Militant tactics & poisonous nationalism

The Lindsey strike & the crisis of proletarian leadership

The following statement was first distributed in London on 4 July at the Socialist Workers Party's "Marxism" event.

On 26 June, construction workers at Total's Lindsey Oil Refinery defeated an attempt by management to fire 51 union members who had been involved in an earlier wildcat strike in January. As part of the settlement, management agreed to reinstate over 600 workers sacked for participating in sympathy strikes. The solidarity of thousands of other trade unionists at construction sites across the country was key to the victory at Lindsey. It provides a powerful example of how militant action can successfully defy the bosses and their state. Ultimately, however, workers need class-conscious political leadership to successfully combat capitalist exploitation.

With two million out of work and another million redundancies likely by year end, there is a lot of bitterness amongst British workers today. The ruling class is clearly worried by the prospect that a wave of labour militancy could smash the legislative shackles forged by Thatcher and Blair that appeared to have hobbled the once-mighty unions. The bureaucrats who sit atop the official organisations of the working class have so closely identified themselves with their corporate masters that they are widely mistrusted by their ranks. The Labour Party, which retains a vestigial connection to the workers' movement, has moved so far to the right that it can no longer be relied on to perform its historic function of channelling plebeian anger into dead-end parliamentary reformism.

The bosses' problems with Lindsey began in late January, when a wildcat strike quickly spread to large construction and engineering projects across the country. At issue was the employers' decision to subcontract the construction of a refinery extension to an Italian company, IREM, which planned to employ its own Italian and Portuguese workers, under the terms of the European Union's 'posted workers' directive, rather than hire locals. In an industry characterised by a series of long-term contracts, with jobs often passed on by word of mouth, Lindsey workers resented the foreign labourers brought in to displace them and suspected that management did so to get around the National Agreement for the Engineering Construction Industry ('The Blue Book') and undermine the informal control the union has traditionally exercised over hiring and working practices.

This suspicion was confirmed by the bourgeois press:

'companies working in the sector state privately that the attraction of using foreign rather than British workers is that they are much less likely to stage illegal strikes. There is an industry tradition of staging "sympathy stoppages" on the death of a worker's relative or a retired worker - a site in Southampton suffered a limited walkout for this reason only last month.

'British workers are also seen as being prone to walk out over problems with site facilities, such as hot-water boiler breakdowns. Tea breaks - protected in an industry-wide agreement with the unions - are another "huge bone of contention" and had led to walkouts, one insider stated.

'The engineering construction sector, at the heart of last week's dispute at the Lindsey oil refinery, lost more than 22,400 days to unofficial action in the year to November. This equates to almost one day for every one of the roughly 25,000 blue-collar workers employed - about 32 times worse than the average for the UK workforce as a whole for the same period.'
(Financial Times, 7 February)

While the defence of long-established prerogatives, both formal and informal, played an important role in motivating the Lindsey strikers, the action was also tainted by nationalism, expressed in the now infamous slogan: 'British jobs for British workers'. This reactionary and xenophobic demand, which Gordon Brown was spouting a couple of years ago, was also used by the fascist National Front in the 1970s. Members of its successor organisation, the British National Party (BNP), turned up at the Lindsey picket lines proclaiming that it was 'a great day for British nationalism' (Telegraph, 30 January).

The Lindsey workers knew enough to send the BNP packing, but the nationalism that had attracted the fascists continued to characterise the strike. Newly-arrived IREM workers, housed on a barge in Grimsby, were subject to chauvinist insults. One Italian worker observed: 'This is my first time in the UK and it is the first time in my 20 years of working abroad that I've experienced anti-foreign feelings' (Guardian, 7 March).

Sentiment among the Lindsey strikers was heterogeneous, and a decisive intervention early on by class-conscious militants in favour of recruiting all IREM workers who wished to join the union, while imposing a closed shop with union control of hiring, could have put the struggle on an entirely different footing. Linked to demands for dividing the work equitably at no loss in pay, this approach could have set an example of how trade unions throughout the EU can 'level up' pay and working conditions. In this way it might have helped to popularise the idea of forging a single industrial union for all workers in the construction industry across Europe. Of course, even prior to achieving that, a class-struggle leadership would seek to extend union membership to all workers employed in their sector, give parity to members of foreign unions in Britain and seek to negotiate reciprocal agreements for British trade unionists abroad.

In the absence of an internationalist leadership, what bubbled to the surface was the putrid nationalism pushed for years by the Labourite union bureaucrats. This was personified by Derek Simpson, leader of Unite, who posed for a photo in the Daily Star with two models holding 'British jobs for British workers' signs.

Keith Gibson, a supporter of the Socialist Party (SP) who was elected to the Lindsey strike committee, did manage to get a few supportable demands adopted, including: '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' and 'Build links with construction trade unions on the continent'. The acceptance of these demands suggests that the strikers were not all a bunch of rabid xenophobes, as some leftists have intimated. Yet Gibson's demands, which served as little more than window dressing, did not address the key issue - equal treatment for foreign and native workers. In its press, the SP openly endorsed calls for putting the interests of 'local' (i.e., British) workers first.

