Unite members at Fawley refinery are fighting for a real pay rise and proper sick pay. Their determination, unity, and militancy in the face of the bosses’ attacks are an inspiration for workers in struggle everywhere.

Unite members at Fawley refinery are fighting for a real pay rise and proper sick pay. Their determination, unity, and militancy in the face of the bosses’ attacks are an inspiration for workers in struggle everywhere.

ExxonMobil recently ‘rewarded’ its workers at Fawley oil refinery in south Hampshire – the largest in the UK – with a pitiful 2.5% pay rise for all their hard work in dangerous conditions.

This is despite the company making bumper profits of £6.75 billion last year, their highest since 2017.

Workers are rightfully rejecting this below-inflation offer, which comes on top of a disgraceful lack of proper sick pay.

As a result, in March, Unite members across three contractors – Veolia, Trant, and Altrad – began protests at the site’s gates. This was alongside a successful strike ballot, which has led to discontinuous strike action since 8 April.

Strike

Fawley refinery strike banner

Socialist Appeal supporters recently went down to the refinery, which is owned by ExxonMobil subsidiary Esso. We found a mood of militancy and enthusiasm on the picket line.

Waving Unite flags, the striking workers were unfazed by police cars that arrived throughout the picket, apparently to “observe”.

One older worker spoke to us fondly about his experiences of past strikes at the refinery. “Back in the 80s, we had an eight-week walkout…You couldn't get into the refinery without a union card. We need to get back to that!” 

As well as a real pay rise, one of the key demands of the workers is for all employees to be granted full sick pay, not just statutory pay. It is an obvious safety risk if workers are forced to go in when ill. We want “sick pay from day one”, one striker told us.

Those directly employed by Exxon, by contrast, receive full sick pay, along with other benefits. This unequal treatment between different contractors harms all workers, with unscrupulous bosses using this to push down conditions across the board. 

So far, the bosses have refused to budge. Instead, the company has demanded that strikes be suspended while negotiations take place, meaning a third planned day of action was put on hold.

This is a transparent move to get striking workers back into the refinery while management stalls for time. But this has only served to anger the striking workers even further.

“The strikes should be carried on through negotiations,” one striker told us. “They should have to come to us!”

Solidarity

Fawley Refinery strike flags

The fighting spirit of the striking workers has emboldened other sections of the plant. One striker explained the need for solidarity “to stick together and come out together”.

Some 50 Altrad workers at the refinery have demonstrated this in practice, voting to not cross the picket line during the strike. Another, whose father is a refinery worker, is refusing to work on any day of strike action. 

In response to the solidarity of these workers, Altrad has suspended their union rep. Citing anti trade-union laws, Altrad bosses claim that the workers are initiating secondary action.

The bravery of the workers in respecting the picket line in this way should be commended – as should Unite general secretary Sharon Graham’s vow to provide these workers with the union’s full backing. 

Sooner or later, as the class struggle intensifies, these anti-trade union laws will have to be consciously and intentionally smashed by the labour movement, if serious gains are to be made for the working class.

This means matching the militancy of the bosses with the militancy of organised workers – fighting fire with fire!

Struggle

Recent strikes

Far from being cowed by such attacks from the bosses, however, workers are being encouraged, seeing them as a sign that they are making an impact. As one striker noted: “Esso loses half a million every day we come out.”

As a result, should the company fail to come back with a decent pay offer, the refinery workers are preparing to take further action, hitting the bosses where it hurts.

The Fawley refinery strike is just one inspiring example of workers across the country moving into action in defence of their lives and livelihoods.

The cost-of-living crisis is ripping across society, squeezing workers’ wages. But alongside rising bills and prices, industrial disputes and union membership are also on the up.

To win these struggles, the trade unions need a bold, fighting leadership – one that is prepared to organise coordinated, militant action; that is ready to do whatever it takes, including breaking repressive anti-trade union laws, in order to seriously take the fight to the bosses.

This must be linked to the fight for clear socialist policies: to smash the capitalist system, which offers nothing for working people but degradation and misery.

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