The wave of stoppages at oil refineries in protest at the employment of foreign workers is an ominous sign.
The unofficial wildcat strikes are almost certainly in breach of the laws against unofficial secondary action of this sort.
However, they are also an indication – as, indeed, was the nationwide stoppage in France on Thursday – that the recession could bring to the boil the tensions over high levels of immigration that were suppressed during the boom when work was plentiful.
The problem for the British workers who fear for their jobs is that the foreigners to whom they object are EU citizens, and therefore perfectly at liberty to travel to, settle and work in the UK.
One of the most surprising stories of the week was the news that 500,000 Poles had decided to stay in the UK despite the rapidly rising unemployment.
They will, inevitably, compete for jobs with British workers in the coming recession but probably think they are better placed because they will accept lower wages.
The trade unions representing refinery workers are now seeking urgent talks with the Government, though since they supported high immigration they are in a pretty weak position to complain.
What did they think would happen?
Similarly, Gordon Brown's refrain at the Labour party conference in 2007 that he would ensure 'British jobs for British workers' was always going to come back and haunt him.
The placards brandished by the strikers at the Total refinery at Lindsey threw those words back in his face.
But in a globalised world with free movement of travel within the EU, companies will always be able to pull together contract teams of workers who will undercut their British counterparts unless the latter accept lower pay – which the unions will oppose.
This is something that the Labour party seems unable to understand. As the stoppages spread, Hilary Benn, the Environment Secretary, said the angry British workers were "entitled to an answer".
An answer to what, precisely? Is the Government that encouraged immigrant workers to come here in good times now cynically turning on them in bad?
Shona McIsaac, the Labour MP for Cleethorpes, said that awarding the contract to a firm using foreign labour was like "a red rag to a bull".
Yet the Italian company Irem won the construction contract against British companies fair and square.
To have awarded it on national, rather than cost, grounds would have been unlawful under EU rules. The Government is in no position to step in and stop the proper tender process.
One reason why so many EU workers are in Britain is that the Government decided not to use transitional powers to restrict access to the UK labour market to the new east European countries that joined in 2004.
Other major economies, notably Germany, kept restrictions in place. As a result, most Poles and other east European came to this country.
When the economy was booming this helped the economy: they took jobs that British workers seemed to shun or did not require.
However, there is anecdotal evidence that they undercut British wages and encouraged indigenous workers to stay out of the jobs market and live on benefits rather than accept cuts in their own income.
The Government's whole immigration strategy, like its economic and public spending policies, was predicated on an assumption that the boom would continue indefinitely.
Ministers said that high numbers of foreign workers were needed to pump up what turned out to be a bubble, even though there were millions of British people of working age living on welfare.
This has fuelled the anger of British workers and is grist to the mill for extremist parties which are already starting to exploit these tensions.
A BNP spokesman said: "This is a great day for British nationalism."
The sky is now darkening with chickens coming home to roost.
Saturday, January 31, 2009
UK: Oil refinery strikes analysis: Paying the price for boom immigration policies
From the London Times: