Lindsey dispute: in defence of wildcat strikes

3:00 pm - June 19th 2009

by Dave Osler    

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Perhaps the tactic known by the immortal franglais neologism of ‘le bossnapping’ has something to do with it. But fear of the legal consequences alone would surely be enough to stop Total giving the entire workforce of a plant in its home country the boot, with no notice whatsoever at that. So why is it being allowed to get away with it this side of the Channel?

Yet there is no legal obstacle whatsoever to the French oil major sacking at least 700 UK employees at Lindsey Oil Refinery, and then telling them that they have until Monday to reapply for their posts.

The difference is that where continental countries guarantee some form of employment rights, Britain celebrates the hire and fire culture the point where Labour dishes out government roles to the likes of Sir Alan Sugar, in the misguided belief that this somehow sprinkles the Brown administration with some sorely needed showbiz stardust.

A Downing Street spokesman has already clarified the official line on the Lindsey dispute. ‘Unofficial strike action is never the right response to industrial relations problems,’ we are told.

Taken literally, I suppose those words could be taken as simple advocacy of official strike action instead, perhaps on the grounds that it is likely to be more effective in the long run.

But somehow, I suspect what the guy really wanted to say is that no kind of strike action is ever the right response to industrial relations problems, and that walkouts should not be contemplated in any circumstances whatsoever. Meanwhile, we must await Number Ten’s response to the sensible, constructive, emollient and patently completely grown-up approach embraced by the employers.

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.

Yet British workers remain constrained by a statute book that since the Thatcher era has been stacked against them so comprehensively that Tony Blair admits its provisions are the most restrictive in the western world. That was a boast and not a condemnation, of course.

So far, there are reports of solidarity with LOR at oil refineries and power stations across the country. Given the etiolated state of working class organisation in Britain, I will admit that until now I would have said that an instantaneous response on such a scale would not have been possible.

Just this once, I am happy to be in the wrong. It would be premature to argue that victory is guaranteed in advance, but the prospect of a sustained blue collar wildcats for the first time in decades is one that every socialist should find exciting. Heck, it might just be worth putting the real business of beating each other up over theoretical disputes on hold for the duration.

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About the author
Dave Osler is a regular contributor. He is a British journalist and author, ex-punk and ex-Trot. Also at: Dave's Part
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Story Filed Under: Trade Unions

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Reader comments

Are the ‘contractors’ here real temps, or full-time workers employed as temps to get round employment rules? If the former, then meh – the whole point about temping is that you don’t have job security. If the latter, then good luck to the strikers.

I’m somewhat torn on this.

Legal strikes are the way forward. A union can very quickly open a ballot for strike action among all Total staff, not just those at this one refinery. And illeal action is a gift to opponents of the unions.

That said, I can’t see what harm a strike by staff who have been laid off anyway can do. The company can’t sack them again.

The company is using mass sackings as a method of cutting terms and conditions without due consultation (illegal in the UK) and eliminating “trouble makers” (also illegal in the UKl) so perhaps an illegal response is appropriate.

although can we please not compare UK labour laws to France. The left shoots itself in the foot every time on that one. They have several million fewer jobs than the UK, despite having the same sized population.

Why give our opponents an open goal?

I’m afraid I have no sympathy for the workers at all.
They have taken part in two unballotted and therefore illegal strike actions & therefore have forfeited the right to legal protection.

if they hadn’t walked out without proper process they wouldn’t have been sacked. The link below gives a good explanation.

Whilst I have sympathy with the strikers, isn’t this an open invitation to Total and other greedy employers to just employ non-union Italians or Poles again? Just increasing the unemployment in Britain.

Gordon Brown was a complete idiot for coming up with “British Jobs for British Workers”. Now that slogan is going to be chanted on the news every night. And we’re going to see slime like Nick Griffin MEP and Andrew Brons MEP on the sidelines milking it.

5. Shatterface

‘Total Bastards’ is one of my milder responses to the sackings.

Labour has proven itself the enemy of the working class again and again: no doubt the loathesome Mandleson will be denomouncing the workers as racist by the evening news. The fact that Griffin will try to exploit this is largely irrelevant – the workers have already told the BNP where to go. UKIP might benefit though.

Labour has proven itself the enemy of the working class again and again: no doubt the loathsome Mandleson {the real leader of New Labour} will be denouncing the workers as racist by the evening news.

100% behind that!

You want a general election? Get a general strike going. Nothing short of that will get New Labour out and with the support shown to business as is – the unions should cease funding of New Labour forthwith!

7. Shatterface

I’ve been arguing against my union funding Labour for years.

I’m not arguing we should fund anyone else instead but New Labour are playing unions for mugs.

The workers are probably in the right here, although I can’t think why they couldn’t just hold a ballot and then go on strike.

Bob Crow and the RMT, however, have done major damage to the use of strike action in recent years by taking every minuscule opportunity to set up picket lines. Many people’s views on strike action nowadays are viewed through the prism of the RMT and unreasonable tube strikes, rather than through the prism of miners striking against real injustice.

Spring of Discontent? Perhaps not, but Unison withdrawal against New Labour orthodoxy, wildcat strikes, postal strikes, tube strikes; some uncomfortable questions will soon be asked of the party, and it should respond favourably to increased union engagement, agency workers rights, and commitment to public services.

Did anyone see John McFall’s article a couple of days ago, for example? See his idea for bonds in avoiding Royal Mail part-privatisation, and saving the taxpayer purse.

