7th Century author Thomas Fuller once said: “It is always darkest before the day dawneth.”
Well, the night may not have turned to dawn just yet, but for thousands of campaigning electricians a glimmer of light has pierced through what was looking like ‘the long goodnight’ for the electrical engineering industry in Britain.
Yesterday, multi million pound multinational giant Balfour Beatty pulled out of imposing the controversial BESNA contract on its construction employees.
The contract was set to replace several national agreements including the Joint Industry Board and HVCA which both set minimum standards of pay, grading, and the ability to claim unfair dismissal from day one on sites across the country.
Viewed as the “ringleader” for 8 companies – (now 7 after W Smith MJN slinked off early on) – who wanted to impose BESNA, Balfour’s decision is already being greeted as a massive step forward by the union.
Importantly, Unite general secretary Len McCluskey has urged the other 6 to follow Balfour’s example adding that the “live strike ballots” at NG Bailey and Spie Matthew Hall will continue until the companies withdraw BESNA.
Demonstrations, invasions, unofficial pickets
The reaction amongst Unite rank and file sparks, pipe fitters and plumbers has been ecstatic, not least because it will be seen as a vindication of a militant strategy which has successfully side-stepped anti-trade union laws.
Demonstrations outside sites, encouraging workers not to cross unofficial picket lines and the willingness to invade the social space of construction bosses including the ECA annual dinner this week have all taken place prior to any official withdrawal of labour.
And the big exposé of the virulent attitude toward construction workers when a site manager declared his belief to the waiting media that sparks should be paid 1 pound an hour instead of the current JIB rate of £16 went around the internet creating huge sympathy for the cause, including from the Teamsters union in the US.
The grassroots campaign has managed, coupled with losing their injunction against strike action next week, to unsettle Balfour Beatty so much that they have agreed to high level talks with Unite, ditched BESNA and removed the threat of mass sackings if workers didn’t sign.
But rather than resting on their laurels, rank and file construction workers have modified planned action against the other 6 to focus solely on one firm: NG Bailey.
The firm has a contract with food giant Morrison’s to maintain all shops in Britain.
With the impetus very much swinging in favour of the sparks, a mass leaflet drop will take place in most Morrison’s stores, informing the general public of proposed 35 percent pay cuts and deskilling through BESNA which as it stands, NG Bailey still support.
Caution among rank and file for the future
Rank and file union activists clearly believe that 6 skittles remain and they just need to be knocked over like Balfour.
However breaking out the champagne maybe premature.
Balfour have agreed to high-level talks but the joint statement between them and Unite speaks of the need for “modernising” the industry and to “review” the JIB.
“The objective of the seven companies was to address perceived shortcomings within current working rules agreements and to offer ways to create a more modern approach in the current competitive environment,” it says.
Construction workers have already pointed out that far from the JIB being some sort of panacea for workers, basic rights enshrined in the agreement are in many cases not being implemented by contractors.
The use of agency labour is rife within the industry despite the JIB agreement supposedly ensuring the majority of workers on a site are directly employed by the company.
And some agencies have sought to pay workers through subsidiary companies charging an “administration fee” which is docked from the workers final pay packet, leading to a “triple exploitation” of agency workers.
What would ‘modernisation’ look like?
Rank and file members have spoken out about the need for modernisation but have highlighted the need for more investment in the sector, using the millions of pounds worth of profits made by construction firms into the industry to improve health and safety – and ultimately productivity.
Some members of bosses’ association, the ECA, have blamed competitive tendering – where companies go up against one another to win contracts, with those offering the “cheapest” deal getting the contract.
This encourages them to take on cheaper labour from eastern Europe and drives down wages and conditions.
Legislation from the government to establish a level playing field for “competition” between companies was mooted as an alternative.
Whether there is any validity in these suggestions, skilled construction workers have scored a victory and have grievances with industry bosses, which go well beyond BESNA.
Attempts by rogue elements to divide rank and file members and union officers have clearly failed.
This lay-led movement has proved that despite the mass media blackout and widespread propaganda, Britain still has an active and effective militant industrial working class.
- Balfour withdraws sign or be sacked contracts
- Sparks dismiss Balfour contract claims – “our action will continue”
- Sparks refinery blockade as Unite names new strike ballot
- Sparks turn up the heat on Balfour Beatty with lamplight leafleting
- Sparks talks tell BESNA bosses “you’re a cartel