What the wildcat strikes tell us

To see Unite shop steward Kenny Ward, dressed in dayglo orange and Unite flag in hand, addressing crowds outside the Lindsay oil refinery this morning – and railing against greedy bankers* – was to see industrial action of the sort we thought we would not see again. Secondary strike action? From workers in companies other than the ones to blame? Oil workers striking in support of construction workers? Have we gone back to the 1970s?

I’m shocked. Did anyone expect to see workers at 17 heavy industrial sites across the UK walk out on unofficial strike action? The leadership of the big unions appears to have been taken by surprise; certainly these protests have not been coordinated from their headquarters. How they managed to co-ordinate the protests I’m not yet sure, but I’ll have to find out soon.

Logistics apart, that workers see the point in striking at all in these straightened times is somewhat remarkable. Shouldn’t they be grateful they have jobs at all, one might say. At the end of last year, after threats of national strike action from the National Union of Teachers and the PCS civil service union bit the dust, I was confidently predicting that there’d be no more strikes for the foreseeable future. Hell, I was predicting it last week.

In fact, it’s not too hard to see why workers have chosen to take action in support of ‘British jobs for British workers’. First of all, as that Unite flag indicates, these people are unionised; at the Ineos plant at Gragemouth in Scotland, where workers successfully went on strike last year over pensions, Unite represents 1500 people. In construction the main specialist union, UCATT, repreasents 125,000. Big construction projects are bound in terms of pay and conditions by a national agreement, and the big unions talk to each other both informally and through a national council. That may explain the co-ordinated action today.

Then there’s the fact that, unlike, say, car workers asking for a pay rise, these people have a lot to play for. Recently I spoke to Tom Hardacre, Unite’s national officer for construction, for a Tribune article on just this very issue: UK workers being denied construction jobs on projects run by foreign contractors. He said: “We are complaining that people can’t get work where there is work. At this moment in time, in engineering and construction there’s quite a lot of work, but they’ve been denied that through the importation of non-UK labour.”

Recession or no recession, construction is not dead. Power stations are being built – and just last week,the Government announced the shortlist for a Severn tidal energy scheme. There are jobs to go round, and if (as has happened several times) companies say flatly “British workers need not apply”, British workers get angry – but this is intelligent anger, anger with a purpose. I’m inclined to think the workers are going to win concessions.

Ian King of The Times has an interesting take on the dispute, in which he blames Gordon Brown (I couldn’t possibly comment…)

*Update, 10:36 Friday: Actually, it was “greedy employers”. Sorry, my mistake.

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