Monday, 2 February 2009

The Power Strikes

So: the oil refinery strike spreads to Sellafield whilst England lies under a blanket of unexpected snow. (Someone, somewhere, on an Emergency Planning Committee is cracking some numbers about energy supplies, I’ll be bound....).

Meanwhile, it appears that the Socialist Party (SP - nee Militant) have established a foothold on the strike committee and played quite a significant role in heading off the possibility of the strikers’ further rhetoric developing along crudely chauvinistic lines.”British Jobs for British Workers” - BJ4BW seems the universally accepted abbreviation - remains a prominent slogan on the News footage, but not in the language of the strike committee. I think this is an Unqualified Good Thing: the BNP seem marginalised.

& the more I think about it the more I think that the idea of opening up jobs – or at least the chance to apply for jobs - on big construction projects to local people is a sound and not particularly revolutionary one. Almost every large scale regeneration bid I’ve ever seen will include some honeyed words promising to recruit local labour in depressed areas. So what’s with this weird interpretation of EU rules which says this doesn’t have to happen in the private sector? If a ‘social Europe’ is to have any meaning at all there is case law that now needs to be overturned by new European legislation. This is certainly within the bounds of the politically possible.

But there are still two aspects to all this which make me feel uneasy.

Firstly, I still think it’s a tiger the SP-influenced strike committee are riding. They may have formulated the strike demands in impeccably defensible language but I don’t doubt for one moment that some of the strikers, particularly those coming out in sympathy on secondary disputes, are not quite so enlightened. There remains a submerged ‘right-populist’ feeling – which is being given expression in many mainstream accounts of the disputes. It could yet rear up again. The underlying sullenness and resentment at the social, economic and cultural marginalisation of the manual working class really hasn’t gone away. Whether it can be diverted into Leftist channels remains to be seen.

Secondly, the actual demands of the strike committee include,

Union controlled registering of unemployed and locally skilled union members, with nominating rights as work becomes available.” I read this as the Unions asking for the right to control recruitment – although, to be fair, it may merely mean the right to nominate for consideration, not to insist on particular people being given work. But in either event - or certainly in respect of the former, stronger possible interpretation - I think this is a bold demand. I don’t disagree with it – but I do think it runs 180 degree counter to the whole 30 year mantra of ‘allowing management the right to manage’ which we’ve all lived with for so long. Conceding this demand would fatally undermine the basic logic of New Labour and its endless calls for employment ‘flexibility’. It may be intended as a Transitional demand. It will certainly be resisted, bitterly, not just by the employer but also by the government.

As I understand it, a Transitional demand is something which sounds reasonable but which capitalism simply cannot concede in a structural sense. In other words demand the impossible wrapped up as the possible. I never believed that was a good way of getting people to agree with you - they pretty soon worked out you were using them, not working with them in their own immediate interests. I wonder, therefore, whether this is a winnable demand.

I have no contact with the strikers. I hope I’m wrong on both these points. Because putting them together leads to a vision of something pretty unpleasant and pretty combustible.

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