Lindsey and the Left’s priorities
Posted by Left Luggage on June 22, 2009
For those who follow such matters, the dispute over the sackings of 647 workers at the Lindsay Oil Refinery escalated today when more than 3,000 workers at construction sites elsewhere in the country walked out in solidarity. Many of these sites had already come out either last week or earlier this year, but we also see in the Lindsey dispute how crucial is the tactic of the flying picket, which is being used by workers at the refinery. In a remarkable showing, according to the BBC, the walkouts included:
• 900 contract workers at Sellafield in Cumbria
• 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
The dispute centres upon the laying off of 51 contract workers who had been at the forefront of unofficial walkouts at the Linconshire refinery in January and February this year that spread throughout the country. The redundancies came as 61 other jobs were handed out to other workers. This led to hundreds of construction workers at the site walking out to defend their sacked colleagues. After a week of wildcat strikes throughout the country,energy giant Total on Friday sacked the entire striking workforce and gave them until 5pm today to reapply for their jobs. A BBC news reporter described the protest at Lindsey this morning:
The first wave of workers marched for nearly a mile from a neighbouring refinery. Police had to close the road as hundreds of protestors paraded through the centre of this industrial estate. As they gathered in the company car park, union officials called for unity – for a show of defiance.
The workers responded. Led by Phil Whitehurst from the GMB, they queued to set their dismissal letters alight. Dozens of them threw the papers into a blazing dustbin to cheers from the crowd. As the bucket smouldered behind us, I asked some of them if they were really prepared to put their principles before their job. The answer was always a resounding yes. I asked again, would they be re applying for their jobs. No, they said resolutely. Some even sounded disgusted at the suggestion.
We have already written about how in our view the action by Total can only be seen as an attempt to kill off the sympathy strike tactic, which has proven extremely costly to them this year. It also comes in the context of a national strike ballot of construction workers. In light of this it would be easy to read the initial sackings – mostly of union members and activists – by contractors for Total as a provocation for just such a showdown. In any case, the current battle is a vital one and could have a major impact on the future of solidarity walkouts, and their effectiveness, in the industry and beyond.
You may have wondered why we started this article with “For those who follow such matters”. Surely all socialists and those on the Left will be following matters closely? There have indeed been a number of excellent commentaries on the dispute from some of the best Left bloggers. But actually the level of coverage has been quite limited.
The muted reaction to the Lindsey protests is in sharp contrast to the response from the Left to the recent arrests and the deportation of nine cleaners at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), in London, which garnered far more attention in the blogosphere. Partly this was because some students there went into occupation over the raid by the UK Borders Agency. The raid and deportations came after a successful campaign by unions last year to increase cleaners’ wages. It also followed the unfair sacking of SOAS’s Unison branch chair.
Nevertheless, one has to wonder at the reasons for the discrepancy in coverage. Of course the way cleaners at SOAS were treated was abominable and it was right to defend them. But the same is true of the Lindsey dispute, which also has far greater strategic importance for working class struggle.
Perhaps there is a hangover from the controversy over the strikes earlier this year which were erroneously labelled as “nationalist” by some sections of the Left. Alternatively, perhaps the massive focus by the mainstream media and the Left on protests in Iran is obscuring the battle that is taking place at industrial sites across the country. Either explanation sheds an unfavourable light on the present priorities and approach of the Left. Perhps there are other reasons for the discrepancy?
In any case, whatever the reason for this peculiar lack of focus, the Left as a whole now needs to throw its energies behind supporting the current battle around Lindsey, for it is shaping up to be a crucial one.