Workers at the Fawley oil refinery are continuing their struggle over pay and conditions. With the bosses digging their heels in, it is vital that the strike spreads. The labour movement must offer solidarity and fight for workers’ control.

Workers at the Fawley oil refinery are continuing their struggle over pay and conditions. With the bosses digging their heels in, it is vital that the strike spreads. The labour movement must offer solidarity and fight for workers’ control.

Hundreds of workers employed at the Fawley oil refinery, the largest petrochemical complex of its kind in the UK, have embarked on a series of strikes in their fight for better pay.

The Fawley refinery is owned by US oil giant ExxonMobil – a company which made record profits of $20 billion in the third quarter of this year.

The workers at the site, organised in Unite and GMB unions, are employed through various subcontractors, such as Altrad, Bilfinger, Trant, Veolia, and Enervo, to name a few. Consequently, union membership is spread across several companies.

These workers are employed under the NAECI (National Agreement for the Engineering Construction Industry), under which workers at similar sites receive the same pay and conditions.

NAECI offers workers pathetic pay ‘rises’ of just 2.5% this year and a further 2.5% next year. But these amount to a real wage cut, with the latest official RPI inflation figures coming in at 14.2%.

Unite and GMB are jointly negotiating for an increase in the ‘bonus incentive’ payment, which has a maximum of £2.37 per hour under the NAECI agreement. Fawley workers are currently getting just 74p, however, and the unions are demanding a raise in the maximum bonus level.

Dangerous conditions

Fawley dangerFawley refinery is run as a 24-hour operation. Workers at the refinery have said that only a “skeleton crew” is present during night shifts and on weekends.

Such corner-cutting by the bosses has almost had tragic consequences. GMB has alleged that severely-rusted steel supports gave way in November, leading to the collapse of an important petrol-production structure in the refinery.

This collapse led to a leak of a huge amount of highly flammable gases, released from a pipe that was damaged by the incident. Firefighters had to immediately be deployed, and the area had to be evacuated.

Workers have said that if the wind was blowing in the other direction, the gas would have hit the nearby heat exchanger. Had this happened, according to one worker, “the whole place would have blown up”.

In other words, an unimaginable disaster was only averted thanks to chance. Despite this, the bosses are refusing to budge on a proper safety agreement. Cutting corners; skeleton crews; and the occasional disaster: all are acceptable to them, so long as the profits keep rolling in.

Smear tactics

It is no surprise that the refinery workers, employed on pathetic pay under dangerous conditions, have been pushed beyond their limits.

As a result, the workers are striking in two six-day blocks: from 21-26 November; and from today (28 November) to 3 December.

Starting from 21 November, the workers formed a hard picket line, preventing any traffic from entering the refinery. And as the strike progressed, the workers decided to start their picket earlier, in order to prevent scabs from sneaking into work early in the morning.

With further picket lines added at other entrances, the ground has been laid for a complete stoppage of the site.

In a clear attempt to smear the strikers, the employers sent a letter to union shop stewards and to the Hampshire Police, scandalously accusing workers of “wolf whistling and sexually harrassing underage schoolchildren trying to reach their place of education”.

This is a disgusting lie, which shows how low the bosses are prepared to stoop in order to defeat this strike. Picketers have shown exemplary conduct towards the public. And the displays of solidarity from locals and passersby clearly show that these divisive tactics are not working.

In the early hours of 24 November, the police arrived in force to disrupt the peaceful picketing activities of the Fawley refinery workers. Workers were pushed and shoved by the police, and their ability to picket was severely disrupted.

Despite the blows struck against them by the boys in blue, however, the Fawley workers held a vote to continue the strike action. They also adopted the name ‘The Fawley Fighters’ – a fitting name for these workers who have set a militant example for the whole labour movement.

Spread the strike

The Fawley Fighters are now organising to bring in other workers – employed by subcontractors across the site – into the ranks of the unions. There is also talk of spreading the strike to other NAECI sites. This fighting strategy shows the way forward.

Widening the reach of the unions at the site will increase the impact of the strike, strengthening the hand of the workers against the bosses. Un-unionised workers are suffering from many of the same problems, and could be convinced to join the strikers in taking action.

At the same time, Fawley is by no means the only site where these same issues and similar conditions can be found.

The Fawley refinery strike is likely to be a long and bitter dispute. Nevertheless, recent victories by dockers, bus drivers, hospital staff, and many more show that the workers can win. The lesson is clear: militancy pays.

This struggle has also demonstrated the need for workers themselves to run these vital industries, as part of a socialist plan of production. In the hands of the capitalists, disaster lurks around every corner – as the recent structural collapse at Fawley shows.

It is time to put an end to the bosses’ profiteering, which is putting workers in harm’s way. The Fawley Fighters are showing the whole labour movement how it can be done. They deserve the utmost support in their fight.

  • Victory to the Fawley Fighters!
  • Coordinate action across the unions! Spread the strike to every NAECI site across the country!
  • For an inflation-busting wage rise, with pay linked to prices! Put workers in control of industry!