Lessons of a betrayal
ELECTRICIANS AT Pfizer's plant in Sandwich in Kent have voted to end their dispute after six weeks of determined struggle. They had stood up against contractor Balfour Kilpatrick's attacks on health and safety on the site. The 240 workers decided to stay and fight for their jobs when management sacked them for refusing to work in wet clothes and unsafe conditions. Their picket line tactics created traffic chaos for 20 miles around multinational Pfizer's site.
But AEEU union leaders stamped on their commitment to fight. The AEEU locally and nationally said from the start of the dispute on 7 April that it would not support the strike. Balfour Kilpatrick employed another subcontractor, Beavers, to get electricians onto the site.
The AEEU leadership gave the green light to this scabbing operation. It instructed electricians from Sellafield to cross the picket line. This left electricians who travelled from all over the country for the work to fight alone.
A group of electricians working for another contractor, Phoenix, showed their solidarity with the sacked electricians in the first week. They refused to cross the picket line for two days. They and other workers on the site went on to take regular collections for the strikers. Most of the �4,000 in the strike fund came from workers inside the Pfizer plant.
Other trade unionists in Manchester and Glasgow organised collections. The vast majority of the sacked electricians refused to give into Balfour Kilpatrick's pressure to cross the picket lines. It took union-approved scabbing to beat them.
They had power
THERE WERE ongoing debates on the picket lines over how to take the battle forward. Some strikers argued there had to be solid picket lines that stopped and argued with every worker not to cross the picket line. This meant taking the Tory anti-union laws head on and appealing to workers over the heads of union leaders.
However, the electricians were not confident to adopt this as a consistent strategy. Instead their hopes were raised that their dispute may be made official by the TGWU union.
This was because a number of the sparks were in the EPIU union-a breakaway from the AEEU which later affiliated to the TGWU. However, TGWU leader Bill Morris repudiated the unofficial strike. EPIU union leaders chose not to break with the other union leaders. The electricians are right to feel angry and betrayed. But their fight has valuable lessons for other workers.