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A tale of two countries

As unemployment rockets around the world, with Britain the hardest hit major economy, workers on both sides of the Channel are beginning to take action against job cuts and attacks on living standards.

World output is forecast to fall for the first time since World War II as each day reveals an ever sharper decline of the capitalist economy. The International Labour Organisation is now forecasting that the global recession could cost up to 50 million jobs worldwide.

In France, yesterday’s “Black Thursday” saw up to two million people taking part in demonstrations around France, in protest against Sarkozy’s handling of the economic slump. Around a million public sector unions struck work, demanding extra help for ordinary families in place of state aid for the banks.

They called for an end to civil service job cuts, better pay and conditions, and rises in the minimum wage and welfare benefits to support consumption. Banners and chants showed a larger range of grievances, including demands for collective bargaining and opposition to the relaxation of Sunday trading rules.

But, closer to home, the unofficial strikes which broke out across the UK earlier this week, are taking an ugly, nationalist form. A dispute over the use of foreign workers at a UK refinery has spread to other sites, involving around 1,000 workers.

Before dawn this morning, several hundred demonstrators gathered outside Total’s Lindsey oil refinery at Immingham, near Grimsby, one of Britain’s biggest oil refineries. Angry building workers denounced the arrival of more than 200 Italian and Portuguese staff, brought in to construct a new unit.

A decision to bring in hundreds of Italian and Portuguese contractors to work a new £200m plant at the refinery at North Killingholme, North Lincolnshire, originally led to the protests. The British National Party (BNP) tried to hijack the walk-outs, which were not supported by the trade union Unite, to which many of the workers belong. Unite and the TUC itself, which has sat on its hands as the economic crisis rages have provided no leadership whatsover.

Over past years and months the government and trade union leaders have helped set worker against worker by repeating the mantra, “British jobs for British workers”. The trade unions’ lack of action has led to frustration and provided fuel for the nationalists and racists. They have now made their move by sending BNP activists to join the picket lines. A BNP spokesman claimed that the strike against foreign labour was “a great day for British nationalism.”

But Bobby Buirds, a regional officer for Unite in Scotland, refused to denounce the rampant nationalism. He claimed that the workers at Grangemouth were striking to protect British jobs not to confront the foreign workers, but also reignited nationalism by claiming that “The argument is not against foreign workers, it’s against foreign companies discriminating against British labour,” he said. “This is a fight for work. It is a fight for the right to work in our own country. It is not a racist argument at all.”

New Labour has played fast and loose with nationalism in order to defuse attention from the way it has mortgaged Britain’s future to the bankers, financiers and global corporations. Environment secretary, Hilary Benn, claimed the angry workers were ”entitled to an answer”. And the chief cynic is of course Gordon Brown who set the fuse promising ‘British jobs for British workers’, a slogan taken up by some workers on strike outside refineries and power stations. Meanwhile at Davos, Brown is denouncing protectionism and calling “for the world to come together as one”.

Dr Johnson’s nostrum that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel” never rang so true as now.

Gerry Gold
Economics Editor
30 January 2009

Ray says:

The response by workers in Immingham and elsewhere to oppose the use of Italian and Portuguese workers to do jobs in their community whilst they remain unemployed is an undeniable and basic question amongst the growing ‘problems’ of the workers movement everywhere today.

It has been a problem and will remain so whilst the anarchy of capitalism remains in control of the labour and capital markets. To deny or condemn the growing sense of anger by suggesting it is simply a nationalist reaction, fails to find a way through confusion that we must help clear to show both the underlying causes and ultimate solution of this inevitable development.

Given the paucity of leadership, how should the workers of the north-east react? Try to smuggle themselves aboard the company’s barge and sing the ‘Internationale’ to the imported labour whilst they’re having dinner!

We are where we are. No concessions to backwardness!
Firstly we must state that is not the fault of workers irrespective of country of origin. The enemy is the enforcers of property relations that rob labour of its products and maintains the class-legality of this robbery thereby. To throw off this encumbrance is the historic task of workers themselves.

The employers being the capitalists they are are obliged to reduce the costs of their products (in a diminishing market) by dividing and ruling the labour power. To this end they are not disappointed by the help they get from New Labour in a positive way and trades unions in a passive way.

Manufacturer’s raw materials are becoming cheaper ‘generally’ every day during the global economic crisis whilst the cost of labour power, which having historical rights, won in battle with employers over centuries, must, for them, be reduced by them. How the employers attempt this and how the workers respond to this is the crux of the question.

To tell the workers the truth on how to fight for their rights and finally resolve this social contradiction is for us a must of scientific socialism. Not only for those in work but those outside.

We don’t need to tell workers that they are in a struggle with employers. They don’t need telling either that employers will utilise any country and use whichever country’s labour force to maximise profits. Car-makers world wide have demonstrated this international diversity in manufacture amongst many examples. This has been going on in an open way since capital had open markets to ply their trade.

But today there is the spectre of depression on the near horizon and there are factors in the market and in politics that hold dangers for every class.

