SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 156 - March 2012

Sparks vs the Dirty Seven: round one victory

THE TREMENDOUS victory of the construction electricians against the multi-national contractor Balfour Beatty is a hugely significant moment for these workers but also for the rest of the union movement, particularly in the private sector.

Last year ushered in a new period of struggle for workers in Britain: the huge 26 March TUC demonstration in London, the 30 June strike of civil servants, teachers and lecturers, the massive two-million-strong strike of public-sector workers on 30 November (N30). While the outcome of the pension struggle – as with the wider battle against the cuts – has still to be determined, the sight of millions of workers out on strike and thousands on demonstrations has raised the profile of trade unions and, once again, legitimised the idea of workers’ struggling to defend jobs, pensions, terms and conditions from the employers’ assault.

It must be more than coincidental that, from the end of 2011 to the opening months of 2012, we have seen a rash of private-sector disputes: Unilever workers, Wincanton oil tanker drivers and Stagecoach bus drivers. This is not to say that these battles have appeared out of thin air. As with many workplaces, particularly in the private sector, the numerous grievances can burst out into an open dispute depending on the confidence of the workforce. But they have been given a boost by action in the public sector.

Perhaps the most resilient, tenacious and, at times, openly combative has been the dispute involving construction electricians, who come under the Joint Industry Board (JIB) national agreement. Initially, eight of the biggest contractors (NG Bailey, Balfour Beatty, Tommy Clarke, Crown House Technologies, Gratte Brothers, MJN Colston, SES and SPIE Matthew Hall) signalled their intention to withdraw from the JIB and impose a new set of terms and conditions, the Building Engineering Services National Agreement (BESNA). At an early stage, however, MJN Coulston pulled back under the pressure of the campaign. The remaining Big (or ‘Dirty’) Seven wanted to use BESNA to attack electricians’ conditions: breaking up their trade with different rates of pay depending on the exact skills-set used on a particular job. This would see some workers having their pay reduced by up to 35% if they are given a job allocated a minimum skill level. It opens the door to employers reducing the number of fully-trained, ‘expensive’ electricians and backfilling with lower-paid, semi-skilled workers.

Apart from the monetary aspect, it also raises health and safety concerns, particularly as these workers are employed on a range of sites, such as oil refineries, London Underground stations and nuclear power stations. Saying that, this government has already stripped bare the Health and Safety Executive through budget cuts of up to 35%.

This is the familiar ‘race to the bottom’ that employers in all sectors of the economy have been engaged in over the last decade or so. The prize for the bosses is to increase their profits as successive governments have been forced to update Britain’s under-invested infrastructure. Balfour Beatty alone has an order book of £15 billion, and made almost £100 million profit for the first six months of 2011.

The incredible Lindsey oil refinery struggle in 2009 was against the attempt by construction employers to break the National Agreement for the Engineering Construction Industry (NAECI), which covers sites such as power stations, oil refineries and processing plants. (See: How to Fight the Crisis, by Peter Taaffe, Socialism Today No.126, March 2009) The employers continued this offensive with lock-outs at Fawley in Hampshire and Saltend in Humberside in 2011. Socialist Party member Keith Gibson played a key role at the Lindsey and Saltend disputes. In the latter, while the workers were eventually unable to get their jobs back, they were able to win enhanced redundancy payments.

It has been noticeable that the employers and their friends in the right-wing media have also learned lessons from 2009. In effect, there has been a media blackout of the dispute. Many electricians supported our proposal for the union Unite to take out a full-page advert in the national press to publicise their fight.

In a similar way to Lindsey, the electricians’ battle to defend the JIB has been led by rank-and-file activists. Many of those in leading positions are experienced activists, some of whom have been blacklisted after being involved in important disputes from as far back as 1999: such as the London Underground Jubilee line, Royal Opera House, Pfizer and power generation projects across the UK. A rank-and-file meeting called last August in London of around 500 workers proved to be the catalyst for nationwide protests, site and office occupations which, at their peak, turned into unofficial strikes.

Inevitably, in such a protracted struggle, there have been ups and downs, with different regions going ahead or springing into action while other areas have quieter periods. There has been a weekly London protest at 6.30am for six months. This has been repeated in Manchester, Liverpool, Hartlepool, Cardiff, Ratcliffe and many other sites.

There have been major milestones. The first protest at Balfour Beatty’s Blackfriars site in London on 24 August, called by the rank-and-file meeting, attracted hundreds of electricians (sparks) and started the momentum. Unite called a national protest on 14 November, which saw over 2,000 electricians march on Blackfriars. Earlier that morning, the rank-and-file committee called a protest outside the site of the new Pinnacle skyscraper, where hundreds of workers pushed the police off the road and held an impromptu march through the City. Later in the day, the police kettled 200 of the sparks when they tried to join up with a student protest. Seeing the need to link up with other workers was also shown on N30 when the electricians marched in solidarity to a number of picket lines.

The rank-and-file campaign has pushed Unite into playing a far more leading role. A strike ballot was organised at Balfour Beatty and was won with an 82% majority. Unfortunately, Unite agreed to re-ballot after the company threatened an injunction. It would have been better to have forced Balfour to go to court, at least so that, even if the company was successful with its action, it would have clearly shown workers that there was no alternative but to take unofficial action. This was the union’s approach, correctly, when Balfour challenged the re-ballot – which, incredibly, still saw a 67% vote to strike.

This time, Balfour Beatty’s legal injunction was defeated in court and it capitulated the next day. The Socialist Party had raised in advance the possibility that even courts in a capitalist system can occasionally rule against employers, particularly where there is a militant campaign that would continue even if legally blocked. As with the Rail Maritime and Transport union on the Docklands Light Railway last year, continually ruling out strike ballots on minor technicalities can expose the class nature of the legal process and legitimise unofficial strikes.

With complete justification, the electricians have refused to be contained by the anti-union laws. They called for unofficial action on the original planned strike date of 7 December, when no Balfour Beatty sparks worked in Blackfriars and others walked out on other sites. Police dogs were used to break up the protest. A week later, over 5,000 construction workers took unofficial strike action and sparks were joined by workers fighting a pay freeze on NAECI sites. This showed the huge potential power of these workers when they take united action. Had it been necessary, they could have linked up with the directly-employed workers in the oil refineries and power stations, and those who service them, such as the Wincanton oil tanker drivers.

The involvement of Unite’s organising department was also a major turning point. It produced a ‘leverage’ dossier which made clear to Balfour Beatty that it would face a war of attrition, including the targeting of its client companies. Nonetheless, it was the rank-and-file campaign that breathed life into this document. To emphasise this, the 200-strong protest outside the Electrical Contractors’ Awards on the evening before the court verdict showed the employers that the strategy of the union would be backed up by the troops on the ground.

As we go to press, this great struggle is still on as we wait to see if the other six companies follow the retreat of Balfour Beatty. The campaign of the rank-and-file electricians has forced Unite belatedly to take the dispute seriously. In return, the union’s involvement has revealed the potentially positive role of the official structures when married to a militant membership. While it is true that lessons can be learnt from setbacks, victories are priceless. This one will give confidence to a new layer of workers to see the need to become active in the unions on the sites to fight-back against attacks from the rapacious bosses.

Rob Williams

Since this article was published, all the other six companies have announced their withdrawal from the imposition of BESNA terms and conditions.


Home About Us | Back Issues | Reviews | Links | Contact Us | Subscribe | Search | Top of page