Thursday, February 05, 2009

Resistance, or retreat.

The deal apparently agreed between Unite and the management of Total seems to be better than one would have expected. As it has been reported, there will be new jobs created for British workers, and the Italian workers contracted for this particular job will still be employed. More jobs, rather than 'British jobs for British workers', should really have been the focus from the start. However, anyone who doesn't face the ugly fact that the basis of the dispute and deal is the idea that British workers are somehow in competition with 'foreign workers', is doing themselves a disservice. Moreover, as The Guardian reports: "the strikers promised they would now take their fight to other refineries employing foreign labour, starting with Staythorpe in Newark."

Some left-wingers are understandably anxious not to allow that aspect of the strike to be the dominant one, especially given the way the media naturally and inevitably amplifies such arguments and disparages the 'white working class' as inherently racist and 'threatened' by minorities. (Loosely related, this is a very good article on the claims of a 'segregated' Britain). Seumas Milne's argument is a case in point. He rightly attacks New Labour's complicity in resisting protections for labour, which neoliberal hypocrites like Mandelson describe as 'protectionism'. (Billions for banks, by contrast, is not protectionism, and more than is the government's commitment to creating the best possible conditions for capital accumulation by keeping the labour market 'flexible' and slashing business taxes). And Milne does acknowledge the ugliness of the 'British jobs for British workers' demand. But he essentially wants to argue, as others have, that this is at base Britain's version of the militancy sweeping France, Italy, Greece, Ireland (where even the troops refuse to engage in strikebreaking), and Iceland. Most of the Left, I suspect, wants to see it the same way: to argue that this is a victorious beginning of resistance to the recession. If so, I have to ask, why did it have to come with a poisonous dose of nationalism when it didn't elsewhere? Is it not precisely because the union bureaucracy chose to fight on this front? And should we not be just a little bit worried about the precedent that sets? Imagine you are in a workplace where jobs are being slashed, and somone says 'well, look at the Lindsey strikers, we can do the same as them': wouldn't you just want to check that this didn't mean 'British jobs for British workers'?

The other point to make is that even with the head-in-the-sand denials that xenophobia and racism were worryingly evident in the framing of the strike and the slogans, as well as in some of the behaviour witnessed on the picket lines, those who tried to unite workers around more positive slogans were absolutely right to do so. I'm still not convinced by the argument that it was tactically (or in principle) a good idea to let the issue of racism slide, or to pretend it didn't exist. This was based on a wrong analysis. But the attempt to steer the strike to the Left against the grain of the union bureaucracy was correct, because it recognised - as some refused to do - that the strikers had different ideas of what they wanted to achieve and were by no means united by racism. It also acknowledged that there was a real underlying problem with the subconctracting system, and with employers trying to undercut local agreements and diminish the bargaining power of labour. Unfortunately, despite the hype about 'hundreds' of Polish workers coming out in solidarity with British workers (this claim appears to be a bit of hyperbole from a local newspaper), and despite the encouraging appearance of one 'Workers of the World Unite' placard, I don't think those efforts can be said to have succeeded yet if trade unionists are still talking about targeting plants that employ foreign workers. In other words, despite the understandable urge to brush aside the concerns mentioned above and claim an undiluted victory, there is still evidently a lot of work to be done (and it can't be done if you keep denying there's a problem). The arguments can be changed, people can be won over, and this strike can become the first step in a real struggle for jobs and workers' rights, and against a neoliberal Europe. But let's discard the rose-tinted glasses: all sorts of furious political forces can be unleashed in the context of a severe global economic meltdown like this one, and it doesn't do to avoid noticing the danger here.