Lessons from Fawley: From ‘British jobs’ to migrant solidarity

In 2011 the ‘British jobs for British workers’ slogan sent shivers down the spine of anyone championing the rights of migrants. Brian Parkin assesses a recent watershed dispute at Fawley and discusses how – and why – the tide has turned

Fawley_Oil_Refinery

On Wednesday 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. In these days of a prevailing neoliberal ‘realism’ where we are told that ‘strikes don’t win’, such a development would seem to be a major breakthrough. But in every respect this dispute was different; UK born direct and contract workers on the Fawley site took strike action for unskilled migrant sub-contract workers to be paid the proper pay and allowances set down in a national agreement. And they won!

The British jobs fiasco

Compare the outcome at Fawley August 2016 with the toxic fiasco in 2011 at the Total Lindsey refinery on Humberside. At Lindsey, 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 then 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 them 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 drive out the racists

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 a partial victory. But the employers in 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 firstly refused to recognise the national agreements at the Ferrybridge site, the main contractor recruited migrant workers through an agency while also refusing to employ local workers who were available because they were on the employers blacklist. They also robbed the migrant workers of their daily living allowances – by forcing them to hot-bunk up to four to a room in nearby slum back-to-back houses. In response the regional rank and file organisation met and planned a mass picket with the aim of stopping the job until a proper agreement on terms and conditions had been met.

The subsequent mass picket of around 300 workers effectively shut down the site (as well as the A1 motorway for a while), and having rejected the official union leaflet as pandering to xenophobia, the local rank and file activists produced their own version demanding proper wages, allowances and union membership rights for all workers on the site irrespective of country of origin – after the threat of a further picket, the employers conceded.

A Teesside carnival of solidarity

Shortly after the Ferrybridge victory, another incinerator site at Wilton on Teesside became the focus of yet another fight against the use of migrant workers to sidestep nationally agreed terms and conditions and derecognise unions and collective bargaining rights. At Teesside, a notoriously deprived area of massive unemployment – as well as being a backwater of BNP and UKIP activity and support – the whole situation could easily have gone the way of the Lindsey ‘British jobs’ tragedy.

But again, as in Yorkshire, a rank and file network totally opposed to divide and rule racism and largely under the leadership of the tragically and recently deceased Andy Smith turned the Wilton dispute into a carnival of solidarity and civil disobedience. The ‘Teesside Activists’, most of whom were unemployed as well as being blacklisted for union activity, championed the rights of the Italian, Croatian, Bosnian, Romanian and Spanish workers who had been hoodwinked into rip off low paid employment with a denial of bargaining rights as well as withholding living allowances in exchange for squalid overcrowded accommodation.

Enlisting the mediation services of catholic priests, imams and linguists from the nearby university, the Teesside Activists were able to produce leaflets in up to six languages advising the migrant workers of their rights as well as inviting them to join the two signatory unions to the national agreements – Unite and the GMB union.

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. Many of these workers have also experienced the iniquities of the blacklist, and in many cases, have been forced to seek work in far flung locations often using false names.

A growing feature of the Blue Book sector is the acute shortage of skilled labour, and as new big projects have 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 determined to undercut existing agreements whilst excluding union activists by means of blacklisting. The resulting anger has been the bear trap that some workers, desperate for work, have sometimes been drawn into – often by less than principled union officials.

The Fawley watershed

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. It also shows how the traditional ambivalence and ‘sectionalism’ between direct and contact workers and skilled and unskilled workers can be suddenly overcome. 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, as well as logistics, delivery and online information services. Similarly in construction where the employers on big projects inevitably face potentially crippling penalties in the event of delays and the failure to complete on time.

Blow back

In the present neoliberal period an essential – and now customary – hedge for protecting often slender profit margins has been to minimise overheads and risk through a transformation to ‘just-in-time’ work organisation. This ensures costs are minimised by keeping stocks of materials to a minimum and wage bills low through greater ‘flexibility’ by incentive (or penalty) and low service benefits based pay. Consequently an art of industrial relations has evolved, aimed at maintaining production by atomising, deskilling and destroying the ‘autonomy’ of workers. Yet it is the very nature of just-in-time work organisation that ever threatens employers with blow back in the event of the slightest delay or disruption.

In the case of Fawley, the migrant workers at the heart of the dispute were semiskilled sub-contract labour employed in the rinsing, descaling and decontamination of refinery reactor and storage vessels. The work; hot, dark, dirty and dangerous, has to be carried out as soon as any one of the six refinery ‘sets’ at Fawley is taken out of scheduled production. Using full protective decontamination suits and a fully maintained air supply, the workers have to enter the vessels in order to scrub and flush the vessel linings as well as clean and replace filters and catalyser elements – quickly. Then ‘just-in-time’, the refinery set is returned into production as another is closed down for cleaning and re-servicing.

And any delay in this servicing cycle instantly disrupts the continuous production process upon which the refinery depends in order to meet the insatiable thirst of the forecourt petrol and diesel pumps from which Exxon/Mobil realise their vast profits.

Realising power, winning respect

Like offshore oil platform workers who have now taken strike action aboard their rigs, the Fawley workers have struck against a climate of defeat and doubt and have demonstrated both determination and solidarity. And in each instance it has only been possible to compel their union officials to support them by building and maintaining their own industry and site organisation. And here, as in the case of the North Sea platforms, official support – albeit under pressure from an assertive rank and file – has been an important factor in spreading support for the strikers

And at Fawley, the gains have been substantial. Subcontracted, low skilled and relatively insecure migrant workers have gone from £48 per shift to £125 – fully 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 has been immeasurably enriched through the internationalisation of an indivisible workforce.


This article originally appeared in the Autumn 2016 issue of the rs21 magazine

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