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.