Wildcat strikes

Britain has suddenly been hit by a wave of strikes the like of which we haven’t seen for twenty years. What started as a dispute over the use of foreign workers at an oil refinery in Lincolnshire has, in the course of two days, turned into a nationwide protest.

Interestingly, the stoppages and protests are unofficial. They have not been organised by the unions and seem to have broken out spontaneously around the country. They also seem to be drawing support from those outside the industries immediately effected. Some of those joining the picketing workers are local sympathisers including those who have recently lost their jobs. These demonstrations are more than just classic industrial disputes. They have already taken on some of the characteristics of a mass protest movement.

Various political groups are choosing to see the protest as support for their view of the world. For socialists, it’s workers fighting back, for anarchists, it’s the rejection of a union bureaucracies in favour of grass-roots action, for the BNP it’s a reaction against immigrant labour and for the anti-EU obsessives, it’s a long awaited backlash against the single labour market.

In truth, it could be any or all of these things at the same time. Each of the protesters will have his or her own reasons for coming out onto the streets.

Of course, the things that the workers are protesting against have been going on for some time. The outsourcing of contracts and the use of foreign workers have been increasingly common in the UK over the last ten-to-fifteen years.

But during that period, while the economy was growing, most people who wanted a job had one. Wages were relatively high, goods were cheap, credit was easily available and living standards were high, or at least they felt as if they were. In such circumstances, it is difficult to get people interested in trade unionism or political activity, let alone abstract concepts like globalisation and the single labour market.

Now, though, when some people are losing their jobs and many more believe that they might, the awarding of a contract in the UK to a foreign firm which uses foreign workers is inevitably seen as a threat. The mood is not necessarily against the foreign workers. More likely, it is against anything that people see as a threat to their precarious financial security.

It would be unreasonable to expect that an economic downturn as severe as this one would not be accompanied by political and industrial unrest. There will probably be a lot more of this sort of thing over the next couple of years.

But most worrying for those in authority is the unofficial nature of these disputes. Strikes and protests organised by unions and the mainstream Labour movement always have some form of organisation and leaders with whom politicians or business executives can negotiate. By contrast, wildcat strikes appear disorganised and leaderless. There usually are organisers but they keep a low profile and have little formal authority, which means that, even if you negotiate with them, they may not be able to deliver on the deal.

Dealing with disputes of this nature requires a special set of skills. In anticipation of the millennium bug, companies brought thousands of COBOL programmers out of retirement. Perhaps it’s now time to start calling all those old Industrial Relations managers back to their desks.

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10 Responses to Wildcat strikes

  1. charliemcmenamin says:

    The strikes are wildcat partly because it is illegal to take secondary action. Most of the unrest couldn’t be official without opening up the TUs to potential law suits.

    The TUC has put out a strong statement of support – well I think it is strong, given the legal niceties. It also contains a warning against any possible racist interpretation of the grievances.http://www.tuc.org.uk/law/tuc-15925-f0.cfm

    If you construct an industrial relations climate – whether in one organisation as in so many firms today, or legally, through national legislation – whereby TUs organisation is severely hampered and restricted then wildcat strikes are exactly what you’re going to get in times of trouble. All in all I rather hope the Unions do get effective (if probably inform) control over the conduct of this strike – because the alternative of the strikers listening to the siren voices of the Far Right seems to me to be the worst possible outcome imaginable.

  2. Rick says:

    Yeah, fair enough, but the TUC statement sounded a bit lukewarm to me. It seems that the unions are not quite sure how to handle this one.

    As for the BNP, in my admittedly limited experience, workers involved in disputes tend to treat the political activists of whatever colour who try to muscle in as a bit of a joke. They are prepared to take whatever help is offered but strongly resist attempts by politicos to take control.

    Despite what the media say, politicised union reps like Scargill and Red Robbo are the exception rather than the rule.

  3. charliemcmenamin says:

    “…workers involved in disputes tend to treat the political activists of whatever colour who try to muscle in as a bit of a joke. They are prepared to take whatever help is offered but strongly resist attempts by politicos to take control.”

    True enough in general – though, of course, political activists of whatever stripe aren’t always outsiders, they can be part of the workforce as well. Then they are more likely to be trusted.

  4. There is much interest in this here, as a Sicilian company is involved. The reaction is incredulity more than anything – “The British still don’t realise they’re in the EU!”

    Your post is the best article I’ve read about it.

  5. Wolfie says:

    “The British still don’t realise they’re in the EU!”

    That’s pretty much the reaction in my household but what I find interesting is how this divergence between union policy and members has erupted. While the unions play international socialist with their glib “diversity” clap-trap the workers have figured out that the unions now favour international finance and the forces of globalisation over the rights of their members. This isn’t about race, that’s the red herring the smart operators want you all to be suckered with as you witness the birth of the “New World Order” of global serfdom.

  6. charliemcmenamin says:

    I think you’ll find the unions have been hamstrung by the Courts in their attempts to defend their members from this sort of thing. The Viking and Laval cases opened the door to this sort of issue – and it was the official unions who lost in Court in both cases. http://www.eurofound.europa.eu/eiro/2007/06/articles/eu0706029i.htm So I don’t think the distinction you’re trying to make is backed up by the facts.

  7. Wolfie says:

    Charlie, you don’t seem to have understood my comment. Both I and the courts understand the EU principle of freedom of movement which will work reasonably well when member states have similar economies as they are required to do under the membership agreement.

    There is a reason why the economic union is being extended and the economic requirements being “eased”, these strikers understand that, I understand that but it escapes you. The law is [often] an ass and unions have a history of breaking or challenging it on behalf of their members.

  8. Wolfie,
    I’m not sure how I’ve misunderstood you. Your first post claimed a distinction between the allegedly ‘pro international finance’ TUs and the interests of their members. I responded by pointing out that the unions had attempted to defend their members interests in the European Courts. TUs do indeed have a history of challenging or breaking the law from time to time – but since the Tory anti-Union legislation of the 1980s they are hideously financially and legally exposed when they do so.

    Perhaps what you think I don’t understand is the implication of your use of the phrase ‘“New World Order” of global serfdom’? Having just googled it and followed the links I think I was being polite by not assuming you necessarily meant the same thing by this phrase as some of the other people who toss it around…

  9. Wolfie says:

    Charlie, I’m quite sure almost everyone who disagrees with you is suffering from some serious personality defects and “the internet” will back you up on this.

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