New struggles and old issues in construction engineering

Submitted by Matthew on 5 February, 2010 - 1:06 Author: Dave Kirk

An audit demanded by Unite and GMB unions into the pay of workers building a new gas turbine power station at Staythorpe in Nottinghamshire has showed that a sub-contractor (Somi) is paying its Italian workers less than UK rates for the job —by an average of 1,300 euros a month.

These workers are “posted workers” — sent by their employer to work in a different country on a temporary basis. Unions believe these workers are being used to undercut wages and conditions in the industry.

Staythorpe’s UK workers have been at the forefront of wild cat strike action in the last year, and were on strike against the main contractor, Alstom, over another issue, as recently as 12 January. This current dispute is about the undermining of the industry’s national agreement (NAECI). But the background to all of these disputes is resentment caused by high unemployment among construction workers.

There has been another issue in these disputes — the fact that the slogan/demand “British Jobs For British Workers” has often been taken up by engineering construction workers. And there have been demands for preferential recruitment for “local” workers.

The GMB called a demonstration in London on 3 February. It was promoted by the noxious, union-busting, right-wing Daily Star as a “British Jobs For British Workers” demo. But what are the industrial issues?

At Lindsey Oil Refinery last year the employers used the EU “Posted Workers Directive” to exempt several hundred Portuguese and Italian workers from the NAECI. Under this directive (as amended by the European court) when a worker is posted by their employer to another country, they can remain on the terms and conditions relating to the country they were originally recruited in. The Lindsey workers went on strike to demand all workers on site — whether posted or not — be covered by the NAECI. Staythrope is a re-run of that dispute.

The workers are facing more general attacks.
• Younger workers are finding it harder to get adequate training or opportunities to expand their skills. This impacts on safety, wages and jobs.
• There has been a deliberate policy of de-skilling of the workforce.
• There are also issues about the union’s rights to organise. At Lindsey and elsewhere posted workers have been deliberately isolated from the rest of the workforce and from the shop stewards. The unions certainly need to do more to organise posted and migrant workers. They need to use interpreters to help actively integrate workers into the union or at the very least give advice on workers’ rights.

The unions are also being attacked by bosses blacklisting trade union militants.

At the best of times this kind of work is temporary and often seasonal. The recession has made this worse. Sites such as Staythorpe, Aberthaw, Isle of Grain, Lindsey are in deprived areas where these jobs are some of the best paid going. The general situation has caused anger and frustration to spill over. Unfortunately many workers have come to see the posted workers themselves as part of the cause of their problems, rather then those who are actually to blame — the bosses.
The union officials at Staythorpe and elsewhere are at pains to point out that the workers’ demands and slogans are aimed at the Posted Workers Directive, not the posted workers themselves. They also say this issue has nothing to do with hostility towards migrant workers. It is often pointed out that hundreds of migrant workers joined the strikes around the country. That may be true, but it ignores the fact that we live in a culture in which anti-migrant racism and prejudice is endemic.

Many of the workers probably do not make the distinction between posted workers recruited outside the UK on different terms and conditions, and migrant workers recruited in the UK on local terms and conditions. By a “locally recruited workforce” many workers actually mean a workforce of British citizens. This is why “British Jobs For British Workers” is such a dangerous and reactionary slogan to raise.

Statements and slogans from the workers and unions seem to be contradictory. You can read a trade unionist quoted for the Guardian or Morning Star talking about the trade union issues and disavowing any nationalism. You can also read “British worker racism, jobs for ‘our’ lads” in the Daily Star. Although the ambiguity may be deliberate in some cases, in general it is a sign of confusion and actual political differences amongst the workers and their unions.
Les Bayliss, the assistant General Secretary of Unite, has said: “The underpayment of these workers is outrageous. We have demanded that the workers are paid back in full… Some workers at Staythorpe were losing out on thousands of pounds in pay that they were rightly owed. Unite will not allow employers to get away with breaking agreements and underpaying its workers, regardless of nationality.”

