Britain - Royal Mail, British Airways, Lindsey: union leaders selling workers to buy partners

Summer 2009

With the working class under direct attack in this crisis, the union leaderships cannot avoid being seen to make some kind of response -even if their role in upholding and defending working people's interests has long since been a matter of rhetoric.

For over two decades, the name of their game has been "partnership" with the employers. And now, under pressure of the recession, they are clinging on to their partnership agreements with the bosses more than ever before.

However, before the crisis began to bite, there were already indications that employers were bypassing their union partners in order to implement cost-cuts. And no wonder, since union leaders had been helping bosses enjoy a free ride on workers' backs, in so many industries, for so long, that many employers have come to believe that they can do without the union leaders altogether, and just impose their diktats on the workforce, without any negotiations or consultation, whatsoever.

So interventions by union leaders are today often accompanied by a measure of desperation. They are afraid of being bypassed, rather than recognised by the bosses as an essential instrument for achieving their aims. It is not hard to imagine what such desperation means in today's context when companies are cutting jobs, cutting wages, cutting conditions, ending what is left of pension schemes and increasing the work load on the remaining workforce.

It means that today we have the sorry spectacle of union leaders bidding to help with this slashing of jobs, wages and conditions. And where there is more than one union involved, the spectacle is even more unseemly, as they bid against each other for the "privilege" of helping to oversee bosses' interests. Collaborating with management bodies, in order to "help" them conduct attacks against their own members has become, against the backdrop of the present crisis, the real content of their partnership agenda.

This revamped "partnership" has already been evident for the past months in the car industry (Jaguar, Honda, and Toyota) and at JCB. In these instances, agreements were signed with the bosses after union officials conducted "democratic" ballots amongst the workforce, recommending that they vote yes to job and wage-cutting.

Then there was the initiative taken by Unite the union, to join with representatives of the bosses' organisation, the Confederation of British Industry, to ask the government for subsidies for companies, and to put on a stage-managed demonstration in Birmingham in May this year, to "unite" (with these bosses) for jobs...

No wonder, therefore, that the bosses have upped the ante. No wonder they are now making much more outrageous demands. And no wonder they are implementing much more brutal cuts and radical changes to conditions. They can rightly assume that the union leaderships are going to rush in to help them to get away with just about anything.

The purpose of this article is to discuss more precisely this response by the union machineries to the scaled-up offensive against the working class, using the example of the policy of the Communication Workers Union (CWU) in Royal Mail, and using the example of Unite and the GMB union in British Airways (BA) and at Lindsey Oil Refinery. In all of these seemingly very different cases, the union leaderships have come forward to put a stop to any "unruly" reactions by workers against the bosses' often unprecedented demands.

In addition, because these examples also illustrate an on-going feature of union policy - that is, a rigidly sectional approach while paying lip-service to abstract "unity" - something also needs to be said about this.

The policy of the CWU

At the time of writing, the CWU is in the middle of a dispute with Royal Mail (RM) over the implementation of its latest round of cuts. After a 24-hour strike on the 19th June, it has just called a series of 3-day strikes in London, starting on the 8th July. So it could well appear that the CWU is an exception to the rule, and is making a stand against the RM bosses. If only this was the case.

There is certainly every reason to think that the potential exists for a concerted fightback by the workforce, to reverse RM's cuts. In London, the ballot result was an unprecedented 91.3% in favour of strike, with a 70% turnout which is very high for a postal ballot!

In fact this result was even predictable. Added on top of the cuts which RM has already made, the latest attack on jobs via cuts and radical reorganisation of work (so called "revisions") are enough to turn a very bad situation into an unbearable and chaotic mess for the whole workforce.

But the CWU leadership selected only London's and part of Scotland's postal workers to take strike action, despite the fact that Royal Mail is implementing a national policy of "modernisation" (i.e., cuts by another name) which affects every single office and postal worker in the country, either directly or indirectly.

Besides - but unfortunately, this is the usual CWU approach - Royal Mail engineers, the subcontracted caterers, Quadrant, the Romec engineers and cleaners, who are all in the CWU, were not even asked if they wanted to be included. They were just excluded as a matter of course.

