On 23 February electricians learned that the remaining companies committed to the British Engineering Services National Agreement (Besna) had withdrawn the threat of imposing the new contracts.
The “sparks” had been protesting since August last year when there was an inaugural rank and file dispute meeting of some 500 people in London. From day one there was a determination to get right up the noses of the electrical contracting bosses. Gate protests, street blockades, site occupations and picketing were the militant tactics employed on a weekly basis.
In the key centres of the dispute – London, Glasgow, Teesside and Cardiff – regular rank and file meetings took place. There were also regular mass meetings at important power station and oil refinery sites, Grangemouth, SSI (formerly Corus) on Teesside and Ratcliffe-on-Soar in Nottinghamshire among them.
These green shoots of serious rank and file organisation pushed their Unite union every step of the way. And they were not always happy about it. One national construction officer went as far to describe rank and file electricians as a “cancer” inside Unite.
When the new contract was revealed, which included pay cuts of up to 35 percent, Unite told sparks that there would be no campaign until January 2012. But on 9 November pressure from below forced the union to hold an official national demonstration. As the march reached Balfour Beatty’s Blackfriars site, numbers swelled to 2,000 people.
Balfour Beatty is one of Britain’s largest construction companies. It made profits of over £50 million last year.
Unite’s first ballot saw an overwhelming 82 percent vote for strike action. But the union backed off from fighting Balfour Beatty in the High Court, meaning that no strike could take place at the end of 2011.
The second vote in January of 66 percent was a good strike vote in the context of confusion caused by the union. Unite had changed its tactics and started calling on electricians to sign the Besna contracts.
On 16 February Unite beat Balfour Beatty in the High Court, meaning that an official strike could take place within a week.
An official stewards’ meeting to decide action in the event of a successful ballot voted for a rolling programme of five days strike action, followed by five days overtime ban, followed by five days strike action and so on.
Balfour Beatty really did not want a strike. Workers at the Grangemouth Oil Refinery across the trades had decided that they would not cross an electricians’ picket line. Grangemouth is Scotland’s only oil refinery. If you bring it to a standstill, petrol supplies to Scottish forecourts dry up in a matter of days.
Additionally, Balfour Beatty’s prestigious Blackfriars station site in London is due for completion this summer, presumably in time for the Olympic Games. It is billed by Network Rail’s website as “a new landmark for London – the first railway station to span the Thames”. Delays would have meant the company incurring large fines and would have damaged Balfour Beatty’s reputation. As the Besna newsletter issued on 17 February suggested, it could not afford further “industrial unrest”.
When on the same day Balfour Beatty announced it was withdrawing the contracts, it signalled the end of Besna. Other companies soon withdrew as well.
It is difficult to describe the anguish that electricians felt over the cuts that Besna represented. Electricians came under enormous pressure to sign the contracts. For six months a big layer of rank and file activists have fought hard to explain the threat that Besna posed and to involve workmates in the protests.
The sparks enjoyed the support of students and those involved in the Occupy movement. This meant they didn’t feel isolated. Importantly, the build-up to the huge 30 November public sector pensions strike meant that electricians felt part of a wider struggle.
Now that they have won there is a good deal of pride about the dispute and a renewed confidence. This has to be rapidly capitalised on. Unite has rightly put out a newsletter announcing a recruitment drive.
Construction is a notoriously difficult industry to organise. The transient nature of the workforce as jobs start and finish, the impact of company blacklisting and the difficulties caused by subcontracting are all factors that mean there are many weaknesses in union organisation. But the victory over Besna could be a turning point in the industry.
There are big tests ahead, not least forthcoming negotiations over new agreements in which the rank and file must put a case for an improvement in the existing terms. The Joint Industry Board (JIB) is the agreement that electricians were fighting to defend. But even under this agreement workers have had a pay freeze for the last two years.
The dispute has shown that an organised rank and file that puts pressure on, and works with, the union when it is prepared to fight can win.
The sparks’ victory is a victory for every working person. It shows the capacity we have to stand up to the bosses and beat giant companies in difficult circumstances. This needs to be shouted from the rooftops.
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