by David Broder
“British workers target Gordon Brown”, screamed the Daily Star on January 19th. One year after Unite leader Derek Simpson posed with two Daily Star ‘glamour models’ holding ‘British jobs for British workers’ placards, the rag promised that thousands of angry construction workers would today “march on London claiming Gordon Brown has failed to honour his “British jobs for British workers” pledge”.
Meanwhile over at the Morning Star, the comrades were fuelling the flames of ‘working-class nationalism’ with a piece on yesterday’s demo over the Kraft-Cadbury deal. In true Communist Party of Britain tradition they almost seemed more concerned about standing up for the “historic British chocolate manufacturer” and “the national interest” than how to effectively resist redundancies.
However, at the construction workers’ demo today, all was not quite as we might have been led to believe…
The protests at the Alsthom office, Peter Mandelson’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Houses of Parliament’s Old Palace Yard were attended by about 100 people, most of whom were unemployed construction workers from power stations in the Midlands and the North. The demo was organised by the GMB after an audit proving that at the Staythorpe power station site in Nottinghamshire, migrant workers were being paid only 500 euros a month – i.e. 1300 euros a month below the industry rate. Agency workers and the EU Posted Workers’ Directive are a means for management to better control and order about the workforce as they please.
The union’s placards demanded equal pay for all, and attacked undercutting which meant the subcontractor Somi preferred to use foreign labour rather than local unemployed workers, since it could do so more cheaply and undermine the industry agreement. Speakers at the closing rally repeatedly and clearly expressed solidarity with the Portuguese, Italian, Polish and Greek workers who were being underpaid and demanded that they be paid the industry rate.
This was marred somewhat by the repeated invocation of the idea that these workers were unskilled and not proper tradesmen, reflecting ‘skilled-ism’ and sectionalism, if not British chauvinism as such. Indeed while GMB leader Paul Kenny referred to the dialogue the union had established with migrant workers at power station sites, they did not appear to be involved in the demonstration.
However, whereas the Daily Star had quoted an Amicus/Unite shop steward to the effect that “All we want for Brit workers is a fair crack of the whip to have first preference on jobs”, and at yesterday’s Cadbury demo Unite’s Jack Dromey had commented that “Our fear is that the Kraft takeover is not in the national interest”, most speakers at the Old Palace Yard rally steered well clear of such sentiments. A Daily Star photographer attempted to hand out ‘British jobs for British workers’ posters but was shouted down and I did not see anyone holding these afterwards. Paul Kenny said he would not be seen in a pose like Simpson last year.
Phil Whitehurst, GMB National Organiser for Engineering Construction Workers, specifically attacked British chauvinism, and Jerry Hicks – who is contesting the election for Unite general secretary - also gave a powerful speech. Hicks expressed concern at the lack of progress made in levelling up industry rates since the oil refinery wildcat strikes of January 2009, although a strike is mooted for Staythorpe later this month. While a local shop steward emphasised that this action would be all the better for being official, indeed “a correct strike”, Whitehurst and Hicks both hinted at the need for solidarity from other sites. Some nonetheless seemed impatient at the union’s recent tactics – when a heckler asked what the GMB was doing, Whitehurst said that the union was doing all it could to lobby the government, to which came the reply “Mandelson – wanker”. Quite.
However, while most speakers stressed that the struggle was over the industry agreement and agencies’ monopoly of recruitment, the New Labour MP John Mann injected his own special venom into proceedings. Mann “had no problem” with ‘British jobs for British workers’ and stressed that there was plenty of land in his constituency to build more power stations. He argued against employing migrant workers who supposedly “don’t pay tax towards the NHS” and put British workers on Jobseekers’ Allowance, decrying this as ‘bad economics’ for Britain.
With an eye on the upcoming General Election, Mann announced that he would be tabling a motion in Parliament to the effect that all major construction projects are carried out by British workers: if anyone had a problem with that, he assured us, he had the “100% backing of all 79,000 men women and children” in his constituency. A pity, but I’m still hoping the more internationalist-minded children of Bassetlaw will be spoiling their ballots.
While what Mann had said was at odds with the general themes of the rally, he received enthusiastic applause, more than anyone except Hicks’ militant class struggle speech. Whitehurst and Kenny’s speeches were several times interrupted by unemployed workers asking what precisely the union was going to do about the situation, which has left many without work for as long as 9 months. Quite. It seemed as though, just like Hicks’ call for solidarity action and fighting rather than lying down, Mann’s overt and defiant nationalism might also perhaps have appealed to a sense of frustration at the lack of progress made by the GMB and Unite over the last year.
The Staythorpe strike, and any solidarity action that follows, will hopefully follow and continue this demonstration’s turn away from the kind of slogans which appeared during last year’s oil refinery walkouts. However, for that to take place then clearly there will have to be much more engagement and involvement of migrant workers themselves, rather than them merely being the subject of sympathy. As with disputes over recessionary cuts, we must not just seek to defend a specific industry or just one group of workers, but more broadly to resist management’s right to manage, control and dismiss workers just as they please.