Moreover, and most significantly, the CWU has prefaced all of its "strike talk" with the offer of a 3-month "moratorium", that is, a no strike deal, if only RM will sit down with them and negotiate a new deal on "modernisation". And the union goes to great lengths to explain how much in favour it is of this "modernisation", provided it is involved in helping to decide where and how the consequent job cuts are made.

As it says in its proposals for a "A fresh start" (a submission where it elaborates an alternative strategy for the Royal Mail, on modernisation without privatisation), "the CWU recognises that further efficiency savings are necessary and desirable. Royal Mail employees need to continue to adapt their working practices."This document starts with that offer of a 3-month "moratorium" in fact, but in this instance the moratorium was meant to prevent the part-privatisation, which has now, of course, been shelved due to lack of private buyers.

It argues that the government and Royal Mail bosses need to sit down and discuss the union's plan for a postal service - which is a plan to set up a body along the lines of Network Rail (!) - and significantly, it includes only one small section (3 paragraphs) on the future it sees for "employees". Not one word on the drastically needed "modernisation" of postal workers' wages, hours and conditions - which should surely be the main, if not the sole, preoccupation of a trade union?

One can really wonder what the CWU leadership thinks it is these days? A management consultancy?

But to go back to issue of the strike: the action on the 19th of June involved 10,000 or so London postal workers and several thousand Scottish workers.

Unfortunately 4,000 London workers could not join the strike, because RM had threatened to challenge the result in 3 of the largest sorting offices in London. And the CWU did not even wait for a legal injunction - it immediately called off the strike in these offices - Mount Pleasant, the City's delivery office, Nine Elms, which is Canary Wharf's office and Rathbone Place, the office serving Oxford Street! In other words, it is hardly a coincidence that RM chose to contest the ballot's validity in these particular places!

Now that a re-ballot has taken place in these 3 offices, (the vote was even more decisive) 3 days of strike are scheduled for July 8th, 9th and 10th. But this is intended to be a sectional rolling strike; i.e., delivery workers will be out on strike on the 8th, distribution drivers out on the 9th and sorting workers out on the 10th. In other words, this is the same piecemeal, sectional strike action which proved such a waste of workers' energy in the 2007 strike, especially because it does nothing to boost workers' confidence by allowing them to test their collective strength.

That said, the CWU leadership has had to allow official ballots - and consequently strikes - in a number of other parts of the country, because the rising level of anger against the imposition of these latest cuts might otherwise have resulted in unofficial walkouts. Presumably it is this pressure too, which caused them to announce a "National Day of Action" on Friday the 17th July, which will actually mean that all those other offices round the country, plus London and Scotland, will strike together. Whether the CWU will use this opportunity to organise a national demonstration in London so that the strikers can assess their determination, remains to be seen.

The official focus of the current dispute however, is not even the massive job cuts planned by RM, nore its vicious attempts at increasing everyone's workload. Rather, it is the failure of RM to adhere to the national agreement signed with the CWU on modernisation - which dates back to the 2007 strike.

The CWU maintains that RM has not "honoured" the 4th and final phase of this agreement - which is about establishing joint working parties between union and management in order to sort out the last phase of modernisation - in other words RM is not being a reliable "partner".

This final phase concerns the restructuring of operations based on newly-merged sorting (and automated) centres and the reorganisation of deliveries, presumably once new walk-sorting machines have replaced workers. What is not and was never admitted by Royal Mail, is that its intentions were to establish part-time working as the norm - on the basis of temporary contracts, where possible. It is already doing this in offices up and down the country where postmen and women are being recruited on zero hour, 12-week contracts at £5.95 per hour!

Royal Mail not acting "honourably"? What's new?

