Thursday 5 February 2009

Rise like Lions

Guest post by Louise Selisny

"British jobs for British workers", the slogan from the 2007 Labour Party conference, has become the rally cry of the picket surrounding the Lindsey Oil Refinery dispute. Tension erupted after the Total owned refinery awarded the Italian company, IREM, a contract to build an extension to the refinery. Specialist Italian and Portuguese workers were drafted in to begin work last week resulting in thousands of British construction workers across the country initiating strike action.

Amidst the furore the bewildered Italian and Portuguese workers have been taunted with the assertion that they should "go back to their own country". The British National Party has also taken the opportunity to raise it’s profile by offering it’s support to the intimidation that has centred around the Italian living quarters.

The construction industry has been severely shaken by the global economic crisis. This, combined with the fact that the industry a whole has also been subject to extensive de-regulation and de-unionisation following wide scale privatization, has resulted in dwindling wages and reduced job security. This experience is being shared by workers everywhere from Britain, through Italy and Portugal to Shanghai.

Legislation designed to create a free movement of people and capital across Europe and thus create the basis for a collective elevation of the working class, has in fact, led to the increased exploitation of workers. In competing for business, contractors across Europe have sought to undercut each other. In order to deliver more "competitive" tenders contractors have slashed the wages of workers and have steadily eroded working conditions.

By directing their inevitable frustration and resentment towards fellow workers, the British strikers are dividing and conquering themselves with an ‘us versus us’ approach to the situation. Whilst workers are being pitted against each other in this way less pressure is being exerted on those who have the power, but not the will, to make the necessary changes to both domestic and European legislation.

The British government, the banking industry and the CBI may be taking this opportunity to breathe a collective sigh of relief as the British workers turn their attention away from the reckless economic mismanagement that has precipitated the recession and to the 400 or so Italian and Portuguese migrant workers who have left their families and home in search of an opportunity to earn a living the best way they can.

It is impossible to say how long the workers will continue to undermine their own ‘unity and strength’ in this way. Or how long they will allow themselves to be shepherded by xenophobic forms of protectionism that serves only to protect business profits and executive remuneration packages. One can but hope that their misguided sleep walking is ended soon so that they can, in the words of Percy Bysshe Shelly:

Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number
Shake your chains to earth, like dew
Which in sleep had fall’n on you:
Ye are many – they are few.

Louise is a blogger at the Manchester Fabians' excellent blog. Visit it here.


Tim Gore said...

Top post, Louise!

We need a positive, outward-looking discourse of social protection in our globalised economy.

Collective social protection at a European level is the only response to the four freedoms - that can lead to the sort of race to the bottom in Europe you describe - that makes sense.

Where is the generation of mobilisers that can get numbers on the streets of Brussels under the banner of a shared social European future?

Sunder Katwala said...


Many thanks for the post. Apart from the political argument, I can't remember any poetry on this blog before this. Stuart White often writes here about the democratic republican tradition, and has written about Milton, so Shelley is a great place to start.

Good to hear from Mr Tim Gore too -rumoured to be among our contributing team - and in eager anticipation of yr next Next Left contribution to the outward looking discourse of environmentalism! Hope you are well.