Battle for Bifab: The Return Bout

By Tam Burke, IMT Edinburgh, Prospect, Personal Capacity

Compared with Catalonia, South Africa or the USA, political life in Scotland for most of last year hardly set the heather on fire. Then in November came the Battle for BiFab when the workers made headlines with their successful fight for the wages they were due. A dispute last November between their employer, Burntisland Fabrication (BiFab), and its customer, Seaway Heavy Lifting (SHL), over what payment was still due, threatened the closure of the three yards, Burtisland and Methyl in Fife and Arnish, Isle of Lewis. BiFab said they’d no money coming in to pay wages, so 1400 workers would be laid off. There was no likelihood of the yards reopening. “A hammer blow to BiFab workers and communities in Fife and the Isle of Lewis” declared Gary Smith, GMB Union organiser. SHL said it’d paid BiFab on time in line with the contract. BiFab sought a Notice of Administration, giving just ten short days to find a solution before the yards fell silent. Shocked politicians at every level and of all parties condemned, denounced, exclaimed, wailed, complained and proclaimed that somehow it must not happen, but without any mitigation of the catastrophe.

 

Occupation

The BiFab workers cut across this despairing prattle by raising their own mighty hammer, just enough to save their situation themselves. Through their unions, GMB and Unite, they occupied the yards round the clock, laid in food supplies and declared “Nothing In, Nothing Out” of anything without their say so. At Burtisland a mule forklift was parked inside the gate to make the No Passing policy quite clear to all involved, as well as the government and the general public watching this struggle, with many rooting for the workers’ victory. Work continued with no guarantee of wages on the 26 wind turbine jackets. The huge structures will go north to support the turbines 8 miles off the Caithness coast of the Beatrice Offshore Windfarm Limited (BOWL). It’ll be one of the Europe’s biggest renewable energy projects. It is owned by an international consortium of: SSE (Scottish and Southern Energy) with a 50% investment, Repsol Nuevas Energias (25%) and Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners (25%). SHL (BiFab’s frugal customer) are a Dutch firm and part of the Subsea 7 group, based in landlocked Luxemburg. The whole Beatrice work is priced at £2.6billion. BiFab’s share is £100 million, a relatively small but crucial sum. In December 2016, this was the lifeline to get BiFab off its knees. The workforce had reduced from 2400 to 80 permanent and 50 fixed term workers.

Already, in February 2016, 100 jobs went from nearby Leven to Germany from Pfaudler Balfour, a pharmaceutical industry equipment supplier. The following December, to get the engineering jobs, all the Fife MSPs signed a joint letter to SSE declaring, “Renewable energy provided a lifeline to re-vitalise our indigenous fabrication, engineering and steel industry base” and that “If BiFab were not awarded a substantial part of the Beatrice contract, that would almost certainly jeopardise the yard’s future.” The yards were mothballed pending SSE’s reply. The MSP’s effort to get “a fair slice of the work” for their constituents was applauded by GMS’s Jim Moohan, Scottish Regional Official, who declared “A lot of money from Scottish consumers will go to making the Beatrice project viable.” Lobbying, pleading and bribing companies for a share of jobs and wages of public services is the norm.

Private Ownership

Ownership of most of the finance, the machinery, buildings, raw materials, all the necessary resources to provide a decent standard of living for everyone, is in the control of very few private hands. In December, a report from Credit Suisse Bank reported that the richest 1% of the population owns more half the world’s wealth; the number of millionaires fell in the global financial crisis of 2008 but recovered fast afterwards and is now nearly three times as high as the 2008 figure. The world’s 8 richest billionaires own as much as 3.7 billion people, the poorest half of the world. It’s the same from Lewis to Lesotho, Fife to the Philippines.

In Britain, on January 6th this year the National Minimum Wage figures were published, showing that by just the sixth day of the new year, Chief Executives already had ‘earned’ the same as an average paid worker gets for the whole 365 days of the year. After 20 years of the minimum wage, the amount is only £7.20 an hour, but it should be £12.74 if it had kept pace with executive pay. The average yearly pay of the top 100 Chief Execs Listed in the Financial Times top companies is an incredible £4.3million each. Twenty years ago, that figure was £1.23 million. That’s a 354% increase! For every £1 a worker gets, these Chief executives get £120.

Solidarity

I was glad to help hoist the banner of my union, Prospect, and take part on the Bifab workers march on the Holyrood Parliament, to press their case. The workers wore their bright to benefit all workers! Talks round tables, by e-mail and phone, took place as work in the yards continued. Food supplies were stored inside in case of an extended occupation. The workers had little or nothing more to lose. With a £2.6billion project to finish and doubt about the supply of the necessary turbine jackets, the pressure was on the bosses and politicians to get a deal. The First Minister came back early from a meeting in Europe, stepped off the plane and right into talks with Unions, employers and customers. If money was needed for wages and to see the finished material supplied, the Scottish Government would provide a commercial loan to cover the cost. Details of the deal are not public.

Three weeks into November, Christmas came early for BiFab workers and their families. Possibly also for the BOWL consortium bosses and shareholders. Widening the struggle beyond the yards was a likely development had the Government not acted. All the workers are fed up, angry and concerned for their and their families’ future. Come this spring, in March or April, unemployment may well come knocking again on the door of every BiFab worker. However, three other big offshore energy projects have been approved, potentially meaning there would be plenty of jobs for BiFab workers and others elsewhere to get their share.

The Struggle Continues

The relief of this early Christmas to end the Auld year gave way to the New Year’s dreadful start for 370 workers at international engineering firm Doosan Babcock. Short term Workers at Grangemouth and Lanark, whose contacts have finished, are out on the scrap heap. Another “hammer blow to the Scottish economy” said their GMB Organiser Gary Smith again. The firm has from as a year ago announced the transfer of 470 jobs from Renfrew to Poland. The latest sacrifices on the altar of company profits have been sent down the road, left to manage on what they can get from an ever diminishing public purse. It’s well beyond time for a co-ordinated fight-back by private and public workers, the employed and unemployed, blue collar/white collar, young and old. That’s the strategy to follow to avoid isolation and despair. No more Daniel Blakes. We stand for taking over the economy into public ownership, democratically run in the interests of the many, not the few. Capitalism blights our lives and steal’s children’s decent future. Workers are fed up of living on the edge, knowing a sudden closure or outsourcing may be just round the corner. It need not be so. A socialist plan is the answer to the hammer blows of the rich upon the poor.

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