Trade union organisation very weak

A basic necessity

Tony O’Brien: ‘Tackling the housing crisis with publicly owned construction by direct labour organisations’, self-published, 2018, pp200, £10

This book provides a down-to-earth tour of the recent history of the construction industry and the efforts to organise and sustain construction workers unions, through the trajectory of their various mergers and affiliations.

Tony has had a lifetime in the industry as a skilled carpenter-joiner. He started as an apprentice in 1963, working in several unions and eventually Unite, until in 2012 he retired from work - although not from the struggle. The history is told ‘hands on’, from someone who has been at the sharp end of one of the most difficult industries to unionise - and to impose basic standards of health and safety, and contracts which actually mean something. For all this century and at least half of the last, construction has had a worse death and injury record than the mines - whereas mineworkers’ unions have been fairly well consolidated and entrenched in the pits since the mid-19th century, winning and maintaining recognition in construction has been a non-stop, bitter war. Tony tells that story very plainly and well.

As a man of his generation, I remember well those mass struggles of the 1970s, as workers across one industry then another launched major assaults on employers and began to win substantial improvements. The spirit of solidarity was strong and workers almost without question honoured picket lines of all sorts. I remember the hard and bitter building strikes of 1972. I had mates who worked in construction and were in the thick of bloody battles fought largely out of sight with company goons and professional scabs - and a few security dogs which didn’t make it. There were also many examples of solidarity action across the whole of industry for healthworkers, as miners, builders and transport workers walked out in support of their battle for improved pay and conditions - a battle they could not pursue effectively all alone. Solidarity also came from dockers and engineers - it was a who’s who of industrial struggle in support of healthworkers.

But this book deals not simply with efforts to organise labour. It also covers attempts to impose standards in the industry. The vision of direct-labour contracts, with councils and other authorities employing workers themselves, was key in being able to police terms and conditions and render the employers accountable. It was essential in the battle to defeat ‘the lump’ (‘self-employed’ workers) and the most sophisticated and widespread use of the blacklist and profiling. This latter is still far from over, by the way.

The book looks at the corruption within huge building projects, with vital services and infrastructure designed at the whim and interests of financial speculators and get-rich-quick merchants, rather than the needs of the people and society as a whole. Here we see the argument develop for the creation of a national, public-sector construction organisation, which is accountable to those it serves and those who serve within it - a partnership with municipal authorities and through them the public, the unions doing the job indirectly and the workers directly.

Housing is a basic necessity, but the way it is provided in many cities means it is both a luxury and a piggy bank for speculators, whose only aim is large profits for themselves. The need to take housing under public control and direct-labour construction is a crying and urgent need and this book sets out plain simple means by which this aim could be advanced.

Tackling the housing crisis is short, sharp and to the point - the first print run has already sold out and the second should be available by the time you order it. Send £10, plus £2 for postage, to the author, Tony O’Brien, at Southwark Pensioners Centre, 307 Camberwell Road, London SE5 0HQ. Or email Tony at tonysalebook@outlook.com. Payment can also be made by bank transfer to account number 01773496, sort 40-05-35.

David Douglass