights of labour to collectively organise, this isn’t a free market, this is taking the piss and the men striking outside the gates have my full sympathy and support.