LONDON — Angered that skilled construction jobs have gone to workers from elsewhere in the European Union, British labor unions organized a patchwork of walkouts and protests on Friday at oil refineries, power stations and other petrochemical and energy-processing plants across the country.
The disruption underscored rising fears of labor unrest across Europe — and renewed pressure from unions for a retreat from the European Union’s rules on open labor markets — as job losses across the Continent mounted into the hundreds of thousands with the global financial crisis.
The walkouts in Britain involved at least a dozen plants in England, Wales and Scotland, with as many as 2,000 workers setting up picket lines and no reports of violence.
More than a million people took to the streets of France on Thursday in protests over President Nicolas Sarkozy’s economic policies, which many participants said protected banks but not jobs. Widespread violence in Greece last month was attributed, in part, to economic stagnation.
But the British protests, though comparatively small and mild, could be a warning of greater trouble ahead. Since the upheavals of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s union-fighting years, when Britain last experienced unrest involving battles between picketing workers and the police, the country has had nearly 25 years of relative labor peace.
That helped Britain develop from the “sick man of Europe,” as it became known in the 1970s, to a position in the last decade in which government ministers and business leaders liked to boast that Britain had the most prosperous economy of any major European nation. Union wages rose rapidly, and hundreds of thousands of workers poured in from other parts of Europe to fill jobs that found no British takers.
But the walkouts that began this week at the massive Lindsey Oil Refinery, on the Humber River estuary 175 miles north of London, and the rapid spread of the protests to other plants across the country, suggested that the days when unions acquiesced to large-scale labor migration may be over.
The protests at the Lindsey plant were echoed on Friday by sympathy strikes and protests at the Grangemouth oil refinery near Glasgow; the Aberthaw power station near Barry in south Wales; the Wilton refinery on Teesside, near Newcastle in northern England; and at least nine other plants across the country. At each site, union leaders cited a pattern of British job losses to foreign workers.
At the Lindsey plant, which is owned by Total, a French company, about 400 union members hoisted placards saying, “Put British Workers First.” They demanded that Total order an Italian electrical contractor, Irem SpA, to send home 100 foreign workers who had been brought in to fill skilled jobs on an expansion of the refinery. The dispute’s significance— and the problem it represents for Britain’s Labor Party government, a strong supporter of a European-wide labor market — was underscored when reporters pressed Prime Minister Gordon Brown on the issue on Friday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
As he gave a speech in which world leaders were urged to shun protectionism as an answer to the financial crisis, Mr. Brown struggled to finesse the imperative he faces as Labor’s leader to maintain the support of the unions that largely finance his party. “The thing we know about protectionism is that it protects nobody, and least of all the poor,” he said.
But when asked about the walkouts in Britain and the unions’ demands for changes in European laws and regulations that have allowed large-scale labor migration, Mr. Brown was noncommittal. “I understand that people are anxious about jobs across the country,” he said, “but we are doing everything we can.”
Mr. Brown, in some ways, will be hard-pressed to separate himself from the unions’ demands for a British-first employment policy. Not long after becoming prime minister in 2007, he told the Labor Party’s annual conference that he would “create British jobs for British workers,” a populist promise that critics said at the time conflicted with Britain’s obligation under European Union laws.
Precise figures for the number of citizens of other European Union nations working in Britain are hard to obtain, but organizations representing migrants from just one country, Poland, said recently that they think 600,000 Poles are still working legally in Britain, despite the departure of tens of thousands of others disillusioned by the slump in the pound’s value against the Polish currency, the zloty.
Total, the Lindsey plant’s owner, said in a statement on Friday that it had operated the refinery without major labor disruptions for 40 years, with a permanent work force of 550, mostly Britons. It said that Irem’s foreign workers were employed only for the duration of the plant expansion, on the same pay scale as Lindsey’s workers.
But union leaders and local Labor politicians were not appeased. Shona McIsaac, a Labor member of Parliament, said that Irem’s employment of the non-British workers was “like a red flag to a bull for people in our community who are out of work and who have skills that could be used for this project.” - NYP
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