Even in a slump, strikes and occupations can get resultsEmployers are hailing a revolution in industrial relations, but the message seems to have been lost at the sharp end
Seumas Milne guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 24 June 2009 21.30 BST Article historyA revolution is taking place in industrial relations, the Confederation of British Industry claims, courtesy of the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. A new “solidarity of employers and their employees” has taken hold, John Cridland, the CBI’s deputy director-general enthused this week, as managements and staff roll up their sleeves to take the “difficult decisions” needed to survive the slump.
If so, news of the new understanding clearly hasn’t reached Lincolnshire, where hundreds of engineering construction workers at the Lindsey oil refinery burned dismissal notices on Monday after they were sacked for going on strike – and thousands walked out in sympathy across the energy industry for the third time in five months.
The latest dispute began nearly a fortnight ago, when a subcontractor for Total, which owns the refinery, made 51 workers redundant while another contractor was hiring 61 staff on the same project. After hundreds stopped work in protest and unofficial strikes spread by text and flying pickets across Britain, 647 workers were summarily sacked on Thursday night.
By any reckoning, this was surely a provocative and self-defeating move. Not only had the same workforce already demonstrated its capacity to shut down the site – and significant sections of the wider industry – if it believed agreements were being undercut. But the layoffs were in direct violation of a deal to settle an earlier dispute. Perhaps the idea was finally to bring to heel what one manager described as an “unruly workforce”. But after point-blank refusals to negotiate until the workers had applied for their jobs back, the contractors blinked once again and were back in talks on Tuesday, now due to be resumed .
This was, after all, the same group of workers whose unofficial strikes stopped refineries and power stations all over the country in February after a Sicilian contractor shipped in a non-union, and apparently less skilled, Italian and Portuguese workforce. That first Lindsey walkout was portrayed as anti-foreigner because of “British jobs for British workers” placards held by some strikers, as to a lesser extent was another strike in May over a refusal to take on locally based labour at ExxonMobil’s South Hook terminal in Wales.
In fact, both walkouts were clearly aimed at halting the exploitation of EU directives and European court judgments to undermine the terms and conditions of all workers in the industry, British and migrant alike – which is why hundreds of Polish workers joined the stoppages. And, crucially, they were successful. In a profitable and highly contractualised industry, a tightly knit workforce has turned a fragmentation designed to benefit employers to their own advantage.
Now, as the unions prepare to ballot 30,000 workers to turn the wildcat walkouts into an official strike, they look set to prevail again – just as Grangemouth oil refinery workers and Shell tanker drivers did last year in battles over pension rights and pay. Success seems to be catching.
The most recent walkouts have naturally focused on jobs, as insecurity grips the labour market. But they also show that, as one leading trade unionist puts it, “it isn’t inevitable that employers have the whip hand, even during a recession, and collective action can deliver results” – while passivity guarantees that jobs, pay and conditions are culled, squeezed and slashed.
Second, they underline the irrelevance of anti-union legislation when workers are determined and well-organised. Every single one of the walkouts at Lindsey and at dozens of other power stations and refineries has been illegal under what Tony Blair boasted were “the most restrictive union laws in the western world”. But so far no employer has even hinted at a visit to the courts, so counter-productive would that be in the real industrial world.
It’s now become obvious that only by defying or ignoring the anti-democratic legislation bequeathed by Margaret Thatcher – which outlaws, for example, all solidarity action – will there ever be the political will to ditch or replace it with something more reasonable.
Of course, there are few workforces with the industrial muscle and organisation of energy or rail. Despite the crisis, some firms and sectors are still highly profitable, while others are on their hands and knees, genuinely struggling for survival. That gap is being exploited by managers reaching for once impossible wish lists on pay, pensions and productivity – and often getting away with it, even as bonus schemes remain stubbornly in place, regardless of public revulsion at bankers’ and executive pay.
In the case of BA chief executive Willie Walsh – who volunteered to give up a month of his £743,000 salary and asked his staff, some of whom earn closer to £11,000, to match him for the sake of the loss-making carrier – such opportunism has tipped over into the grotesque. In any case, it’s not that there is “less ideological resistance these days” when firms demand staff “make sacrifices”, as John Philpott of the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development claims, or a newfound partnership between employers and employees, as the CBI insists. It’s the much more straightforward fear of losing their jobs that keeps large parts of the labour force compliant.
But even workforces with far less leverage than those in energy or engineering construction have got results in recent months by taking action against lockouts and closures. Occupations of Ford parts Visteon factories at Enfield, Basildon and Belfast, of Waterford Crystal in Ireland and Prisme Packaging in Dundee all saved jobs or won better pay-offs. Earlier this month, a threatened strike at the Linamar car parts plant in Swansea won the reinstatement of a sacked convenor. As jobs are lost even faster than in the 1980s, others seem bound to conclude there’s no point waiting for politicians to intervene – and take things into their own hands as well.
Meanwhile, the next major industrial relations flashpoint is likely to come in the public sector. That would be true whoever wins the general election. But if David Cameron takes over, the combination of a Tory cuts programme, pressure for new Thatcher-style restrictions on unions and a battle over public sector pensions makes confrontation almost unavoidable. What looks certain is that once the economy starts growing again, the CBI’s revolution will already be a thing of the past.