‘I’m afraid I have no sympathy for the workers at all.
They have taken part in two unballotted and therefore illegal strike actions & therefore have forfeited the right to legal protection.’

My man – you say that as if strike action was easy to take and easy to arrange and always comes with the full backing of one’s union. Alas, that is horseshit, especially if you’re in a Labour-affiliated union.

The industrial action committees in those unions will do ANYTHING to stop you striking and embarrassing the Labour government – for example, making you ballot over and over again and pulling you up on technicalities that they say leave the union vulnerable to action from employers, etc. Some of the groups of workers I’ve covered for this site have been forced by their own Labour-affiliated unions to ballot up to four times before getting a request to strike passed by industrial action committees.

Some workers have to wait months before they hear back from their union hierarchies on their requests. I said at the time that I bet the reason the refinery workers took unofficial action was that they couldn’t wait any longer for Unite to pull its finger out and organise/approve strike action. Happy to be proved completely wrong on that, of course. Very happy.

Obviously, these guys were desperate enough and worried enough about their job prospects to break the law. And Dave’s right – strike law here is the worst in Europe – solidarity striking is illegal, and you don’t get much protection when you go back to work (as is being proven by the management wheeze Dave describes in his post). Labour has done nothing to repeal trade union laws. So people who take strike action go out on a limb all right. A bit of sympathy is in order – and a bit of fair reporting from the mainstream press as well.

she’s not wrong is our Kate

The BBC reports:
“The workers argued this broke an agreement not to cut jobs while there were vacancies elsewhere on the site. Total insists no such agreement was in place.
Workers insist the assurances were given in February following a bitter dispute in which they said foreign labour was being used to exclude British contractors and to undermine hard-won conditions.”

So was there an agreement or not? Let’s see the document before we decide who is in the right this time.

Once again unless all the relevant information is provided , people will take sides according to their beliefs. This dispute is probably a complex issue and only some of the information is in the public domain- half the truth is a whole lie.

Got to agree with Kate on this one.

I’ve known the GMB to kick off on the silliest of issues which just puts managements’ backs up. Not sure about Unite but from the coverage I’ve seen, the guys rallying the strikers seem very well versed in public speaking. Are they disgruntled stewards who have decided to take matters into their own hands?

There is also the matter of the recently discovered blacklist of construction workers, which Unite, in my humble, really should have made a huge issue across all unions and put the Gov. on another yet another sticky spot. As it is they, and the TUC, seem content with a couple of press releases.

Legally I suppose any dissenters should have formed a new union, balloted the workforce to gain recognition by management, registered with the TUC, entered negotiation with management, balloted for strike action, etc. And each step may have to have been repeated several times.

Or they could have just said “sod this” and walked off the job together. Bit like how unionism started out.

I’m all for unionism but it has to reflect the interests of workers at the local level first, national level second, and international level third. The structures of unions at the moment simply reflect the top-down style of management that is the cause of so much dissatisfaction and apathy among the working class.

There are the odd rays of sunshine such as Dave Prentice telling Labour to get a little bit stuffed for a while, but I doubt very much that Unison’s LabourLink will be severed. Too many egos at stake.

In this particular dispute I think the workers, both striking and working, will end up getting screwed. And this could be the end of Unite.

Except it’s obvious that they’re not “kicking off over nothing”, or indeed “disgruntled stewards”, isn’t it? 900 people have lost their jobs.

I’m in favour of labour disputes that are morally right, and which win. The fact of the matter is that 20 years of quietism in the face of anti-union laws on the part of union bureacracies has brought declining memberships, lost disputes, negligible political influence and a Labour Party that is not worthy of the name. Frankly I consider “affiliation” these days to be akin to flushing wads of tenners down the toilet.

If these disputes win then they’ll have been worth it. The left (of any kind) should be in there talking to workers, because if we don’t then others with more malign agendas most certainly will.

ABC really, folks.

Oh, and yes like the previous commenters I agree with Ms Belgrave, as I generally do 😉

Alan, you are a man of taste and discretion.

I’m known far and wide as such.


I’m not implying that they’re kicking off over nothing it’s just that I have known GMB, and some others, to do just that. As for disgruntled stewards, that was a question not an opinion. I don’t know the backgrounds of the guys involved.

The way these guys have been treated, for a long time before they started walking out, is deplorable and I support the stand they are taking. The Total operation looks like a classic case of contracting out to drive costs down and get around labour laws e.g. balloting for strike action would have to be done by each contractors’ workers (please correct me if I’m wrong on that one). This sort of behaviour is prevalent in construction.

GMB have issued a statement that seems to shed a bit more light on the way some of the characters at Total have been behaving;

This paragraph is particularly telling;

“The trade unions on the site confronted Richard Rowlands and asked him why Jacobs had not requested that R Blackett and Charlton transfer the 51 Shaw workers across as required by the two agreements referred to above. He replied on the record to the trade union officials that he was not prepared to recommend to R Blackett and Charlton “an unruly workforce who had taken part in unofficial disputes and who won’t work weekends.””

GMB need to be very careful how they approach this. If Total want to get really crappy about it they could sue. However they would end up looking prats in my humble. Wonder if Total’s French workforce would be prepared to support their UK colleagues? That would be interesting.

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  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    New post: Lindsey dispute: in defence of wildcat strikes

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