RM has often ignored agreements it has made with the union. Since the national strike in 2007 it went further than this. In the case of pensions, it just implemented the radical cuts it had proposed, including the end of the final salary scheme and the raising of retirement age from 60 to 65. It was able to do so, because the CWU leadership had accepted RM's ruse to remove this, the most contentious issue, from the raft of "modernisation" issues being disputed in 2007 - and deal with it separately at a later date. The CWU leadership then pretended to huff and puff while watching RM blow the whole pensions' house down - and then it still did nothing.

Anyway, once RM had managed to get the union leadership to call off the 2007 strike, just at the point where it became threatening, it could also impose the flexibility terms it wanted, making concessions solely on pay. And this is where we are at today, with the apparent "failure to agree on 'modernisation'".

The workforce is reduced, the workload per worker is 2 or 3 times as much, yet "revisions" (re-allocation of all the work duties), which aggravate conditions still further, are being implemented by "executive action" - which is CWU jargon for RM imposing changes and cuts without their agreement.

In the meantime, RM has already begun implementing plans it had to close down 16 or so large sorting offices in order to centralise their functions in larger offices in fewer cities. This closure plan includes the most militant mail centre in the country, the over 900-strong Liverpool Copperas Road office, as well as mail centres at Oxford, Reading, Stockport, Crewe, Coventry, Oldham, Bolton, Milton Keynes - and now maybe one of London's 3 big sorting offices will also be targeted.

Significantly, everyone seems to have forgotten about the abortive strike just before Xmas 2008, against the mail centre closures. But of course, it was never serious in the first place. The CWU leaders in the end only conducted official ballots in 7 of the affected offices, thus not even bothering to get all the potentially affected mail centres involved, let alone the whole postal workforce. But then they called off the strike at the very last minute, claiming progress had been made with RM bosses on the issue. But this so-called "progress" did not prevent Reading Office from closing at the end of May this year, nor Oxford at the end of June. Only 50 Oxford workers will transfer to the supposedly bigger, merged office in Swindon. On 2 July, the Whitney Gazette reported the local CWU official from Oxford mail centre, Bob Cullen, as saying: "There are about 350 people on the dole as a result of this. It was nothing to do with the quality of service or financial advantages but it was a decision to attack the CWU nationally as this was the strongest branch of the union."

Unfortunately CWU officials constantly peddle this idea that RM is "attacking the union" whenever RM attacks the workforce, as if this was exactly the same thing, when it long ago ceased to be. But in this case, as in many others, the local officials refuse to admit that they have been let down by the leadership, which turned a blind eye to the closure to avoid a confrontation with Royal Mail. It was not a case of RM attacking the union, but a case of the union failing to attack Royal Mail.

No doubt, by such assertions of victimisation, union officials hope that workers will rally to the defence of the union bureaucrats, without questioning their policy. It is a manipulative tactic to reassert control over any anger or action. In fact the officials want unconditional loyalty from members, whose strikes are supposed to be just enough of a jolt for RM to make it respect the "partnership" which they have been bypassing! In other words, workers are being treated as mere foot soldiers whose only role is to defend the union leaders' place at the bosses table, while the leaders sell them out at that same table!

Of course, all is not even nearly lost. The workers are prepared to strike - they have done so and will do so in the future. Can they take their strike into their own hands? That is something they have done before as well. However, the real question is whether they will then move to the next stage - by developing a strategy and proposing common objectives which can appeal to other workers - to extend their strike across offices, so as to involve sections left out like the engineers, Romec, etc. This needs to be an aim they set for themselves.

BA workers to work for Bugger All?

While Royal Mail has employed traditional methods to screw its workforce, this is not the case for British Airways.

Early in June, the CEO of British Airways, Willie Walsh (ex-Ryan Air) announced that there had to be 2,000 job cuts among 14,000 flight attendants. He said that he would not rule out compulsory redundancies among the 40,000 staff which BA employs, although he wanted to achieve the cuts via voluntary layoffs.

Of course, he used the usual dramatic language of bosses who want the workers to pay for any drop in revenue rather than the shareholders, claiming the airline was "fighting for survival" - and that it lost £401m last year. As usual the huge profits which were made before this somehow also got lost. In 2007-2008, record profits of £992m were clocked up!

