The Socialist Workers Party and “British jobs for British workers”

The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) like the Socialist Party (of which I am a member) are united in opposing the European Union for many good reasons. Nevertheless, one of the fundamental points of disagreement that exist between these two revolutionary political organisations revolves around the issue of immigration.[1] The SWP demands open borders immediately, while the Socialist Party does not.

This important difference was raised by the SWP in an October 2015 essay “The internationalist case against the European Union” (International Socialism, Issue 148) which was authored by their leading theoretician, Professor Alex Callinicos. Towards the tail-end of this article Professor Callinicos takes a swipe at the Socialist Party writing:

“Disastrously, a section of the radical left in Britain links opposition to the EU to rejection of one of its core principles, the free movement of labour. Thus Peter Taaffe of the Socialist Party writes: ‘The alleged benefits of the ‘free movement of labour’ are in reality a device for the bosses to exploit a vast pool of cheap labour, which can then be used to cut overall wage levels and living standards.’ He goes on, absurdly, to argue that, if Polish workers ‘were forced to stay’ at home, presumably by immigration controls, there would be ‘a massive rebellion of Polish workers, which is coming in any case’.”

This is an unprincipled pot-shot at the Socialist Party’s internationalist position. As Taaffe explained in the aforementioned article:

“There is fear and resentment that scarce resources in housing, education and the NHS will not be sufficient if a new wave of immigrants comes to Britain. Only a programme offering fully-funded services and a crash house building plan, driven by a publicly-owned and controlled programme of public works, can assuage all workers’ fears.

“Cameron and the Tories support the import of cheap immigrant labour while denouncing immigrants who are allegedly living on benefits, which the government knows quite well, is only a tiny minority.

“In any case, even Cameron’s attempt to limit Polish immigration to Britain was met with a flat rejection by the Polish Prime Minister, Ewa Kopacz. The latter is only too happy to continue to ‘export’ her problems, encouraging poverty-stricken workers to flee the country. If they were forced to stay, she and the Polish capitalists would be confronted by a massive rebellion of Polish workers, which is coming in any case.

“Only common action across national boundaries, as well as within nations, can allow us to build a strong workers’ movement to confront the bosses and stop them from exploiting and gaining from divisions within the working class. This must include defending the rights of all workers who have moved across the continent in search of work to remain, if they wish to do so, with full rights in the country where they now live.” [2]

Professor Callinicos’ willing misrepresentation of the Socialist Party’s position however does not end there, and a couple of paragraphs later he concludes:

“For the left to support immigration controls or demand ‘British jobs for British workers’ would be a disastrous capitulation to the chauvinism and racism of UKIP and the Tory right. Our objection to the free movement of labour is that it doesn’t go far enough: the borders should be open, unconditionally, not just to EU citizens, but to everyone.”

The clear and unfounded accusation is that the Socialist Party supports the reactionary demand of “British jobs for British workers,” an issue which has tied the SWP into knots of confusion for years. But this misrepresentation is no accident, and a quick search of the SWP’s web site with the search term “British jobs for British workers” (BJ4BW) throws up a series of related articles about the momentous working-class struggle that was the Lindsey Oil Refinery dispute of 2009.

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Lindsey refinery: workers show their strength, photo Keith Gibson

The first SWP article dealing with this strike which is titled “Why British jobs for British workers is not the solution to the crisis” (Socialist Worker, January 30, 2009) evidently took its lead from the right-wing national media which tried to characterise the wildcat strike of Lindsey construction workers as being racist. The national media were able to do this by focusing all their coverage on a few placards that demanded “British jobs for British workers.” Following this negative national leader, the SWP’s highly problematic article was then followed by another lecturing frontpage article titled “Blame the bosses not ‘foreign workers’” (Socialist Worker, February 3, 2009).