Whilst we have many criticisms of Bayliss, this is a better emphasis to the one taken by many on the Bearfacts rank-and-file online forum. The demand there has been to throw Somi off the site without any concern for the fate of its workers. There will also be an overlap between reps and activists in the union and Bearfacts contributors; that underlines the situation of confusion.

Unite stewards distanced themselves from the 3 February demo. It has been suggested this is over disagreements with the call for preferential treatment for British workers.

So there is a political struggle among the workers over the demands they should be making and their attitudes toward posted and migrant workers. This struggle can go either way, depending on the forces involved and the approach taken.

Socialists need to learn lessons from the interventions made (or not made) in the first Lindsey Oil Refinery strike last year. The left as a whole related to these workers by sidestepping some or all of the industrial issues and falling into inadequate and even rotten default positions.

One approach was to say these strikes were only about the issue of the Posted Workers Directive, to see only the militant workers under attack. That approach blocked out the reactionary ideas gaining currency, the many expressions of latent and explicit racism and chauvinism.

This lowest denominator workerism may have reflected a natural sense of class loyalty, but it allowed the reactionary ideas to go unchallenged.

A second approach was to read the Guardian and watch Newsnight and be so appalled at the depiction of the strikes, which often highlighted the reactionary nature of it all, that you refused to engage with these workers on a serious level. Too many socialists implicitly trusted the bourgeois media's account of the strike whilst churning out empty propaganda from a distance. This was not helped by the fact that the left is small and isolated from the working-class and that socialists can fall prey to middle class prejudices about the white working class.

When it became more obvious that the construction engineering workers were not just racists who wanted to kick foreign workers offsite, and they were fighting against serious attacks on a national agreement that ought to protect all workers, and and on their right to organise, socialist responses improved.

In the AWL we talked to workers when we could (which was not often enough). We engaged in discussion on the Bearfacts website. And we did our own research.

One problem with much of the propaganda produced for the strikers was it tended to be the strike committee's demands plus general propagandist socialist slogans with no link between the two. A worker at Lindsey may have been persuaded by such propaganda that the workers of the world should unite, but still want preferential recruitment for "locals" as an immediate demand. This is why socialists need to have insight into the working lives of people in the industry. That is the only way to help develop relevant but militant demands that can solve the problems that all workers in Europe face. These demands need both to be concrete and realisable, as well as to develop the struggle for workers to take power into their own hands.

These demands should include:
•All workers, regardless of legal status, to be covered by the national union agreement.
•Open the books! Access by the workers to all contractors' and sub-contractors’ pay rolls and accounts.
•Direct employment; replacing (whenever possible) sub-contracting with direct employment.
• Decent training and apprenticeships; the government and the industry to pay for proper, well funded training for all workers.
•End blacklisting! We need effective legislation against blacklisting. Companies caught blacklisting should be expropriated by the state under workers’ control.
•The unions to ensure “posted workers” with union membership in their country of origin automatically get a temporary transfer to a British union for their period of “posting”.
•Segregation on sites must end and union officials must have access to posted workers to help organise and represent these workers. The employers to pay for interpreters when necessary.
• An EU-wide law to guarantee “posted” workers are levelled up to the better of the terms and conditions negotiated or legislated in the country they are posted to, and those in the country they are posted from.
• A Construction Labour Scheme with hiring from a register kept by the unions. There should be a basic industry wage for registered workers when not currently on a job. This scheme must be open equally to all workers who apply, regardless of “origin” or status.

Strike to follow demonstration

Around 100 people attended the 3 February demonstration — all GMB activists bar a handful of Unite people. Unite General Secretary candidate Jerry Hicks was one of the speakers.

In the main the speeches were reasonable — against the exploitation of all workers.

However, John Mann, a Nottinghamshire Labour MP, also spoke about his “British Jobs for British Workers” private members bill which calls for “UK hiring only” in the construction industry.

He was criticised, but not denounced, by Paul Kenny of the GMB. The GMB are also now calling for Somi to be thrown off the site.

A strike has been called at Staythrope. It may yet be accompanied by unofficial strikes elsewhere in the country.

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