Construction lessons

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Electricians have been protesting for months against wage cuts and attacks on their terms and conditions. Last December workers took unofficial strike action. Simon Basketter looks at the background to this battle and the prospects for rebuilding union organisation on construction sites.

On a freezing Wednesday night on 7 December last year, a small group of men stand on a street in animated discussion. Every now and again, someone else joins their group and talks to them for a few minutes. After over half an hour, they decide to go to the pub. It was a small, but nonetheless significant event.

The group of men were electricians working for Balfour Beatty on the Blackfriars Station construction site in London. Their discussions took place during the second picket of Blackfriars that day as part of a national protest and unofficial industrial action by electricians across the country. The men had refused to cross a picket line - and so joined the strike.

On the day more than 100 workers protested outside Balfour Beatty's headquarters in Glasgow - and Balfour electricians didn't go to work. Workers also occupied the Cambuslang fire station construction site. Construction workers walked out at the Grangemouth site in Scotland to join Balfour pickets and around 200 workers at ConocoPhillips walked out in Immingham. Some 300 picketed in Hartlepool, where electricians managed to free an arrested demonstrator.

Electricians up and down Britain have been protesting for more than five months against attacks on their terms and conditions. They have occupied building sites, blocked roads and put up picket lines. They are at war with multinational corporations that, in their ruthless pursuit of profit, want to cut wages by over a third. Wednesday 7 December should have been an official strike by electricians working for Balfour Beatty after they had voted by 82 percent to strike. The firm threatened to use anti-union laws against the ballot and the workers' Unite union blinked first and called the strike off. But the rank and file met and decided to go ahead anyway.

A group of building contractors have set up the Building Engineering Services National Agreement (Besna) in opposition to the existing Joint Industry Board (JIB) national industry agreement. The JIB offers some protection for workers' rights and helps to ensure they get paid according to their skills and training. There are many flaws in the national agreement. But some bosses have taken the opportunity of the recession to try to grind electricians' terms and conditions into the dust.

From protests to pickets
Workers from sites targeted have come out to join the protests, despite intimidation from site security and managers. Protests have repeatedly developed into pickets and workers have refused to cross them. Agency and migrant workers have also repeatedly refused to cross picket lines.

The temporary nature of building work obstructs workers' organisation. Trade unionists often have to start from scratch on each new job. They face a ruthless hire and fire system, reinforced by an employers' blacklist that has stopped key trade unionists and safety reps from getting jobs on the sites for years at a time. Bosses are constantly trying to chip away at work times. "There is constant pressure to broaden the jobs people do," according to one worker. "They are always trying to get people to do work they're not trained in. If there is a corner to cut, they'll cut it."

All this forces a type of rough and ready organising. The very subcontracting process that drives down wages in the industry, oddly gives workers a strength. The companies behind subcontracting aren't small operations - they're huge multinationals. The big companies all tender for work and all try to undercut each other. They then subcontract out the work, passing the cost-cutting down the line while keeping profits high. There are harsh financial penalties for missing a deadline on a site.

Construction companies often end up suing each other in the courts over who was to blame for a job coming in late. On 7 December at Blackfriars, a manager stood using his mobile phone cancelling deliveries to the site because of the picket line. One electrician grinned ever wider at each call: "Thousands, each call is thousands of pounds. Some of them won't reschedule for days. That can hold everything up." Construction workers are powerful. As an electrician from the Midlands pointed out, "Moving a crane isn't cheap. Each bit of a job is dependent on others, stop it and you can grind things to a halt."

Imaginative protests
The difficulty of organising on site has led to imaginative protests. A "rank and file padlock" locked the gates of one site trapping managers and lorries inside. The workers have also protested outside and occupied the offices of the building companies. The growing confidence of workers to organise is seen on each successive protest. But so is the pressure from the leaders of the workers' Unite union for moderation - and the police's outright hostility. Nonetheless, workers have outwitted the cops' attempts to curtail the protests and pushed the union into calls for action.

