Strikers threaten to 'unleash a monster' over sackings

Decision by French oil company to lay off hundreds of workers at Lincolnshire refinery provokes walkouts across the country

Wildcat strikes at power stations spread across the country yesterday as workers threatened to "unleash a monster" and potentially threaten electricity supplies.

The week-long clash between the French oil giant and its workers escalated yesterday when the company announced it was sacking 647 people who had taken unofficial action over job losses. "The lights will go out," said one worker at the Lindsey oil refinery, where unofficial action has led to a dozen sympathetic strikes.

Emergency talks at the terminal in North Lincolnshire collapsed last night with the unions accusing management of "bullying and intimidation". Total insisted it could not negotiate while it was faced with an illegal dispute.

Many of the sacked staff at the site, which was the scene of a bitter strike over the employment of foreign workers in February, heard the news through the media before letters from management arrived informing them that they had until Monday to reapply for their jobs.

About 1,200 angry workers gathered at the main gates yesterday waving placards castigating "greedy bosses". Fellow workers at power stations, refineries, and plants in Cheshire, Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, Oxfordshire, South Wales and Teesside walked out in a show of solidarity.

Hopes of an agreement were dashed last night, when the Acas conciliation service announced that a planned meeting between management and unions had failed to materialise. An Acas spokesman said: "We were invited by Total management for potential talks between the parties today. After discussions between Total management and their contractors, they decided not to go ahead with the talks. We remain in touch with the parties."

Union officials, who said they had waited for four hours in vain, reacted with fury. The GMB leader Paul Kenny described it as an "outrage and a disgrace" that the talks did not go ahead, adding: "Total has not even had the decency or courtesy to turn up at the meeting that they themselves arranged. Total is totally without integrity. Bullying and intimidation is not the way to bring about peace."

Total's robust response read: "These negotiations cannot take place while [we are] faced with an illegal dispute. We have had contact with Acas today and hope to be able to talk with them further next week once our contractor workforce has had the opportunity to decide if they wish to continue on this important project."

Problems at the refinery, where another strike took place in February after an Italian company brought in foreign workers, began when a sub-contractor laid off 51 workers involved in the construction of a new refining plant while another employer on the same site was hiring new staff. Total insisted that those concerned had come to the end of a four-week building contract, while the newly employed staff were being brought on board to provide pipe installation work. But more than 1,000 employees walked out in protest.

Yesterday, Total announced that almost 650 of those would be sacked after its main contract company, Jacobs, made "frustrating" attempts to encourage the strikers to return to work and enter proper negotiations.

"Total will soon realise they have unleashed a monster. It is disgraceful that this has happened without any consultation," one sacked worker said yesterday. "It is also unlawful and it makes me feel sick. If they get away with this, the rest of the industry will crumble and it will be like a turkey cull. Workers will be decimated and unskilled employees from abroad will be brought in on the cheap, treated like scum and sent back after the job is done. There is a serious possibility that the lights will go out because of this. We just cannot stand by and see workers discarded like an oily cloth."

As Downing Street condemned the action and urged workers to reapply for their jobs, staff at the Lincolnshire site sent text messages to sympathisers across the UK which read: "Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Your support is now needed more than ever. If you are supporting our brothers across the country thank you. If you're not yet out, just remember next time it could be you. We must fight this NOW."

Workers at the Staythorpe power station in Nottinghamshire, Ferrybridge power station in Yorkshire, Stanlow oil refinery in Cheshire and around 1,100 construction workers building a bio-fuel plant on Teesside responded to the call by walking out. Total insisted its oil refining work at Lindsey was unaffected.

Wildcat strikes: Back to the 60s?

*For those of us with long memories, or just a healthy interest in economic history, the wildcat strikes tearing through the nation's refineries and building sites are an uncanny reminder of previous waves of "unofficial" industrial militancy, especially in the car industry in the late 1960s (and we all know the unhappy ending to that tale), whence the term "wildcat" came. It meant shop stewards would simply disregard the law and any agreed negotiating procedures and lead workers out on strike.

The rise of shop steward power was to governments at the time a most disturbing phenomenon, as it was for the TUC and the union establishment. Harold Wilson's Labour government and Ted Heath's Tories tried to introduce or enforce legislation to tame the wildcats but both were overwhelmed by union power. We are now, as then, on the brink of a difficult decade. The national cake was shrinking or not growing quickly, and so to win a higher living standard you had to use muscle – if you had any. Hence the industrial strife.

The stresses also led to inflation as governments attempted to placate interest groups by throwing "confetti money" at them. We see the beginnings of a nastier decade this time too in the official strikes, such as the Tube dispute and the usual postal disputes going on at the moment.

We might also, most dangerously, see it manifested in more resentment towards immigrants and foreign workers. Public-sector pensions on the one side and huge bonuses in the City on the other will become ever more towering symbols of mutual antagonism as a well as battlegrounds in their own right. Class war?

Economists say the Nice Decade (non-inflationary continuous expansion) is over – prepare for the Ugly Decade.

Sean O'Grady

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Office / Sales Manager

£22000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Established and expanding South...

Recruitment Genius: Administrative Assistant / Order Fulfilment

£14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join a thrivi...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones