In defence of striking (or, not quite what Richard III had in mind)

Richard Duke of Gloucester never did utter the words “Now is the Spring of our discontent” so we shall perhaps be spared the same levels of corruption as was the case in 1978-79, but never the less, striking workforces are monopolising news columns and commanding the attention of idle chatterers.

For the Lindesy oil refinery workers we’ve been here before. In February of this year, French oil company Total, which owns the refinery, were brought into meetings with unions over an Italian sub-contractor who had hired its own workforce – including 200 Italian and Portuguese workers – excluding the British workers.

Trade unionists argued that management used this measure to undercut domestic wages.

The left made it clear at the time that foreign workers were not to blame, but rather the loopholes that management were able to practice impinged on workers rights – since those foreign workers hired were working more hours for less pay than the company would be obliged to pay the British workers. Workers, regardless of their nationalities, the left argued, should be paid a fair allowance and one that reflects the legalities of wages in this country.

This time the strikes concern the decision by Shaw, a subcontractor at the Lincolnshire refinery, to dismiss 51 workers on the HDS-3 project while another contractor RDC was hiring 61 staff on the same project.

Those workers have no been told they have until Monday to re-apply for their jobs. As of this a number of wildcat strikes of sympathy have taken place around the country.

Dave Osler for Liberal Conspiracy blames Total for hypocrisy. He notes that Total would be afraid to commit such an odious act for fear of both legal and strategic reasons (he mentions the “notion” of le bossnapping). So why, he asks is it acceptable to do it here? He goes on to say;

“The difference is that where continental countries guarantee some form of employment rights, Britain celebrates the hire and fire culture”

Perhaps a little too simple, but certainly the issue of contractor’s rights should be raised again. More legal emphasis on the rights of agency workers, perhaps?

Total have said they will not talk to unions until production has started again by striking workers. And herein lies the strategic deadlock of wildcat strikes, i.e. the legalities.

A Times entry explains;

“those involved [in the wildcat strikes] have far less protection. Unofficial strikers breach their employment contract by not making themselves available for work, and can be fairly dismissed by the employer as a result. The employer can dismiss and re-engage selectively, so could pick off the ringleaders, whilst retaining or re-employing the rank and file strikers it needs to continue the business.”

But Dave Ossler seems correct again when he adds;

“Total’s nakedly nasty move makes its intention absolutely clear. Shop stewards, troublemakers, lippy bastards and/or anyone with minimal self-respect need not apply. What we are seeing is the return of hardline, back-to-the-eighties, management’s right to manage old skool union busting, pure and simple.”

Total are holding the workers to ransom; deal with our unfair sackings, or get lost we have plenty more contractor opportunities.

Lack of communications are the problem here, no dialogue has been verified yet between the unions and Total unlike in February, all on Total’s own terms.

But for the postal workers it is not communication that is (altogether) the problem. A modernisation agreement in 2007 [doc] was supposed to be put in place after talks with union officials. Yet signs of modernisation, or improvement, have unyet materialised.

Reuters reported David Ward, deputy general secretary of the CWU, having said;

“it was only a matter of time before staff cuts without pledged fresh investment, in machinery for instance, would have a major impact on the service.”

Not a good prospect, especially when even oiks of the Labour Party like Peter Mandelson (I know things will perk up for my party when he is not the most important member of it) would bend over backwards looking for justifications for his plans to part-privatise Royal Mail.

John McFall MP has issued an interesting idea for avoiding Mandy’s proposals to his correct insight that “the taxpayer must be rewarded”. Where Mandy wants to part-privatise in order to maximise profit-margins (makes me sick to think something like this could be said by a member of the Labour Party, let alone one so highly ranked), McFall’s solution is, “[r]ather than selling a stake in the company, why not raise bank debt or issue bonds?”

With bonds, the government could have creditor stake security, and have a defined term for fixed interest payments. It might indirectly curb excessive bonuses and obscure pension pots, and with increased international pressure on tax havens, could spell out good things in finance for years to come. Those taxpayer savings could rescue the Royal Mail as it is today, and still be no match for its competitors.

So for the contractors at Lindsey oil refinery it is lack of talks; for the postal workers, of what communication there had been it didn’t stop promises being broken; and for the tube strikers communication wasn’t enough since talks with TfL brought about no progress anyway.

Though already a Downing Street official said of the Lindsey dispute that ‘Unofficial strike action is never the right response to industrial relations problems’, the ends to which those workers are strking for should be in direct correlation with the overall project of the Labour Party; worker’s rights, public services.