“We don’t hire any English people”

June 9, 2009

The above is a direct quote from a business owner I talked to in my current capacity as a phone monkey cold-calling employers to try and get them to answer questions for a survey over the phone.  While I’m wary of drawing sweeping conclusions from one incident, I am prepared to take it as a symptomatic attitude of many in the boss class.  It is certainly not the first time I have heard such sentiments, either over the phone or face to face, but the statement was shocking in it’s frankness and lack of shame.

It’s an attitude that goes to the heart of why many of those who voted BNP on June 4th did so.  A feeling of being treated as a second class citizen for being English or British.  Often the example is given of social housing provision, that immigrants (often no distinction is made between those seeking asylum and economic migrants, and as a socialist I don’t see an important distinction there either, albeit for different reasons) are given priority over long standing locals.

It is undoubtedly true that preference is given to certain groups, judged to be more ‘vulnerable’ in the slightly patronising bureaucratic jargon.  Given the appalling shortage of social housing (and the near total lack of affordable private rented accommodation), blame if often directed at those who are provided with it, by those who are excluded.  This doesn’t always result in anti-immigrant feeling.  Where I live, you can pretty much count the number of immigrants (from outside Britain) on the fingers on a couple of hands.  So single mothers generally bear the brunt.

But where there do exist sizeable numbers of immigrants, and the lack of a sizeable political party pushing the perspective that greater social housing provision is needed rather than scrapping over an inadequate number, the issue of housing becomes an issue of immigration, and ultimately of race.  This is where the likes of the BNP have made hay.  The other is jobs.

Gordon Brown cynically played the nationalist card with his ‘British Jobs for British Workers’ speech.  The BNP were elected with a tagline which echoed this slogan, and printed the phrase on their leaflets, notoriously above a picture of American workers seemingly reenacting a Village People video.  They tried to intervene in the strike wave earlier this year, which kicked off at Lindsey Oil Refinery, when the slogan appeared on some signs at the pickets.  But they were sent packing with a flea in their ear.

The Lindsey strikes highlighted a key divide in the far-left.  There appear to be two different perspectives on the question of immigration, one a Marxist approach, the other a more liberal approach.  The Marxist approach was to recognise the grievance of the workers – namely that they were being discriminated against because to hire overseas workers would allow the contractor to undercut the national agreement, and undermine union organisation.  The Marxist approach was to recognise the movement as a developing one that with the correct arguments could be won over to working class internationalism.

This approach, which was taken to great effect in practice by the Socialist Party, and by the other members of the elected strike committee, won a victory for the workforce, British and non-British, particularly on the question of foreign workers joining the union and being employed in accordance with the national agreement.  The approach recognise that the grievance was legitimate, and posed a course of action to unite local and migrant workers, the better to jointly fight for a bigger piece of the pie from the bosses.  I apologise if I miss anyone here, but it  the other left groups supporting this approach included the Independent Working Class Association, the Communist Party of Great Britain and the Commune.

The liberal approach was to focus on some of the slogans printed on boards, and concentrate energies on denouncing them.  The SWP pioneered this approach with the Lindsey strike wave, and also when they decided to turn up to a picket, tried to snatch a Union Jack off one of the workers.  This approach failed, though when a non-SWPer had a word with the flag wielder, it emerged that he had not brought it along for nationalist purposes, and put it away when he was made aware that it could be used to try and portray the strike as nationalist.

The SWP also picked up on a reference by one picketer to ‘Eyeties’, relying on a deliberately distorted in a BBC article.  The full quote makes it clear that the ‘Eyeties’ were in fact referred to in a positive light.  The SWP’s internationalism at Lindsey was the internationalism of multinationals, not the working class.  They simply focused on a simplistic ‘no borders’ position, without putting due emphasis on the use of immigrant labour by employers to suppress wages and trade union organisation and because immigrants can often be exploited to an even greater extent than British workers.

Which brings me back to the quote at the top.  The parasite in question who said this to me went on to elaborate that the reason was that Eastern European workers have a greater ‘work ethic’.  Translated, this of course means that they are willing to work more, for less, and put up with more crap from above them.   This we need to oppose, and oppose in the same way as they did at Lindsey.  Critically we need to take hiring and firing out of the hands of the employers, and in the hands of the unions.  This guarantees that work is shared out, and given only to those in a union, thus maintaining union organisation, and national agreements.  It also strengthens organised labour’s hand in any collective bargaining and strikes.

This industrial work needs to be linked up, as Bob Crow said yesterday, with political work, to make the arguments for a reduction in the working week, abolition of the anti-trade union laws, a mass council house building programme, action against second homes, more progressive taxation, and other measures critical not just to the immediate interests of working class people, but the long term interest in destroying the growth of racism and fascism.

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