Fawley refinery: Solidarity wins equal pay for migrant workers

Brian Parkin reports that Fawley workers show that solidarity can triumph over scapegoating other workers, rather than fighting the bosses.

Fawley_Oil_Refinery

Yesterday (27 July) at 10.00 am, just four hours before workers at the giant Exxon/Mobil petroleum refinery at Fawley in Hampshire were due to commence their second 24 hour strike, management conceded to their demands. Even in these days of a prevailing neoliberal ‘realism’ in industrial relations, such a development would hardly seem like a major breakthrough. But in every respect this dispute was different; UK born direct and contract workers on the Fawley site were taking strike action for migrant sub-contract workers to be paid the proper pay and allowances set down in a national agreement. And they won!

‘British jobs’ fiasco

So compare the outcome this week at Fawley with the toxic fiasco in 2011 at the Total Lindsey refinery on Humberside where in response to the company using migrant workers on low pay to break the national agreement, picketing construction workers raised the divisive demand of ‘British jobs for British workers’. The demand, originally a cheap throw-away conference slogan by Gordon Brown, was eagerly adopted and proliferated by Unite assistant general secretary Derek Simpson.

Within days the site had become a magnet for the local BNP, and a GMB union official who had cleared the BNP away from the picket found his home attacked and his car set alight the following night. The dispute rapidly descended into a tragic farce as the workers for a decisive period were both confused and divided, and their union Unite rendered, quite rightly, a laughing stock.

Rank and file

The Lindsey dispute was eventually rescued by the intervention of the construction rank and file organisation activists, who, in driving out the racists from the picket line, managed to unite the workforce and won, at least, a partial victory. But the employers, never ceasing to undermine union organisation and national agreements, resumed their efforts a year later at the Ferrybridge energy from waste project in west Yorkshire.

Having first refused to negotiate a Ferrybridge site agreement, the main contractor also refused to employ local workers who were available mainly by virtue of being on the employers blacklist. They then engaged mainly Spanish and Croatian workers on appallingly low wage rates, while robbing them of their daily living allowances. In response, the regional rank and file organisation met and planned a mass picket with the aim of stopping to job until proper agreement terms and conditions had been met.

The subsequent mass picket of around 300 workers effectively shut down the site (as well as the A1 for a while), and having rejected the official union leaflet as pandering to xenophobia, the pickets demanded proper wages, allowances and union membership rights for all workers on the site irrespective of origin- which after the threat of a further picket, the employers agreed.

Bear traps and bottle-necks

All of the UK refinery, chemical process sites and power stations are covered by the NAECI ‘Blue Book’ national agreement. This agreement covers some 11,000 registered skilled workers who are both highly unionised and intensely disliked by the employers. Also many of these workers have experienced the iniquities of the blacklist, and in many cases, have been forced to seek work using false names.

But a growing feature of the Blue Book sector is the acute shortage of skilled labour, and as new infrastructure projects come on line, there has been a real need for employers to recruit from abroad. This would not be an issue were it not for the fact that migrant workers find themselves unwittingly used by unscrupulous employers to under-cut existing agreements. This has been the bear trap that some workers, desperate for work, were previously drawn into – often by unprincipled union officials.

This is why the Fawley victory represents such a breakthrough. It shows that solidarity can triumph over the all-too-easy ideology of scapegoating other workers, rather than fighting the bosses. But Fawley has also revealed the potential strategic strength of workers in industries where continuous just-in-time production and processing bestows enormous economic power in the hands of relatively few workers. These production bottle-necks can be found across a wide range of industrial activities; refineries, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, food processing, power generation, construction with penalty clauses as well as logistics and delivery services.

Realising power, winning respect

Like offshore oil platform workers who have taken strike action aboard their rigs, the Fawley workers have flown in the face of a climate of defeat and doubt and have demonstrated both determination and solidarity. And in each instance it has only been possible to drag their union officials with them by building and maintaining their own industry and site organisation.

And at Fawley, the gains have been substantial. Migrant workers have gone from £48 per shift to £125 – backdated to September 2015! And they have also been awarded the full daily living allowance – plus, of course, union membership and full representation on the stewards committee. And in the process, union organisation at Fawley will have been immeasurably enriched through the internationalisation of an indivisible workforce.

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