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British workers strike as economic unease spreads

Workers protest the hiring of foreign laborers while British unemployment grows by the day. Such industrial unrest is sweeping Europe.

February 03, 2009|Henry Chu

LONDON — Hundreds of British workers walked off the job Monday, part of a rising tide of industrial unrest sweeping Europe as the continent's economic downturn worsens.

Employees at two nuclear power plants in northern England staged wildcat strikes in support of workers at an oil refinery who have been out in protest since the end of last week. The job action has tapped into a deep well of economic unease in this country as the British continue to grapple with failing banks, a moribund property market, a currency in free fall and a continuing series of layoffs and bankruptcies.

It also points to stirrings of a nationalist backlash against labor laws that allow workers to move freely between countries in the European Union.

The British strikers are protesting the refinery's decision to ship in as many as 400 workers from Italy and Portugal to expand the facility at a time when British unemployment is growing by the day.

The work stoppages have embarrassed the ruling Labor Party, whose roots lie in the trade union movement. Prime Minister Gordon Brown warned that the walkouts were "not defensible" and urged workers to air their grievances at the bargaining table.

"An unofficial strike is a counterproductive way of solving problems that can actually be solved by discussion and by negotiation," Brown said at a news conference with visiting Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.

Brown's government is hardly alone in facing unrest triggered by the global recession.

Authorities in Greece used tear gas Monday to push back farmers planning to drive their tractors into Athens to demand higher subsidies from the state. The farmers have been protesting for days.

More than 1 million people in France boycotted work Thursday to push for greater government protection of jobs and wages. The strikers included tens of thousands of Parisians who marched on the city center, touching off scattered skirmishes with baton-wielding police.

In Ireland, laid-off employees have occupied part of a factory belonging to Waterford, the crystal maker, which recently filed for bankruptcy protection. German railway workers mounted scattered work stoppages that disrupted train service last week and threaten more disruptions today. And in Iceland, anger over the country's economic crash because of the global banking crisis led to the fall of the government.

Economists say that Britain, as a center of international finance, is likely to be hit worse by the recession than most other developed nations. Government rescue packages for banks and carmakers, costing billions in taxpayer dollars, have fueled a sense of outrage here over a perceived neglect of ordinary Britons hurt by the contracting economy.

At the oil refinery in northern England, picketers mocked Brown for his political promise to provide "British jobs for British workers." Workers were incensed after the refinery's owner, Total, hired an Italian subcontractor that then decided to bring in workers from Italy and Portugal, which is permitted under EU labor laws.

"It's our country. Give our children the jobs," one striking worker told the BBC. "We don't want them working in our refineries when our people are unemployed."

The protesters accuse Total of discriminating against British workers. But the company issued a statement denying that that was the case. It says that no British employees have lost jobs because of the new contract and that the foreign workers, who are to be paid according to British wage levels, were the best suited for the new jobs.

Sympathy strikes hit nuclear plants in the towns of Sellafield and Heysham on Monday, as well as other power stations. But the government said production was unaffected as Britain faced its heaviest snowfall in 18 years.

Brown and his ministers are acutely aware that the famous "winter of discontent" in 1978-79, a period of massive strikes that crippled the nation, helped topple the Labor government of the time, ushering in nearly two decades of unbroken Conservative Party rule.

However, the current outbreak of industrial action is confined to one sector and probably doesn't pose much risk of snowballing into anything much larger, said Patrick Dunleavy, a political scientist at the London School of Economics.

"The winter of discontent involved public service strikes -- people's rubbish wasn't being collected, corpses weren't being buried," Dunleavy said. "This is very different."

The real danger, he and others say, is that protests such as the one at the oil refinery could boost support for chauvinist parties such as the British National Front or the UK Independence Party, which oppose British membership in the EU.

Some commentators in Italy said they detected a hint of British xenophobia in the protest, which the strikers themselves strongly deny.

"Ugly, dirty and mean, like in some old films on Italian immigration. The English again see us like that, and in order to send us away, they strike," the Italian newspaper La Repubblica said in an editorial over the weekend.

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henry.chu@latimes.com

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Times staff writers Achrene Sicakyuz in Paris and Maria De Cristofaro in Rome contributed to this report.

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