Unite behind the sparks

Craft workers and labourers must find common cause, urges Gerry Downing

On August 13, 500 electricians, pipefitters and supporters packed into London’s Conway Hall to launch the struggle against wage cuts and repudiation of national agreements by eight of the main building employers. The eight were Balfour Beatty, NG Bailey, Crown House, Gratte Brothers, MJN Colston Ltd, Spie Matthew Hall, Shepherd Engineering Services and T Clarke plc, but Colston has since pulled out of the offensive.

The companies want to impose three new grades for electricians: metalworking (£10.50 per hour), wiring (£12) and terminating (£14). At the moment the Joint Industry Board (JIB) rate for all electricians is £16.25 across the board. Wages in the building industry are set by annual agreements between the unions (Unite, Ucatt and the GMB) and the JIB - in this case the Heating and Ventilation Contractors Association (HVCA).

The initiative for the August 13 meeting was taken by rank-and-file activists within the London Construction and south coast branches of Unite. It was inspired by the success of the Grass Roots Left movement, which came out of Jerry Hicks’ rank-and-file challenge for Unite general secretary last year. Hicks was on the platform of the meeting, spoke inspiringly (chants of “Jerry, Jerry, Jerry”) and was unanimously elected to the Rank and File Committee (alongside two electricians, two pipefitters and one for the civil) set up to pursue the struggle, although he does not work in the industry himself. His principle of mobilising the ranks against a recalcitrant Unite bureaucracy and calling for strikes and walk-outs independently of the union bureaucrats whilst pressurising for strike ballots was clearly inspiring to the mass of the meeting, many of whom spoke with anger and bitterness at the treachery of the bureaucracy in the past.

Two Unite officials were on the platform and their equivocations and backsliding speeches were vigorously attacked by several speakers. They had a few supporters only, whom the chair had to defend against the obvious anger and militancy of the meeting.

The mobilisation of the masses independently of the Unite bureaucracy forced the union to act, but with extreme reluctance. Unite national officer for construction Bernard McAulay was forced to apologise for a leaked email calling the Rank and File Committee a “cancerous group”. One ‘Brian the Dog’ posted a vitriolic attack on the Socialist Unity blog: “Jerry Hicks, who does not work, let alone work in the construction industry, has in a blatant act of opportunism and ultra-leftism somehow managed to get himself elected onto a rank and file construction workers committee” (October 15). That “somehow” might have been by unanimous acclaim!

Then the real problem emerges: “Hicks and his usual groupies need to be exposed for the hijacking of what is an extremely important dispute. This is all about positioning himself for being third time lucky for what he believes is his birthright - general secretary. Also once again we see him and his groupies attacking full-time officials … The problem is that a leopard doesn’t change its spots!”

So the problem is not just Hicks and the Rank and File Committee or even the dreaded “groupies”, but the fact that walkouts and independent mobilisations have seen the dispute slip out of the hands of the bureaucrats and “hijacked” by the ranks - an appalling vista for any true bureaucrat. And there is a real danger that a leadership is emerging for a permanent rank-and-file group along the lines of the Grass Roots Left in the construction industry, where it is so sorely needed. And another ‘groupie’ of the dispute is Brain Higgins, who provides what assistance he can in producing the literature along the lines of the Building Worker, that scourge of the Ucatt bureaucracy in the past.

The mobilisations have been nationwide and impressive, covering London, Manchester, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Glasgow and elsewhere. On November 9 demonstrating construction workers were disgracefully kettled by police to prevent them joining up with the student protest in London.

Unite commenced balloting the largest firm, Balfour Beatty, on November 16 and the deadline for the ‘sign or be sacked’ ultimatum to the 1,000 sparks is December 7. The ballot closes on Tuesday November 29 - surely timed to avoid any possibility of coordinating the electricians’ action with the November 30 mass strike day across the public sector. But the Rank and File Committee has put out some excellent propaganda urging a walkout from that day, so the official Unite plan might well backfire.

