Misguided xenophobia and chauvinism? Or an heroic working class struggle against neo-liberalism? What has been going on just over the river in Immingham? I am not an expert in industrial relations so I can only offer some tentative thoughts.
The events of the past week are not new, nor are they confined to this country. In the 18th Century anti-Irish rioting was commonplace against what was known as 'Irish wages', rates of pay supposedly lowered by migrant workers. Incidentally, this combined with strong working class support for Irish nationalism. Then again, especially when faced with the challenges of the militant New Unionism in the 1880's and 90's, employers became adept at bringing in non-unionised blackleg labour from outside. Both traditions have been seen in this dispute, which was not originally about immigration or migrant labour, but about sub-contracted 'posted workers'.
Some years ago alarm was raised about a possible implication of the free movement of labour within the EU as a consequence of enlargement. This was not about an influx of the legendary Polish plumbers, but the possibility of 'social dumping', an unfortunate phrase if ever there was one. This meant that workers for an overseas firm in one country could work in another under the legal conditions of their country of origin rather the one in which they worked, thus undermining hard-won employment rights and ensuring the exploitation of the posted workers themselves. The Posted Workers Directive was introduced to stop this happening and was adopted into British Law in 1999.
However, the legality of trade union action against breaches of the directive was restricted by two decisions of the European Court of Justice, Viking Line and Laval (details here), creating difficulties with enforcement. The current action first arose about a suspected breach of the directive. However, an unofficial dispute ostensibly about the legality of the conditions under which Italian workers were contracted began to evolve into one about "British jobs for British workers", questioning the legitimacy of foreign workers per se.
People in this country, other than the workers whose livelihoods were lost, have been relatively sanguine about losing jobs to overseas workers, so long as they stayed there. Nor have they been particularly concerned at the gross exploitation of cheap labour overseas provided they have a continuing supply of cheap clothes, DVD players and computers. When it becomes visible they react differently.
As a result, the iconography and language of the dispute has become increasingly chauvinist, though the dispute itself is rooted in the continuing attempts of employers to exclude trade unions and exploit cheap labour. It is also foolish to deny that racist discourses flourish in all classes, not just the white working class as the latest fashionable apologists would have it, and provide a simpler vehicle for the expression of discontent than discussions about EU directives.
There is a real danger, especially in a recession, that a legitimate dispute becomes a populist, xenophobic campaign. I don't know how this can be prevented, but from my comfortable, middle-class, salaried position I wish I was seeing calls for 'British rights for all who work in Britain'.
Over at the cross-post on DSTPFW a commenter, matewan, has rightly corrected me on a mistake I made. Here is an extract:
I think you are making a common error ... in claiming that the EU Posted Workers' Directive is intended to prevent "undermining hard-won employment rights and the exploitation of posted workers". Far from it. The PWD is legislation intended to prevent 'unfair competition' ...
This is very different in both intention and effect from legislation intended to protect social conditions for workers. This is not a matter of semantics. Social protection legislation sets standards that employers must apply for all workers. Anti-competition legislation such as the PWD merely requires employers to apply the minimum national terms and conditions (in Britain that means the princely minimum wage of £5.73 an hour for workers aged 22 and above), which is massively below the agreed hourly rates set out in the National Agreement for the Engineering and Construction Industry - hence 'social dumping'.
If one believes (wrongly) that the solution to the evil of social dumping can be attained by amending the PWD in order as some have argued to ensure that 'Posted Workers' are entitled to be paid 'market rates', 'the rate for the job' (whatever that is), or the appropriate terms and conditions set out in the collectively bargained agreement with the recognised trade union(s) then the European Court of Justice has blocked off that avenue by its determinations in Viking/Laval (barring collective action to uphold collective agreements in cases of firms offering services in another EU member state) reinforced by its Rueffert and Luxembourg judgements last year that bar collective social standards in public procurement contracts by local authorities, or even in national legislation.