Electricians won a stunning victory last week when they stopped bosses imposing worse contracts.
The result followed one of the most impressive campaigns by rank and file workers for a generation.
Workers had protested and struck outside and inside construction sites for months. They blocked bridges, roads and the sites themselves.
Workers from sites came out to join the protests—despite intimidation from site security, managers and police.
Protests repeatedly developed into picket lines that other construction workers refused to cross.
Electricians organised successful unofficial strikes. Both directly employed and agency workers refused to go into sites. Migrant workers respected picket lines and joined protests.
Engineering construction workers protested and picketed as well as electricians. Trade unionists, campaigners and students joined the protests.
There was pressure from the workers’ Unite union for moderation. But the rank and file fought to keep the union machine on board and to push union officials into backing action.
The effort wasn’t always reciprocated. But the strength of the rank and file forced Unite to back the campaign.
Here is the story of how they won.
Some 500 workers packed into a meeting on 13 August in central London. They elected a rank and file committee and called for Unite to ballot for industrial action.
Days later 200 people came to a meeting of Unite’s London construction branch.
“It was too big for the hall, and we had to hold the meeting in the street,” said branch secretary Steve Kelly.
Workers voted unanimously to call a protest—it was the first of many.
Around 200 construction workers protested at the Blackfriars site in central London the following week.
Some 200 protested at the Westfield construction site in east London the week after.
One electrician said, “We’re trying to save our jobs for the future—for trainees coming into the trade.”
Some 100 electricians and pipe fitters took unofficial action at the Grangemouth power station in Scotland.
Balfour Beatty had threatened to sack them by December if they didn’t sign new contracts.
Electricians also protested in Manchester and at the Faslane submarine base in Scotland.
Then the militancy in London escalated as 250 construction workers occupied the Farringdon Crossrail site.
The occupation stopped work on a major central London construction site. The protest was the first to be officially backed by Unite.
It followed 300-strong protests over pay at two Lincolnshire oil refineries, Total Lindsey and Conoco Phillips in Immingham.
Later in September some 350 protesting electricians held an impromptu meeting inside King’s Cross train station.
They cheered Mick Dooley from the Ucatt union as he read from the socialist novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.
Hundreds of workers blocked Oxford Street, London’s busiest shopping street, for almost an hour.
One electrician announced to cheers from the crowd, “In New York they have occupied Wall Street. We have occupied Oxford Street. The workers united will never be defeated.”
In Liverpool workers protested outside the Liverpool Central Library site. And electricians protested at a Balfour Beatty site in Cambuslang, Lanarkshire.
Others protested at the Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station in Nottinghamshire and targeted a construction industry awards night in Glasgow.
Later in the month some 400 workers blocked the entrances of the Balfour Beatty site at Blackfriars station, central London.
One electrician told Socialist Worker, “It’s simple—they are attacking us, so we are shutting down their site. Stopping site deliveries costs them a fortune. It hurts them hard.”
Supporters hung a banner reading “All power to the sparks” outside the Cannon Street station site as electricians occupied it the following week.
Workers on site quickly made a cardboard sign saying “No JIB cuts” and held it up to cheering protesters outside.
Unite called a national day of protest in defence of electricians for 9 November.
It began at 7am with a demonstration at the Pinnacle building site at Bishopsgate, near London’s Liverpool Street, initiated by rank and file workers.
More than 700 electricians and supporters repeatedly broke through police lines to march through the City of London.
They marched to join the 2,000-strong official Unite demonstration.
Unite general secretary Len McCluskey announced that the union had given official notice for a strike ballot of workers at Balfour Beatty.
Unite encouraged workers to lobby MPs. But many shouted that they wanted to join a student protest taking place on the same day.
As the march set off, hundreds of electricians marched towards Fleet Street where they broke through police lines.
Protests on construction sites across Britain turned into mass stayaways the following week.
In Nottinghamshire, at the Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station, electricians, scaffolders and welders all stayed out of work.
More than 200 electricians picketed both gates at SSI steel works (formerly Corus) in Redcar, Teesside. Scaffolders and electricians refused to work.
Workers also stayed off the job at the Pembroke power station in Wales.
Other sites to have walkouts included Stanlow in Ellesmere Port, Grangemouth in Scotland, Sellafield in Cumbria, West Burton in Nottinghamshire, Runcorn, Drax and Eggborough in north Yorkshire, Ferrybridge in west Yorkshire, Hinkley Point in Somerset and Lindsey oil refinery in Lincolnshire.
In London up to 200 workers protested at the Farringdon Crossrail construction site.
The main delivery gate had mysteriously been locked with what one worker called a “rank and file padlock”.
The next week, electricians occupied the offices of the Gratte Brothers construction site in King’s Cross station in London.
Then 30 November saw Britain’s biggest strike since 1926.
After weeks of receiving public sector workers’ support on their protests, electricians were determined to take part.
Some 200 electricians marched—despite police opposition—to join Prospect, PCS and FDA union pickets.
Electricians at Balfour Beatty struck unofficially against bosses’ attempts to destroy their terms and conditions on 7 December.
They had voted by 81 percent for strikes in a legal ballot.
But bosses threatened to use anti-union laws against the ballot—and Unite blinked first and cancelled the action.
A meeting of rank and file electricians in London decided to push for Balfour Beatty sites to be shut down.
One electrician said, “We just have to strike anyway. We’re not having some overpaid toff judge telling us we can’t strike and have to take a pay cut.”
Electricians walked off jobs, protested and blocked roads across Britain.
At the Balfour Beatty site at Blackfriars station no electrician went into work. Pickets turned lorries away—despite a sustained police attempt to stop them.
One Balfour electrician told Socialist Worker, “I don’t care what Balfour Beatty say—I’m not working.”
Another said, “I’m out because they want to deskill my job. They’ll always try to stop any strike but what’s the worst they can do?”
More than 100 workers protested outside Balfour Beatty’s headquarters in Glasgow—and Balfour electricians didn’t go to work. Workers occupied the Cambuslang fire station construction site.
Construction workers walked out at the Grangemouth site to join Balfour pickets.
Protests took place in Immingham and Hartlepool, where electricians freed an arrested demonstrator.
In London one worker said, “I am not crossing a picket line, simple as that.” Another initially went into work and then came back out. He said he “simply couldn’t do it”.
“You have to have some respect for yourself and for others,” he added.
January – February 2012
The start of this year saw the protests resume and a reballot of Balfour Beatty electricians.
Building bosses threatened to sack workers if they didn’t sign the new Besna contracts by 9 January.
But bosses then said that they may not enforce the deadline.
There was some confusion as Unite advised workers to sign the contracts under protest.
But hundreds of electricians returned their contracts unsigned.
Balfour workers voted two to one for a strike for the second time at the start of February.
Balfour Beatty failed to obtain an injunction against the ballot.
As part of the campaign, up to 300 construction workers targeted the Electrical Contractors Association’s annual black tie dinner, held at the Grosvenor hotel on London’s posh Park Lane.
Ian, a member of the London electricians’ rank and file committee, told Socialist Worker, “We will strike, hit them hard and make them listen. We are not going away.”
For more on the dispute read Sparks Revolt: The electricians’ dispute and the rise of the rank and file, the new pamphlet by Simon Basketter, Ian Bradley and Alan Kenny. Call 020 7819 1175 or go to www.bookmarksbookshop.co.uk to order your copy for just £2