‘This is only the beginning’

Tim Black spent the day with strikers at the Lindsey oil refinery, listening to Freddie Mercury and some heated conversation.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

On the road towards Immingham docks, just south of the Humber estuary, the seamless countryside of North Lincolnshire, England, is suddenly interrupted. Rising up on one side, tall, thin chimneys supported by angry-looking metal structures puncture the skyline; on the other, rows of large, cylindrical oil tanks loom, sombre and impressive. This vast complex is the Lindsey oil refinery, owned by the French company Total.

Now, however, Lindsey oil refinery (LOR) means something far more than that. In the light of recent strike action, first in January and again over the past week, it has become the focal point for a relatively small but developing resistance to what the management at Total will no doubt call economic necessity: in other words, job losses and wage cuts. Now is neither the time (during recession) nor the place (twenty-first century Britain) for such action, some have claimed. But, as Paul Kenny, head of the GMB Union, told the strikers on Tuesday morning, ‘it is always the time and the place’ when employers attack working people in this way.

The LOR dispute has a knotted history, involving a chain of contractors and sub-contractors, anti-union laws, and cheaper labour from Europe. Back in January, the news broke that the Italian contractor, IREM, had given several hundred construction jobs to Portuguese and Italian workers rather than to those whose short-term contracts had just ended. With local unemployment rising, and job prospects looking ever more grim, the news was not well received. Hundreds of workers went on strike, before Total agreed to offer 102 jobs to British workers in early February.

On Wednesday last week, the dispute re-erupted. Fifty-one workers who were to be made redundant by one contractor were not given the chance to be re-employed by another contractor, with 60 vacancies going elsewhere on the site. The next day, fellow workers walked out in protest. Since, however, the strike was not ‘official’ under 1993 employment legislation – that is, it had not been voted for in a national postal ballot – Total was then legally able to sack 647 strikers. That Total then offered the 647 the chance to re-apply for their jobs by 5pm on Monday afternoon was seen as an attempt to break the LOR workers’ resistance once and for all. Predictably, Total claimed it had had a good response to its letter; but considering that the strike not only continues but is growing, its claims seem far-fetched. ‘No one will have responded to them letters’, a sacked worker told me, ‘it’s just propaganda’.

Workers gather outside the
construction site.

Such a bald description of the past six months at LOR does not do justice to the spontaneity and burgeoning spirit of the striking construction workers and their ‘brothers and sisters’ at the refinery. Their experiences since January, far from breaking them, as Total might have assumed, seem only to have strengthened their resolve. As inchoate and uncertain as their aspirations might currently be, they are resolutely standing up for themselves, for their interests. In doing so, they are standing up for each other. In the words of Kenny Ward, the Unite shop steward at LOR, ‘Those 647 are some of the bravest men and women I’ve had the privilege to represent’. The workers’ refusal to accept the decisions of management in the passive mood of the time has proven a rallying point. Talking of Total, Alistair, a twentysomething with a Paul Weller haircut, declared: ‘They’ll realise we’re not prepared to be pushed around.’

The togetherness of the strikers at the refinery gates was palpable. It didn’t matter to whom I was speaking, the refrains of unity and solidarity ran like a red thread through the conversation. Jack, who lost his job as part of the 647, said firmly: ‘You’ve got to stick together. We’re all getting us throats cut.’ Alistair agreed: ‘It’s the only way we’ll beat them.’ The Lindsey workers do not feel isolated. ‘Considering it was arranged at such short notice, I didn’t think it’d be this good in terms of the people here’, Alistair continued, ‘yet I’ve seen lots of lads from around the country here’. Some appeared almost taken aback by the self-propelling, self-forming nature of it. In the words of fifty-something Liverpudlian Mike: ‘Now, it’s no longer a case of the individual stood alone.’

At a further 12 sites across Britain, from Longannet power station in Scotland to Aberthaw in South Wales, workers have downed tools in support of the Lindsey 647, including nearly a thousand at Sellafield power station in Cumbria.

Despite this impressive display of spontaneous solidarity, the conflict at LOR continues to be tainted by supposed xenophobia, captured in the ‘British jobs for British workers’ slogan photographed and reproduced ad infinitum during the January-February strike here. The cause of the disgruntlement is the EU posted workers directive. Established in 1996, this directive was meant to furnish those workers temporarily sent by an employer to work in another EU member state with the same minimum pay and conditions that workers in the host country expect. However, in light of certain legal challenges at the European Court of Justice, the directive has since been interpreted to mean the bare minimum. Since in the UK many pay and condition agreements are agreed locally, above the nationally agreed minimum, this allows those agreements to be undercut. Moreover, collective action to improve posted workers’ pay and conditions was deemed to restrict the freedom of the posted worker. Hence it was cheaper for Total and its intricate screen of contractors to ‘post’ workers over to the Lindsey oil refinery.

