Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Spirit Among the Sparks


IT'S been 25 years since we faced mounted police riding down trade unionists to clear a path for Rupert Murdoch's papers, produced with the help of the scab Electrical, Electronic and Plumbing Trades Union (EEPTU).

Though expelled from the Trades Union Congress(TUC) the EEPTU came back through a merger with the engineers, and Sir Ken Jackson, notoriously right-wing leader of the electrical union became general secretary of the Amalgamated Electrical and Engineering Union.

Some tricks seemed to come with. Building workers who had been trying to organise on a hotel site near Gloucester Road in west London were gobsmacked when a previously recalcitrant management told them there was now a union on site, the AEEU. Without waiting till it had recruited members on site an official of that union had gone in and secured a recognition agreement from management. Workers were even more shocked when they saw the low pay rates the company was getting away with.

Things do change, however. There were some big disputes involving electricians in the 1990s, and though companies have tried to break trade unionism by means ranging from victimisation and blacklisting to pushing people into self-employment, sparks from what were AEEU and the breakway EPIU are forming together in Unite. Though there are still issues with union officialdom, what is motivating members is the continued use of the blacklist by employers, and the move by eight big contractors to pull out of the Joint Industial Board (JIB), deskill electrical work, and drive down wage rates.

Add awareness of the wider struggles working people are facing, against employers and government, and you can understand the movement that is growing, bringing together members of Unite and building workers in UCATT. Besides the possibility of joining public sector workers in action over jobs and pensions in November, these battlers are already bypassing official channels with some imaginative tactics hitting the bosses before they can reach for an injunction.

The media made a beeline for Lindsey oil refinery in Lincolnshire when it
could depict a dispute over jobs and agreements as being about foreign workers. Dirty Desmond's Daily Star even provided models with placards, This time only the Morning Star could find its way there.

2,000 join warning protests at Lindsey oil refinery

Monday 26 September 2011
by John Millington in Lincolnshire

Two thousand workers converged on Lincolnshire's Lindsey oil refinery after daybreak today in a stark warning to bosses who want to tear up national agreements and slash pay by nearly a third.

Workers from the neighbouring Conoco Phillips refinery joined protests organised by rank-and-file Unite union members outside the main gates to the massive site.

A three-hour demonstration began at 6am and gathered momentum when hundreds walked off the job to hold a car park meeting.

The Morning Star was given exclusive access to the event - the latest display of industrial strength since eight key construction contractors announced plans to pull out of the Joint Industry Board deal that sets national terms and conditions in construction.

The companies have threatened to lay off any members of staff who don't sign new contracts.

Most refinery workers have not yet been directly affected by the development, but union representatives warn that the firms' pullout will spark a trend among contractors that will spread "like a cancer throughout the construction industry."

Unite senior offshore steward Kenny Ward, who helped to organise the protests, proposed to the Lindsey workers present that they join a march to Conoco and come back without losing a day's pay.

After some discussion workers declared their support for protests but said they would only come out if all Lindsey workers were involved.

Mr Ward, who used to work at Lindsey, told the Star: "What the government and employers have to realise is that these guys can turn lights off in Britain.

"If the union and union reps don't organise them, they will act for themselves."

But Mr Ward was keen to point out that workers who will be affected by the new inferior contractors were not just looking for a fight.

"The workers just want to earn a living, but if these eight companies are allowed to get away with it, it will be a turkey shoot in the industry," he said.

Union officers organising the demonstrations addressed both Lindsey and Conoco refinery workers.

Unite regional official Steve Syson reminded protesters that one of the eight contractors had recently handed its directors big paydays.

"While the bosses are saying they need to do this, one of the companies made £50 million last year and gave the directors a 20-25 per cent pay increase. And they are saying that our members should get a 30 per cent pay cut.

"We're not going to stand for attacks on our terms and conditions."

Several workers protesting at the refinery's main gate were keen to air their views, but they were reluctant to go on record for fear of blacklisting.

But one worker, "CJ," complained that employers were trying to make workers pay for their own lodgings while working away from home.

"People can work up to a year away from home," he said.

"We have to stand up and fight and make this a national dispute."



The big eight contractors whom workers are targeetting as JIB defectors are named by Jerry Hicks as Bailey Building Services, Balfour Beatty Engineering Services, Tommy Clarke, Crown House Technologies, Gratte Brothers, MJN Colston, SES and SPIE Matthew Hall.
"And they better get the message!", says former Rolls Royce engineering convenor Jerry , who came a remarkable second in the four-horse race for Unite general sectretary.