In early February, the bosses backed down and agreed that 102 of the 195 jobs would go to 'British workers'. By promoting national divisions, this settlement weakened the workers' movement in Britain and abroad. The union bureaucrats naturally proclaimed it a great victory:

'This is a good deal which establishes the principle of fair access for UK workers on British construction projects. We now expect other companies in the construction industry to level the playing field for UK workers. The workers involved in the unofficial strike can now get back to work.'
(Unite's statement on the Lindsey Oil Refinery dispute, 5 February)

The 'Far Left' & the Lindsey Strike

The Socialist Party's adaptation to the existing backward consciousness in the union was documented in their repetition of Simpson's assessment of the settlement:

'This deal has set the benchmark for dozens of other sites throughout Britain and in fact throughout Europe. This heroic struggle by 1,000-plus construction engineers in the refinery, supported by walk-outs at 20-plus other sites has resulted in a victory for the workers.'
(Socialist, 12-18 February)

A 'benchmark' setting employment quotas by nationality is a 'victory' for the capitalist practitioners of 'divide and conquer'. The SP also hailed the recent strike near Milford Haven in Wales that guaranteed priority for 'local labour':

'Workers at South Hook were not opposed to laggers from Poland getting work on the site as long as local laggers were given the opportunity of the work first under the union agreement and then foreign workers employed with the same pay and conditions.'
(Socialist, 27 May)

Workers Power (WP) correctly opposed the nationalist thrust of the Lindsey strike, though they tended to depict the impulses behind the workers' actions as purely reactionary, claiming that 'British jobs for British workers' was 'the premise of the whole dispute', (, 5 February). They did, however, recognise that socialists should have sought to intervene in the struggle to combat xenophobic sentiments while fighting management attempts to undermine the union.

The Spartacist League/Britain (SL) declared 'Down with reactionary strikes against foreign workers!', but stopped short of calling to physically disperse the pickets:

'The strikes were not intended to secure more jobs or indeed any gains for the working class as a whole, nor to defend existing jobs. They were about redividing the existing pool of jobs according to the nationality of the workers. These reactionary strikes, pitting British workers against foreign workers and immigrants, are detrimental to the interests of the multiethnic working class in Britain and those of the workers of Europe as a whole.'
(Workers Hammer, Spring 2009)

The SL correctly attacked the SP's promotion of 'local' labour:

'They include the demand for "Union controlled registering of unemployed and locally skilled union members, with nominating rights as work becomes available". In other words, jobs would be filled from "local" (ie, British) applicants. This is a version of "British jobs for British workers".'

The same point was made in a leaflet of 4 February issued by Gerry Downing of Socialist Fight:

'The SP motion, which then became the property of the strike committee and the mass meeting, but not the property of the Unite leadership - Simpson, Woodley or Jerry Hicks - says "Union controlled registering of unemployed and locally skilled union members, with nominating rights as work becomes available". That is simply BJ4BW in another form.'

Downing's statement continued:

'We reject the notion that "Union control of hiring is always preferable to the bosses controlling hiring. Enforcing an illegal closed shop would be a massive advance for the working class movement in this country".

'On what basis would the union nominate people for jobs? The only issue that may be in question is equal access to jobs, but that is down to the subcontracting system itself, not nationality.'
(reprinted in Socialist Fight, Summer 2009)

A closed shop means that in order to get hired you have to join the union. Union dispatch of workers to jobs prevents employers from discriminating against union militants. Both of these measures are potentially open to abuse by bureaucrats, but hardly more so than other union prerogatives.

Downing's opposition to union control of hiring would leave the capitalists free to manipulate national and other antagonisms within the proletariat. Workers Hammer, which had no criticism of Downing's statement, did not comment on his opposition to union control of hiring and contented itself with a string of abstractly correct generalisations:

'The bottom line for the trade-union movement must not be whom the contractors hire, but at what rate of pay and under what conditions they work. The way to undercut attempts by the bosses to "level down" the wages and working conditions … is for the unions to demand: Full union pay for all work at the prevailing rate, no matter who does the job! Equal pay for equal work!' (emphasis in original)

Union control of hiring and a closed shop would allow workers to do more than merely 'demand' equal treatment from the bosses - they could impose it. So why not advance these elementary common sense demands?

A campaign to establish union control of hiring would strengthen the labour movement against non-union competition from home and abroad. This gain, which has been won by unions in many countries over the years, represents a significant step forward for the working class, as James P. Cannon, the historic leader of American Trotskyism, explained:

'The demands of the maritime workers in the present strike are perfectly reasonable from this standpoint. In standing pat for the union hiring hall they are only asserting their determination to safe guard the organizations which they have already won in struggle and maintained in struggle. The fight for the hiring hall is in essence the old familiar fight for union recognition; when the unions supply workers from the union hall they have union recognition in its best form. The demand of the bosses for the re-establishment of the practice of hiring and firing whom they please, is a proposal to substitute individual bargaining and the black-list system for collective bargaining and a reasonable protection to the worker against discrimination.'
('The Maritime Strike', Labor Action, 28 November 1936)

'No2EU' - Nationalist Popular Frontism

The Lindsey wildcat strike in January was followed by various other actions in defence of 'local' workers. At a demonstration of power station workers at Staythorpe on 24 February, a substantial section of the crowd chanted: 'What do we want - foreigners out!' The spread of this sort of ugly xenophobia could threaten the very survival of the labour movement.

