Socialist Appeal interviewed construction workers at Lindsey Oil Refinery during the dispute. Here we publish the interviews. They explain how the strike was not against foreign workers but against undercutting of terms and conditions by companies exploiting EU legislation.
Keith Gibson, spokesperson for the Lindsey strike committee:
“I believe the result in Lindsey was an excellent victory for the workers. It truly inspired me. The solidarity of the lads around the country in particular was tremendous. It was spontaneous. The lads were looking for a lead, especially as they were fed up at seeing employers with their own workforce for years coming in and under-cutting the national agreements.
“This mood intensified with the financial crisis. Workers were deeply worried about the future and their employment prospects. Was this what the future holds for working people? It was an excellent response in the support shown at Lindsey, with 20 different sites coming out in solidarity. All was unofficial action which swept away the anti-union laws in one sweep.”
John McKewan, victimised worker from Lindsey Total Oil Refinery.
What was the background to the Lindsey dispute?
The employment problems of construction workers are not knew. We have been discussing this for some time, extending over some 5 or 6 years. But nothing has been done about it. The trade union leaders have been dragging their feet. Now everything has blown up. As soon as we saw foreign companies coming into Lindsey, there was a spontaneous reaction from below. Everybody went out of the gate.
How do you see things developing?
We were surprised by the support for this action from workers throughout the industry. It showed the anger. In my opinion we should have organised a national strike from the very beginning.
The strike took the employers and the union leaders by surprise. The union leaders saw the thing get out of their control. It is clear to me they want to ensure a tighter grip on such disputes in the future. The next battle is at Staythorpe Power station. This is going to be harder. Lads have been on the gates for last 6 months. There are some 150 foreign workers there, mainly Poles and Hungarians. The employers are playing a dangerous game. National shop stewards met in Sheffield to consider further solidarity action with workers in Staythorpe and Isle of Grain.
The workers were prepared to break the law. The national trade union bureaucracy don't want a fight on their hands. They are more afraid of losing their salaries and cars. They do not understand the anger of workers fearful for their jobs and livelihoods. I asked the coppers what they were doing here. “Shouldn't you be in London arresting bankers and city speculators?” They seemed to agree. We told them to move the BNP. If not, then we would move them ourselves, so they obliged.
I was supposed to get my job back at Lindsey, but they are side-stepping the issue. I have been told by full-time officers to allow the new manager to “sort out” the problem. They don't want to do anything. We will see what happens.
Do you see the agreement at Lindsey as a victory?
Absolutely! It was the biggest battle in the construction industry for years. It was a massive victory. To begin with TOTAL – totally anti-union – wouldn't even talk to the union when they kicked me off the site. Now they jumped when the workers walled out. Although the strike did not stop the refinery, they needed to complete the new extension for the de-sulphurisation plant. If the strike continued it would have put everything in jeopardy.
The strike – which was illegal and unofficial – was a huge challenge to the employers, government and trade union leaders.
The media has tried to portray the strike as anti-foreigner. Is it?
The Establishment tried to make out that it was a strike against foreign workers. But that was not true. It was to protect our terms and conditions as well as our employment rights. We wanted to speak to the foreign workers, but there was a language barrier. They were kept on a prison ship in Grimsby dock. The gaffers said that the foreign workers were on Blue Book agreement, but they weren't allowed to show their pay slips. The workers were told to keep their mouths shut. One admitted on TV that they were being paid less than British workers. The employers' lies were exposed.
We need to talk to the Italian workers as their interests are our interests. We are all being asked to pay for the crisis of capitalism.
Phil Willis, an unemployed steel erector and Unite activist involved in the battles at Lindsey refinery
Are these strikes and demonstrations really part of a dispute against the use of foreign labour?
No, the demonstrations and strikes are not against the use of foreign labour, they are predominantly about equality and fairness for British workers. At present, the new EU laws make it possible for unscrupulous employers to totally exclude British workers from applying for UK jobs and to exploit foreign workers by engaging them on contracts in this country, at rates of pay and terms and conditions which are much lower than the nationally agreed engineering construction industry rates. During these disputes and demonstrations, the protestors have gone to great pains to explain that they have no problem with foreign workers as they have worked alongside their EU brothers for many years now, in complete harmony. Some areas of the right wing press have attempted to sensationalise the issue by inferring that the protestors were Xenophobic, or even worse by indicating that UK construction had been infiltrated by the BNP, but this is simply not the case.
So what are you fighting against? What do you hope to gain?
The protestors hope to gain equality and fairness and for common sense to prevail. They want all workers to be covered by the national agreement that guarantees the same terms and conditions for everyone. If the protestors were to fail in their quest, it would sound the death knell for the UK construction worker in this country and their skills and expertise and job opportunities would be lost forever, so the stakes are just too high for workers not to take action.
Do you think the action at Lindsey refinery was a success? What did it achieve?
Yes, the action at Lindsey was a complete success and it achieved many other very important objectives. Firstly it created 102 new jobs for UK workers. It highlighted the plight of the UK engineering construction industry and brought the issues forward into the public consciousness and in doing so secures huge public sympathy and support. It displayed a massive show of strength, volatility and unity from workers, which both the government and unscrupulous employers believed had long since ceased to exist. Even though, Lindsey is the first to make a significant breakthrough, it is hoped that we can build on this victory and will now set a precedent for all other UK contracts.
What are conditions like at the Isle of Grain (where there is due to be a demonstration on Wednesday February 11th)?
Getting information from foreign workers is notoriously difficult as they are deliberately segregated from having any contact with the UK labour force both at work and in their overnight accommodation. This is a well known employer tactic, to avoid workers comparing pay slips and terms and conditions of employment. Whilst details are very hard to come by, it is quite clear that Polish workers engaged on the Isle Of Grain are not being employed under the same terms of the NAECI blue book and do not therefore achieve parity with their UK brothers. Ironically, this week when UK workers in Plymouth walked out in support of their brothers at Lindsey, Immingham and Staythorpe. Polish workers at Plymouth also walked out and stood shoulder to shoulder with UK protestors on the protest line, as they had been made aware that their terms and conditions of pay did not achieve parity and that they were in fact being exploited.
How would you describe the mood of the construction workers?
Determined, defiant and committed to achieving their aims and objectives, no matter how long it takes.
What's the next step? Where do we go from here?
The protests, lobbies and demonstrations are to continue. There is much still to do and much that can still be done. There will be a National demonstration organised shortly and lobby of parliament to keep the issue in the public consciousness until it is resolved. There have been calls to boycott all the products and services supplied by companies who have exploited foreign workers and who have excluded UK workers.
In the end it all boils down to the fact that we want fairness and equality and that is exactly what we intend to get.
- Britain: Gutter press campaign aims to distort union demands by Socialist Appeal (February 16, 2009)
- Italian worker’s message of solidarity with British workers by Socialist Appeal (February 13, 2009)
- Britain: Build on the success of Lindsey… by Des Heemskerk (February 12, 2009
- Wildcat strikes sweep Britain by Socialist Appeal (February 4, 2009)