Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 December 2014

Why wildcat strikes must give PM pause for thought

I, for one, support the Kilroot workers and their wildcat strike protesting at the use of foreign labour while local people remain on the dole.

The original spark was a dispute at Total's oil refinery near Grimsby where 200 Italian and Portuguese workers have been drafted in for a construction project. Yes, 200 — flown in, just like that. And presumably to be flown out again, just like that.

This is not about individuals coming over here to seek work, to better themselves, to become part of the community. This is about the systematic stealing of work from local people.

Mega-corporations like Total are not above morality and decency. If they set up a plant near Grimsby, they've some duty towards the people of Grimsby. Yakking on about paying UK pay rates and getting the right skills for a particular job cut little ice. If Gordon Brown wants to evoke the spirit of wartime Britain, then the system — not just Joe Public — has to realise that we're all in this together.

Total's bottom line is not the only one.

In a fashion not seen since the 1970s, other workers — as at Kilroot— have been protesting in sympathy. But, unlike back then, there ain't going to be any anti-union backlash. Because, this time, they're right.

The GMB, highlighting their workers' concerns, cite construction jobs being advertised in Northern Ireland which specify Portuguese would be an advantage. Most people here — a region already on a red light recession warning — will think that's just a little rum.

And that's not because of racism or because any of us want this country to be an island fortress thumbing it's nose at Johnny Foreigner. Or because the protests will work or make economic sense. It's because those striking speak for all of us. They're not saying they hate foreigners, but that they’re frightened for their jobs. They want the Government to act, for once, in the interests of ordinary people.

They've been driven to it by politicians who have treated them like a bunch of mugs to be fed any old bull.

Evidence? As part of his coronation tour in 2007, Gordon Brown pledged to the TUC conference to create half a million “British jobs for British workers”.

Now, fresh from Davos and puffed up with rhetoric about the dangers of protectionism, he says no, no, no. What he was saying was that he'd only meant that people here would be given the skills to compete against other nationalities. Of course, what he's saying is that he's failed spectacularly — we didn't get the jobs or the training.

Now, as the credit crunch has become a terrible reality, politicians have busted their bums to help the banks, the wealthy — and absolutely nothing for everyone else.

Screwed up your bank? Have a hundred billion from the taxpayer. Screwed it up again? Oh dear, here's another few billion, but this time you might be able to do something for your, ahem, customers but that’s an aspiration not an obligation.

Your mortgage may be cheaper, but you can't pay it, however cheap, if you don't have a job. And you don't feel any happier about a cheaper mortgage living under the shadow of redundancy.

The Government doesn't recognise the psychological realities we live under now. Everyone is frightened for their jobs. Everyday we receive emails from associates saying goodbye, this is their last day on the job, they will keep in touch and other brave platitudes. Once carefree friends spend hours working out what they'd do with redundancy money. Everyone's got their own ‘worst case’ scenarios.

This isn't the recession of the 1980s, it's not just a question of not having a job. This is about ordinary, decent people — burdened by negative equity, credit cards and an ‘aspirational’ culture foisted on us by politicians — going to the wall and taking their families with them on a tidal wave of debt. Ok, the metaphors are mixed but the reality is stark.

People are desperate and desperate people get angry, not logical. For Gordon Brown to say that such protests are ‘indefensible’ really takes the (probably imported) biscuit. It's all very well to burble on about EU law, the BNP, and the ‘swings and roundabouts’ of globalisation but what people feel is quite different.

They don't trust their banks. They don't trust businesses to give a fig about their workers. They don't trust politicians to do a damn thing about it.

Wildcat? It's about time ordinary people showed their claws.

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