Taking on Crossrail

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Simon Basketter reports on an important step forward in the battle to rebuild union organisation across construction sites.

Frank Morris, an electrician sacked in a blacklisting case after raising health and safety concerns, won his job back last month. It was a stunning victory for union campaigning. Frank, a Unite union member, was dismissed over a year ago from London's Crossrail project, Europe's largest railway and infrastructure construction scheme.

His victory has also led to union recognition at Crossrail. Frank and 27 others working for an electrical sub-contractor, EIS, lost their jobs when the contract was suddenly terminated in September last year. According to Unite, the contract was halted in order to exclude Frank from Crossrail construction sites after he had raised safety issues about a tunnelling machine.

Throughout the winter, Frank demonstrated every day often on his own outside a Crossrail site in west London to demand his job back. Unite escalated the campaign of lobbying and protests in May this year and Unite general secretary Len McCluskey said the demonstrations were designed "to blacklist the blacklisters".

The targets of the campaign were the three major partners in the Crossrail consortium Bam Nuttal, Ferrovial and the Kier Group as well as investors, shareholders' group and other firms in the companies' supply chains.

Unite was keen to point out, "It is important to correct Crossrail's press release which wrongly states that Unite has said there has been no blacklisting at Crossrail. What Unite clearly said is there have been no breaches of the current regulations. We believe this indicates the weakness of the current legislation."

According to Dave Smith, secretary of the Blacklist Support Group (BSG), "The reinstatement of Frank is a kick in the teeth for the blacklisting firms and a turning point in industrial relations in the construction industry. It was not just about Frank Morris. It was about the future direction of trade unionism in the building industry... If they thought we didn't have the stomach or the troops for a fight they were wrong."

The dispute is part of an ongoing war on construction sites. Bosses have used the recession to try to grind electricians' terms and conditions, and organisation, into the dust. In 2011 a group of building contractors set up the Building Engineering Services National Agreement (Besna) to smash the existing national agreement.

A combination of unofficial and official pressure saw the bosses back down. It was an important victory. It also led to an shift in the unions over the question of blacklisting. And the scandal has a way to run yet.The ongoing Scottish Affairs Committee is repeatedly providing evidence of the scale of the blacklist. Construction company Carillon was kicked out of the Labour conference - the Ucatt union picked up the 11,000 (pounds GB) fee for a stall. A number of councils and the Welsh Assembly have said they won't use blacklisting companies.

Police
Trade union activity, health and safety concerns, or standing up for colleagues is still enough to get workers blacklisted. Importantly the scale of police and intelligence service collusion has yet to fully emerge and there has yet to be a reckoning over the complicity of some union officials in the blacklist.

The other consequence is organisation. The temporary nature of building work is an obstacle to workers' organisation with trade unionists often having to start from scratch on each new job. They face a ruthless hire and fire system, reinforced by the blacklist.

Too often the price of getting union recognition on a job has been to give up on organisation. The bosses would deliver the money for union dues and a rep would be appointed so while the site would be declared a union site, no attempt at actual organisation would be made.

The rank and file are rebuilding from the bottom up against this. There has been a constant balance and tension between building rank and file organisation and getting official support. So in Frank's case it took months to get the union to move - but move they did. There was a tendency to use the organising department for the protests rather than push for involvement of the rank and file, but the protests were constant and high profile. The hard job of on-site organisation will come from struggle inside and outside the sites.

Electricians have humbled huge corporations twice and at the centre has been rank and file workers' organisation. There are more battles coming and deepening that militant organisation on site will be again be the key.