Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Sparks Flying -and they've got reason to JIB!

AS teachers, civil servants and 0thers get ready for further action over jobs and pensions, it looks like the coming Autumn of Discontent will not be confined to the public sector. A new battlefield is coming up, and it will be taken by some of those old bogeymen whom the Tory press used to denounce for ruining their game back when I was a lad.

The electricians, whose reputation for militancy might have seemed laid to rest when their right-wing led union went over to the other side at Wapping, are back as a fighting force. Some 500 or more sparks and fitters, together with other construction trade unionists, crowded into London's Conway Hall last week for fighting talk about jobs and wages and the blacklist. There were cheers for calls for action.

Credit for this upsurge must go to the employers, and above all the eight major contractors who have apparently seen the economic crisis and a sympathetic Tory government as their signal to tear up longstanding agreements and bury for once and all the idea of "partnership" beloved of right-wing union leaders and bureaucrats.

These eight companies have decided to pull out of the nationally negotiated industry agreement and replace the existing skill and pay structure with three new grades for electricians - metalworker £10.50 per hour, £12 per hour for wiring, and £14 for terminating. The existing Joint Industry Board (JIB) rate is £16.25 per hour across the board. For some workers it could mean a 35 per cent pay cut.

The last time electrical contractors attempted to cut wages by de-skilling in this way in 1999 it led to a series of strikes including the Jubilee Line extension, Royal Opera Hose, Pfizers and power generating sites.

Add the current move to continued bitterness over victimisation and blacklisting of union activists and bullying of safety reps, as well as concern and resentment over government cuts - including that of HSE inspections - and you have a recipe for building anger.

It is indeed worth noting that two of the workers who spoke at the Conway Hall meeting were electricians who have been fighting the blacklist, and were members of the breakaway left-wing Electrical and Plumbing Industries Union formed after Wapping. The idea that the old Electrical, Engineering and Plumbing Trades Union(EEPTU) could only produce scabbing took a blow when its members were involved in the Jubilee Line strike.

Since then the EEPTU came back into the body of the trade union movement via its merger with the engineers, and though some of the old practices seemed to persist at officer level, both former eectrical unions are now part of UNITE, and a new generation has arisen, ready to make this unity a reality in battling for members' rights and living standards.

The Olympics, Media City, Manhester, and large power stations could be affected by action.

There has been a further meeting of UNITE stewards in Leeds, and meetings are planned in the coming months in Manchester, Liverpool and other areas. Workers are calling for ballots of those employed by JIB firms, but there is also talk of taking unofficial action on large sites and not waiting for ballots. For this too, perhaps, the employers, government and judges who have found all sorts of ingenious excuses for disputing ballots may have themselves to thank.

The new rank and file paper Site Worker which was involved in calling the London meeting is keen to contact UCATT and GMB members as well as those in UNITE. For information contact siteworkers@virginmedia.com

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