From The TimesJanuary 31, 2009
The word went out on the web: every skilled man should strike
David Brown, Fran Yeoman and Gary Duncan
Dawn of new age of industrial unrest | Comment: British Jobs and British Workers | 'We're used and abused by greedy employers' | Q&A: British industrial strikes | Phrase that has come back to haunt Brown | A whole new European world of work
As the shift arrived at Aberthaw power station in South Wales yesterday morning, a crowd of workers were already shivering outside the main gates.
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The South Wales protest had marked the start of wildcat strikes not seen for 30 years and the most widespread direct action since the fuel protests in 2000. Employers, politicians and trade union leaders were left on the back foot as the apparently spontaneous action spread across the UK.
Anger had been bubbling for weeks, with websites for skilled manual workers full of resentful messages about foreigners being employed in Britain. The catalyst for the strikes was the decision to bring in hundreds of Italian and Portuguese contractors to work on the £200 million Lindsey oil refinery in North Lincolnshire. Six hundred British contractors walked out of the plant on Wednesday. Contractors at Aberthaw and other sites voted on Thursday to strike in sympathy.
In online forums used by construction and engineering workers, news of the spreading strikes was greeted with enthusiasm. Union sources said that details of the disputes were also being spread by text messages to encourage others to join in.
Andy Summers, 60, an insulation engineer from Barry, South Wales, who joined the protest at Aberthaw, said: "It was the working classes who opened up Europe but it's now the working classes who are going on the dole — with jobs going to people coming from abroad. People like us have travelled across Britain on contract jobs. But now we can't get work because of the influx of European labour."
John Cummins, 44, from Cardiff, said: "I was laid off as a stevedore two weeks ago. I've come here today hoping that we can shake the Government up. I think the whole country should go on strike as we're losing all British industry."
Laws preventing secondary action and strikes without ballots meant that the unions could not offer official support. Unite, which represents engineering and construction workers, tried to show understanding without explicitly supporting the walkouts.
The frustration directed at union leaders on discussion boards and picket lines served to emphasise the sense that this was a grassroots movement rather than any centrally orchestrated plan. On the UKwelder site, a user calling himself "mig2stick" wrote: "Respect to everyone who's supporting this fight. As lads know the fight started on this forum long before any union rep wanted to get involved. We need every skilled man to show support by withdrawing their labour on all sites."
On the ground shop stewards gave their personal backing. Bobby Buirds, a Unite regional officer in Scotland, said that the workers at Grangemouth were striking to protect British jobs. "The argument is not against foreign workers, it's against foreign companies discriminating against British labour," he said. "It is a fight for the right to work in our own country. It is not a racist argument at all."
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister, the Business Secretary and the Leader of the Opposition were in the Swiss ski resort of Davos discussing the world economic crisis. By yesterday lunchtime Gordon Brown's official spokesman still appeared puzzled by the growing dispute at home. "We need to do more to establish what the facts are," he said. "There seems to be some dispute about Italian workers in a construction site." Answering concerns that Britain was facing a winter of industrial discontent not seen for 30 years, the spokesman replied: "Of course people are worried, and that is why we are taking action."
The Prime Minister said yesterday that Britain was in "the eye of a global financial storm". He told The Daily Telegraph: "We have got to show that the leadership we are taking can make a difference." Mr Brown remained positive in the face of the predictions from the International Monetary Fund that Britain faced a deeper recession than other developed nations. "I am absolutely confident about Britain's future," he said. "I have utter confidence in our ability to come through this. I have utter confidence, not only in the British people's determination to come through this, but that people will work together to make sure Britain emerges from this."
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