Dirty tricks against assertive workers

First, at Lindsay Oil Refinery an unofficial strike is ongoing as it’s revealed the Engineering Construction Industry Association, the employers’ organisation, is trying to stop a ballot of construction workers for a national strike:

A confidential letter obtained by the Morning Star, sent to by ECIA employment relations officers to bosses at construction firms throughout Britain, brazenly states that “it is in employer’s interests to not act in a way which aids and abets the unions to run a successful ballot.”

The letter continues: “Don’t give names and addresses of your workforce to the unions or shop stewards. Don’t allow full-time officers access to your workforce – unless their intentions are made clear in advance and they are not related to the ballot.”

GMB legal officer Maria Ludkin lost no time in slamming the letter as “one of the most blatant attempts to interfere in an industrial action ballot that I’ve ever seen.”

“The employers’ letter also states that the ECIA ‘will closely monitor the legality of the strike ballot,’ so there is no doubt what their intentions are.”

“But the advice that the ECIA is giving to its members is clearly illegal under the 1999 Employment Relations Act,” she said.

“No employer can deny unions the right to consult with their members and should any construction worker or union rep encounter this kind of obstruction, the GMB will definitely take action,” Ms Ludkin insisted.

Second, James Tweedie reports for the Morning Star on the shocking raid at SOAS:

Students have occupied the School of Oriental and African Studies in London in support of detained and deported cleaning staff.

Nine migrant workers were arrested on Friday at a meeting called by transnational cleaning contractor ISS. Five were deported to their home countries over the weekend and the rest face deportation within days.

One of the detained cleaners said: “We’re honest people, not animals. We are just here to earn an honest living for our families. SOAS management are being unfair.”

The staff were called to the meeting to discuss shift times, sick leave and immigration papers. Staff said that immigration officers had been waiting for them at the venue.

They said that staff were locked in the room for hours and refused water, medical attention or access to their trade union representative.

The arrests came on the heels of a recent victory by cleaning staff organised by public sector union UNISON, in winning a wage rise and four of those detained are members.

The cleaners recently took strike action on May 28 to protest at the sacking of SOAS UNISON branch chairman Jose Stalin Bermudez.

Cleaners and protesters accused the university of collusion with immigration authorities and of victimising the workers taking industrial action.

Graham Dyer, lecturer in Economics of Developing Countries and Universities and Colleges Union SOAS branch chairman, said: “Our fight has united lecturers, staff and students and has rocked SOAS management. Those managers are now lashing out.

“It is a disgrace that SOAS management saw fit to use a seat of learning to intimidate migrant workers. This is their underhand revenge.”

Labour MP John McDonnell said: “The message is that they are happy to employ migrant labour on poverty wages but, if you complain, they will send you back home. It is shameful.”

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Struggle continues for fair access to jobs

From The Morning Star:

UNEMPLOYED construction workers turned out in force at the Grain Power Station in Kent on Wednesday to demand fair access to jobs as the row over the use of foreign labour reignited.

Around 70 protesters gathered at the station waving banners and placards stating: “Alstom give us a chance,” “Alstom stop excluding British workers” and “GMB says no to discrimination and calls for equal opportunities for workers to work.”

Alstom has been contracted by power privateer E.On to build a power station at Grain.

However, demonstrators said that skilled workers were being denied the chance to apply for work at the site.

They claimed that its Polish subcontractors Remak and ZRE were refusing to consider applications from British labourers for the estimated 450 jobs that will be available over the course of the project.

Unite union member Phil Willis, an unemployed steel erector, said: “We want a level playing field for all workers, not just British workers in Europe.

“The bosses are using the cheaper foreign labour against the engineering and construction workers, who work under the national agreements.

“People are here today because they believe they are being excluded from jobs on this site. Given the economic situation, why should we be excluded?

Mr Willis, a father of two who has been out of work for 14 months, said: “People feel let down. They feel they are being discriminated against.

“This hasn’t been going on recently, this has been brewing for the last five years.

“Over the last week and a half, we have seen the defiance and the commitment of the British engineering and construction workers on seeing what is happening to their industry.

