Action Gets Results

From the Wall Street Journal, June 29, 2009:

British Workers Recover Jobs After Mass Protests

LONDON — Hundreds of laid-off U.K. workers got their jobs back this week after organizing mass protests at energy plants across the country, coordinated through text messages and social-networking Web sites.

The contractor companies at Total SA’s 200,000-barrels-a-day Lindsey oil refinery met nearly all the striking workers’ demands, which had become a rallying cry of sympathy strikes across the U.K.’s engineering-construction industry. More than 8% of the industry’s work force walked out, although the protests didn’t have an impact on production.

“Total are pleased the contractors and their work force were able to reach a positive conclusion,” a spokeswoman for the French oil major said. The strikes bypassed official trade-union channels as they weren’t called after a vote by members and didn’t go through the U.K.’s legal requirements for industrial action.

Employers agreed to reinstate the entire 647-strong work force at Lindsey and, on Monday, a full return to work on a £200 million ($331 million) construction project to build a refinery unit, according to a joint statement late Thursday.

The speed and scale of the wildcat strikes, unprecedented in the U.K., caught energy companies by surprise, with protests organized by assembling large groups of people at specific sites through mass text messages.

“The idea of spreading it by text messages was just instinctive, you get your mate on the phone,” said Alistair Tice, a regional secretary for the U.K. Socialist Party in the Yorkshire and Humberside region. The engineering-construction industry is largely composed of itinerant workers with networks all over the country, making it easier for strikers to mobilize, he said. For years, U.K. governments have taken a hands-off approach to industrial disputes. However, as the U.K. recession has deepened, the government has appeared more willing to assert its views.

“I’m sure the government was concerned and was closely monitoring the situation, but there was no direct pressure,” said Mike Hockey, managing director of the Engineering Construction Industry Association.

On Friday, Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s spokesman welcomed news of the deal. “It is a positive step forward,” he said. “We’ve made clear on a number of occasions over the last week or so that it’s important that talks do resume.”
—Laurence Norman contributed to this article.

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