A national day of action on 9 November saw a brilliant series of rank and file protests. Workers travelled from around the country to the protest in London which culminated in an official demonstration of 2,000. At the end the call came from Unite to march to parliament to lobby politicians. The cry went up from electricians, "We want to march with the students" who were also demonstrating that day. Hundreds of electricians then battled with police after marching away from the official demo to try to get to the students.

They ultimately failed but it was an impressive show of independence. And the pressure of their campaign is working. One company, MJN Colston, backed off from breaking the agreement in response to the rank and file campaign. Others have lost contracts because of the protests. The protests at the Carrington paper mill site in Manchester stopped after three weeks, because Balfour Beatty lost the contract.
The workers are coming out of a period of disorganisation. According to one, "The last time bosses launched an assault on us, in 2000, there was a series of strikes on the Jubilee line extension, at Pfizer and others. We defended ourselves - but they took their revenge with the blacklist. Over the last few years, the industry has become less well organised. Unions signed up to many bad deals, turned a blind eye to too many bad things. We are rebuilding on the hoof."

At the start of the current dispute there wasn't a single elected union rep on a major construction site in London. This is the legacy of repeated union deals where the price of getting union recognition on a job was to give up on organisation. The bosses would deliver the money for union dues and a rep would be appointed. The site would be declared a union site, but no attempt at actual organisation would be made.

The deal over recognition would also involve signing up to the use of agency labour, and turning a blind eye to the constant attacks and cost-cutting. At worst it led to some union officials being involved in policing the sites through the use of the blacklist. The electricians' dispute is rebuilding from the bottom up against this. It also explains why, as well as a natural inertia, the union was slow to back the campaign.

Militants
A number of those at the centre of the electricians' action are union militants who have been blacklisted and the importance of political militants at the heart of the campaign can't be underestimated. For instance, it meant the campaign has been consciously anti-racist and from day one it has looked for and received solidarity from other groups of workers, militant students and the Occupy movement.

Early on in the dispute Bernard McAulay, the Unite national construction official, referred to the electricians' rank and file group as "a cancerous element". He later apologised and the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, has praised the action of the rank and file in the dispute. Left wingers have ensured Unite executive members have attended the protests when they have coincided with the union's national executive meetings.

But the balance between the bureaucracy and rank and file workers is not simply one of all or nothing. It is more complicated. On the first officially backed protest at Farringdon Station, the rank and file used the presence of national officials to escalate and occupy the site. On one protest early in the campaign there was a symbolic moment. As workers blocked Oxford Street, London's busiest shopping street during rush hour, the police rather grumpily attempted to move them. A union official, who to his credit had refused police calls to cancel the protest, called out from the pavement, "Come over here lads I have something to tell you." "We can hear you from here," came the simple but definitive response as workers held their ground against the cops.

The rank and file have constantly tried to keep the union machine on board and push them into backing action. At the first meeting of 500 electricians in August to discuss the campaign a suggestion to break from the union was roundly defeated. The union initially proposed starting a campaign this month but the rank and file weren't prepared to wait. Instead they pushed Unite to back protests and call a strike ballot.

Rank and file pressure
Unite called off the strike on 7 December. But the rank and file committee rightly insisted on pushing Unite to back a national day of protest on the day. Building rank and file organisation isn't straightforward. Workers have spread the action across the country and organised local committees. If the dispute doesn't win it won't be down to a lack of commitment from the rank and file.

While some aspects of the dispute are shaped directly by the nature of the construction industry, there are examples for the rest of the movement. The balance between the union bureaucracy and the rank and file is not static, and keeping a forward momentum to a dispute requires constant tactical changes.

The dispute has brought back memories of 1972. That year over 300,000 building workers struck across Britain over pay and contracts. Selective strikes called by the builders' leaderships in the Ucatt and T&G unions turned into a virtual all-out stoppage. The plan was to have rolling regional strikes. But the rank and file used flying pickets, a tactic borrowed from the miners, to turn it into a national dispute.

The construction workers' contribution then, as now, was fast organising and showing the rest of the class that brave, original militancy works. Workers in 1972 learnt from the construction dispute not just the importance of militancy but also the need for organisation. Four decades on, electricians are teaching the same lesson.