Construction workers have always faced the brunt of the employers’ attacks. In an industry directly linked to the vagaries of booms and busts in the economy, construction bosses have always sought to squeeze as much profit out of the workforce as possible.
The bosses of eight construction companies, all part of the JIB national agreements, have colluded to attack the terms and conditions of sparks, pipe fitters, plumbers and related trades. The companies involved are Balfour Beatty, N G Bailey Building Services, Crown House Technologies, Gratte Brothers, Spie Matthew Hall, Shepherd Engineering Services, MJN Colston and T Clarke.
In effect, they are acting together in a conspiracy to impose their cost-cutting agenda on the workforce. They are using the excuse of a downturn in the industry to go onto the offensive with pay cuts amounting to around 30%. Despite the millions in profits they have made over the years (Balfour Beatty reported increasing profits by 32% in 2010), all the old wage rates are to be scrapped and workers placed on much worse terms and conditions.
Everyday life on the sites has always been hard. If they could get away with it, bosses have sought to change terms and introduce different rates of pay. Regarded as “cowboy” employers, every effort has been used to divide the workforce through the use of sub-contract labour and agencies. This pyramid of agencies acts like a parasite at every level by feeding off the labour of the ordinary workers. Their whole approach consists in keeping “costs” (wages) down by dividing the workers against each other. Workers are constantly urged to ditch PAYE and enter all kinds of dodgy schemes to avoid tax. These schemes are not in the workers’ interests, but are run by these same agencies, who make sure they get their pound of flesh.
The construction employers were determined to create a docile and atomized workforce who would end up accepting almost anything. That was their aim. That is why they used the Blacklist to weed out and sack all those who were prepared to stand up for their fellow workers. The Blacklist, despite being illegal, is used extensively in the industry today. Such practices must be stopped. Unfortunately, even Labour governments have turned a blind eye to this dirty practice. The trade union leaders have behaved no better. It should have been their top priority to have rooted out this cancer from the industry. But they kept quiet about it - until the pressure was put on them by the rank and file.
The bosses are acting together in this conspiracy. However, Balfour Beatty, the biggest construction company in Britain, has been used as the stalking horse. Balfour Beatty has unilaterally announced that terms and conditions for its employees are to change in a matter of weeks. There is no negotiation. They will be imposed on employees – take it or leave it! Balfour Beatty is introducing new contracts on 7 December. They have also issued 90-day redundancy notices to all workers, demanding that they sign new contracts. This is holding a gun to our heads. Unite has correctly urged all workers not to sign the new contracts. But this is not sufficient to win. Action is needed, including the occupation of the sites. Without this, workers will be left defenceless. If this means breaking the law, then so be it.
We are all aware that this is a showdown. The fight was inevitable. The employers have been biding their time. Now they have thrown down the gauntlet. We have no alternative but to respond with decisive action.
Unfortunately, this struggle, rather than being prepared in advance, has taken the union leaders by surprise. They have been content to bury their heads in the sand for years. They sat back while the industry was deregulated and splintered by sub-contractors and agencies. Britain has more agency workers than the rest of Europe put together. This morass has severely weakened shop-floor organization. The union leaders were content as long as the employers played ball with them and paid over the union dues through the check-off system. Instead of building up a strong rank and file site organization, they relied on the good will of the employers. They even ignored the Blacklisting that was taking place. Scandalously, some were involved in it.
Predictably, the bosses have reneged on their agreements. They have led the union leaders on a merry dance, with cushy relationships and cups of coffee. They lulled them to sleep with their quiet chats and agreements, without the involvement of the rank and file. Union stewards, instead of being elected, were appointed by full-time officials, not to represent the workers, but keep the peace. All this played into the bosses’ hands.
Then, when the time was right, the employers decided to scrap the sweet-heart deals. To start with they refused to implement the check-off system. As a result, given the weakness of site organization, there was no means of collecting union dues, and membership fell by tens of thousands.
The years of complicity with the bosses has weakened the union. In the past, the union relied on key workers on the sites. On the Jubilee site, for example, rank and file organization allowed the workers to make big gains. It was a model of trade unionism. But the Blacklisting has largely put a stop to this. These union militants were systematically rooted out from the sites over the last 20 years, with the complacency of the union tops. Even the union leaders, who wanted a quiet life, saw these workers as trouble-makers, rather than the bedrock of the union.
This is not a one-off fight. Whatever happens with this dispute, this is only one battle in the war. There will be other battles in the coming period. Building workers are at the sharp end. With government cuts, building companies are not getting contracts as they were before. House building is at the lowest level since 1923. The bosses want the workers to pay for this with worsening pay and conditions. Even now workers are being forced to work 9 or 10 hours, or face the sack. This all means that we need to be getting our own house in order.
Not only must we resist the employers’ offensive, we must start to turn the tables. The unions must start to get serious about defending their members. It is good news that Unite has given support to the recent protests, especially in London. But there must be no more sweet-heart deals at the top. There must be a drive to rebuild the rank and file organization on every site. No appointed stewards – they must be elected and accountable to the rank and file. No more black-listing! All those blacklisted must be guaranteed a job on the major sites, starting with the Crossrail project. We will organize trade union picket lines at all those sites that refuse to comply, with the full involvement of the unions. This is the only way to build up trade union membership and show workers that once again unions are relevant to them. We must launch a mass campaign to end agency work and sub-contracting. Commit the TUC and Labour Party to this policy. The unions have the muscle, let them use it!
In addition, we need democratic fighting unions that carry out the wishes of the rank and file. That means that not only stewards need to be elected, but all trade union officials. No to careerism! Also, all trade union officials should be on the average wage of a skilled worker. No privileges! When our wages go up, their wages go up too.
At the end of the day, we need a government that will nationalize the building companies, starting with Balfour Beatty, under workers’ control. All hiring should be under the control of the trade unions. In that way, the Blacklist will be consigned to the dustbin. If this were part of a socialist plan of production to put an end to boom and slump, all workers would receive a decent job with decent pay and conditions.
These current attacks will shake up the workers. Now is the time to get involved. Now is the time to get off our knees and fight back.
In the parks, halls and public spaces around Kings Cross
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