Economic crisis and job losses: who's to blame?

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Nationalism is always a dead end for the working class movement, argues Martin Smith, after the wildcat strikes that demanded "British jobs for British workers"

Two things became abundantly clear when standing on the picket line outside the Lindsey oil refinery in Immingham. It was the second day of the wildcat strike and for the first time since the economic crisis started there was a whiff of the class struggle we have witnessed across the Channel in Europe.

Here was a well organised group of workers displaying a level of militancy and determination we have not seen for a long time. There were mass pickets, and within days 10,000 workers at refineries, power stations and construction sites across the country had walked out in solidarity with the Lindsey oil refinery strikers. These walkouts were illegal under the anti-union laws, but such was the strength of the strikes that the employers and the government stayed well away from the courts. In part the strikes were a reaction to growing levels of unemployment and a backlash against the deregulation of the industry, as well as, the race to the bottom neoliberalism preached by Gordon Brown and that unashamed cheerleader of globalisation Peter Mandelson.

To ignore this element of the strike would be stupid. But it would be even more stupid to ignore the other side of the strike, a much more dangerous element, one which saw the majority of workers push forward their demands around the slogan "British jobs for British workers".

But this is exactly what some sections of the left have done. One of the Guardian's few remaining left wing columnists, Seamus Milne, wrote, "The strikers haven't scapegoated the non-union Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and Polish workers brought in by subcontractors to replace local labour." And the Socialist Party wrote, "To their shame some on the left were completely taken in by the headlines in the capitalist press which highlighted the 'British jobs for British workers' element of this struggle." Socialist Party members have even gone as far as attempting to remove any sentence condemning the slogan "British jobs for British workers" in motions put up at union meetings.

It flies in the face of reality to claim that the slogan "British jobs for British workers" was just a figment of the press's imagination and a ruse by the ruling class. Everyone who visited the picket lines at the Immingham site saw with their own eyes the hundreds of strikers holding aloft posters with the slogan. Anyone who claims to be an internationalist could not fail to be horrified to see on their television screens Portuguese workers based at the site going home saying that they felt intimidated and were scared for their lives.

The left has to make it clear that "British jobs for British workers" is a dangerous slogan and one that trade unionists should reject and challenge whenever it is raised. It is a slogan that puts nation before class interest and divides the trade union movement. In thousands of workplaces around the country it would pit so-called "British" workers against their fellow workers just because they may not have been born here and would make it easier for bosses to ram through pay and job cuts.

One of the reasons for such a dispute breaking out in this way is the lack of a lead from the trade union leaders. Time and time again over the past year they have refused to head up a real fight over pay and jobs that could have built unity across the working class. Workers are left feeling angry and frustrated, and in this strike they vented their anger on migrant workers.

And what does victory mean for a strike with such a demand? As Michael Rosen commented in a response to Seamus Milne's piece, "Will stewards sit alongside foremen vetting workers' passports? Which of the following will be counted as British? Irish? Isle of Man? Channel Isles? People in the process of applying for naturalisation?"

The implications of using the slogan are clear - for instance in Italy there have been protests called by the right wing Northern League outside the Italian subcontractor IREM's workplaces calling for British workers to be sent back home.

From very early in the strike the slogan "British jobs for British workers" was creating serious problems. You don't have to take my word for it - Tony Woodley, the joint secretary of the Unite union, told the Financial Times "The British National Party are seriously and sizeably involved, infiltrating meetings and posing as organisers."

To deny that the BNP were organising around the strike, as the Socialist Party did in one article, is to turn a blind eye to reality. It is also true that strikers did force the BNP off the Lindsey oil refinery picket lines later in the strike. But for four or five days during the strikes Channel 4 News ran several stories showing the BNP van driving around the picket lines in Immingham. When I was on the Lindsey oil refinery picket line, there were youth BNP leaflets lying around and I also saw the BNP election van with my own eyes. It is also a fact that "Wildcat", a website quoted by many of the strikers, was run by BNP members.

But why did the Nazi BNP feel so confident to work around and try and infiltrate a strike? When was the last time fascists openly organised around a strike in Britain? The simple answer is the slogan "British jobs for British workers" was their way in. After all it is a slogan they are using in their European election campaign and one which the Nazis have used going all the way back to Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists in the 1930s.

The BNP did not lead this dispute, and it certainly did not initiate the slogan. They just hitched a ride on the back of the workers' anger and frustration. It was a slogan that came from the very top of the Labour Party and the leadership of Unite. It was Gordon Brown in his keynote speech at Labour's 2007 annual conference who said Labour would be "drawing on the talents of all to create British jobs for British workers". So Brown set this hare off. It just won't do for him then to turn round to workers who take up the very slogan he promoted and call them xenophobes.

A leadership that fights

The leadership of Unite has also promoted this slogan. Derek Simpson told reporters that the campaign of strikes "is not about race or immigration; it is about class". But at the beginning of the strikes Unite was encouraging the use of the slogan and Simpson has form on this question. In 2006 he authorised a one million pound advertising campaign encouraging British people to show solidarity with sacked Peugeot workers by not buying Peugeot and Citroen cars. The campaign was launched with adverts in all national newspapers, some regional newspapers and 130 poster sites in city centres and close to Peugeot dealerships across the country. The poster and advertisement featured a dejected Peugeot worker being comforted by his wife but surrounded by England flags to tie in with the 2006 World Cup. The slogan read "Peugeot sacked 2,000: You're either Peugeot or England."

Two days after the strikers returned to work Simpson was happy to pose next to two Daily Star page three models who were holding placards supporting the paper's "British jobs for British workers" campaign outside Downing Street. And another prominent Unite official, Charlie Whelan, told reporters he was "comfortable with the slogan British jobs for British workers". And, yes, this is the same Charlie Whelan who was Gordon Brown's press secretary during much of the 1990s.

But all this does not explain why some sections of the left have not rejected the demand or at best have pretended the slogan was peripheral to the dispute.

There has been a long tradition among some sections of the left to see the struggle for socialism not in terms of internationalism but to locate that struggle along national lines. This was theorised by the British Communist Party (which had hegemony of the left in the working class in Britain between the 1950s and 1970s) in a number of pamphlets called "the British Road to Socialism" and "New Britain, People Britain". The ideas of protectionism and import controls were taken up by sections of the trade union bureaucracy and Labour left. When applied in practice these ideas had disastrous consequences.

In 1979 management at the Swan Hunter shipyards in Tyneside tried to impose new and vicious working practices on the workforce as a precondition for getting a big proportion of a contract to refit Polish ships. The Swan Hunter workers rejected it. Dave Hanson, chairman of the outfitters' shop stewards committee, said, "There is a major principle at stake. If we give in, every time the government wants a contract it will try and impose conditions."

When Swan Hunter workers refused to carry out the work, Jim Airlie, the leading official at the Govan shipyards, rushed to take the job for his yard. Jim Airlie was a leading figure in the Communist Party and one of the workers' leaders of the occupation at Upper Clyde Shipyards in 1971, who asked at that time, "Are the other shipyards going to accept our orders and let my men starve?"

But by 1979, during the Swan Hunter dispute, he sang a new tune: "If Newcastle are losing six ships through disputes, we will build them. If not us, then the Japs will." And who was Jim Airlie's secretary throughout the 1980s? The then Communist Party member Charlie Whelan.

Again during the miners' strike of 1984-85, one of the first watersheds of the dispute was the attempt to close down key sectors of industry which used coal in order to hurt the British ruling class. Pickets began to target key steel plants, one of which was Ravenscraig in Scotland. The bosses and the Thatcher government argued that the steelworks were essential to their local economies and if the strikers got their way the plants would close permanently. Mick McGahey, the leader of the Scottish area of the National Union of Mineworkers and a leading member of the Communist Party, allowed the coal to go into Ravenscraig, arguing that it was "in the interests of Scotland's future". As one miner famously predicted on television, "First they will chop us and then they will chop Ravenscraig." He was absolutely right. In 1992 Ravenscraig was shut and as a result around 10,000 jobs were lost. There was no such thing as the "Scottish interest": there was the interest of the bosses and there was the interest of the workers. The two were not compatible.

Today a terrifying wave of unemployment is sweeping through Britain and the rest of the world. There is anger and despair as factories, shops and offices stand empty. Working class people are being robbed of their jobs and are being thrown on the scrap heap. There is justified rage at what is happening to their lives. If socialists and trade unionists are not careful, this rage can be diverted against other workers.

The debate around the question of "British jobs for British workers" is not going to go away. Since the end of the wildcat strikes in support of Immingham the slogan was once again raised at protests at plants in Kent and Nottingham.

Socialists and trade unionists should have no truck with the neoliberal fake anti-racism of Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson and the bosses. Their solution is a race to the bottom, a world where they are free to roam the globe in search of the cheapest labour and the maximum profits.

But we also have to reject the nationalist ideas that lie behind the slogan "British jobs for British workers". Protectionism is not the alternative to globalisation. It is not the answer for workers fighting to save jobs and protect conditions. It blunts those very struggles, pits one worker against another and allows bosses to drive down conditions and wages.

Construction workers have always been forced to move from one area to another in search of work. Denying workers from other countries jobs is not the solution. Socialist and trade union activists have to put demands that unite workers across unions and across borders.

We have to raise slogans such as resist all job cuts, defend the NAECI "Blue Book" agreement, jobs for all and an end to subcontracting and privatisation. As Lenin once said socialists have to be tribunes of the oppressed. That means we have to oppose all forms of racism and bigotry. This is no easy task but it's one that socialists and trade unionists are going to have to strive to come to grips with in the coming months and years.