A year ago this month, Conway Hall was packed with 500 jeering, cheering, angry construction workers furious at the wage cuts proposed in their industry, and at what they saw as the craven response of their union.
From that meeting, they launched the National Rank and File Committee to coordinate the fight back they were determined to win. Six months down the line, they forced the employers to backdown, and on Saturday August 11th they held a national conference to discuss the progress they have made, the state of the industry now, and the way forward.
Although the conference was not the same size as the Conway hall event, (about 80 activists and their supporters attending), it was a far more serious affair. The vast majority of those attending represented real forces on the ground, being reps or activists on sites around the country, reflecting a real mood of resistance in the industry. The meeting last year was of 500 angry individuals. The conference yesterday was of a coordinated, organised movement of activists, and as such marked a qualitative step forward.
Since that meeting a year ago, construction workers have: launched a concerted campaign of weekly protests outside major sites (in London and beyond); and have built such a momentum inside Unite – one of Britain’s key unions – that leading activists of the campaign have been elected onto key committees of the union, . Meanwhile the union’s senior officials have started a constructive dialogue with activists on how to work together; an official strike ballot has been called against one of the industry’s major employers (leading directly to the retreat by the bosses); and there is a recognition by both activists and the union that each brings something of value to the fight, something to that the other on its own cannot achieve.
Of course there have been setbacks as well as successes; the wage cuts have been knocked back, but everyone knows the governors have not given up on their plans; they have tried to victimize militants – as at Ratcliffe – and have been rocked on their heels at the magnificent response, of hundreds walking out in support of their rep.
The conference this weekend marked a big step forward. No longer prepared to merely react to the employers’ attacks, the mood was sufficiently positive to propose a strategy of attack. Selecting one of the major contractors as the target, they resolved to step up the campaign of site protests to end the blacklist, and demand direct employment.
A year ago, Counterfire supporters argued that the fight against the wage cuts could not be separated from the need to fight the blacklist, and the casualisation of labour inherent in self-employment (“the lump”); that until construction workers could force something like the old ‘dockers register of labour’, then the ever-present threat of unemployment would hang over every attempt to organise.
The unanimous mood of the conference yesterday was in agreement on the first two points, and the third no longer seems as pie-in-the-sky as maybe it did twelve months ago.
More significant than all the progress they have made in their industry is the contribution the construction workers have made more generally. The fight back they initiated has not just invigorated a new generation of activists in their industry, they have enthused a layer of activists far beyond their ranks.
Recognising from the outset that they did not immediately have the strength on the ground to force the set-piece confrontation necessary to drive the employers back, they set about building that strength. “Not able to call a strike on specific sites? We’ll draw activist from across many sites, and protest outside specific workplaces!” Through that, they derived confidence in numbers that they could not achieve on individual sites.
More, they raised the possibility of resistance on the sites they picked. The disaffected workers on that site saw the numbers outside, and gained confidence they were not isolated. When the sparks at Blackfriars refused to go in while the protest was on outside, they proved to themselves they could act collectively. When the rep at Radcliffe was laid off, it was the picket called by the North West Rank and File that sparked the walkout.
On top of this, the growing belief in the possibility of resistance heightened the argument inside Unite between those that thought resistance was futile or even impossible (the “business union” supporters) and those who believed the slogan of “a fighting back union” should be more than just empty words. By their fight, they helped codify the call for a member-led union, and strengthened both their support and activists in general.
As their protests grew, they welcomed support from trade unionists generally, and as they got that support, so the message spread outside construction, and outside Unite, that resistance is possible. They have, through their creativity, provided us with new weapons, and new ways of resisting.
Of course our strength lies in our collective strength in the workplace, but what the construction workers have taught us all is that just because you might not have that strength now, that does not mean ‘game over’ – there are ways to develop that strength and confidence.
All in all, that conference on Saturday owes a considerable debt to those few activists in construction who first refused to lay down and roll over. But they deserve thanks from a far, far wider group of people – all of us who have long dreamt “another world is possible”, but who sometimes were not altogether confident it was more than a dream.
Thank you, sparks, for helping to light the fire.
In the parks, halls and public spaces around Kings Cross
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