Of course, rank and file committees are needed at every site. But winning this dispute needs a bit more than that. It needs an orientation to the entire labour force on site. And the vast majority of these are immigrant labourers, super-exploited and treated like the very scum of the earth. Some 20 years ago east European, mainly Kosovan, labourers replaced the Irish on the Cricklewood Broadway and other such hiring fairs nationwide. According to a 2006 report for Ucatt, The evasion economy by Mark Harvey and Felix Behling, false self-employment in the British building industry is almost three times worse than any other advanced country, including the notorious US construction industry. Employers escape all their social responsibilities in this imposed health and safety nightmare, where the minimum wage is totally ignored. Workers, often recruited in eastern Europe, believe they have no option but to accept such conditions. The government turns a blind eye in order to help their friends in the industry who contribute so generously to Tory Party coffers.

Another Ucatt report, The hidden workforce building Britain, speaks of “working in slavery-like conditions, workers waiting in car parks to be hired and being paid cash in hand at rates below the minimum wage” and further details the “dangerous and unregulated nature of such work”. The report was welcomed by George Guy, Ucatt’s acting general secretary, who pointed out that “workers in the construction industry have lower levels of protection than workers in sectors covered by the Gangmasters Licensing Agency (GLA)”.

The report calls for “a single, independent labour inspectorate, which would be based on the model already created by the GLA and would cover all industrial sectors”. It argues that this “beefed-up body” should have “sufficient resources to dramatically increase its levels of proactive inspections in order to ensure that there is a major crackdown on exploitative employers”.

Surely the Sparks’ Rank and File Committee can come up with something far better than this to attract the support of these workers. They should champion their cause by demanding direct employment, which would ensure full sick and holiday pay, pension provision and proper health and safety standards as the only way to organise the whole site. The corrupt Unite/Ucatt/GMB practice of appointing convenors at the start of the job (the Olympics site being a prime example) must be fought against and stopped. Often the shop steward is hired by the site agent on a manager’s wage, the union immediately recognises his bone fides and he then polices the site on behalf of management to make sure it is not organised. Horror stories of legitimate safety complaints being met with threats of violence by these management-union thugs are legion. The failure to organise the Olympic site in any proper fashion needs to be examined.

In this author’s view a grievous blow was struck against an already reeling workers’ organisation on the sites by the ‘British jobs for British workers’ dispute, where craft unionism began to dominate and foreign workers were disgracefully portrayed by the likes of Amicus/Unite general secretary Derek Simpson in alliance with the Daily Star as the main enemy. No dispute ever received more support from the gutter press and, whilst socialists managed to fend off the advances of the far right, nonetheless the disgraceful picture of Simpson in the Daily Star fronting its campaign - alongside two models, adding insult to women to the injury to foreign workers - has set the movement back considerably.

Let us champion the cause of the builders’ labourers and begin to unite the class again. This dispute links up with two other campaigns that were already seeking to turn the tide - the Blacklist Support Campaign and Justice for Shrewsbury Pickets. Blacklist Support has had some success - exposure of the blacklist, campaigning for victimised construction workers Dave Smith and Frank Morris and some employment tribunal victories.

As the Shrewsbury Campaign points out, “The construction industry is notorious as the most dangerous industry to work in. More workers are killed and injured in construction than any other industry. On top of that, over 2,000 workers die from exposure to deadly asbestos every year. Over 3,300 building workers have been denied work and blacklisted for daring to speak out against these disgraceful conditions, and for trying to prevent even more deaths and injuries.”

Gerry Downing is national secretary of Grass Roots Left and is writing in a personal capacity

Remember 1972

Wednesday December 7, 7pm: Film and discussion, Twelve Pins, Finsbury Park, London N4 (next to Finsbury Park tube). Coverage of the historic 1972 builders’ strike, featuring interviews with Des Warren and Ricky Tomlinson. Speakers include: 1972 striker, blacklisted workers, striking electricians.

Organised by Justice for Shrewsbury Pickets: www.shrewsburypicketscampaign.org.uk