I started working in the construction industry in 1993 as an apprentice electrician. Since then I have witnessed not just the lack of real-term pay rises, but also a year on year assault on our terms and conditions through forced bogus self-employment. So when I received a text message at the beginning of August from the London construction branch secretary calling a meeting to discuss how the eight biggest electrical contractors in the country wanted to tear up our 30 year old national agreement, my heart sank.
Later that week the venue was changed to Conway Hall as they needed somewhere larger. When I turned up I was met by 500 very angry sparks (electricians). Finally it looked like we weren’t going to roll over and take another kicking – we were ready to fight. We saw the new agreement the employers wished to bring in. It removed our right to a tribunal for unfair dismissal from day one of employment. It also means employers will be able to dictate the hours we work in a week and will be able to control the grading system. This would mean a 35 percent pay cut for those worst affected.
There was a great atmosphere in the meeting with real resolve. A rank and file committee was elected and a motion passed for two delegates to go to the Unite union’s national shop stewards’ meeting the following Wednesday to call on the union to act immediately. The answer they received at this meeting was disappointing. The officers of Unite had decided that there was no rush because the new contract wasn’t coming in until March, so they had till the new year to start a campaign.
That evening back at Conway Hall 200 people turned up eagerly waiting to hear Unite’s response. Outrage is an understatement of the feeling against Unite’s decision. We had no choice but to take the campaign on ourselves. We voted to protest the following Wednesday morning outside Blackfriars station, which is a major Balfour Beatty construction project. When the morning of the protest arrived everyone felt a bit apprehensive not knowing how many people would actually turn up. Seeing 150 people on that first protest was a huge relief. Anger had been brewing for years in the industry and the employers had gone too far.
It was decided then that we would hold a protest every Wednesday morning at 6.30am outside one of the eight contractors’ jobs. During the next few weeks the protests gathered momentum, spreading around the country. Rank and file committees were set up as protests spread to Scotland, Manchester and Newcastle, with activists from other trade unions, students and political parties coming along to show solidarity. I think this panicked the bosses of some of the eight companies because five of them decided to bring their contract date forward to 7 December. They thought it would be a walk in the park, but had seriously underestimated the resolve of the workers.
A real turning point came in the week of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) conference, when the mass public sector strike on 30 November was announced. That week we were protesting at Farringdon station which is part of London’s Crossrail project. Unite had finally got on board with three full-time officials and the assistant general secretary turning up. The speeches they gave contained some nice rhetoric about calling a ballot as soon as they were in a position to do so, but contained little substance. In the crowd shouts for the 30 November went out but were ignored.
At the TUC, Unite general secretary Len McCluskey had called for all forms of protest including civil disobedience – so we gave it to him. We marched down the middle of the road, blocking the traffic, and then broke down the barrier to the site and marched straight through and stopped production.
This was enough for one of the eight contractors to back down and stick with the current agreement. One down, seven more to go! Since then the protests have followed a similar vein, trying to get onto the sites, stopping deliveries, stopping the traffic, trying to encourage people not to go onto site and join the protests, while sending weekly emails to Unite insisting on a ballot. All the while we have been constantly barraging Unite with calls for a ballot to come out on 30 November.
The big question is where do we go from here? I think there is only one answer. With or without the ballot we need to be out on strike with our brothers and sisters in the public sector on 30 November. We need to hit the companies financially. This is one fight we cannot afford to lose.
The writer is an electrician involved in the strikes
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