Page last updated at 16:44 GMT, Monday, 22 June 2009 17:44 UK

Refinery sackings spark walkouts


Oil workers burn their dismissal letters in protest

Thousands of workers across England and Wales have walked out in support of 647 Lindsey oil refinery construction staff sacked for staging unofficial strikes.

It comes as Lindsey workers burned dozens of dismissal letters in protest.

Total, which runs the facility in North Lincolnshire, gave them until 1700 BST on Monday to reapply for their jobs.

The wildcat strikes involving about 3,000 workers are being held at eight sites including Sellafield in Cumbria and the Ensus biofuel site in Teesside.

Laura Bicker, BBC News
Laura Bicker
BBC News
"The first wave of workers marched for nearly a mile from a neighbouring refinery.

"Police had to close the road as hundreds of protestors paraded through the centre of this industrial estate.

"As they gathered in the company car park, union officials called for unity - for a show of defiance.

"The workers responded. Led by Phil Whitehurst from the GMB, they queued to set their dismissal letters alight. Dozens of them threw the papers into a blazing dustbin to cheers from the crowd.

"As the bucket smouldered behind us, I asked some of them if they were really prepared to put their principles before their job. The answer was always a resounding yes.

"I asked again, would they be re applying for their jobs. No, they said resolutely. Some even sounded disgusted at the suggestion."

Total said it was "encouraged" by the amount of feedback from workers involved, but would not know how many had reapplied for their jobs until the end of the week because of the number of sub-contractors on the site.

The Lindsey workers first withdrew their labour on 11 June in protest at a sub-contractor axing 51 jobs while another employer on the site was hiring people.

Last week, Total announced it had dismissed 647 construction workers following the unofficial strikes. They had been building another plant next to the existing site in Killingholme.

Workers across the UK have walked out in sympathy, with thousands downing tools on Monday in unofficial action. They include:

• 900 contract workers at Sellafield in Cumbria

• 400 workers at two LNG plants in west Wales - South Hook and Dragon

• 200 contractors at Aberthaw power station in the Vale of Glamorgan, south Wales

• 200 contractors at Drax and Eggborough power stations near Selby, North Yorkshire

• Workers at Fiddlers Ferry power station in Widnes, Cheshire

• Contract maintenance workers at the Shell Stanlow Refinery in Ellesmere Port, Cheshire

• 60 contract maintenance workers at Didcot A power station in Oxfordshire

• More than 1,000 workers at the Ensus biofuel site in Wilton, Teesside

Activists have said they expect thousands of workers to take action in the coming days in support of the sacked workers.

Speakers at a mass meeting in a car park opposite the Lindsey refinery said the demonstrators were standing firm.

Phil Whitehurst, of the GMB union, told the crowd: "Let them show us how many want to go back in there crawling on their bellies for their jobs.

Bob Emmerson, Total: "This continued type of action could lead to dismissal"

"We go out together, we go back together."

Sacked worker Kenny Ward told the meeting: "Would Total do the same in France? Absolutely not, because there wouldn't be a tanker on its four wheels.

"They'd all be turned over on their sides, blockading every road to this refinery, because the French wouldn't put up with it - or the French government, or the German government, or the Spanish, the Italians and every other government in the European Union.

"But our government will. Our government will be subservient to companies like this. But we won't."

The GMB is planning to stage a demonstration outside the Lindsey refinery on Tuesday.

Foreign workers row

The Lindsey workers are accusing bosses of breaking an agreement not to cut jobs while there are vacancies elsewhere on the site. Total insists no such agreement was in place.

Workers say the assurances were given in February following a bitter dispute in which they said foreign labour was being used to exclude British contractors and to undermine hard-won conditions.

The foreign workers row led to a wave of unofficial strikes and protests at refineries and power stations across the UK.

28 Jan: Workers walk out over use of foreign labour
5 Feb: Strikers vote to return to work after deal is struck
19 May: Workers strike over use of non-local labour in Wales
21 May: They return to work
11 June: Workers walk out over job losses
15 June: Talks aimed at resolving the dispute fail
16 June: Deadlock over proposed further peace talks
19 June: Nearly 650 workers are sacked

Last week, the firm was accused of pulling out of talks with unions at the conciliation service Acas.

A Total spokesman said it was hopeful that work on a construction project, which had been halted because of the dispute, would be able to restart in the next few weeks.

"Total wishes to stress that at no stage has it asked its contract companies to reduce their workforce's pay and conditions in any way and will not seek to do so.

"Total calls for all parties to respect employment law and to work together within the nationally negotiated agreements to which they are signatories."

Prime Minister Gordon Brown's spokesman said: "This is a matter between the management and workers, but we would hope it can be resolved as quickly as possible.

"It continues to be our view that the parties do need to talk - ideally through Acas."

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