Tuesday, February 03, 2009

In praise of the Socialist Party

The current wildcat strike wave is a significant chapter in recent industrial history. It even has its own rousing theme tune "Fitters of Machinery", and not every wildcat dispute can boast that, oh no.

As you'll know I have some worries about the nature of the dispute, and I believe those worries about what the implications of the strike are to be well founded. However, I'm not blind to the fact that there are those who hold a different position and are having a very positive role in the dispute. Step forward the Socialist Party and take a much deserved bow.

Alone on the left the Socialist Party has been in the centre of the wildcat storm and, whilst I don't want to over egg their influence, they have members who aren't just participants in the strikes, they are leading grassroots activists on the ground. Which means that, unlike the statements coming from the other small organisations of the left, it actually matters what they have to say about the dispute and how they behave within it.

So whilst our precise analysis differs it seems to me that the influence the SP has had has been wholly positive. Along with other shop stewards they have helped shift the extremely damaging slogan "British jobs for British workers" into the far more palatable, and media friendly, "Fair access for local labour". They were central to drawing up a set of demands that nimbly steered clear of the taint of nationalism and were alone on the left, I believe, in having an Italian language leaflet drawn up for distribution among the Italian migrant workers - which I sincerely hope they managed to deliver.

Only the Socialist Party have been in a position to genuinely influence this dispute from the left, and they have done so with good effect it seems. I'm not arguing that they are the only good people there, who understand that the strike could not afford to allow itself to appear drenched in racism, but they have been the only political organisation who've been able to do anything more than manage a sterile "intervention" at the pickets.

Fair play. We differ on the significance of the strike's nationalist dynamic, we certainly do not differ in wanting to ensure that that dynamic is marginalised within the dispute in favour of an internationalist approach, where workers of different nationalities are allies to each other rather than competitors.

Some left bloggers have hailed the news that Plymouth workers have walked out as a sign that Polish workers are now part of the strike and therefore there can be no nationalist element to it. Unfortunately, whilst I'm thrilled that there's the possibility of this kind of unity the reports aren't quite as clear as I'd like (and I've sought clarification from some union friends of mine in Plymouth as to what exactly is going on) and it doesn't mean any such thing anyway.

"600 WORKERS have walked out in a wildcat strike at Langage Power Station in protest at the use of foreign workers. Jerry Pickford, regional officer for Unite South West, said the workers had walked out in support of similar action across the rest of the UK.

"The union, which says it does not condone the unauthorised strike, says the entire workforce, including hundreds of Polish workers, is unofficially on strike today. Virtually all work on the site ground to a halt when more than 500 workers failed to turn up at 10am today.

"A small group of foreign workers, mainly Polish, who had been bussed into the site were taken home by coach just before 11m when bosses decided it was unsafe for them to work with so little manpower available."

Just for clarity on the facts I'd quite like to know how many Poles decided to take solidarity action, and how many were told to go home by the employers. Call me a stickler for detail but I'd like to know the facts as they are, not simply as they would be to most help my argument. The report on the BBC puts it another way;

"Hundreds of workers at a Devon power station have walked out in a wildcat strike... The striking workforce includes Polish employees.

"Dave Springbett from Unite told BBC News he estimated about 600 workers of the 900 were involved, but building contractors Alston said the figure was 200.

"Mr Springbett said the action was in sympathy with action by workers over the use of foreign subcontracters at the Lindsey Oil Refinery.

""We understand the sentiments of the guys there," Mr Springbett said. "I am pleased to see that they have gone out in support of British workers.""

And here is my point of contention. I don't believe the specific demands of the Lindsey oil refinery strikers are reactionary - in fact their list is rather good - but the dynamic of the strike which has spread well beyond that single plant and how most workers who are not at the original site see it is not so neat that you can dismiss the charge of nationalism in a carefree manner. Not in terms of whether they are charming people as individuals but in terms of what the outcome would be if the government were to concede that British workers had to be employed before foreign workers on any job.

If you listen to this interview, for instance, the workers come across very well and it's clear they have real concerns that have to be addressed - no one could say from this piece that these were specially selected workers who don't represent the best part of the dispute - because they do. What they also articulate very clearly is the idea that British workers should be employed before foreign workers, not just in this specific case but all over the country and in general. I'm sorry but that just wont do and it is a central plank of the protests, I bet that's not in the Italian language version of any leaflet.

But there's something much more important than this. What will this dispute do to national politics in the run up to the European elections? It will reinforce the legitimacy of any horrid government wheeze or parochial Tory pronouncement. With the BNP's Nick Griffin hoping to get elected in the North West he is not relying on any votes from the strikers themselves, very few of whom live in that constituency, but he can and will use this dispute as a real and dangerous tool to improve his chances and whip up anti-foreigner sentiment.

In that context the fact that SP members are in the mix helping set the political tone is very welcome indeed and their behaviour has been exemplary, but what they can't do is influence significantly how the strike comes across, and therefore what it's impact is on working class consciousness in this country. It isn't the thousands but the millions that we have look to.

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