Wildcat strike in the North Sea

23 May, 2022

One of the rigs involved in a wildcat strike in the North Sea.
One of the rigs involved in a wildcat strike in the North Sea.

Workers on oil rigs in the British North Sea have begun a wildcat strike that is affecting oil production. Employers and unions are pressuring them to give up the struggle. And yet the strike continues to spread. It could mark a turning point in the workers’ response to the crisis across Europe.

Table of Contents

What happened?

Total's Elgin platform in the North Sea, point of origin of the strike.
Total’s Elgin platform in the North Sea, point of origin of the strike.

On a Total rigin the North Sea, the workers have launched a strike, first outside and then with the open opposition of the unions, a strike that has been joined by other units until it has reached 16 rigs and has geatly affected oil production.

The workers, who are demanding a rise in the hourly wage to compensate for what has been lost due to inflation and inhuman shifts, openly say that they expect nothing from the unions, that they prefer to organize on their own as a “separate union, a union of men, a union of workers”, organizing themselves through assemblies in the sites.

What are the unions doing?

The Essar Stanlow refinery in Ellesmere Port
The Essar Stanlow refinery in Ellesmere Port.

The majority union, Unite, responded in the usual way: a “fake” negotiation with subcontractor Bilfinger, an express “agreement” that falls light years short of what the workers demanded – in fact it is the company’s position with minimal embellishments – and, after the signing, the slogan to go back to work.

This comes as no surprise to anyone. In November the union stopped the strike at the UK’s second largest refinery (Stanlow) in exchange for a wage increase that has already been practically half the cumulative inflation since then.

At the country’s largest refinery (Fawley, owned by ExxonMobil), meanwhile, having redirected the strike to intermittent stoppages, it is trying to put an end to it in exchange for an increase which, from the outset, is already below the rise in prices: 2.5% over two years, which incidentally negates the payment of Covid sick leave during the pandemic.

The support of the major oil companies for Unite is hardly surprising. In the face of the wildcat strike on the rigs they responded by stating that they will only negotiate with the unions through their own works council. Striking workers are already under threat of dismissal, a threat openly voiced by Unite as a call to order.

Why is this strike so important?

Gas station overcrowded in Britain due to lack of labor at wages offered by companies during September 2021
Gas station overcrowded in Britain due to lack of labor at wages offered by companies during September 2021.

Because it could mean a critical point in the development of the class struggle in Britain and Europe. Since the Brexit referendum in 2017, strikes and labor disputes in Britain were at historic quantitative lows.

It was not at all the fruit of an economic bonanza. While the strikes were shrinking, the drop in workers’ purchasing power was becoming increasingly significant. Food banks had never handed out so many emergency relief kits: in 2018, 1 in 14 Britons, the vast majority of them workers, had to turn to food banks for regular meals. And from there the numbers kept on rising.

In September last year, at the exit of pandemic confinements and restrictions the relationship between capitalist chaos, the need to struggle and mass pauperization became evident: entire essential sectors – goods drivers, slaughterhouses, etc. – could not find enough workers at the wages companies were offering… and preferred to create a chaos of shortages rather than offer wage rises.

Since then, in response to an inflation which throughout the world means in reality a transfer of income from labor to capital, struggles and strikes have been on the rise in Great Britain. But the vast majority were under union control, which made them necessarily unproductive.

Why does union leadership lead nowhere?

Unions and employers, two groups of managers with common interests in the running of companies, reach a pre-agreement to put an end to the Cádiz metal strike at the hands of a body specializing in bringing about agreements between them. In Seville, of course, as far away as possible from the assemblies.
Unions and employers, two groups of managers with common interests in the running of the companies, reach a pre-agreement to put an end to the metal strike in Cádiz by the hand of a body specialized in promoting agreements between them. In Seville, of course, as far away as possible from the assemblies.

We no longer live under the capitalism of “free markets”, “supply and demand”, we live under a highly monopolized capitalism in which the big monopolistic industries and the financial capital are organized around the state to fix general costs and general conditions of exploitation and competition.

In this game the unions are aggregators and legal monopolists of labor, with a look identical to that of any other cartel or industrial monopoly association. The model of “union struggle” seeks to bring the struggle for the needs of the workers into the framework of monopolistic price fixing with the employers and the state. It seeks, in short, to corporatize the workers. That is what the works councils and union aspirations to participate in the management bodies of the big companies are for.

That is why in all the strikes that have ensued after the “labor shortage” since September the behavior of the unions has been focused on preventing the strikes from leaving the bureaucratic framework of the big monopolies’ cost calculation which is institutionalized through the so-called “social dialogue”. It is, evidently, a terrain in which strikes could not get anywhere.

LRead also: The "shortage" of labor, unions and workers' morality, 28/9/2021

Why? Because in a state capitalism guided by big monopolies, unions and the state as the current one, wages are fixed “from the top down”. Wages in the most precarious sectors serve to “adjust” overall costs. So, in general, they are not going to be modified in particular sectors because it would affect the relations and competitiveness of the different sectors among themselves.

In fact, in countries like Spain where the minimum wage is set by agreement between the state, employers and unions, it is only raised under conditions of cheap dismissal that ensure that each increase increases the turnover of contracts, turning the minimum wage more and more into a general wage and generating an overall saving in general wage costs.

This is why the unions’ sector-restricted and “social dialogue” framework, when discussing basic and general wages for workers, can only lead nowhere… and they know it. That is what we have seen this past year all over the world from Britain itself to the metalworkers’ strikes in Cádiz, Spain.

This is also then translated into “struggle” methods that actually disorganize the workers. It is the only way for the unions to keep their position within the state in a capitalism in which their structure and objectives can no longer serve the development of the struggles and therefore the most basic needs of the workers.

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