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The race to the bottom

The recent wave of wildcat strikes has taken politicians and commentators by surpise. But as  the economy gets cut down to the bone, work becomes scarce and living standards fall, we can expect more of this kind of protest against the harsh demands of neo-liberalism.

The growing wave of industrial unrest started on Thursday (29 January) with a protest at Total’s Lindsey oil refinery in Lincolnshire against the company’s decision to award a £200m construction contract to an Italian firm, IREM, which plans to carry out the work using Italian and Portuguese staff, bypassing local workers in the process. This is the first series of wildcat strikes for many years and it has taken many politicians and commentators by surprise. At the time of writing, it looks as though this dispute will escalate as more workers threaten to walk in sympathy out this week, including hundreds of contractors at the Sellafield nuclear plant ( ‘Refinery strike: Nuclear power workers threaten to join protest’, Daily Telegraph, 30 January 2009).

Any dispute around the issue of ‘British jobs for British workers’ inevitably attracts the interest of the BNP who latch onto legitimate concerns and grievances and twist them to suit their own ends. Just because a few BNP activists are reported to have turned up at one of the protests in a bid to racialise the issue, it doesn’t mean that anyone with a progressive outlook should turn their backs on the strikers. This is a fight for jobs in the middle of a deepening recession and a backlash against the deregulated, race-to-the-bottom neo-liberal model backed by the government (‘Our Flexible Friends’, Seumas Milne, The Guardian, 30 January 2009).

Lord Mandelson has spoken about the growing wave of industrial unrest, accusing the strikers of protectionism and suggesting that protesters could seek work elsewhere in Europe if they wished (‘You can go and work in Europe, Mandelson tells strikers’, Independent on Sunday, 1 February 2009). Mandelson’s glib suggestion that unemployed skilled workers in Britain simply up sticks to seek work in Europe exposes the truth of the neo-liberal attitude to the workforce, which is that they are simply economic units to be moved around at the whim of capital regardless of the cost to family and personal life (‘The protesters have a point: businesses can’t ignore society’ ,The Independent, 31 January 2009).

The Italian and Portuguese workers holed up in the IREM-provided accommodation barge near Grimsby – a former prison ship – are mainly single young men, prepared to work long hours, spend little in the local economy and send home as much money as possible. Just the kind of flexible workforce that neo-liberalism loves.

One of the key issues in this dispute is the stand taken against the brutal race to the bottom in employment conditions which makes ludicrous demands for ‘flexibility’ that discriminate against anyone who has family commitments and a life outside of work. All Mandelson will have achieved with his ignorant, crass unthinking implication that British workers should simply abandon their families to follow the work wherever it goes is to make the brutality and inhumanity of the neo-liberal ethic crystal clear for all to see. His other unintended achievement will be to anger many more workers and ensure that this dispute, far from fading away, instead escalates.

There is clear evidence that the government have been caught on the hop by the sudden emergence of this dispute and its rapid spread (‘Wildcat wildfire: Frantic bid to stop strikes spreading’, Independent on Sunday, 1 February 2009). Senior civil servants were ordered to an emergency Cobra meeting on Friday (30 January) to plan the government’s response to the disputes. Police, army and immigration services have been put on alert, and mediators are talking with unions and employers in an effort to resolve the situation.

The country has been largely politically quiescent since the Miners Strike and the Poll Tax revolt. The Thatcher revolution successfully destroyed the organized working class, deregulated and restructured the economy on capital’s terms, and redistributed income and wealth towards the top (all of which Labour has either left untouched, or taken even further). Thatcherite values have become internalised or accepted, and easy access to consumer credit and the availability of McJobs in the service sector have helped keep a lid on things. As the economy gets cut down to the bone, work becomes scarce and living standards fall, the settlement that Thatcherism produced is being exposed for all to see.

