Conway Hall in central London was packed out on Saturday, with angry construction workers fuming over the employers’ attempt to slash terms and conditions on many of Britain’s largest construction sites.

With over 300 workers in the main hall, and both balconies packed, organisers estimate over 500 construction workers attended the ad hoc meeting called by industry activists. The meeting was called to draw up a response to the statement of intent issued by a number of major contractors to pull out of the current national agreement, and launch a full-on attack on workers conditions.

The meeting was called by supporters of the rank and file construction workers newsletter ‘Site Worker’ (contact at [email protected]), to fill the gap left by the major unions’ inadequate response to this attack. Two full time officers responsible for the construction sector in Unite’s London and Eastern region sat on the platform, and had to endure an angry and vocal criticism of the union’s lack of leadership.

Slightly unfair though this may have been (neither officer being responsible for the national response, which is formulated by the National officer, Bernard Macauley), nevertheless they will be in no doubt that workers in the industry are up for a fight, and do not accept the argument put by the officials that “this won’t be sorted out overnight. This will not be a sprint, we are involved in a marathon here”.

The conference was addressed by Steve Acheson, a long-time activist in the industry and one of the highest-profile victims of the employers’ unlawful blacklist, and Jerry Hicks, the recent challenger as a rank and file candidate for the position of General Secretary of Unite. Though not a construction worker himself, Jerry has won widespread respect among construction activists for his consistent and committed support for their struggle, pre-dating the explosion of anger round the Lindsey oil refinery (LOR) two years ago.

Steve, Jerry and many speakers from the floor hammered home these central points:

  • this is not a case of ‘rogue’ employers, breaking away from the ‘responsible’ employers in the ECA (Engineering Contractors Association) – they are the advance guard, testing the water for the rest, to see how much they can get away with
  • this battle will not be won through petitions, marches, or publicity campaigns appealing to the ‘honest nature’ of construction bosses or politicians; it will be won on the industrial front, through the strongest weapons we have – strikes and solidarity
  • this is not a battle involving a specific section of the industry alone; it is the precursor to a generalised assault, a ‘softening up’ approach, in the hope that the demoralisation of a defeat on the sparks will lead to a general demoralisation of activists across the industry
  • consequently, this fight cannot be left in the hands of officials who are clearly out of touch with the mood on the sites, and whose conciliatory approach to the employers (a hangover from the disastrous days of  “Business” Bayliss and Tommy Arse-acher) does nothing but encourage the employers to take more and more liberties. It must be led, and controlled, by the membership, following and building on the example of the LOR strikers – site meetings electing their reps and deciding on action, and meetings such as this allowing full debate by the members on the way forward.

The meeting finished by electing a committee of 6 to represent these views, and to build the fight-back in the industry. The committee has already been invited to attend a meeting with Unite officials and reps in the next few days. Further meetings are being organised around the country, in the northwest, northeast and Wales, with the intention of organising in the other regions as well.

The arguments put by supporters of Counterfire, that there can be no peace in the industry until the problem of the blacklist is addressed, and that the only realistic solution is to force the employers to accept a union-supervised register of labour to replace the current system of employing labour was well received, but as yet has not won decisive acceptance.

All in all, this meeting was a magnificent step forward in the fight to achieve respect and decent conditions in a an industry infamous for its approach to workers’ rights, and the organisers deserve the thanks and support of every trade union and labour activist.

(For obvious reasons, the author wishes to remain anonymous – being not quite ready yet for involuntary early retirement!)

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