A fight that will shape the future

June 22, 2009 at 5:24 pm (capitalism, capitalist crisis, Jack Haslam, Uncategorized, unions)

‘This is probably the most important dispute the construction industry has seen for 30 years in defence of the national agreement’.

That’s how Keith Gibson, one of the sacked Lindsey workers, summed up the significance of their battle to fellow workers at the mass meeting this morning (Monday 22nd June). The mass meeting was followed by the symbolic burning of hundreds of letters telling each of the 647 workers that they had been sacked and had to re-apply for their jobs today.

The Lindsey lock-out has generated a wave of solidarity action from other sites with walk-outs taking place at the many locations on Monday including:

• 400 workers at two LNG plants in west Wales – South Hook and Dragon
• 200 contractors at Aberthaw power station in the Vale of Glamorgan, south Wales
• 200 contractors at Drax and Eggborough power stations near Selby, North Yorkshire
• Workers at Fiddlers Ferry power station in Widnes, Cheshire
• Contract maintenance workers at the Shell Stanlow Refinery in Ellesmere Port, Cheshire
• 60 contract maintenance workers at Didcot A power station in Oxfordshire
• More than 1,000 workers at the Ensus biofuel site in Wilton, Teesside
• 900 contract workers at Sellafield Nuclear Plant in Cumbria
• 90 workers at Ratcliffe Power station Nottinghamshire

The workers have been locked out after taking solidarity strike action in support of 51 Shaw’s workers who have been made redundant. The redundancies, which have taken place while other contractors have been taking people on in defiance of agreements to re-deploy existing workers first, are seen as deliberate victimisation. The Shaw’s workers are being targeted for the strikes earlier this year in defence of jobs and the national agreement.

According to Keith Gibson writing in The Socialist the workers are demanding the withdrawal of all redundancies, a stop on all overtime, and the sharing out of the work remaining on the HDS3 Project.

The dispute comes after GMB and UNITE shop stewards from across the industry had voted to ballot for strikes after failing to reach a deal with the employers to renew the national Engineering construction agreement that has been in place since 1981. The issues in dispute included a proposed pay freeze and the employer’s refusal to give any guarantees on job security.

Specifically the unions want the employers to agree to implement the Posted Workers Directive properly within the industry by ensuring that all workers receive everything that the agreement says they are entitled to. The employers were only willing to offer a code of practice on this rather than make it binding.

Whether or not the Lindsey dispute represents a concerted attempt by the employers as a collective to jump the gun and provoke a battle on their terms, or on the contrary, it is Total management who have jumped the gun is a moot point.

A leaked circular from the employer’s organisation that stewards have obtained had warned companies to resist provoking battles on any other issues till the national agreement had been dealt with.

Whatever Total management’s original motives for the sackings, this dispute will be a test of solidarity on both sides. If the strikes spread and stay solid, this will pile the pressure on Total from the other companies and the government to back down and settle. But if the solidarity wave falters, then other employer’s might seize the opportunity to press ahead with their own victimisations and to weaken the ability of the unions to defend and extend the national agreement.

The employers are very frightened of the levels of solidarity that have been displayed so far and fear it spreading. The Times reports that: ‘While most of the power plants are continuing to operate as normal because a majority of staff were still working, power industry sources said that if the disruption escalated into an official strike, unscheduled plant closures could result because more workers would be reluctant to cross picket lines.’

The govermnent has also adopted a much more concessionary tone than over the January strikes when Mandelson, along with his poodles amongst some sections of the far left, denonced the strikers for xenophobia.

This time round Mandelson seems to be concentrating on getting Total back to the negotiating table and even Gordon Brown’s spokesperson says that: “This is a matter between the management and workers, but we would hope it can be resolved as quickly as possible. It continues to be our view that the parties do need to talk – ideally through Acas.”

Amazing, isn’t it, what an electoral disaster and the need for funds to fight an upcoming general election, can do for union government relations.

So, at this stage in the dispute, the forces that could be ranged against the strikers are far from united.

Phil Whitehurst, of the GMB, summed up the determination and solidarity of the locked out workers when he told the mass meeting: “We came out together. If we are going back, we’re going back together. There’s no reapplying. There’s no cherry-picking of jobs.”

The stakes are very high.

This is a chance to stop the ‘race to the bottom’.

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