The leadership of the SP has been attempting the difficult manoeuvre of surfing the rising tide of nationalist sentiment, while retaining their leftist credentials. Joining with the Stalinists of the Communist Party of Britain (CP/B) and the leadership of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT), the SP campaigned for the election to the European Parliament on 4 June as part of 'No2EU - Yes to Democracy'. No2EU was backed by various other left groups, as well as by the tiny Liberal Party - an openly capitalist political formation - whose adherence formalised the popular-front character of this nationalist lash-up.

No2EU promoted the reactionary campaign to give 'local' workers preferential treatment: 'To ferry workers across Europe to carry out jobs that local workers can be trained to perform is an environmental, economic and social nonsense' ( Complementing this nationalist rubbish was a salute to the British imperialist state:

'Nation states with the right to self-determination and their governments are the only institutions that can control the movement of big capital and clip the wings of the trans-national corporations and banks. This means democratic control of the major banks, including the Bank of England, and full public ownership and democratic accountability of railways, postal services, NHS, and the energy industry.'

The SP hopes that No2EU will somehow turn itself into a 'new workers' party':

'For the Socialist Party, No2EU is not only about this election. We see it as a potential step towards the creation of a mass political party that would represent the millions of workers, pensioners and young people who are facing increased hardship as a result of capitalist crisis.'
(Socialist, 6 May)

Workers Power, which had sharply criticised the SP's capitulation to nationalism over the Lindsey strike, awkwardly attempted to explain why it would like to climb aboard an electoral expression of the same sentiment:

'We need a new working class party, so that at the next election the choice is not just between the official discredited parties of the establishment and the expenses scandal. We need a new party so that there is a progressive, anti-racist, pro-working class alternative to the dangerous divisive arguments of UKIP and the outright racism of the brutal BNP.

'In the European elections, Bob Crow and his RMT transport union launched a new electoral challenge, jointly with the Communist Party and the Socialist Party. This is important and shows that forces exist that could build a challenge to Labour.

'But the name they chose for their electoral platform speaks volumes. They called it No 2 EU, stressing opposition to foreign governments, foreign bosses and even the free movement of foreign labour. The danger is that this plays along with the divisive nationalism that is building up strength in Britain today. Instead of putting the blame where it belongs, at the door of the rich bankers, capitalists and government in Britain, it diverts attention away from home. It leads to dangerous divisions in the working class, like the "British Jobs for British Workers" strikes in construction, which targeted not the bosses who are sacking workers, but foreign workers' jobs.

'The RMT and their backers look likely to be holding a conference after the election to discuss setting up a new party. Workers and campaigners, socialists, antiwar activists and anti-racists should attend the conference and back efforts to set up a new working class party, while opposing nationalism and all attempts to blame foreign workers.'
('Build a new workers' party - now', 8 June)

The idea that the nationalist No2EU popular front can be a base for launching an internationalist workers' party is beyond naive. Yet it is hardly more absurd than WP's proposal a few years ago that the collection of Third Worldists, trade-union bureaucrats and NGO hustlers who composed the World Social Forum should launch 'a new world party of socialist revolution'.

The race to create a new reformist swamp took another turn with the release of a Socialist Workers Party (SWP) 'Open letter' on 9 June calling for 'a conference of all those committed to presenting candidates representing working class interests at the next election'. The SP has so far showed little enthusiasm for the SWP's overture, apparently preferring the role of big fish in the No2EU pond. Workers Power, which enjoyed its role as left cover in the SWP's social-pacifist 'Stop the War Coalition', has predictably welcomed this latest manoeuvre.

For a Revolutionary-Internationalist Workers' Party!

The current global economic crisis has laid bare the fundamentally irrational character of capitalism in the epoch of imperial decay. Millions of workers have lost their jobs while bankers, whose failed gambles are covered by public bailouts, busy themselves repossessing people's homes. Not since the Great Depression of the 1930s has the financial aristocracy been so reviled. Never in the lifetime of most activists alive today has capitalism been on such shaky ground.

And yet the impulse of most of the 'revolutionary' left has been, on the one hand, to adapt to the nationalism of backward workers, while, on the other, to attempt to cobble together some new reformist electoral vehicle to fill the vacuum created by the implosion of New Labour.

Marxists must speak plainly and truthfully about what needs to be done. Capitalism has long since forfeited its right to exist. The working class, with a fighting communist party at its head, must expropriate the assortment of bankers, speculators and industrialists whose destructive activities are the natural and inevitable result of a system based on private ownership of the means of production and the other essential preconditions for human existence. Building a revolutionary workers' party, the most urgent task of our time, requires waging political war on 'internationalists' who push nationalist poison and 'revolutionaries' who seek to place new reformist obstacles on the road to proletarian power.

Posted: 10 July 2009