Victory! How the sparks burned the construction bosses

2nd March 2012

Steve Kelly (Unite London Construction) and Russ Blakely (Unite Portsmouth District 0750) report on the inspirational campaign by construction workers against attempts by construction bosses to impose new terms and conditions across the industry.

Construction workers have won a marvellous victory. The attempt to cut to wages and conditions by a group of profit-hungry construction bosses has been beaten back by the heroic action of ordinary rank and file workers.

It is without doubt a tremendous example to workers everywhere, struggling to defend their living standards. It shows once again that militant action is the way forward.

Balfour Beatty, the worldwide giant construction company, had become the lead player in attempting to drive down workers’ wages by 35%, introduce deskilling and trample over past conditions and agreements as laid out by the Joint Industry Board (JIB) agreement. Rather than all the companies introducing the changes in one go, Balfour Beatty, the biggest, was singled out by employers to lead the charge in walking out of the JIB.

Bullying Balfour bosses pressured their workers to sign a new deal introducing the cuts and worsening conditions. Failure to sign by the company deadline was met with the threat of dismissal.

When Unite won a ballot of workers for strike action at Balfour, pushed for by the rank and file, the company ran to the courts to declare the results invalid.

They repeated this after a second successful ballot for action, but the court finally ruled out their spurious objections.

Workers at Balfour Beatty were therefore about to engage in a concerted strike, one week on, one week off, plus an overtime ban.

This threat was enough to tip the balance and force Beatty to retreat and abandon the proposed changes, known as the Building Engineering Services National Agreement (BESNA).

It was a major victory. After all, Balfour Beatty is the biggest construction company in the industry. It proved, if pressure was brought to bear, that the other companies could be forced to capitulate. Within a matter of days, a statement was issued from NG Bailey, another major player:

“Following the announcement from Balfour Beatty Engineering Services last Friday, the future of the BESNA is now untenable. NG Bailey can therefore confirm it will withdraw the BESNA contracts and will continue to work to the current working rule agreements.”

House of cards
NG Bailey pulling out represented another victory for the workers. The employers’ united front was now falling to pieces. The next thing we learned was that the other firms had also pulled out! They fell like a house of cards.

Finally, after months of militant struggle involving electricians, pipe fitters and other trades, we had managed to defeat these vicious attacks. Under our pressure, the ordinary activists, Unite was fully drawn into this fight in supplying help and resources. After months of hard campaigning, we had won!

How did we achieve this? The answer is militant action! Last summer, some trade union leaders talked about defeating the employers by “civil disobedience”. Rank and file construction workers turned words into action.

Through this, we brought constant pressure to bear on the employers - the so-called BESNA 8, named after the eight companies. From last August, week in week out, construction workers protested outside building sites, occupied offices, and blocked main roads, marched, lobbied members of parliament, and pressured national trade union officials. Last, but not least, we got the Unite union to organise a strike ballot at Balfour Beatty, which put the fear of god up the employers. Action speaks louder than words!

Attempts to put off a militant struggle, especially by the national officer of Unite, was swept aside, as the rank and file began to organise nationally. Committees were established across the country, not in opposition to the union, but to put pressure on the union, to ensure it was working in the right way and, to our credit, to point the way forward. We took charge of organising a whole series of protests and actions from London to Scotland, outside major plants and sites.

Demonstrations were organised by text, email, facebook, which served to out-fox the companies. This was a show of real workers’ democracy in action!

By these actions, we were able to draw a layer of non-union workers into the fight and into the unions. Workers were queuing up. This once again shows that it is militant action that builds the unions and gets workers involved.

This struggle proves that ordinary union members can take on the bosses and win. When we make up our minds, we are powerful. When we get together and stand united as one group, we can take on powerful bosses. The workers, when organised and determined, can defeat the employers’ attacks, even when some union officials try to take an easier, but less effective, route.

It shows that when the members of the unions take charge, the unions really begin to act for us. It is an answer to those who want to turn their backs on the unions.
It is we, the rank and file members, who helped to finance and build the unions. We must ensure they fully represent our interests. We cannot afford to walk away or leave the unions out of frustration. This struggle shows how victory can be achieved and how the unions can be used in a positive way. We have gained a lot in terms of confidence and organisation, which puts us in good stead for the future.

Rank and File
The national Rank and File committee, established during the struggle, is now recognised by Unite. To give him his credit, Len McCluskey, the general secretary of the union, has publicly welcomed our rank and file committees. He has been impressed by our work in winning this dispute.
We firmly believe the rank and file must be involved in all future negotiations, and that no agreement must be signed without it being taken back to the members for endorsement.

The employers have now said they want to discuss the “modernisation” of the old JIB agreement that underpins our present terms and conditions. The union has agreed to enter these negotiations. However, what the employers mean by “modernisation” is deskilling and greater “flexibility,” the very things we have being fighting against. What we understand by “modernisation” is improvements to our terms and conditions. In particular, we are concerned about the blacklisting of workers in the industry for their trade union activities.

Not only do we want to be fully represented in the national negotiating team, we want the issue of blacklisting high up on the agenda, with a guarantee that blacklisted members will be hired on the major sites.

All blacklisted workers, activists, ex-shop stewards, etc., should be offered direct employment under the relevant agreements on the main site projects around the country. We believe that all agencies, payroll companies, self-limited companies, bogus self-employment, etc., must be erased from National Agreements, signatory companies, projects and sites, immediately, and with no exceptions. All workers must be directly put on PAYE.

We are not so naive to believe that the construction companies will not try to implement their changes (“attacks”) by the back door. We will need to be vigilant and not be lulled into a sense of false security.

We would be at serious fault if we did not mention the marvellous solidarity we received internationally. This support, coming from Australia, Spain, France, United States, even Benin in West Africa, and elsewhere, was a tremendous inspiration for us.

We were so happy to receive the messages of support, including from the teamsters of New York, who organised a public solidarity demonstration outside Balfour Beatty’s offices. The teamsters’ president, Jimmy Hoffa jnr, wrote to BB chief executive Ian Tyler, expressing his support for his brothers in UK. As we say, “an injury to one is an injury to all!”

Organised by Unite, the pressure internationally was a massive help. It shows how the struggles of workers everywhere are the same.

All in all, it was a tremendous victory won by the rank and file. Balfour Beatty finally caved in when they saw weekly strike action facing them, which would undermine their profits. We needed to hit them where it hurt the most, in the pockets.

We have won this first round, but the likes of Balfour Beatty will be back again. Other workers should learn from our victory. There will be more battles in the future. We cannot afford any divisions between ourselves and NAECI workers in their forthcoming potential dispute.

We are all workers; we need to be united as one; our fight is your fight. What is clear is that united, militant action pays! We want to thank all those who supported us.

“The trade unions are the most basic form of organisation for the workers of all countries at all times. Without organisation the working class will always be only raw material for exploitation, the task of building and strengthening the unions is therefore an urgent priority” (Karl Marx)

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