Thursday, 23 August 2012
The lessons from the Coryton Oil refinery dispute
A few months have passed now since we were heading down to Coryton and Basildon way almost every other day. The National Shops Stewards Network and the Socialist Party played a big role in mobilising quickly and effectively in the last few weeks of the dispute supporting workers but I thought I’d look at the lessons we can all learn from this dispute where ultimately the oil refinery is to close and many will loose their jobs. I feel personally this was not a dispute that was beyond winning. The union involved at the refinery Unite knew about the plans to sell off the refinery and turn it into a terminal way back in January of this year but sadly they sat on this hoping something would come up. This was hugely naive in my view as this Tory government isn’t interested in saving jobs for the economy you just have to look at what they are doing to the public sector at this very moment. Only months after we saw the Sparks successfully push back and defeat the big 6 Besna and JIB contracts wanting to drive down wages in the construction industry we see the Coryton dispute emerge as a chance for workers to again enact a defeat on the boss’s. Sadly it wasn’t to be on this occasion. I think much of the union officials were genuine and did want to win the dispute for the workers but many things stood out for me. I think in a phrase it was too little too late the action. Only in may was a meeting called to discuss what a be done to save the refinery. When the union itself had been sitting on this since January its not well enough frankly. The background to the dispute: Coryton is a major oil refinery on the Thames estuary in Essex. It refines about 20% of the region's fuel, and is a major supplier of aviation fuel for the south of England. The plant's parent company went into receivership in January and has been in the hands of Price Waterhouse Cooper (PWC) ever since. In May it came out that PWC was intending to sell the refinery to a front operation for the Shell Oil Company, whose plan is to dismantle the refinery and set up a terminal for the import and storage of refined fuel on the site. This would mean the end of about a thousand employees' and contractors' jobs. We always thought that to win workers must reach out to other workers at the other refineries around the country this was never successfully linked up. The Union seemed to be more focused on lobbying the department of Energy in London after the public meeting. Ok this was a grand idea to lobby but it didnt get to the heart of the real action needed to win. Another thing stood out to me was the fact that the convener on the site for the union had received his redundancy and had stepped down we found out on the day of the planned blockage of the tankers leaving the refinery. This action had a limited success but to win it needed to be done on a much larger nationwide scale. We as socialists always look to link up struggles and the Coryton wasn’t on its own on this there will be many more Coryton’s to come we felt and the need to link up with other refinery’s in the country was key to winning. Linking disputes and building solidarity is a big part of a Marxist and the NSSN played an important role in this. Coming away from the dispute and listening to the workers now without jobs there was appreciation of the likes of the NSSN and socialists and we were given special thanks for coming to support the workers. There was much criticism of the labour party and the union tops from some workers a sense of frustration with a too little too late strategy were felt. Much can be learnt from this dispute and I hope lessons are learnt for the future. Coryton oil refinery in Essex is closing, which will involve the loss of 800 jobs. This is a profit-making concern which has provided 20% of the supply of petrol and diesel in London and the south east. It is the only refinery in the south east. The government has no interest in this refinery as it is small fry and its decline has been relatively silent. But it accounts for the majority of the employment in Canvey Island and south Essex. It has been brought down by the debt and bankruptcy of its parent company. There are people working there who have lost pensions and are close to retirement age. Many will never find work again. There are also contractors there who are not included in the calculated 800 job losses and have also lost money. The government ignores this and the fact that it could be a profit-making concern again. All in this entire dispute was a quick one with us mobilising quickly and effectively as the NSSN. I think we can be proud of our intervention given our limited resources. We need to use disputes like this to build the NSSN and to build a bigger network of rank-and-file trade unionists willing to go beyond the confines of the law to defend workers in struggle. The thing that gives me confidence is the role the NSSN can play in this. Do check out http://www.shopstewards.net/ And on twitter @NSSN_anticuts for updates on workers in struggle and how to get involved.