“They feel that if it doesn’t stop, it will be the demise of the construction and engineering industry altogether and the national agreements.”

GMB organiser Brian Skipper explained that it was a “genuine demonstration” by unemployed people to get work.

“We want the companies to demonstrate to us that they have given us a commitment that they will consider UK workers and give us evidence that they are going to employ UK people,” he said.

Construction workers at the Staythorpe power station in Nottinghamshire also walked out on unofficial strike on Wednesday after being told that they faced disciplinary action if they joined a protest over foreign employees.

Productivity or profitability – why are UK construction workers excluded from new projects?

I’ve just seen Pat McFadden, the New Labour employment minister, argue that “productivity” might be a reason why UK-based engineering construction contractors can’t win new contracts.

This is bollocks, frankly.

The EU Posting of Workers Directive, following decisions made by the European Court of (in)Justice, allows foreign firms that win contracts to import workers on the minimum wage, undercutting the going rate. Even if a similar rate is paid, the employers can claw this money back by deductions for accommodation and transport.

Construction workers based in the UK are being excluded not because they are lazy and lack skills – but because they would have to be paid the going rate. It’s known as “social dumping” and it’s all about squeezing profits out of workers.

The dispute at Lindsay oil refinery has been won – by both the strikers there and those across the UK who walked out in solidarity, defying the anti-union laws – but the practice continues in the sector. And so, protests continue at Staythorpe power station, and at other sites where UK workers are excluded for applying for new jobs.

As the Morning Star reports, the Lindsay strikers have been pledging their support:

Lindsey workers join Staythorpe strikers
(Friday 06 February 2009)
by PAUL HASTE Industrial Reporter

CONSTRUCTION workers on strike at Staythorpe power station near Nottingham were joined on Friday by hundreds of flying pickets from the Lindsey oil refinery.

The 300 Staythorpe workers walked out on unofficial strike last Monday after months of protests against construction firm Alstom’s decision to contract out work to non-union companies.

Alstom is building a gas-fired power station that engineering union Unite estimates needs 850 workers to complete. The union accused the huge corporation, which raked in more than £462 million in profits last year, of trying to undercut employees’ wages by bringing in two subcontractors.

Unite branch secretary David Smeeton explained that the subcontractors “planned to bring in 800 foreign workers and refuse to even consider local workers for the job.

“Yet there are hundreds of local people who could work. We built the last two power stations here,” he said.

The flying pickets from Lindsey, in nearby Lincolnshire, had walked out on unofficial strike in their own dispute over a contractor’s unfair hiring practices last week.

The 400 workers are set to return to work on Monday after winning the creation of more than 100 new jobs at the oil refinery, but many of them descended on Staythorpe on Friday, braving freezing weather conditions to show solidarity with the power station workers.

Joining the solidarity picket, Unite shop steward Kenny Ward, who was one of the leading protestors in the Lindsey dispute, pointed out that “these problems at Staythorpe and at Lindsey are caused by judges and bosses, not foreign workers.”

He added that the government’s acceptance of European laws that allow employers to use workers from one country to undercut the wages of workers in another was a “disgrace.

“If the Labour Party doesn’t want to fight for workers anymore, then workers will have to fight for themselves,” he stressed.

“Our wildcat strike at the refinery and the solidarity that workers all over Britain gave us has shown that it is possible to fight back,” he insisted.

Lindsey strike committee member Tony Ryan added that the Staythorpe workers could count on the same solidarity that had helped win the fight for the refinery workers.

“This will continue. This is only the start of the fight for us lads,” he declared.

The Lindsay Oil Refinery dispute is about the rights of all – Polish workers strike in solidarity

Polish nationals were among the six hundred workers at Langage power station walked out on Monday, reports the Plymouth Herald:

Jerry Pickford, South West regional officer for UNITE, said the workers had walked out in “general sympathy with what’s happening in the construction industry”. He said Polish workers were among the 600-strong group.

Mr Pickford said: “All the Polish workers have walked out as well, because this is not an issue against foreign workers.

“This is an issue against foreign employers using foreign workers to stop British workers getting jobs.

“Once they do that they will try and undermine the terms and conditions of employment in this country.” [My emphasis]

Here are the demands of the Lindsay Oil Refinery contract workers as were agreed on February 2, and prove that the dispute is for fair access, not the exclusion of migrant workers:

* No victimisation of workers taking solidarity action.

* All workers in UK to be covered by NAECI Agreement.

* Union controlled registering of unemployed and locally skilled union members, with nominating rights as work becomes available.

* Government and employer investment in proper training/apprenticeships for new generation of construction workers – fight for a future for young people.

* All Immigrant labour to be unionised.

* Trade Union assistance for immigrant workers – including interpreters – and access to Trade Union advice – to promote active integrated Trade Union Members.

* Build links with construction trade unions on the continent.

* Re-instatement of [victimised worker] John McKewan

Protectionism for the rich, unemployment for the rest of us

Protectionism is bad, says unelected business minister Mandelson, with regards to the striking construction workers and their demands for employment.

Now wait a minute! Is this not a little inconsistent? Having bailed out the UK car industry and the UK banking sector the Lord of Darkness has decided that protectionism will lead us unto Depression!

Mandelson has nothing to worry about, he will be protected by the big business interests that he serves.

The super-rich look after their servants: he will have his protection from the Russian oligarchs who let them holiday on their yachts, from the non-jobs he will get from big businesses seeking little legal changes here and there. He’s been given a job for life in the House of Lords – he doesn’t need protecting from being sacked!

After borrowing billions of pounds to hand to the banks and car companies Mandelson has the cheek to say that protecting workers will damage the economy!

Brown is saying that the bravery of the strikers – fighting for their jobs and their living conditions – is indefensible. This from the coward who wept whilst begging MPs to vote for Heathrow extension, who was too scared to oust Blair, too scared to call an election, too scared to give us the promised referendum on the EU constitutional treaty.

This man, who sends the armed forces to Afghanistan to die for big business interests, has no guts at all. He would never risk being made a criminal to defend other people, he would never fight for justice.

He tells us his promise two years ago of “British jobs for British workers”, a slogan stolen from the fascists, was supposed to be understood as “skills for British workers”.

But most people took this at face value – that it meant UK companies would have to first offer jobs locally before going overseas to find workers. No-one thought that it meant firms could deny jobs to unemployed locals and bring replacements in on ships!

But in truth, EU laws allow firms to undercut wages by importing migrants who they are obliged to pay only the minimum wage.

If big business can now import labour as well as export jobs, what hope is there for workers residing in the UK?

What of Brown’s drive to get the long-term unemployed into work? Why would firms employ people who have disabilities or who have been out of work for long periods when they can easily import healthy workers from overseas?

There will inevitably be massive reductions in wages for those fortunate to keep their jobs – employers will use the threat of wholesale importation of labour to drive down wages and break up union agreements.

Brian Denny, writing in the Morning Star, highlights the role that EU law is playing in undermining workers’ terms and conditions:

THE use of Italian contract workers at Lindsey oil refinery in Lincolnshire is the latest example of employers across Europe going on the offensive and undermining organised labour.

Refinery owner French oil giant Total gave the £200 million contract to Italian company IREM as it was the cheapest tender.

More than 300 of its employees are today being kept on barges berthed at the docks in nearby Grimsby and are being ferried to the refinery to work.

The company claims that the Italian workers are on the same wages as their British counterparts, but, even if this was true, sleeping on containers in the freezing seas on the Humber estuary constitutes a lower social wage for these workers.

The fact that British energy workers do not know the conditions that these contractors are employed on is enough in itself to set alarm bells ringing.

This process undermines the very idea of collective bargaining, a concept which is under attack in a number of ways by employers and the European Union.

Total is exploiting EU law which demands the free movement of capital, goods, services and labour, a neoliberal model which facilitates a race to the bottom in wages and conditions.

This process began back in 1987 with Margaret Thatcher’s Single European Act, which Tory MP John Bercow later boasted was about imposing a single market to achieve the “Thatcherisation of Europe.”

