The first shots have been fired in a new battle by electricians.
Wednesday saw protests in London, Glasgow, the North East and the North West of England against attempts to deskill the construction industry. In London workers occupied the offices of energy multinational EDF.
EDF and its partners are building the Hinkley C nuclear power plant in Somerset. Firms there have created new installer grades to undercut industry terms and conditions.
The bosses’ MEH Alliance at Hinkley Point C is a consortium made up of Altrad, Balfour Beatty Bailey, Cavendish Nuclear and Doosan Babcock. It is calling the new rate-busting grades Electrical Support Operatives (ESO) and Engineering Construction Operative.
The plan is to run short courses for electricians on how to install containment or cabling. There are 9,000 km of cable and 404 km of containment to install on the Hinkley project.
A series of online meetings of the Unite union electrical and mechanical combine (EMC) and the electricians’ rank and file group have escalated the campaign.
The result of the pressure is that Unite has come out against the new grades.
EDF has announced it will increase the number of workers from 5,600 on site to 8,500 when Covid-19 restrictions allow.
Hinkley Point C is due to open in June 2026—a year late and so far at a cost of £23 billion, some £5 billion over budget.
Unite has enthusiastically supported the building of the nuclear plant. While it was proud to sign up to an agreement for apprentices which appears to have been broken, it also seems to have sleepwalked into the creation of ESOs.
The dispute has echoes of the electricians’ Besna dispute in 2011. Originally eight companies had planned to impose a new agreement and grade on workers to undercut wages and organisation.
That saw an escalating campaign of direct action on construction sites. Electricians protested, occupied and struck unofficially for six months.
As Jim Harte, chair of Unite’s EMC, put it, “We knew that the war was not won. We have to be ever vigilant against those who want to take our jobs away by deskilling our industry.”
In the coming weeks, a similar level of militancy will be needed to push back the bosses’ latest attempt to attack construction workers.