The actions of the Scunthorpe scaffolders have been the key in advancing their cause, and the whole movement must support them in challenging draconian anti-trade union laws, writes John Westmoreland
When 60 scaffolders working at British Steel’s Scunthorpe plant went on strike over a pay dispute back in 2021 nobody could have imagined that one hundred days later the scaffs would be fighting on.
After twelve weeks of picketing in the run up to Christmas the scaffs had to re-ballot. They voted to carry on their dispute with a massive 83 per cent wanting to fight on. The ballot showed incredible courage and determination. They are not only up against their immediate employer, Actavo, but also the steel giant that dominates Scunthorpe.
They could have given in, or just jacked and got employment with another contractor, but they have fought on over an important principle. They are being under-valued, paid as much as 15 per cent less than the agreed rate for the job. And the agreed rate affects the entire construction industry (NAECI). Therefore defending the national rate is defending the integrity of negotiated terms and conditions, and is a fight for the interests of the entire workforce.
As Unite steward David Birchall says,
“This strike is also a fight for the coming generation. The steelworks is essential to the future of Scunthorpe. My kids may well end up working here and our fight is defending their future.”
The strike has steadily pushed out and at last features on the national news. Morale has been bolstered by the support of prominent socialists and campaigners like Ken Loach, Richard Burgon and Laura Pidcock. Scaffolders in Denmark sent a delegation over along with a sizeable donation to the strike fund.
But the actions of the scaffolders themselves has been the key in advancing their cause.
If the Actavo strikers win it could well be an historic victory at exactly the right time. The British working class is facing the worst cost of living crisis in fifty years, and more and more workers are opting to fight and take strike action.
Challenging the anti-union laws
Since 1980, UK (mainly Tory) governments have imposed legal restrictions on trade unions. The result has been the redistribution of national income from the working class to the employers. The market is free but labour is shackled.
Anti-union legislation has three main objectives: to weaken shop floor organisation; to force trade unions under pain of severe legal sanctions to control their members; and to prevent workers making common cause by banning “secondary action”.
The whole history of the trade union movement is rich in examples of workers showing their empathy with others and offering solidarity. The movement was built on basic principles of commonality and collective purpose – “an injury to one is an injury to all”, and “one out, all out!”
But the effect of the trade union laws has been to dissolve working class solidarity and invert it. We now have socialism for the bosses as governments pander to their every need, and the ravages of free market chaos for the workers. Instead of economic activity enriching society it is destroying it.
When the Actavo strike started they were prevented from picketing effectively – stopping the other 750 Unite members going in to the steelworks and asking for essential solidarity like blacking all Actavo work. A few times their frustration exploded and on occasions barricaded the road into the plant.
When the second wave of strike action began after the New Year, the scaffs were determined to take the dispute out and tap into the solidarity they knew was there. Successful picketing of other scaffolders is now putting pressure on Actavo and British Steel.
Their first target was Lindsey Oil Refinery at Immingham. As one of the strike organisers explained:
“When we went to LOR we had to be careful. We gave some of the lads a heads up that we would be there the following morning. We phrased our appeal carefully, saying all we want you to do is respect our strike. We want you to tell your boss that we are coming back if they don’t pay attention. The lads all stopped at the gate to talk to us and the company soon paid attention.”
Picketing at Immingham paid off and Altrad scaffs who had been doing Actavo work at British Steel were taken off the job.
The next target was High Peak in Derbyshire. The offices at High Peak were picketed and they too agreed not to touch the strikers work.
The Actavo strikers have challenged the anti-trade union laws and found that when effective picketing takes place working class solidarity can be found.
Of course it would be fantastic if the entire movement would come out and smash unjust laws to pieces, but it is much more likely that if more workers follow the lead of the Actavo scaffs we can undermine the law, chip away at it and watch it give way a little further down the road.
February 22 – a day of solidarity action
On February 22 the scaffs are asking for a day of solidarity action.
From 6.00 to 10.00 all supporters of the dispute are called on to join the pickets at Gate D on Brigg Road. Hopefully the demo/picket will close the steelworks and turn the screw on Actavo and British Steel.
And let’s say it one more time – all they want is the rate for the job. A rate agreed between the union and the employers can never be deemed excessive! The money is there for sure, and a mass demo/picket will make it clear that swindling the scaffs out of their agreed rate could be very expensive.
This week marks the fiftieth anniversary of the victorious battle for Saltley Gate. The Tories concocted their anti-union laws in response to that example of mass solidarity to stop it ever happening again, but the ghost of the miners’ strike is coming back to haunt them.
If we can win this battle through mass solidarity it might well make history. It might be the beginning of the end of the trade union laws, and every activist can do something. We can go to the mass protest. We can lobby MPs and councillors. We can demand that the TUC wakes up and that Labour commits to repealing the trade union laws.
Everyone can contribute to a social media storm in the run up to February 22. Every campaigning organisation can livestream the event and together we can do it.
We all have a stake in the outcome of this dispute and a victory for the scaffs is a victory for us all.
Before you go...
Counterfire is expanding fast as a website and an organisation. We are trying to organise a dynamic extra-parliamentary left in every part of the country to help build resistance to the government and their billionaire backers. If you like what you have read and you want to help, please join us or just get in touch by emailing [email protected] Now is the time!
John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.