Construction workers at the Lindsey Oil Refinery have defied the anti-union laws and won another wildcat strike against redundancies and victimisation. Following the previous strike in January and February, 1200 workers struck again on 11th June over the announcement of 51 redundancies without consultation, breaching the agreement which had settled it. Another contractor on site had just hired 61 workers, and strikers argued that the work should have been shared out among those made redundant.
Total, which runs the refinery, had 647 workers employed by main contractor Jacobs sacked for taking unofficial strike action as the strikes spread to other several other sites. This act strengthened suspicions that the original redundancies had been an attempt to weed out militant workers who had organised the earlier strikes. Workers were told to reapply for their jobs on Monday 22nd June, but their response was to burn dismissal notices and for 4,000 workers at 19 sites across the country to walk out in solidarity.
While officially repudiating the unofficial, illegal strike, union leaders argued that it was unavoidable because the anti-union laws would have forced workers to wait six weeks to organise a ballot, by which time it would have been too late. Strike leaders speaking at the Shop Stewards Network national conference on 27th June when the strike had just been won emphasised the support they had got from the GMB union as a factor in the victory. They argued that this convinced Total that the solidarity action would continue indefinitely, rather than petering out. Whether or not they are right, tanker drivers had taken an interest and promised not to cross official picket lines.
The employment of overseas labour is still an issue. One worker was quoted in a national newspaper as saying that “unskilled employees from abroad will be brought in on the cheap, treated like scum and sent back after the job is done”. Workers argue that the National Agreement for the Engineering and Construction Industry (NAECI) should apply to all construction workers in the UK, regardless of nationality. Alistair Tebbit, head of employment policy at the Institute of Directors, admitted that “what the unions would like to see, and one can understand their point of view, is European law amended to say you cannot bring people into the UK below the prevailing rights and wages”. While xenophobia is still present, it is off the agenda in spite of the best efforts of the media to play it up to condemn the strikers.
Since construction workers move from contract to contract, they rely on the NAECI to protect their pay and conditions. Workers involved in the Lindsey strikes will move on to other sites when their contracts end, and take the lesson that direct action and solidarity works with them. Equally, the blacklist in the construction industry has hit the news again – the bosses think nationally too. It remains to be seen whether Total and its contractors will move against the workers at Lindsey again when some of the contracts have ended. With less than three years to the London Olympics, further disputes are inevitable somewhere in the construction industry.