Strenuous efforts were being made this weekend by ministers, officials, unions and conciliators to stamp out the wildcat strikes now threatening to become a nationwide protest. Senior civil servants were ordered to an emergency Cobra meeting on Friday to plan the Government's response to the disputes. Police, army and immigration services have been put on alert, and mediators are talking with unions and employers in an effort to resolve the unofficial strikes that erupted at 13 locations last week.
And yesterday there were fears that the disputes over the employment of foreign workers at refineries and power stations could spread to other areas. Tom Hardacre, national officer for engineering and construction at Unite, the union, told The Independent on Sunday: "I think it is extremely likely that industrial action could continue on Monday... There is so much frustration in all sectors of industry, it could escalate to other sectors. That is not what we want, but if there is no solution we could be faced with serious problems in terms of industrial unrest." Unite is now calling for a national protest in Westminster.
Such is the concern in Whitehall that, on Friday, a meeting was convened of Cobra, which meets at times of heightened alert or crisis. Senior officials from the Home Office, Department for Business, Department for Energy and Ministry of Defence, along with civil contingencies experts, met in the high-security bunker room at the Cabinet Office, off Whitehall. Gordon Brown and Lord Mandelson, the Business Secretary, who were both in Davos, were kept informed by telephone. The Government's response to the disputes is being led by Lord Mandelson's department.
At the centre of the disputes is Total's Lindsey oil refinery at North Killingholme, Lincolnshire. An Italian firm, IREM, which won a contract to work on a new £200m plant there, decided to bring in several hundred Italian and Portuguese workers for the project. Workers at the refinery felt the jobs should have gone to unemployed locals, and on Wednesday hundreds downed tools. On Friday, up to 1,000 demonstrators protested for the third day in a row at the refinery, and there were sympathy strikes at the Grangemouth oil refinery in Scotland, Aberthaw power station in South Wales, a refinery at Wilton, Teesside, Kilroot power station near Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland, Marchwood power station in Southampton, a gas terminal at Milford Haven, West Wales, Fiddlers Ferry power station near Warrington, Lancashire, and a number of other smaller sites.
The British disputes are part of a Europe-wide pattern of protests. Yesterday, rallies were attended by thousands across Russia, mainly by communists unhappy at Kremlin policies. In Vienna, police arrested nine, as 1,200 students protested about "corporate greed and excess". And in France, an opinion poll found that 65 per cent thought Thursday's violent demonstrations calling for more job protection were likely to be repeated, or to multiply, in the weeks ahead. Unemployment across the eurozone is now averaging 8 per cent, with Spain's 14.4 per cent the worst.
Yesterday, all was quiet at North Killingholme. The village is dwarfed by the huge Lindsey oil refinery, the area's main source of employment, directly or indirectly, for 40 years. Total said it had given the contract for a new HDS-3 unit, allowing the refinery to process crude oil with a higher sulphur content, to the Italian company IREM on the basis that it would supply its own specialist workforce. Such a policy may make sense on a balance sheet, but not on the ground, among men whose fathers built the original refinery from scratch.
Nick Travers, 40, who worked as a scaffolder on the site for 20 years, said: "I'm behind the protest 100 per cent. I've worked here all my life and people are angry their jobs are being lost."
Mr Travers's 18-year-old son recently won an apprenticeship in mechanical engineering and hoped, like so many before him, to work at the refinery. His father said: "It's not right Italians are coming in. They should be taking British workers on before anyone else, not putting people like my son out of work. People will lose their home, their cars, everything. We are fighting for our livelihoods."
Total's argument, that the Italians are a specialist workforce with the necessary skills to build the new plant, has enraged locals. Kristian Creswell, 19, an apprentice mechanical engineer, said he felt short-changed by his own country. "If our training isn't specialised enough, they should change the training programme and help us to get the work first," he said.
Danny Hooker, 21, an electrician at the refinery, said the Italian workers, who will be housed on barges in docks off the River Humber, will contribute nothing to the local economy. "It's wrong to hire them because the country is in a recession," he said. "They won't put anything in because they will be staying on the barges."
An especially sore point has been the pledge Gordon Brown made in 2007: "British jobs for British workers". Terry Hooker, 19, a worker at the Lindsey oil refinery, said: "Gordon Brown has gone against his word. We feel our jobs are threatened by foreign labour. There are 2,000 people a week getting laid off in this country and some could do these jobs."
Frank Field, the former welfare minister and Labour MP for Birkenhead, said: "These strikes are proving to be a double whammy for Gordon Brown. 'British jobs for British workers' looks a pretty empty promise. Worse still, it shows the European Union has us in a double arm lock. British workers are being specifically excluded from working on contracts by European contractors – contracts won by European contractors to operate in our very own country."
In response, Downing Street said that the contract at the centre of the dispute had been agreed "some time ago when there was a shortage of skilled labour in the construction sector in the UK".
Union leaders and representatives of engineering construction firms and contractors are expected to meet in London this week in to try to find a resolution. The National Joint Council will meet on Wednesday. This will be followed by a meeting of union shop stewards a few days later. Pat McFadden, the Employment minister, has asked Acas to examine claims that British workers were being illegally excluded from some major projects.
In Davos, the Prime Minister said that wildcat strikes were "not the right thing to do and it's not defensible". And Lord Mandelson said: "It would be a mistake to retreat from a policy where, within the rules, UK firms can operate in Europe and European companies can operate here. Protectionism would be a sure-fire way of turning recession into depression."
There are no firm indications this weekend of which direction the disputes – and more general recession-related protests – will take. There is talk of a large-scale union-led demonstration at Westminster this week, which could be a way of continuing the protests without prolonging what are illegal, unballoted strikes.