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Vol. 73/No. 10      March 16, 2009

UK strikes: blow to unity of working class
(reply to a reader column)
EDINBURGH, Scotland—Are foreign-born workers rivals in the fight for jobs, or reinforcements for the working class in its struggle to overturn capitalism? That’s the issue posed by the strikes of workers at power stations in the United Kingdom in January. The article by Tony Hunt in the February 16 Militant that termed the strikes “reactionary” prompted several letters, which are printed below.

Hunt reported on the walkout by 600 trade unionists at the Lindsey power station after workers from Portugal and Italy were hired. His starting point was not how to save “British” jobs, but the significance for working people of the massive numbers of workers in the United Kingdom who are originally from other countries. New government figures report this as nearly 4 million, some 13 percent of the workforce, a doubling since 1997.

The employers always try to use immigrant labor to force down wages and extend working hours for all workers. The issue is, should labor forge unity to strengthen our unions or allow the rulers to keep us divided? Immigrant workers, however, have and will be in the forefront of workers’ fights. The Militant has reported how immigrant and native-born workers have been at the center of class battles, from cleaners in London fighting for union organization to the massive May Day mobilizations for legal rights in the United States—all actions which have strengthened the unity and combativity of the working class.

Central leaders of the union officialdom laid the basis for the power station actions by adopting a national chauvinist course in the face of mounting unemployment, appealing to the bosses to protect the jobs of skilled “British” workers. A Dec. 4, 2008, statement by the GMB union said, “you have a situation where UK customers are paying extortionate energy bills to a German energy company, who contracts a French multinational to build its new power stations, who then employs a Polish subcontractor, who, GMB members fear, will bring in workers from abroad.”

Union leaders organized a rally along these lines January 19. The keynote speaker was Unite union leader Derek Simpson. The energy that union officials put into leading this stands in marked contrast to what they haven’t done to defend workers from layoffs, let alone use union power to challenge the exploitation of immigrant workers and restrictions on their rights by organizing them into the unions. Their action plays into the hands of the bosses who seek to divert attention from the real causes of unemployment—the normal workings of the capitalist system.

It’s true, as the letters point out, that EU laws have extended the ability of employers to draw in and exploit immigrant labor, sowing greater divisions in the working class. But the nationalist response of the union officials is a dead end, as is their claim that the migration of labor is “social dumping.” All of this leads native-born workers to see immigrant workers as the problem and suggests there is a common national interest with the bosses.

The settlement of the brief strike at the Lindsey power station was a blow to workers’ unity. A deal brokered by the government, recommended by union officials, and accepted by those on strike, agreed to reserve 101 new jobs for British workers. It may be the case, as one of the letters suggests, that demands were adopted during the strike about organizing immigrant workers and equality of conditions, but the central demand of the action—“British jobs for British workers”—was never withdrawn.

The fruits of the anti-immigrant strike can be seen in the walkout at Staythorpe power station a week after the Lindsey settlement. Hundreds of pickets waved banners quoting UK prime minister Gordon Brown’s call for “British jobs for British workers” and demanding a deal similar to the one at Lindsey.
Related articles:
Arizona action fights cop immigration raids
Demands end to sheriff’s vigilante gangs
L.A. settlement reached for May Day ’07 cop riot
Maryland rally demands rights for immigrants
‘Attack on immigrants is threat to all workers’  
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