Walsh then came up with a novel solution. In fact it was pure blackmail: to help the airline (not the shareholders?) all BA workers could volunteer to work for no pay! Or, they could "choose" to work for (unpaid) longer hours. Of course, BA bosses reassured the workers, taking up this offer would not give them any preferential treatment eg., exclusion from the redundancy axe!

The proposal under this "work-for-no-pay" scheme is that workers forego their pay for 1 to 4 weeks, consider temporary or part-time work arrangements, and also consider taking unpaid leave of between 1 week and 1 year. They could stagger the days they work unpaid, over a period up to 6 months, with the pay deduction spread over 3-6 months.

Walsh himself declared that he and his finance director would work without pay for the month of July - foregoing a monthly salary of £61,000, but not the 13% pay increase which he awarded himself earlier this year, which gave him an additional £84,212 a year! So, in fact he is not giving up any pay - and then in addition, he has £1.1m in share options coming to him again this year - just like previous years.

It was reported that after this offer, Walsh and six other BA executives "vested" that is, sold, shares from their 2005/6 bonuses - out of which Walsh himself earned £35,000! The cabin crew and ground staff who are expected to agree to work for no pay, do not have anything to "vest", nor even "disvest", for that matter.

Nor were they, nor the ground crews impressed by Walsh's posturing and veiled threats over jobs. The baggage handlers voted 6 to one to refuse any kind of pay cut.

Walsh has, however, already secured what he calls a "groundbreaking" deal with pilots with the pilots' union, BALPA. Apparently the BALPA leader, Jim McAuslan fell for the argument that by doing their bit, pilots would help BA weather the financial storm. The deal is that they get a 2.6% pay cut this year, accept 78 job cuts and work longer non-flying hours. They also have had a 20% cut in the extra payments they receive while up in the air. To compensate them, pilots will get £13m worth of shares in the company - but they can only sell them after 3 years. Of course, this union was never a hotbed of militancy, having famously once been led by Thatcher's right-hand man, Norman Tebbit. But whether the average ordinary pilot is pleased with the deal which BALPA secured is another question.

By the 25th June, despite Walsh's veiled threats, only 800 out of the 40,000 BA workforce (2%) had volunteered to work for free. Although BA claims that 6,940 have agreed to take unpaid leave (17%). Walsh said this will save £10m... and that it's a "fantastic first response" - implying he plans to try to extract even more out of the workforce!

Ominously, perhaps, Walsh wrote the following in the BA newspaper, "our survival depends on everyone contributing to changes that permanently remove costs from every part of the business."

This is revealing, because what is quite obvious is that Walsh, among many other bosses, is taking advantage of the recession to drive through cuts which erode workers hours, wages and other conditions permanently which he has no intention of restoring, when and if the recession ends.

This is precisely the reason why things have not been going too well in negotiations with the union representatives of cabin crew and ground staff, whose bottom line appears to be that they would agree temporary cuts, but not permanent ones.

The deadline set by Walsh for getting an agreement - 30 June - has been and gone. But in the meantime, the goalposts have been moved and the number of jobs which Walsh says need to be cut has doubled to 4,000 - of which half will be cabin crew, the rest ground crew. For cabin crew, he also wants to cut stop-over compensation payments, reduce crew numbers on flights and axe overtime payments. It is reported that BA crews get £29,000/year if stop-over benefits are included, for long haul flights. This (apparently) compares with £14,400 at Virgin Atlantic. Easy Jet crews, who only do short-haul anyway, get £20,000.

In fact for once Richard Branson, who owns Virgin and is BA's main British rival, made a contribution which might be construed as in workers' interests! Just as Walsh was pleading poverty and blackmailing his workforce to accept all these cuts, he announced a bonus for his 8,5000 staff at Virgin to celebrate its 25th anniversary. He explicitly put into question the plight of BA implying it was "scaremongering" to "brow-beat employees". (Holier-than-Walsh-Branson cut 500 Virgin jobs and froze workers pay, on the other hand.)