7 Responses to “The race to the bottom”

  1. William Laws Says:

    Says everything that needs to be said. There’s a lot of posturing from the left about “pan-European resistance” instead, and internationalism is all well and good except that without a real working class left its just an abstraction and abstractions dont feed families. We have to fight on the terrain that presents itself ,not the one we’d like. If the left hadnt fled from the working class years ago, and if the trade union movement hadnt been so craven in the face of New Labour’s pro-business agenda, we wouldnt now have a situation where British workers were having to fight to keep jobs and working conditions against cheaper labour subbed in from Italy.Yeah it would have been more “poltically acceptable” if the unions had fought for a European-wide minimum wage, working conditions etc when the EU deals were done, but they didnt so we have to fight for what we can now.
    Apparently the SWP have condemned the wildcats-which is an open invitation to the BNP to show iself as pro-working class.

    As things hot up though, we have to find ways of widening the agenda so that things dont stay at the level of a scrap for jobs between workers from different sections of the EU. What Mandelson would like is a situation where capital can roam the world looking for the cheapest labour and the rest of us fight over the crumbs, bidding each other down on racial lines. The only long-term solution is to look for ways of fighting for an international standard of wages and conditions, -or at least an EU -wide standard-which has to mean we make links with strikers in France, Germany , Eastern Europe etc as things kick off when the big wave of job cuts are forced through. That way we at least take the first steps of rebuilding a working class movement which fights for equality both for and within our class.

  2. nash Says:

    Looks like a deal has been reached but its interesting that further evidence has emerged undermining the veiw that the strike is against foreign workers or immigration rather than against the untrammelled power of companies to dictate terms on a Europe-wide scale.

    Seamus Milne writes again today:

    ‘Far from being any kind of echo of the small minority of east London dockers who backed Enoch Powell in 1968, the real nature of this dispute was shown by the hundreds of Polish workers who joined the sympathy stoppage at Langage power station in Plymouth on Tuesday.’ (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/feb/05/strikes-foreign-workers)

    The point of the strike was well summed up in another article yesterday by a welder from Liverpool who had joined the walk-out: ‘There’s nothing anti-foreign about this.

    ‘What we’re against is the replacement of a free labour market by companies which float their entire workforce in on barges, contribute nothing to the local economy ? not even using B&Bs ? and won’t even consider taking British workers on as well.’ (http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2009/feb/04/tradeunions)

    It seems New Labour have been the staunchest champions of pro-business directives (responsible for this crisis) in the EU. Mandelson’s comments hinted at where they stand but so far the government has largely escaped the strikers’ ire. For how much longer?

  3. Napier Says:

    The EU is at the root of the problem with its free movement of workers policy. The pro-EU trade unions keep quiet about this whilst supporting Peter Mandelson.

    Does the IWCA have a policy on the EU? They don’t seem to.

    Is the IWCA involved with any other anti-EU groups? Not as far as I’m aware.

    Even the hideously capitalist UKIP is in a better position of defending British workers and British jobs than the IWCA are.

  4. Paul Says:

    The disgraceful response of the middle class left to this dispute, and the SWP in particular, is perfectly summarised here:

    http://www.socialistunity.com/?p=3513#comment-115998

    By the way the IWCA pages are superb, and your working class analysis unique and very necessary on the left. Keep it up!

  5. Napier Says:

    The SWP and the middle class left are inconsequential and nobody supports them but their own members. The IWCA doesn’t even register on the political radar and may never do.

  6. Wendus Says:

    Direct Foreign Recruitment is about GREED.

    It should be banned in the UK as it is in most other countries. Take the example of what happened in the US, where during the 2001 recession, tens of thousands of foreigners were hired to do jobs that Americans supposedly couldn’t do or wouldn’t do. Direct Foreign Recruitment is nothing but a scheme by greedy employers who want to pay lower wages. Consider also that the EU “free movement of labour” directive is ignored in most EU countries with the exception of the UK, Ireland and Sweden. Our politicians are in the pockets of big corporations. It’s time to get our democracy back.

  7. Jim Says:

    I would agree with most of what you say in the article. As a member of the Socialist Party (note, NOT the SWP), I would like to point out that we were completely in support of the strikes from the outset, and two of our members (Keith Gibson and John McEwen) were elected onto the strike committee at Lindsey. I am glad to see that another left group supported the strikes, and took a class approach to matters.

    More details are available here if you are interested: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/keyword/Lindsey_Oil_Refinery,0

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