Quick to accuse workers of racism, the SWP utterly failed to understand the nature of the militant Lindsey strike. In fact, one of the reasons why the few “British jobs for British workers” placards stood out so much was because there were no official union placards on the picket lines because the strike was unofficial, and initially took place against the wishes of the local union reps who were concerned with the consequences of striking in the face of the government’s vicious anti-trade union laws. In fact, the existing site reps resigned en masse just prior to the launch of the wildcat strike and the Lindsey workers were got around to electing their own unofficial strike committee a day after the strike had started. As the Socialist Party explained in our editorial “Firm strike leadership gains results” (February 4, 2009):

“This trade union consciousness of the need to act collectively led to the outbreak of these strikes. They know that the employers, hiding behind new EU directives and court rulings, are putting in jeopardy all that they have fought for and won on site after site over many years.

“In a magnificent dismissal of the anti-trade union legislation, these workers ignored the laws on issues like ballots and picketing, in order to assert their right to tell the government and employers what they think, and demand changes.

“The media has concentrated on the slogans of some strikers that said: “British jobs for British workers” (which have partly or even mainly been a reaction to the same nationalistic phrase that was used by Gordon Brown). On the basis of this, some on the left have drawn the wrong conclusion that these are reactionary strikes.

“No workers’ movement is ‘chemically pure’. Elements of confusion, and even some reactionary ideas, can exist, and have done in these strikes. However, fundamentally this struggle is aimed against the ‘race to the bottom’, at maintaining trade union-organised conditions and wages on these huge building sites.”

At a public meeting organised shortly after the successful conclusion of the strike Socialist Party member Keith Gibson – who had been elected onto the unofficial Lindsey Oil Refinery strike committee and had served as the disputes chief spokesman — recalled how at the start of the strike…

“…there was no leadership there [on the picket line], and I believe that there was a vacuum at that particular stage where these slogans of ‘British jobs for British workers’ on posters which were downloaded off ‘Bear Facts’ [a construction industry] web site, there was a number of workers who had those particular posters. And I thought at the time that that was a dangerous slogan to use. That was a slogan that was put forward and there was a certain amount of mixed understanding about what that slogan meant; and it was used straight away by the media to try to portray our strike as a racist strike, that we was striking against Italian workers coming in to do those jobs. And I made it, and strikers made it quite clear, that this was not a racist issue: this was an issue of an employer who wanted to try to divide the workforce and try to undermine the national agreement. It was nothing to do with racism. It was to try and get an agreement with an Italian employer to make them aware that we had struggled for thirty years to attain an agreement with pay and conditions and that we didn’t want an Italian employer to undermine those particular demands. So that was going on.

“We were elected on the second day, there were six people elected to the strike committee on that particular plant. On the Monday the BNP turned up and we noticed them outside the main area where the workers was, and they was trying to give out racist leaflets to the workers, and it wasn’t the strike committee that approached the BNP, it was the workers that were on strike, they went straight to the BNP and said that you shouldn’t be giving those racist leaflets out on this particular demonstration and that we are asking you to leave as soon as possible – in front of the police – we want you to leave this dispute, you’ve have got no truck with the working-class and we want you to leave this particular dispute.”

Here it should be emphasised that throughout the dispute every effort was made to reach out to the foreign workers brought to the site by the anti-union subcontractor IREM. Moreover, the socialist demands agreed by the strike committee were accepted unanimously at a mass meeting of the striking workers (see our pamphlet “Lindsey, Visteon, Linamar: Lessons from the disputes of 2009”). These demands were far from racist and called for:

  • No victimisation of workers taking solidarity action.
  • All workers in UK to be covered by the NAECI [National Agreement for the Engineering and Construction Industry] agreement.
  • Union-controlled registering of unemployed and local skilled union members with nominating rights as work becomes available.
  • Government and employer investment in proper training/apprenticeships for the new generation of construction workers. Fight for a future for young people
  • All immigrant labour to be unionised.
  • Trade union assistance for immigrant workers, via interpreters, to give right of access to trade union advice – to promote active integrated trade union members.
  • Build links with construction trade unions on the continent

While other demands included calling for the repeal of the ‘posted worker directives’ of the European Union which allow non-UK companies to be exempt from industry-wide collective agreements such as the NAECI. This was important because such workers do not benefit from having the same wages and protected conditions as the UK’s trade union organised workforce.