The cabin crew union, Bassa (an exclusive BA cabin crew section of Unite) has refused BA's cuts and put forward its own plan for cost savings of £173m! It wrote to its members to say that BA "want cheap crew and the only way to do that is to remove the cabin crew unions and your agreements"- an echo of the CWU's pose as the victim of an anti-union drive.

It then announced that it had called a mass meeting for Monday 6 July on Kempton Park Racecourse which, the union officials said, could lead to an industrial action.

Of course, Unite also represents ground staff and baggage handlers - so in fact it has around two thirds of the unionised workforce in its ranks. The GMB represents around 7,000 check-in staff and baggage handlers and is junior partner in the joint union discussions taking place over the cuts, which include 2,000 jobs to go and cuts in overtime pay, holidays, breaks, etc.

On the 1 July, when talks "broke down" Unite published its "Aviation News Bulletin" entitled "Where are you BA?" It went on as follows: "When talks adjourned at 6pm last night the unions left to consider proposals and reconvene at 10am today. The company failed to turn up! We are angry and bemused by their actions given the "supposed" importance of these negotiations and the issues we are all working to resolve. Despite our best efforts over three weeks we have yet to reach agreement with the company on proposals that protect your interests as well as those of the customer and company !). We have responded to company proposals and tabled measures of our own that deliver huge savings to the company. These proposals are manageable, deliverable and realistic. If the company are serious about finding a mutually acceptable solution, then they need to step back from their vision of "wonderland" and join us in the real world at the earliest opportunity."After saying they would be available to meet any time, and would reject unilateral imposition of any changes, and recall the shoulder to shoulder approach to SARS and 9/11 (!), they end with an exhortation in bold letters : "Why do BA not want to work together now?"

At the time of writing, the arbitration service, ACAS, has been called in "unilaterally" by BA, but Unite has already said it would consider anything which brought BA back to the negotiating table.

It is probably not necessary to point out how devastated Unite seems to be about this temporary spat with its partner and how much it wants to get back into bed, since it is in bold black and white.

Lindsey Oil Refinery construction workers

Since the unofficial action by skilled construction workers at Lindsey Oil Refinery in January, over the issue of "British jobs for British workers" he situation in this specialised sector never really settled down.

At the time, skilled construction workers building a desulphurisation plant for the French oil giant, Total, took wildcat action, which rapidly spread to other sites all around the country. This was precipitated when a subcontractor brought its own Italian and Portuguese workers in, apparently at much lower rates, instead of employing "local labour".

The workers seized on what Brown had said while posturing at a Labour Party conference, that he would ensure there were "British jobs for British workers".

However at Lindsey, this slogan was not just a piece of nationalist politicking - it was directed against foreign workers and could not have been seen as anything but a xenophobic reaction. But of course, this was a reaction in a specific context too: there were, and are, not enough jobsfor these highly skilled workers, thanks to the sudden and huge decline in construction as a result of the recession.

Then again in May, when 40 Polish workers were employed by Dutch subcontractor, Hertel, at South Hook, the Milford Haven Oil Terminal owned by ExxonMobil and Total, again, action spread rapidly to 5 other energy plants and action was threatened at Sellafield nuclear plant in Cumbria. Hertel withdrew the Polish workers and the striking workers went back to work.

In these cases, the action, although unofficial, was endorsed by the unions present at the sites - both Unite and the GMB. However the leaderships appeared somewhat embarrassed by strikes which were quite obviously being staged against the interests of other workers - of a different nationality - no matter how much a minority of union reps and activists denied this. Their excuse was that the strike was really about the fact that foreign workers were paid less, thus breaking an agreement with the construction employers' federation - and were not cared for properly, forced to live in prefabs and so on.

But there was really no getting away from it: the strikes were staged against the employment of foreign workers, first and foremost. When, on the other hand, the union officials could have made it their priority instead, to bring these same workers into the ranks of the strikers - and turn what would then have been and even stronger strike against the employers (Total and subcontractors alike), in order to demand better and equal pay and conditions for all - with no exceptions based on nationality!

