Strike blocks roads around Pfizer plant
By Helen Shooter reports from the picket line
"THE MANAGEMENT have been riding roughshod over all aspects of health and safety. So now we're going to cause them as much chaos and mayhem as we can." So said Steve, one of over 200 electricians who are taking part in unofficial action at Pfizer's plant in Sandwich, Kent. It is the biggest construction site in Britain. It is a sign of the angry mood which many workers feel against their bullying bosses.
For the electricians in Kent that mood led to a sit-in. Then they put picket lines across the gates of the multinational company's 200 million site on Tuesday of last week. The workers have been complaining since November about the lack of health and safety provided by their bosses, the contractor Balfour Kirkpatrick. The dispute was triggered by the lack of drying facilities for the electricians' work clothing and boots.
After the torrential rain on Tuesday 4 April the workers had had enough. "We have to keep pushing and shoving all the time to get decent working conditions," says an electrician. Over the next seven days the battle began. The workers, members of the AEEU union and the smaller EPIU union, walked off the site that Tuesday to go home and dry off. "When we came in 19 hours later the lack of drying facilities meant our clothing and boots were still soaking," said Steve. "There was no way we were putting the gear on so we just sat in the canteen waiting for it to dry."
This turned into a sit-in which lasted until the Friday. That day the management sacked the workers for taking unofficial industrial action. As Steve says, "What we are seeing now is management trying to hang on to the golden days of Margaret Thatcher. "The Tony Blair government has made no difference to us. "We still get ripped off by greedy employers as much as the last 25 years." The electricians' battle is beginning to rattle both Balfour Kirkpatrick and Pfizer.
One source on the site said, "The management are really bothered by the picket line. The traffic is being held up so workers are getting in late, and inside the site the work is being held up because the electricians' job hasn't been finished. Pfizer don't like the bad publicity."
The electricians have combined the picket lines with the tactic of driving slowly up and down the main road around the site. This has caused major traffic disruption. One police officer was heard moaning on Thursday of last week that traffic was jammed up back to Canterbury, around ten miles away.
The electricians have won support from other workers on the site. Some electricians employed by the contractor Phoenix refused to cross the picket line on Wednesday and Thursday of last week. Kevin, a Phoenix worker, explained, "When around ten of us came out in support it was purely a conscience thing. The Balfour Kirkpatrick lot haven't been fairly treated. Then we heard that we would be sacked if we didn't come back to work. So we sent a letter to the picket line explaining why we were back in work. Now we're collecting money around the site." Other groups of workers have also started doing collections and hundreds of pounds has already been raised.
Activists among the electricians were planning to step up the fight by holding a day of action on Wednesday, urging workers across the site to join their dispute. The battle lines have been drawn at Pfizer's site in Kent-an area where the press and Tory politicians say the problem is asylum seekers. But the real enemy is Pfizer and its sidekick Balfour Kirkpatrick.
Sympathy could be solidarity
THE electricians have the power to win but they need to mobilise that strength. Pfizer has many different contractors working on the site, which means the workers are divided up. They and Balfour Kirkpatrick want to use workers' fear of breaking the law to stop other workers joining the electricians' action. Disgracefully, the AEEU union has also emphasised that the action is illegal and it does not back the workers.
The local AEEU official told workers to reapply for their jobs despite the fact that this will be used by the bosses to select who they want to re-employ. The anti-union laws are designed to make workers feel weak and isolated. The way to beat that is for the electricians to argue with every worker on the site, no matter what union they are in, that they should respect the picket lines.
There has already been action recently by another group of workers on the site. Around 150 pipe fitters and welders staged a series of sit-ins last month over who should provide personal protective equipment. The money pouring in from collections shows many workers have sympathy for the electricians. That sympathy can be turned into solidarity.
- Messages of support and donations: 17 Gordon Road, Westwood, Margate, Kent CT9 4DZ.
Make cheques payable to Sparks Fighting Fund.