Millions of working people across Britain are fearful and angry at the mounting economic crisis. Manufacturing industry is now shedding jobs at a rate of 30,000 a month.
This week 6,000 workers at drugs giant Glaxo Smith Kline will become the latest victims of the jobs massacre. In the car industry, Honda workers face a shut-down until June.
Now this fear and anger has exploded into unofficial strike action with thousands of workers in oil refineries and power plants walking out.
They are right to want to fight this recession. But the central slogan of the current wave of strike action, “British jobs for British workers”, targets the wrong people and points in a dangerous direction.
Any demand framed in terms of “putting British workers first” inevitably paints another set of workers – “foreign workers” – as the problem.
It pits British workers against Italian, Portuguese and Polish workers. It seeks gains for one group at the expense of the other.
But “foreign workers” are not to blame for mounting unemployment, rampant subcontracting or worsening pay and conditions on construction sites.
The blame for these things lies squarely with the bosses – of whatever nationality – aided and abetted by neoliberal politicians such as trade secretary Lord Mandelson, the high priest of the free market.
The slogan “British jobs for British workers” was used by Gordon Brown in his 2007 speech to New Labour’s conference. As many pointed out at the time, it has a bad track record.
It was used in the 1930s by Oswald Mosley’s fascist blackshirts to justify attacks on Jewish workers in east London and elsewhere. It was used by the National Front in the 1970s to try and force black and Asian workers out of their jobs.
These attempts to play the race card to divide workers have always been cheered on by the right, by successive governments and by the bosses. But they have been opposed by a powerful counter tradition of unity across the labour movement.
The working class of this country is multiracial and most people are proud of that fact. It is made up of people descended from migrants who came here seeking work – whether from Ireland, India, the West Indies or eastern Europe.
In recent years trade union activists in supermarket warehouses, on the buses and, indeed, in the power industry have fought hard to unionise migrant workers and ensure that everyone is paid the same and works under the same conditions – regardless of nationality.
The chorus of “British jobs for British workers” pulls the rug from under the feet of those who’ve fought to create such unity.
And it can only encourage those elements who want to echo filthy tabloid attacks on migrant workers. It’s no surprise that the Daily Star and Daily Express – papers that never miss a chance to attack workers or migrants – initially welcomed the walkouts.
The real issue is not the nationality of workers, but the imposition of neoliberal regulations across the European Union (EU) that reduced workers’ rights and aided employers in every member state.
Britain’s New Labour government has championed every such piece of neoliberal legislation.
Yet it has also insisted on exempting Britain from the few pieces of EU legislation that could have benefited workers – such as caps on the number of hours we work.
Lord Mandelson is now advising British workers to go and get jobs in Europe – echoing Tory minister Norman Tebbit’s advice from the 1980s that the unemployed should get “on your bike”.
Of course British construction workers should be free to work in Germany or Saudi Arabia, just as workers from abroad should be free to work here.
But when Mandelson talks of a “free market” in labour, what he wants is a race to the bottom. He wants Latvian workers to be employed here on Latvian wage rates, subject to Latvian health and safety laws.
That is why tens of thousands of trade unionists across Europe have held sustained and militant protests against the EU’s neoliberal attacks on workplace rights.
Workers from Italy and Portugal want decent jobs and a decent future, just like workers here. They are our brothers and sisters.
We should join their fight to ensure that all workers across Europe get the highest pay rates, the best conditions and the strongest health and safety laws.
Focusing on “foreign workers” also lets Gordon Brown and New Labour off the hook. For the past 12 years they have continued Margaret Thatcher’s work.
They told us it did not matter that manufacturing jobs were disappearing, because Britain was becoming a global financial centre instead. That was before the banks went bust, of course.
They have kept Thatcher’s anti‑trade union laws intact and continued to privatise our public services. New Labour gave bosses the key to 10 Downing Street, but treated trade unions with contempt.
And far too many in the trade union leadership have gone meekly along with this treatment – or even, shamefully, encouraged the “British jobs for British workers” slogan.
Anger over how working people have been treated has been mounting and is now threatening to explode. The current walkouts are a symptom of that. And they have shown that unofficial strike action is an effective way to fight.
But think how effective it would have been if trade unions had led such walkouts over job cuts, subcontracting and factory closures, rather than over “foreign workers”. Such militant action could force Brown to act quickly.
On Friday of last week 400 members of the Unite trade union in Ireland occupied the Waterford Crystal factory to stop its closure. In the same week 2.5 million French workers struck over jobs, wages and pensions, refusing to pay the cost of the bosses’ crisis.
Every worker is facing the same horrors in the face of a global recession. We can’t let ourselves be divided by racism or nationalist sentiment.
We need a united fight that targets the real culprits – the bankers, the multinationals, the politicians. Let’s turn the anger on those truly responsible for this dreadful recession.
Read Socialist Worker’s initial statement on the wildcat strikes » Why British jobs for British workers is not the solution to the crisis