On the 11 June, however, things blew up again, figuratively speaking, at the very same site at Lindsey Oil Refinery (LOR). But this time the strike took on a different character.

The issue was the laying off by a subcontractor called Shaw, of 51 workers, while in fact, according to normal practice, Shaw should have transferred them to another subcontractor, Blackett and Charlton, which was hiring workers with these same skills at the time. Shaw's excuse came out later: according to the GMB, a senior manager at LOR admitted that he was not prepared to recommend that Blackett and Charlton take on "an unruly workforce who had taken part in unofficial disputes and who won't work weekends"!

The immediate action of the Lindsey refinery workforce and workers for the other subcontractors, when they heard of these de facto sackings, was to walk out in solidarity and go on indefinite strike, demanding the 51 workers' reinstatement.

Within 8 days Total had issued dismissal notices to 647 workers who were taking part in the wildcat strike - sacking its workforce en masse! It then issued them with forms to reapply for their own jobs - with a deadline of the following Monday (22nd June) at 5pm.

This was a big mistake, because no sooner had they done this, than over 3,000 workers were walking out of almost every construction site, refinery and power station in the country, to show their support for their workmates!

This included 900 contractors from the nuclear plant at Sellafield, 400 from LNG plants in Milford Haven, 200 from Albertaw power station in south Wales, 200 from Drax and Eggborough power stations in North Yorkshire, 1,000 workers at Ensus biofuel site in Teeside, plus workers from Fiddlers Ferry and Didcot power stations and the Shell refinery at Ellesmere Port - among others.

Many joined the Lindsey workers who held a huge demonstration outside LOR on the 22 June to collectively burn their dismissal notices.

The union officials came down to the site and effectively managed to take control of the strike, by promising to endorse it officially. All the while they had been offering to negotiate with Total - which eventually agreed to talks.

After 18 days on strike, on the 25th June, the GMB and Unite union officials announced that they had made a deal with Total which they thought was acceptable - and that they could recommend a return to work on this basis. Of course it would be put to the workforce first.

Partners riding in on the back of a wildcat?

The union officials pronounced a great victory. Total, had, they said, "totally" backed down and reinstated the 647 "dismissed" workers as well as the 51 workers laid off by the subcontractor. So what exactly was the agreement?

Firstly that there would be a full return to work on Monday 29th June, but because of health and safety rules, the "remobilisation of the workforce" had to be "phased", so that some workers would be redeployed, placed on training, or on standby, but they would still receive full pay. Second, that (only) a minimum of 4 weeks employment was "anticipated". While this was what had been offered originally at Blackett and Charlton, the agreement which was signed between the unions and Total did not specify that it was only this section of subcontractors who might still be made redundant - after just 4 week's work. Taken at face value, the agreement could mean that anyone among the contract workforce could be terminated after 4 weeks!

Most importantly, however, the agreement assigned a "full time trade union official ... to the project. He will provide trade union leadership and facilitation for both trade unions in respect of changes in site practices to ensure the successful completion of the project. This may include but not be limited to restructuring of the IBA, work, and overtime patterns and productivity targets. He will assist the parties who will ensure full compliance with the NAECI,"(the current national agreement on minimum standards of pay, conditions, etc.). In fact it appears that Unite and GMB officials want to use this "agreement" as a blueprint for a new national agreement with the construction bosses, over which they are currently meant to be balloting.

Of course having a full-time union official co-opted onto the management team which is running this site is just what the union leaderships have been after - a job amongst managers, helping them to do their job with impunity - and protecting them from the wildcattish actions of "unruly" construction workers! But they have got this position on the back of a display of workers' solidarity which has not been seen in Britain for many decades, solidarity, moreover, which is completely illegal!

Of course, Total probably never expected this to happen and probably expected it to dissipate very fast. It was only when it realised, along with all the other oil and power plant bosses up and down the country, that these workers were determined to beat them, that they agreed to talks and then backed down. What seemed to be the last straw for Total was when the workers announced that they were preparing coaches to travel to France in order to demonstrate outside Total's Paris HQ!

