Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Begging to differ

There is a temptation to either cheerlead the strikes that have now spread to Sellafield, or dismiss the strikers outright as 'racist morons', as one commenter said in a thread below. For Labour politicians who look to a strengthened state to resolve the economic crisis and bring about distributive justice, it is logical to downplay the xenophobic aspect of the strike. Jon Cruddas, denying that the strikes involve xenophobia, argues that:

"Britain is a country that no longer owns the productive processes that create its wealth. Crucial economic sectors have been handed over to unaccountable foreign ownership."

Cruddas, despite his background as a Blairite, is currently far better than most of the PLP voting fodder. And his argument is undoubtedly intended to support the case for a Keynesian national welfare state, which would be an improvement on what we have. But the way he has put the argument here, you would think that 'foreign ownership' was the problem. You would think that the hundreds of thousands of jobs shed by British capital over the last few months was somehow a more 'accountable' process than, for example, Nissan sacking workers. Cruddas' argument is not xenophobic, but you can see why his position would lead him to understate the problem with these strikes.

It is a little more surprising to see marxists engaged in a similar disavowal, though. This morning, I was reading that the line of one socialist party (the Socialist Party) is to say that the slogan 'British jobs for British workers' was not really indicative of any racism, but merely "just one in the eye for Gordon Brown". Now, I don't like attacking rival parties on this blog, and I don't generally have a problem with the SP. However, I have to say that this 'one in the eye for Gordon Brown' excuse is absolute bollocks, and if this is the basis upon which they are boasting of organising a 'mass meeting' of the workers, then it is a highly opportunistic one. I say this more in disappointment, and an urgent desire to impale someone's eye with a fish hook, than in anger. It is not good enough to patronise those on strike by ignoring the basic problem with the central demand of the strikers.

That said, the urge expressed in some of the comments in previous threads to dismiss the strike as simply and straightforwardly a racist one has to be resisted. True, the immediate demand of the workers was 'British jobs for British workers' in opposition to the hiring of Italian workers, some of whom are currently decamping in fear for their safety. The way in which the strike was framed has encouraged the most reactionary elements in British politics and drawn a number of the BNP's professional pogromists into the area to hunt Italians in the bars. It's a tragedy, because rather than resisting the job losses, the workers are being encouraged to struggle against one another for a diminishing pool of available work. This argument can't be ducked. But that doesn't mean that's all there is to the strike, and it doesn't mean those on strike can't change their minds or be won to a better argument (provided you are willing to make the argument). Moreover, we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that the apparent militancy of the action is quite at odds with the conservative and minimal ends that the union leadership is seeking.

Derek Simpson has proposed a '3-point plan' to resolve the strike. Predictably, the main component seeks some sort of settlement in which some of the Italian workers may be replaced by UK workers (such, I gather, is what point one is aiming at). It is on this basis that workers have voted to let the union leaders go into negotiations with management. This would be a pretty lousy culmination of what the shop stewards themselves describe as a 'heroic' effort, especially when those workers could win so much more. They've got management's complete and undivided attention. They've got the politicians talking about them. They also have the ability to act independently of their union leadership if they want to. Why settle for so little? Because the basis of the strike was wrong from the beginning. Because it was always conceived in terms of competition with other workers, first and foremost. Thinks about it. New Labour has consistently opposed workers' rights in the EU, and has always sought opt-out clauses on behalf of British capital whenever it was unable to block new rights from being introduced. According to Hugh Kerr, when he was a Labour MEP in 1997, he and his fellow MEPs were visited by the new minister for industry and told, in a message that came directly from Brown and Blair: "do nothing which will harm the interests of British industry and the City of London". Unite rightly complains about companies using 'social dumping', which is actually made possible precisely by the stratification of the European labour market. Yet the basis of this strike was a slogan raised by Gordon Brown himself that actually reinforces that stratification, and it was encouraged by a union leadership that has done nothing to resist the huge job losses that have already taken place at that plant. The returns of this struggle may be little more than a slight change in the composition of the workforce at the plant in favour of British workers (not to mention the strengthening of the fascist right, who might complete the ethnic cleansing through their own thuggery). This is a pretty miserable prospect. The lesson that should be learned is that the slogan 'British jobs for British workers' is not only a miserably divisive slogan, and not only a poor substitute for action to defend all jobs - it is actually a route to accomodation and defeat.