Neither can the working-class (and those socially close) nor can the capitalists and those politically close to them live in the ‘old ways’. National boundaries are outdated by global developments. And whilst working-class structures are bound by the same national boundaries they can never be really free. Any so-called proletarian leader that suggests otherwise is a liar or a deceiver.

Demagogues of the protectionist variety who would seek salvation “in the nation” can only embark on a Bonapartist cum corporatist path or openly fascist way at this point in history. But even in that they will have no ultimate victory.
Trades unions are seeing that the liberal-Labour reformist style governments have passed their ‘use by date’.

Trades unions must seek closer ties to workers in combination and struggle everywhere and in so doing will be truer to their origins and more historically honest than those that grovel at the national table for stale crumbs. Trade unionism itself cannot and never will solve the fundamental political question – leading the working-class to take power.

Today we must not portray that the British National Party as having more authority than it actually does. The Tories as well as New Labour and Liberals will surely play to the nationalist gallery as things ‘get worse’. How they play it and when is for them an opportunist perspective. But that’s them.

We must not give the false impression to our limited support at present that the main players are on the stage. This would be impressionism and a petty-bourgeois fear of the left wing communist variety. Have more confidence in the workers, less in the televised so-called influence of the BNP. It would be politically stupid to deny the dangers ahead for it is our job amongst many to counter the ‘nationalist question’! It is doubly stupid to believe the televised scenes from France and England are pure and sure signs of things to come.

Fiona says:

While I agree with the general thrust of the article and of the comments above, I do not think that the Total workers walk-out and the various supportive unoffical actions, can be described (yet) as examples of racism and xenophobia. The grievances of the oil workers are valid, simply put that in a time of shrinking employment a company, foreign owned true enough but what isn't these days to one extent or another, has decided to "import" a large number of outside workers who it is almost certain will be paid lower wages and hence will undercut the wage levels of the local working population. 'Workers of the World Unite' is a fine slogan and one would wish to see something like it on the banners, but when people see themselves cheated out of employment opportunities, or having to compete with another set of lower paid employees, then the chance of them feeling solidarity is frankly very low. It is a great pity, but I still think that these workers and people generally, know by now perfectly well where the blame lies. Main thing at present is to counter the BNP's ugly propaganda and keep the notion of worker solidarity in the forefront of peoples minds, rather than seeing a degeneration of the situation being brought about by this propaganda and by government cyncicsm.

Robert says:

The problem is of course the left of Labour have nowhere to go while the right of Labour has taken us into the mess and will build up an even bigger mess for our kids future, the bigger problem will be Labour keeping it's second place behind the Tories after the next election, yes the BNP are jumping on a band wagon just like Blair did.

We need a party for the working class we need a left leaning party problem is we do not have one, would I vote BNP well I doubt it, would I vote New Labour again not a chance in hell and I've been in the party all of my working life but no more.

Paul says:

Italian workers today, who tomorrow?

That's what we should ask. Any idea that these walk-outs are aimed simply at foreign companies and not foreign workers as well is nonsense, as this report from The Daily Telegraph makes clear:

"Amid banners recalling the Prime Minister's pledge, one protester at the Lindsey refinery said: "Gordon Brown said in 2007... British jobs for British workers. It seems to be British jobs for foreign workers. And it's not on. We think they should be sent home, that this job should be given to the British and it's just diabolical really."

Brown and Hilary Benn, strangely enough, are refusing to condemn the walk-outs, whereas if they were over pay or fuel duties, they would. Why? Because these xenophobic actions, by neatly diverting attention on to "foreigners", let the government off the hook and may even win them a few votes from workers disillusioned with a decade of New Toryism.

New Labour promoted the "virtues" of free-market corporate globalisation, whose crisis is the source of growing unemployment. They have since mortgaged the country to bail-out the bankers in a futile attempt to rescue the capitalist financial system. All that is forgotten in the search for foreign scapegoats. Of course, all the stuff about "British jobs for British workers" and relentless attacks on asylum seekers and refugees has helped to create an atmosphere for the fascist BNP to prosper in.

As to the union "leaders", they have brown-nosed New Labour to the point where they have disappeared. By playing fast and loose with the walk-outs, they ill serve their members. By the way, when was the last union-inspired struggle against redundancies? Sometime in the last century I think. No wonder the oil workers express their anger in such a misguided way. They even forget they work for a "foreign" firm, Total - a French headquartered global corporation to be more precise.

Our argument is not just with foreign companies - it should be with ALL companies and the madness of a system of production based on profit, year-on-year growth and market anarchy. The alternative is to turn on each other. History has shown what a dangerous road this is.

Dylan says:

This is very worrying. People with no jobs do desperate things it would seem and allow the wrong ideas to take root. As we all know, successive governments have sold out to foreign firms rather like in The Premiership, an important aside, where we have foreign managers and foreign players outnumbering our own, we even have a foreign manager in charge of The National Team of course. Racism is deporable. But there is an unbalance in places, where British fairness has been walked all over. No wonder The BNP finds further support today. But the real villain is of course the state, the goverment and the corporations who are in it together and run Britain for the few, like the rest of the world.

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