|Construction workers face state repression, as well as oppostion from union tops|
Last week I reported that construction workers at a biofuels plant near Hull were facing opposition from their ultimate employers, the police, and trade union tops as they fought for their jobs and employment rights. Yesterday morning it was announced that the Vivergo oil company had agreed a £1.2 million compensation package with the sub-contractors, Redhall. The deal – which would have amounted to nearly £3,250 for each of three hundred and seventy workers – was decisively rejected by a mass meeting later in the day, against the advice of Unite bureaucrats.
The workers were made redundant at the start of March, following a one day blockade of the plant over an infringement of the ‘last in, first out’ industry standards. Vivergo claimed the project was behind schedule, but the obvious militancy of the workforce was likely a very significant factor in their decision. The workers have been ‘locked out’ ever since, but have waged a campaign of direct action over and above the official lobbying promoted by the unions. They stormed the construction site, held a sit-in and even blocked traffic, creating major disruption in the Hull area.
The direct action came to a temporary halt on the 12th of this month, when police began a crackdown on demonstrators, carried-out two arrests, and tried to enforce the Public Order Act – which can be used to limit the length and size of protests. Instead of raising the alarm about the anti-democratic police action, union leaders sought to suspend the action whilst talks were held with Vivergo – i.e. at precisely the time when they would have made most impact. At the time, a majority of the workers were convinced by a Unite full-time official’s arguments, and direct action was halted. Concerns about the potential dismissal of repair and maintenance workers who’d taken solidarity action had also been floated.
However, yesterday’s rejection of Vivergo’s offer marks a decisive break with the union bureaucracy. Though Les Dobbs of GMB had argued against acceptance, Unite official Bernard McAuley recommended the deal. Furthermore, despite Dobbs’ stand, the national GMB leadership will do all it can to demobilise the struggle. The offer of £1.2 million was won through direct action, and despite the union tops, not because of them.
The locked-out workers must now act entirely independently of the union leadership, and organise their own action on a democratic basis. If Vivergo win this one, it will undermine construction industry regulations, and set a standard for companies sacking a militant workforce en masse. If Vivergo is to be beaten, the fight needs to be extended far beyond the Hull area, and indeed far beyond the construction sector, into the broader working class.