Right from the start of the dispute the SWP did not cover themselves in glory by acting to denigrate the workers who agreed these radical demands, and not much has changed to the present day either. As the Socialist Party pointed out in an article titled “Deceptive denigration of Lindsey strike” (April 21).

“The SWP… even produced a pamphlet entitled Why BJ4BW Won’t Solve the Crisis, of which only two pages are devoted to the strike itself. The pamphlet mentions that the final deal meant that of the 198 construction jobs involved, 102 would go to local previously unemployed construction workers, but does not mention that none of the foreign workers (Italians, etc) would lose their jobs for IREM, one of the companies contracted to carry out the work.

“It also approvingly mentions an Acas report that found ‘no evidence’ that the contractor companies had ‘broken the law in relation to the use of posted workers’ and that gave assurances that the contractor companies will abide by the NAECI agreement. But the law on posted workers only entitles them to ‘minimum’ labour standards, not NAECI standards, and this Acas report containing assurance of abiding by NAECI standards was only produced following the pressure of the workers’ action.” [3]

The Socialist Party article later noted:

“To suit this purpose, Martin Smith, the author of the SWP pamphlet, exaggerated the presence of the British National Party (BNP) in the Lindsey dispute in an article in Socialist Review [the SWP’s monthly journal].

“He wrote: ‘You don’t have to take my word for it – Tony Woodley, the joint secretary of Unite union, told the Financial Times ‘The British National Party are seriously and sizeably involved’. Since when have the words of Woodley been gospel, a ‘leader’ who has not organised the might of his union in support of the Lindsey or Visteon workers, and who has kept his own distance from their struggles?

“The racist BNP did attempt to intervene in the construction strikes but they were ignored or chased off the picket lines. If it had been left up to Martin Smith and his party then indeed the BNP might have been able to make some headway, but the conscious intervention of the Socialist Party and other left trade unionists elevated the need for workers’ solidarity in struggle, and that is what came to the fore.

“The SWP leaflet given out on the Lindsey picket line said: ‘Those who support this strike are playing with fire’. What could this mean, except ‘don’t support the strike’? Yes, unfortunately they got it wrong, and all that they say now is a result of their wrong position from the beginning.”

In an unfortunately fairly typical example of uncomradely behaviour, the SWP deliberately misrepresented the Socialist Party as being “enthusiastic” about the “British jobs for British workers” aspect of the strike (“Desperate debates over desperate measures,” International Socialism, March 31, 2009). Continuing with their sectarian nonsense the same journal article continued:

“Fortunately, there are many thousands of militant trade unionists with better instincts than Seamus Milne or the Socialist Party, who see the need for a struggle with the potential to unite all workers. This is shown by the 1,800 trade unionist activists, ranging from ordinary shop stewards to union executive members and even general secretaries, who signed the statement denouncing the ‘British jobs’ slogan.”

Such slurs were then repeated some months later when Martin Smith, pontificating in another confused article entitled “How do we stop the BNP?” (International Socialism, June 24, 2009), said that during the Lindsey dispute the “slogan adopted by many of the workers was ‘British jobs for British workers’.”

And, so it is hardly surprising that many years after the dust has settled on the dispute that the SWP would continue to disparage militant Lindsey workers in their vain attempts to put down the Socialist Party, as illustrated previously by their 2015 essay “The internationalist case against the European Union.” Nevertheless, life moves on, and as the Socialist Party concluded in their 2008 critique of the SWP’s decidedly problematic twists and turns:

“Our purpose has been to warn that, in this period of political reawakening, the policies and method they have pursued up to now will not only weaken them but harm the general struggles of the left in rebuilding the forces of the labour movement and socialism. We, for our part, intend to continue to pursue a policy of debate, dialogue and discussion with genuine left organisations as well as building and strengthening the Socialist Party. This is a precondition for rearming the labour movement for the battles to come. We are also prepared to unify our forces in practice with all genuine Marxist organisations on an agreed, principled basis.

“We will not, however, jeopardise the work of our members or supporters that we have built up in unprincipled amalgamations in which the approach of organisations differ so widely as to produce paralysis. This would only prepare the basis for further splits and schisms at a later stage. However, what we can do today is to bloc with genuine socialist and Marxist forces with their roots in the working class and the labour movement in the task of preparing the basis for a new, mass left party in Britain. We have argued this case for over a decade and will continue to do this in the present period.

