The striking scaffolders have led a heroic struggle and won the solidarity of thousands of trade unionists, and the mass picket would have strengthened their hand, argues John Westmoreland
The Actavo scaffolders, whose courage and determination has won solidarity across the movement, have been advised by their union, Unite, to postpone the mass picket of British Steel planned for next Tuesday.
An estimated 3,000 people were expected to come to Scunthorpe on 22 February bringing solidarity from places as far away as London, Newcastle and Manchester. One of the strikers responded to the postponement saying,
“I’m absolutely gutted. We could have shaken this town to its foundations. But we’ve been told that if we go ahead further negotiations with Actavo will be affected negatively.”
With some reluctance the strikers have agreed to the postponement, but the question must be asked – postponed until when? If that question can’t be answered then the scaffs would be well advised to call for the picket to go ahead.
The postponement comes after scaffolding contractor Actavo has admitted that the strike was hitting them hard.
Pressure on the firm was building after the striking scaffs went out and picketed other sites. The response from other workers has been fantastic and Actavo knew that it was only a matter of time before they would be forced to come to terms with the strikers’ demand that the company pay the nationally agreed rate for the job.
Of course we should completely understand that the scaffs have families to feed and they are right to want a speedy settlement. But it is a mistake to throw in a strong hand when your opponent starts twitching, and the mass picket would have strengthened the union’s hand.
Employers fear mass pickets
The mass picket was generating ever more enthusiasm for the scaffs’ cause. Trade unionists have been hugely impressed with their fight for the agreed rate, and nationally agreed terms and conditions are vital in stopping the race to the bottom. The mass picket would have helped to reassert the importance of fighting trade unionism after decades of passivity.
Calling off action to improve the hand of negotiators is a well-rehearsed ploy that the bosses use when they are in a tight spot. They can see that the strikers are full of fight and they want to drag them into the long grass of negotiations and legal wrangling. They hope that if there is a promise of a settlement, the strikers will stop picketing and then, isolated from solidarity, the fire that was burning in them will die out.
Employers fear mass pickets, they don’t fear courts.
Unite say that the mass picket has been postponed, not abandoned, but after hundreds of workers have put in rest days or used up holidays to make the picket line, the next call, if it comes, will be more difficult to build.
Counterfire thinks Unite is wrong to call off the mass picket. Nevertheless the scaffolders have won the hearts of thousands of trade unionists with their heroic battle against an unrelenting employer. And Actavo’s willingness to look for a solution is testament to the strikers’ determination, and shows that effective picketing and asking for solidarity is the way to win.
The Actavo strike has come at a time when the fight for economic and social justice amid a cost of living crisis is taking off, and solidarity is needed as never before.
On 5 March, the next wave of the People’s Assembly cost of living protests will hit the streets. The protests will include striking workers, and workers who have led victorious disputes, wherever possible.
The anger against this corrupt government that is wrecking working class lives needs to be allied with our power on the industrial front. Then we can win. The Actavo strikers can play an important role in getting that message across.
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John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.
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