Two years after construction bosses got a bloody nose when they tried to smash union organisation on major construction sites, they think enough water has passed under the bridge to give it another go. Richard Allday argues they can be stopped again.

Lindsey Oil Refinery strikers 2009Rumours are rife in the construction sector that Balfour Beatty, a major player in the construction industry, has decided to tear up its agreements with the unions and attempt to slash terms and conditions in the electrical contracting industry.

The senior national officer in Unite the Union’s construction trade group is reported to have told the workers on a York site that BBES (Balfour Beatty Engineering Services) intends to implement the following: cease to recognise the JIB (Joint Industrial Board – the official employer/trade union negotiating forum); the engineer on site will grade you as he sees fit; pension out the window; Saturday working all at time and a half; Sunday being the first day of the week also at time and a half; no expenses/working away allowances; and compulsory overtime.

The spark who sent this information went on to say; “The shit goes on. BBES are trying this while the other main players wait in the background read to jump on the runaway train. All aboard please!”

The word flying around the sites is that BBES intends, over the next 18 months, to replace between 40%-60% of its existing UK skilled workforce with imported semi-skilled workers – with the obvious cash savings.

Let there be no mistake, if one contractor gets away with this, the rest will pour through the breach. And if they get away with it among the electrical contractors, what will it mean for the NAECI[1] sites (the big industrial engineering construction sites – power stations, refineries etc) scaffolders and steel erectors classified as semi-skilled and on £10 per hour?

It is excellent, therefore, to hear that rank and file construction workers have called for a national meeting next Saturday to decide their response. To be held at Conway Hall, Holborn, London, starting at 11 o’clock, it provides a real chance for the best activists in construction to democratically thrash out their response – not a half-baked compromise between national officers and employers, but a real response on the ground, to knock back the employers decisively.

The anger generated by this attack can be used not just to defend existing terms and conditions, but to extend and develop them.

The employers will use any trick they can to divide us, so we need to be absolutely clear, and confident, in arguing that this is about being paid the union rate for the job. It is not an argument against fellow workers, be they from Portugal or Plymouth, Warsaw or Warrington, it is an argument against wage-cuts, and unsafe working conditions. It is about refusing to engage in the race to the bottom.

It is also the perfect time to insist that the any agreement with the employers has to have at its heart an acceptance that employment on NAECI or JIB sites can only be through a union-supervised register of labour. This is the only guarantee construction workers can have that they will not be blacklisted out of the industry for defending terms and conditions, it is the only guarantee construction workers can have that labour on site will be union labour (and if it is not union labour it is scab labour), and it is the one condition that the employers will dig their heels in to try and prevent.

They know that as long as they control the hiring and firing process, they hold the whip hand, and we will face attacks such as at Lindsey Oil Refinery (LOR), and now this, time after time, until they have got what they want – cheap, expendable labour, with  health and safety at rock bottom, along with pay, and the only thing that will be increased will be hours at work.

The wonderful response in 2009 across the sites to the attack at LOR showed beyond doubt that construction workers have the weapon to win – it’s called solidarity. The unofficial, indefinite, strike at Lindsey caused immense problems for the contractors involved, but when the solidarity walkouts spread across the industry nationwide, the employers as a whole bottled it.  Unfortunately, that strength was squandered last time as the unions insisted on treating the issues at LOR as a “stand-alone” problem, when we all knew it affected the whole industry – that is precisely why the solidarity was so strong!

The Unions obviously realise the seriousness of this attack which is why Unite on their website has launched a ‘Defend the Agreement’ campaign.

Construction workers should support this, of course, but we need to go further. Bosses are not interested in petitions. They are not interested in our opinions. They are interested in their profits. First, last, and only. That means the only response that will change their minds is one that hits their profits – strike action. And not token action. Not one day strikes, or work to rules, or overtime bans. We need a shut down of the industry till the employers see sense

Let’s not allow the same mistake twice. If we can get a united response – across the trades – to this attack on the sparks, let’s sort the problem out once and for all – for a union register of labour, and a decent rate of pay. They want to rip up the national agreements – well it comes at a price! If they walk away from the national agreement, there is no reason why we should settle for the old agreement back again, we should only settle for a new agreement – on our terms.

Construction workers in 2009 did a wonderful service to trades unionism in this country – they reminded us that the employers only negotiate with the unions because of us, the rank and file members that do the job – and can stop the job! If construction workers strike over this attack, they have the right to demand the support of every trades unionist in the country – because if they can smash conditions in construction, every back-ripping bastard in every other industry will be queuing up for some of the same. United we stand. Or…


[1] The National Agreement for the Engineering Construction Industry (NAECI)

Richard Allday

Richard Allday is a member of Unite the Union’s National Executive, a branch secretary and shop steward in road haulage.  A member of Counterfire, his comrades know him better as 'the angry trucker'.