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FRFI 210 August / September 2009

Lindsey oil dispute – workers win victory against victimization

In direct retaliation for the successful strikes by engineering construction workers in February, on 11 June 51 workers employed by contractor Shaws at Lindsey Oil Refinery were made redundant without consultation or the national industry norm of the opportunity to transfer to another of the site’s contractors, and with only a week’s pay in lieu of notice. At the same time another contractor at the site took on 60 new workers to perform similar work. According to the GMB union, a senior manager at the Total site blamed the refusal of the option to transfer on ‘an unruly workforce who had taken part in unofficial disputes and who won’t work weekends’.

Following an appeal from a mass meeting at Lindsey on 16 June for solidarity action across the industry, on 19 June contractors, with the backing of Total, announced the sacking of a further 647 workers for participating in unofficial strikes. Total initially agreed to talks with unions and ACAS, but then failed to turn up. The 647 workers were given the option to reapply for their jobs with a deadline of 5pm on 22 June, a clear attempt to weed out leading trade unionists. Workers responded by publicly burning their dismissal notices. By the end of 22 June thousands of workers across over 20 sites had come out in solidarity, including Polish workers at Drax in North Yorkshire, with 900 contract workers at the Sellafield plant in Cumbria stopping work for three days.

Faced with such unity, the employers almost immediately began to back down, with Total issuing statements on 23 June expressing a hope that its subcontractors at Lindsey would soon reach an agreement allowing work to resume. On the same day, as 2,000 workers rallied outside Lindsey, Unite and GMB officially endorsed the strikes, with GMB pledging a £100,000 hardship fund. By 29 June workers voted to return to work on the basis of an agreement reached between Unite and GMB and the managing contractor Jacobs, including the full reinstatement of all sacked workers for at least four weeks, following which national terms would be followed for any further redundancies. However, as of 10 July the Lindsey strike committee reported that Jacobs were still stalling over full implementation of the agreement.

The danger of a chauvinist direction to the actions in the industry, which reared its head in the early days of the January strikes with the use of the slogan ‘British jobs for British workers’, has still not disappeared. Although sections of the left involved in the strike claim that the slogan ‘An injury to one is an injury to all’ has replaced it as the dominant slogan, ‘British jobs for British workers’ continues to form the front page of the strikers’ Bearfacts website, and individuals within the strike leadership have begun to post openly racist articles from the Daily Express and Daily Star on the website’s forum. The RCG joined a demonstration called by Campaign Against Immigration Controls under the slogans ‘No redundancies! Workers of the world, unite!’

The victory at Lindsey demonstrates that the anti-trade union laws can be challenged. Faced with determined and independent action by workers, the unions had little choice  but to give unofficial support, if only to end the dispute. Criticism of the unions, and in particular their support for the Labour Party, has continued to be vocally expressed by strikers, with a GMB shop steward at a mass meeting on 23 June feeling compelled to call on the workers present to refrain from heckling national officials. The strike committee at Lindsey has played a crucial role in maintaining a degree of independence for the strike from the trade union leadership in order to drive the action forward. It remains to be seen how this will be affected by the inclusion in the 25 June agreement of the appointment of a full time union official at Lindsey.
Tom Vincent