A week ago Jerry Hicks reported:
"In the battle to protect the JIB agreement from being ripped up five of the eight companies have upped the stakes. Balfour Beatty, Crown House Technologies, Spie Matthew Hall, Shepherd Engineering Services and NG Bailey have issued Unite with legal notice of their intention to dismiss, by giving the legally required 90 day notice to thousands of employees before re-engaging them on inferior contracts on December 7th.

"So answering the TUC’s call this week for "Civil Disobedience" against the cuts, on Wednesday we obliged and the action kicked off at across the country. At the Grangemouth site in Scotland sparks and pipe-fitters working for BBES voted to walk off the job marking a major advance in our struggle against de skilling and the vicious attacks on JIB agreement. Also in Scotland some sparks protested at the Faslane site.

"In London 150 protested at Olympic site blocked the main gate and then marched to the A12 main road and blocked the highway in to Stratford for 20 mins causing a major traffic jam. Eventually PC plod moved us on but it certainly caught the public attention which is great.

"Manchester chipped in with a protest at the BBES Papermill site. It all amounted to another fantastic day of rank and file activity but the 8 have declared war and 5 of them are going for a rout by issuing the December 7th deadline letters. The rank and file workers on these sites must respond by downing tools and walking off site.

"Unite are slowly getting involved. Two officials were at Olympic protest and, while we welcome the support, let’s be wary of a takeover followed by a sell out. This is a rank and file dispute and it’s our future that is at stake. Unite has told employers that these bullying tactics will lead to a sharp deterioration in industrial relations on major sites up and down the country, putting into jeopardy the ability of companies to deliver projects on time and within budget. Unite has called on eight break-away construction companies, who are imposing semi-skilled grades into the mechanical and electrical sector, to ‘pull back from the brink’ before industrial relations deteriorates to harmful levels.

Calling for Unite to ballot workers on nationwide industrial action, Brother Hicks is nevertheless supporting them taking actions without waiting. As he reports:

"Yesterday, Wednesday 21st saw another fantastic morning of protests and civil disobedience. In Newcastle 150 sparks brought the Tyne tunnel site to a halt for 2 hours today even the employer accepted that the lads had a right to protest. While in London 300 sparks invaded Farringdon station Crossrail site. Manchester had 3 protests at BBES and 2 at NG Bailey.

"More on the invasion! In a magnificent show of rank and file union workers power 300 angry sparks, [and one carpenter] and supporters gathered at the Farringdon station Crossrail site at 6.30am.

"A music box was booming out and Unite the union were out in force at last! Not sure if Bernard MCaulay was out doing his Xmas shopping, but we did get AGS Gail Cartmail to speak as well as London officer Harry Cowap and NEC construction member John Sheridan, speakers from RMT, UCU, CWU, and John McDonnell MP. Michael Dooley a candidate for the UCATT General Secretary summed it up brilliantly when he said ” The multinational companies and their shareholders intend to take from you to ensure that they and their children prosper. Your future and that of your children’s is being sacrificed at the expense of theirs. We will not let it happen”.

'The scene was set, music, speeches, flags a waving and raw anger, it could only mean one thing. Invade the site! What ensued was amazing, the gates were no problem neither was the barrier, and the startled security soon disappeared. Don’t you just love a party with an atmosphere!

'We didn’t find the site offices, but surrounded by diggers and cranes and workers on the site stood in awe and listened to more thunderous speeches this was it whose site our site rang out! After half an hour we marched off the site to the sound of ‘a message to you Rudy’ by the specials booming out of the sound system.

'Site invasions are the way forward, main contractors will be asking “what’s going on” and it will pressurise these jib firms to back off while telling unite ‘organise a ballot of all its construction workers starting with the sparks’!


Today we hear that the employers are breaking ranks.

"The ‘Rogues Gallery’ just got smaller. When 8 became 7!
MJN Colston have been forced by rank and file action to jump ship".



Seeing workers boldly invading sites to spread the message, which probably also makes it harder for firms to single out individuals among their own workforce for victimisation, and reading that members of the builders' union UCATT are involved alongside the electricians, I was reminded of another UCATT brother, no longer with us.

Des Warren, jailed for his part in the 1972 building workers strike, died of pneumonia in 2004. He had been suffering from Parkinson's disease attributable to his treatment in prison. In 2009 and 2010 we had demonstrations in Shrewsbury demanding that all the Shrewsbury pickets including Des be rehabilitated, and all the documents made public. Of course so far as his reputation among trade unionists is concerned, Des Warren does not need rehabilitating. The ballad of American trade unionist Joe Hill concludes that "Where workers strike and organise, that's where you'll find Joe Hill".

It's not hard to see the ghost of Des Warren among those invading the sites today.

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