Thousands of British workers put down their tools recently to protest the use of foreign crews on a $290-million refinery project on the English east coast. The strikes, an unofficial message of support for the refinery protest, spread from the Lindsey refinery, North Killingholme, to unrelated powerplants and even the Sellafield nuclear fuel facility in Cumbria.

Underlying the dispute at the oil refinery, owned by Total U.K. Ltd., are growing concerns that Europe’s free market is working against British workers’ interests.

What triggered the Lindsey unofficial strike was December’s arrival of a Sicilian specialty firm on the refinery’s HDS-3 de-sulfurization plant project.

The refinery’s prime contractor Jacobs Engineering Group Inc., Pasadena, Cal., awarded the small contract to Irem S.p.A., Siracusa, in competition with five local bidders and one other foreign firm, according to a Total official.

Without attempting to recruit in the U.K., Irem began importing workers from Italy and Portugal, reportedly housing them in a floating hotel in nearby Grimsby. That led to the Lindsey pickets brandishing placards demanding “British jobs for British workers”.

Across the country, 900 employees of contractors at Sellafield stopped work for a day in support. And hundreds more walked out of RWE npower’s $860 million gas-fired power plant project at Staythorpe, Nottinghamshire, and elsewhere.

Though unofficial, the strikes won moral support from the country’s largest trade union. The reason? “Employers are excluding U.K. workers from even applying for work,” claims Derek Simpson, joint general secretary of the Unite union.

As part of a remedy to the Lindsey dispute, Simpson wants the government to “overturn European legal precedents which allow employers to undercut wages and conditions.”

At Lindsey and Staythorpe, managers deny undercutting local employment conditions. But United’s concerns springs more from how the European Court of Justice has been interpreting the E.U.’s Posting Workers Directive, a cornerstone of the European Single Market. Simpson claims that, by excluding national union/employer agreements from rights guaranteed by the directive to workers across the E.U., the court has created conditions for “social dumping.”