Construction workers at a site in Runcorn have walked out in protest at poor conditions. Elly Badcock interviews a worker on site - referred to as ‘A’ due to the blacklist
“It takes the lads to vote with their feet and walk out before they’re taken seriously”, laments the construction worker I spoke to in the middle of an all-out strike at a Runcorn site. The issues the workers are raising are basic health and safety concerns we’d all take for granted; issues, for example, like not having enough toilet facilities for the amount of workers on site or enough decent food in the canteen to provide a filling meal for everyone. “We go to work to do a job; we expect to be treated fairly,” said A. “We’re not slaves anymore, are we? All we’re asking for is 2013, not 1913.”
Another immediately pressing concern is staffing levels on site. In a potentially dangerous industry like construction it’s vital to have enough staff to carry out procedures safely. Whilst the companies running the site have increased staffing levels incrementally, A maintained that they did this “reactively and always on the cheap. It’s only due to the work of the safety reps and stewards, saying we’re not willing to accept these conditions, that anything ever changes”.
Health and safety
A refers continually to Health and Safety; it is, of course, a set of laws and regulations the right-wing press love to lambast. “They always talk,” says A, “about kids not being allowed conker fights in the playground, but this is different”. Construction, without proper precautions, is an extremely dangerous industry. A tells me that “40 years ago, deaths on site were just accepted as part of the job. The right-wing press always mock Health and Safety, but it’s one of the most important aspects of the job. It’s what allows us to go to work and come home safely.”
When asked how confident he was that the strikers could win their demands A was unequivocal. “The lads on site are adamant; we will stay out until we get satisfactory answers. We’ve been forced into this action because we don’t have a safe environment to work in, and we need to make a stand and get the rights we’re entitled to.”
Discussions between the employers and the two unions on site, Unite and the GMB, have been ongoing. However, A tells me, the management is not forthcoming with solutions. “They always say they’ll change things as soon as reasonably possible, but then they sit back and don’t take any action. Even a small gesture that they’re prepared to comply with our request might shift our position slightly; even a toilet block on the back of a truck. But there’s no visible reaction to what we’re saying at all.”
One out, all out
Incredibly, the site is 100% unionised and a general meeting of siteworkers recently implemented a ‘one out, all out’ policy. This means that if one group of workers - e.g. the electricians - walk out in a dispute with their management everyone else on the site will down tools and walk out too. In a climate where the Coalition consistently seeks to pit different sections of the workforce and the unemployed against each other, this is a startling achievement, I tell A. “Yes, it’s a really good step forward,” he says. “It shows the confidence of the workers on this site to say ‘an injury to one is an injury to all.' We’ve been too fragmented before, and the fact is if one company gets away with something then all the others on site will try it too. We are a united shop here, and will take action to defend anyone on site.”
With union activity on A’s site getting stronger every day I asked him about the upcoming leadership elections in his union, Unite. Who did he think was best placed to lead the next two years of struggle? A is a member of one of Unite’s many 'rank-and-file’ committees and was proud of his committees record in "shaking up the union and getting ourselves listened to." Whilst he was quick to express his admiration for Jerry Hicks he emphasised that “it’s probably not the right time for him now. We need to strengthen the left as a movement - get involvement from trade unionists who don’t see themselves as socialists. It’s not an automatic leap, you know, from being a trade unionist to being a socialist. Len [McCluskey] is good for that; he responds to pressure and listens to his membership.”
One of the biggest issues for A was the relationship between his union and the Labour Party, and he was happy that McCluskey has “looked towards alternative political representation if Labour move to the right. It’s good he’s seeking re-election and refreshing his mandate now.”
With a commitment to stay out until their demands are met and a refusal to accept non-payment for strike days (workers claim they are forced into taking this action, and should be properly compensated for raising health and safety concerns) the political dedication of these siteworkers is indisputable.