This internal market was designed to slowly remove barriers to the free movement of capital, goods, services and labour, the so-called “four freedoms,” until capital could move anywhere and any time regardless of the consequences.

Rather than liberate workers, it has enslaved them by turning people into commodities, with very few collective rights, to be exploited and dumped without regard to social models built up over generations in the member states.

We saw this process at work in the Irish Ferries dispute in 2006, when Irish seafarers were displaced by sweated Latvian and Polish labour being paid a third of the wages.

The Gate Gourmet strike of 2005 also saw low-paid Polish workers displace local staff, mainly British Asian women.

Four recent judgements by the European Court of Justice, known as Laval, Viking, Ruffert and Luxembourg, have also enshrined this race to the bottom in ECJ case law and gives huge new powers to employers to bring in contract labour anywhere within the EU.

The ECJ and the European Commission are effectively implementing a programme to narrow the scope for member states to preside over their different social models and labour markets in the context of foreign companies posting workers to their territory.

In the Luxembourg case, the ECJ does not even recognise Luxembourg’s right to decide which national public policy provisions should apply to both national and foreign service providers on an equal footing.

This process is also being played out at Staythorpe power station near Newark, where employers in the energy sector are also refusing to employ local unionised labour.

French engineering group Alstom has been contracted by energy privateer RWE to build the power station and two companies, Montpressa and FMM, have since been subcontracted to carry out construction work.

It is clear that the the employers’ response to the growing economic crisis is to exploit neoliberal EU rules on “free movement” and drive down wages, exclude organised labour and maintain their profits.

A stark illustration of this is the fact that the spontaneous strike action came a day after Shell reported the biggest annual profit in British corporate history of £21.9 billion, leading to renewed calls for a windfall tax on energy companies.

But the use of cheap foreign workers as a battering ram against organised labour is not a new concept.

In 1934, as European countries followed the United States into the Great Depression, French writer Antoine de St Exupéry described Polish miners expelled from French coalfields once they had fulfilled their usefulness as “half-human shadows, shunted from one end of Europe to the other by economic forces.”

This is the European reality for more and more workers as Brussels imposes its increasingly discredited neoliberal economic model that treats labour like a tin of beans.

Even Environment Secretary Hilary Benn has said that angry energy workers were “entitled to an answer.”

Yet while new Labour remains wedded to the creation of a pseudo-state called Europe, where democracy and workers’ right only exist in the past tense, then more and more workers will be asking the same questions.

Jerry Hicks, candidate for Unite union leadership, backs wildcat strikes

Jerry Hicks is the only challenger to incumbent general secretary, Derek Simpson, in the contest to lead Unite-Amicus.

Having worked for years at Rolls Royce before being sacked in 2005 for his strong defence of workers’ rights as a trade union activist, he is in touch with the concerns of ordinary members and wants democratic control of the union.

He says, “I believe in elections by the members with officers answerable and accountable to the members. As proof of my commitment to the principle of election of officers I was offered a Full Time Officers Job with the Union in 2003 by Derek Simpson but declined his offer as this would have been an appointment and so against my belief in elections.”

Whilst not backing a break from the Labour party, he promises to ensure support is only given to Labour MPs who back workers’ rights and will scrap the anti-union laws, brought in by the Tories, which criminalise people who fight for their jobs.

He says: “Unite is not only the country’s biggest trade union it’s also the biggest single donator to the Labour Party, having given £11 million of members’ money since 2005. But despite all this and with 100 sponsored MPs, anti trade union legislation is unchanged. Even the most basic right to re-instatement when unfairly dismissed has not been achieved under Derek Simpson’s leadership. Slavish support for the Brown government from our union has to end.”

Whereas Simpson is paid £126,939 with a host of privileges, Jerry promises that if he’s elected he’ll follow the socialist tradition of only being paid the wage of the average skilled worker, not a City fat cat.