“We appeal to all those who have read and agree with our analysis and programme to join the ranks of the Socialist Party and the CWI [Committee for a Workers’ International]. A strong Marxist left is vital, providing the ideological backbone to any new formation that will arise in Britain.”  — Peter Taaffe, Socialism and Left Unity: A Critique of the Socialist Workers Party (Socialist Publications, 2008).

References

[1] For other significant differences between these two organisations, see Peter Hadden, “The struggle for socialism today – a reply to the politics of the Socialist Workers Party,” 1999.

[2] Peter Taaffe, “European Union Referendum: No to a Capitalist EU, Yes to a Socialist Europe!”, The Socialist, June 3, 2015.

[3] It is important to highlight that the Italian contractor IREM which was investigated by Acas was not unionised “and was believed to be flouting NAECI terms and conditions (which, tellingly, ACAS [2009] was unable to refute).” Gregor Gall, “The engineering construction strikes in Britain, 2009,” Capital & Class, 2012, 36(3), p.417. Gall adds that ACAS’s Report of an Inquiry into the Circumstances surrounding the Lindsey Oil Refinery found “that IREM had not broken the law and that the contract documentation stipulated that IREM, the concerned contractor, would pay the NAECI rate, but that ‘IREM were not yet in a position to provide evidence to demonstrate that they were doing this’. It (ACAS: 5) also raised issues as to whether the NAECI was being adhered to in terms of tea breaks, travel time allowance, and preparation time (for dressing in work clothing).” (p.428)

Further Information

For more further criticisms of how the mainstream “media consciously chose to use the BJ4BW visually and verbally as the hook upon which to hang reporting of the strike,” see Gregor Gall, “The engineering construction strikes in Britain, 2009,” Capital & Class, 2012, 36(3), pp.411–31.

Likewise, another academic writer, Guglielmo Meardi, observed how: “In the Lindsey case, the role of the media was instrumental in depicting the protests against Sicilian contractor IREM as ‘xenophobic’.” (p.112) But Meardi notes that the misrepresentation of the strike was “Even worse… in the Italian media. Leftwing newspapers il manifesto and l’Unità devoted to it the whole first page and compared the protests with the concomitant right-wing anti-migrant actions in Italy, while the state broadcaster RAI opened the reports from the safety of the Italian workers under alleged siege on their barge, and even provocatively interviewed Italian workers on Italian sites where British workers were employed, asking whether they wanted to take revenge for the treatment of their compatriots in England (for the bafflement in the interviewees).” (p.113) Meardi continues:

“Such portrayal influenced national- and international-level trade unions. The largest Italian unions CGIL and CISL reacted with indignation. The European affairs officers of the largest Italian union, CGIL, Nicolosi and Petrucci, signed a declaration opening with the words ‘What’s going on in Lincolnshire is one of the ugliest pages in the history of the trade union movement in these globalized times: English workers against Italian workers’ (Ufficio Stampa CGIL, 2 February 2009). However, if one moves from the official level to the local one, the picture was different. In its home town Syracuse (own interviews with CISL and CGIL union officers), IREM was known for its anti-union practices and for by-passing of national collective agreements (through the affiliation to the artisans’, rather than employers’ confederation). Unionists on the ground understood the British protesters for two reasons: they were not surprised that IREM would have tried to undercut British collective agreements on pay (something that the arbitration body ACAS failed to investigate in its report), and agreed with the British concern on employment, given the Italian unions’ practice to sign local ‘employment continuity’ contracts in large industrial sites or ports, to bind foreign contractors to the use of already locally employed workers (whether Italians or foreigners) and the respect of collective agreements. In short, as one unionist said, if the same problem with a foreign contractor had occurred in Syracuse, ‘we would have done exactly the same’.”

Guglielmo Meardi, “Union Immobility? Trade Unions and the Freedoms of Movement in the Enlarged EU,” British Journal of Industrial Relations, 2010, 50(1), p.113.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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