There is a clause at the end of the "joint recommendations however which says that "... as a consequence of the delay to the project IREM will demobilise 120 personnel and their scope of work will be reduced by circa 35,000 hours which will be undertaken by Shaw Group." Which sounds as if the unions and Total ganged up on the Italian contractor which had been "responsible" for the January dispute by bringing its own workers along, to give the work to the "British" Shaw group, which laid off the 51 workers who sparked this dispute! "Demobilise" sounds a bit like another way of saying "sack". And what will happen to the 120 workers? Who are they? Are they perhaps "foreign"?

The stance of the union leaderships at LOR has not been something they can be proud of - even at their level. Yet it is not as if they do not know how to behave. Recently Unite intervened at Tesco on behalf of immigrant workers employed by Tesco's meat and poultry supply chains on substandard conditions and pay. It also took the initiative of recruiting foreign workers into the union with the help of workers who speak Polish and Portuguese. It presented a demand to shareholders at the Tesco AGM that these workers should enjoy equal rights and benefits as well as pay and conditions. So if Unite's behaviour at Lindsey in January was to go along with the lowest common denominator - then this was a choice, based purely on opportunism, not because it did not know better.

The shape of (bureaucrat-free) struggles to come

In conclusion, it is worth reiterating that in the end, the Lindsey dispute was a victory for solidarity action. And that neither the Lindsey strikers, nor those who walked out in solidarity up and down the country, allowed themselves to be stopped by the anti-strike legislation.

But no matter how much the bosses control the courts - and they certainly do - there is nothing they can do against thousands of workers taking action on such a large scale, short of putting every single strike activist in jail - which would have been the surest way to turn the dispute into a national strike, which the oil and utility giants just could not afford.

The strikers broke the law? But how else can the working class deal with the lawlessness of employers, who think they can do whatever they like with our jobs and wages and get away with it? When the law gives every right to the exploiters and none to the exploited, it is only right for workers to take their fate into their own hands and treat the legal system for what it is - an instrument designed by the bosses, for the bosses!

Ultimately, the strikers forced Total into retreat because the bosses had no means to control their strike, nor to predict how far it might spread. It was because they made themselves feared by the bosses that the strikers won - which is precisely what the class struggle is really about. But the small print of the deal recommended by the Unite and GMB leaders should ring alarm bells - and not only because of the problems outlined above.

In fact, despite the power of the strike, this deal does nothing to even begin to tackle the strikers' most urgent problems.

Currently around one-third of an estimated 30,000 contract workers are out of a job. Yet the average working week remains at 44 hours, not counting overtime. If hours were less, more could be employed. What if all available work was shared among all contract workers, without loss of pay? Wouldn't this be the only possible guarantee against the bosses boosting profits by slashing labour costs?

But this is not a demand that the union leaders, who have been trailing behind this dispute all along, are willing to raise. Instead, like so many others, such as the CWU in Royal Mail, for instance, their main concern is to remain the bosses' partners in organising their job-slashing attacks, as shown at Lindsey by the full-time official (not accountable to the workforce) who is now to assist the refinery bosses in dealing with "employment issues".

Had the strikers themselves taken control, not just of their walkouts, but also of the negotiations ith the companies, the outcome might have been very different and the gains far more significant. Indeed, the Lindsey strike could be a sort of blueprint for the struggles to come. Today, we are confronted with a collective offensive of the capitalist class, with a high degree of coordination (and "solidarity" funded out of our taxes!) provided by the politicians and their legal system. This offensive can only be met effectively by a collective, co-ordinated counter-offensive from our ranks.

But we will have to go further than the Lindsey strikers have. Not only will it be necessary to ignore a law which is designed to keep our hands tied in front of the bosses' attacks, but we will also have to find the means to really use our collective strength against the bosses' collective offensive.

On that account, the memory of the miners' strike in 1984-85 should be a reminder. "The workers united will never be defeated was their motto - but their leaders stopped short of proposing to achieve this unity on the ground, beyond the coal industry. But should workers really be united as a class, across all industries, in challenging the bosses' attacks, then, yes, they will never be defeated!