Here’s the latest post from Jerry’s blog in which he gives his full support to the striking construction workers who are defying the anti-union laws:

An emergency meeting of the national construction shop stewards forum took place in London as long ago as the 8th January. The meeting discussed the escalating crisis in construction following a series of protests in November and December of last year, over employment rights and also the proposed exclusion of UK workers by foreign companies on power stations and other major UK contracts.

The meeting was originally called for at Newark on the 3rd December following a series of protests at the gates of Staythope Power Station. At the meeting shop stewards voted overwhelmingly to organise a programme of demonstrations toward targeted construction projects within the UK power generation sector.

Shop stewards and trade union activists find it is hard enough as it is to get a job in the industry because of the black listing by the employers. It is a way of reducing their costs and attempting to break union organisation on the major projects.

Rank and file members are preparing for mass disruption on projects throughout the country that refuse to recognise union national agreements. There will be organised demonstrations strikes and mass disruption. We are preparing for a battle to defend our jobs.

Jerry Hicks a candidate in the coming election for General Secretary in the UK’s biggest union Unite-Amicus is supporting the action. He was present at a recent protest at Staythorpe power station where he sustained a fractured leg, having been assaulted by the police.

He said “This should come as no surprise to anyone. The employers have deliberately and actively been looking for ways to exploit cheap labour while covering their eyes and ears to the growing rage of discontent and ignoring all the warning signs, it’s outrageous”,

He went on to say, “To its shame the union leadership failed miserably to grasp the nettle months ago when the dispute was a crisis in the making. The union needs to confront the employers and organise a national campaign for industrial action.”

The employers watch and listen to everything we say and do. If the union does little and says even less they drive the boot in harder and our situation gets worse.

This is not about race or prejudice it is about the exploitation of labour, playing one worker against another. It is about the employers trying to break nationally agreed arrangements and in doing so it is an attack on the union.

Gordon Brown, who at the last Labour party conference said ‘British jobs for British workers’, has created a huge problem all of his own making. He can no longer simply sit on his hands waiting on the sidelines.

Meanwhile, other energy companies are observing what happens next as they seek to further exploit the cheap foreign labour market.

This issue is as a result of the Employers deliberately exploiting a situation, the union leaderships woeful lack of response and Browns pronouncement, Now they act like the like the three monkeys. Hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil.

Wildcat strikes at oil refineries

Let’s be clear, this is not a racist or xenophobic protest – though, no doubt the fascists will try and jump on the bandwagon. The strikers are not motivated by hatred, but by a fear that they might be lose their jobs in the future.

The contention is not that Italian or Portugese nationals living locally should be barred from employment, but that it is crazy that bosses would bring in workers from overseas before first seeking to take on unemployed people who live near the refinery.

These workers should be praised for defying the anti-union laws which criminalise wildcat action, for breaking the law to defend their living standards.

The BBC reports on the growing protests:

Hundreds of energy industry contractors have walked out at sites in northern England and Scotland in an escalating protest over the use of foreign labour.

The dispute began at the Lindsey Oil Refinery, North Lincolnshire, on Wednesday after a construction contract was awarded to an Italian firm.

Unions said the contract should have been given to British workers.

In a second day of action, 800 people protested outside the refinery as workers from other sites joined them.

Hundreds of contract workers at the neighbouring Conoco Phillips oil refinery took part in Thursday’s action.

Employees at BP’s Dimlington gas terminal in East Yorkshire and its chemical manufacturing plant in Saltend, Hull, also walked out in support of the Lindsey refinery workers.

Unofficial strike action was also taken by workers at Scottish Power’s Longannet power station in Fife.

Total, which owns the Lindsey refinery, said its main refining operations on the 500-acre site remained unaffected by the action.

It also stressed that there would be no direct redundancies as a result of the construction contract being awarded to Italian-based contractor IREM.

Unite union regional officer Bernard McAuley said workers at the refinery had been joined by hundreds of trade unionists and other supporters from around the UK.

He said: “They’ve come from all over the country. We reckon there were almost 1,000 people here today.

“We’ve also had huge numbers of messages of support from people who are incensed by this decision. It’s a total mockery.

“There are men here whose fathers and uncles have worked at this refinery, built this refinery from scratch. It’s outrageous.”