The people I spoke to were quite clear where they stood. ‘We’re not against foreign workers – we just want them to get the same pay as us’, said 52-year-old John. Another man, who preferred not to be named, identified with the posted workers. ‘We’re all in the same boat’, he said. ‘Most of us here have done the same and worked abroad.’ There were no foreign workers present, but ‘of course they would be welcome’ I was told. ‘There’s nothing wrong with the free movement of labour’, another striker concluded; ‘it’s just not meant to be used to put us out of jobs’.

The picket line.

Throughout Tuesday morning, everything took place against a background of music laid on by the unions. From D:Ream’s New Labour classic ‘Things can only get better’ to The Beatles’ ‘I’ll get by with a little help from my friends’, it was the strike equivalent of elevator music. ‘Don’t stop me now’, sang Freddie Mercury at one point, ‘because we’re having a good time’.

‘I’m not having a good time’, John said, smiling. His comment captured the strike’s droll, phlegmatic mood. On the one hand, there was a quiet determination, the type belonging to those who know of hardships to come. ‘We haven’t even started yet’, Jack said firmly, ‘this is only the beginning’. Despite the GMB’s promised support fund of £100,000 a lot of people will struggle. ‘It’s going to be a long haul’, admitted Mike. But alongside this, there was humour, too. As the march stopped 20 metres short of the police lines, a few protesters carried on, strolling past towards the garage on the other side of the road. ‘Get us a Twix’, people started shouting. Others preferred Mars bars.

The sight of picket lines and the sound of aggressive union rhetoric have clearly sparked a few memories. ‘They looked like they had walked out of the 1980s’, announced the Sky News man at LOR. It’s true that the protests at LOR are different to the demonstrations to which we’ve become accustomed recently. This was no carnival of anti-capitalism, no pantomime of radical politics. For a start there were no costumes, aside from someone dressed up as the Grim Reaper. His fellow workers were considerably less impressed by this than were the media. ‘The placard would have been enough’, one striker shouted at him. It was also, as you would expect in the construction industry, mainly men, and older men at that. ‘There are very few young’uns here. Thatcher destroyed the apprenticeships’, Mike explained.

Strikers demonstrate.

But despite the apparent echo of previous times, to identify this strike with the battles and disputes of the 1970s or 80s is misleading. The political context is very different. The unions were de-fanged long ago, by Thatcher’s anti-union legislation and, of course, the defeat of the miners’ strike, and any mass surge for a different form of society has long since drifted into abeyance. Lacking both the politicised, radical impulses of 30 years ago, and union bullishness, this is not an excited confrontation with the bosses and government. As Mike explained, ‘There’s no full-blown militancy. We’re just clawing back some of the [union] rights taken away.’ He added: ‘It’s not a case of them and us any more. We just want fairness.’ Another sacked worker admitted: ‘We don’t want to be out here. We are not trying to break the law. We are not activists. We’re just trying to look after our families.’

The issue of legality was revealing. The fact that the strike was ‘unofficial’ under current union legislation, and thus illegal, was clearly of great concern to many of the workers I spoke to. This was understandable given that it seemingly hindered the possibility of getting their jobs back. And the police themselves were the object of piss-taking rather than aggression. ‘Here come the gee gees again’, shouted one worker, as the police horses trotted up Eastfield Road.

Still, nothing should be assumed when it comes to the aspirations of the strikers. The strike’s spontaneity, its growing, mutating sense of its own possibility, means it is unpredictable. While its aims are largely framed in terms of the various unions involved, from redressing the EU posted workers directive to repealing anti-union legislation to, of course, getting people their jobs back, a nascent awareness of something deeper at stake is also present. ‘We’re prepared to dig in’, one sacked worker told me: ‘This is not just about us, but about our whole future.’ The fact that the crowd had to be urged not to heckle the union speakers indicates the extent to which strikers’ demands possibly go beyond those of the unions.

As for the government, and parliament in general, they are viewed by the strikers with suspicion and disdain. ‘They live in their own little cocoon’, Mike noted sternly. At the Lindsey oil refinery, at Sellafield, at Didcot, at Aberthaw, it seems that life – and struggle – will go on no matter.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume looked at the Lindsey Oil refinery dispute. Patrick Hayes reported on the Visteon factory occupation. Rob Lyons praised the strikers at Gate Gourmet. Dave Hallsworth reflected on leading a major strike in 1982. Neil Davenport wondered why there are so many wannabe workers. Or read more at spiked issues British politics and Economy.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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