Sunday, October 09, 2011

Guerrilla tactics take the smile off arrogant bosses' face

NEW tactics, new alignments and new people are being brought into the growing resistance to the aggression against working people's living standards and welfare launched by the Con-Dem government and its big business allies.

Westminster Bridge was blocked today by an alliance of health professionals, trades unionists, old age pensioners and students, responding to a call initiated by UK Uncut to 'Block the Bridge, Block the Bill', on the eve of the House of Lords vote on the government's Health and Social Care Bill.

The bridge was a symbolic target, as it stands between the Houses of Parliament and St.Thomas' Hospital. Campaigners warn that Health Minister Andrew Lansley's Bill, handing over to GP consortia and opening the doors wide to private profiteers, is a way to demolish the National Health Service.

'Public Health for Cumbria director and former UK Public Health Association chairman Dr John Ashton, who joined the protests, said there was real anger across the NHS at the threat to this most cherished public institution.

"This confused and convoluted Bill threatens to undermine the guarantee of health security irrespective of position or wealth and, at the same time, creates the conditions for private health-care companies to come in and cherry-pick profitable parts of care," he said.

"I am proud that public health specialists have been able to give voice to this anger over the past few days, an anger which has no political boundaries!"

Civil Service union PCS leader Mark Serwotka said that the Bill represents the "gravest threat to the NHS" since its foundation."Peaceful protest and civil disobedience have a long and proud history in this country, and are a perfectly legitimate response to plans that no-one voted for and no-one wants," he said.'

The PCS union has already balloted its members for industrial action over jobs and pensions on November 30, and they will be joined by unions including the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and the University and Colleges Union(UCU). Others intending to ballot members range from the big boys like Unison and Unite (members in public sector), and Prospect (whose members include government scientists and Health and Safety inspectors)hrough to such relative newcomers to the battlefield as the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy and the National Association of Head Teachers.

The strike on November 30, likely to be a start rather than a finish, will give ignorant loudmouthed Tory supporters, who jeer that the public sector workers normally "do nothing", the opportunity to learn otherwise. More important than the industrial muscle however will be political effect of such wide unity between workers, and the government's isolation.

Meanwhile another section of workers is coming into action with quite new tactics, perhaps scaring some union officials, never mind employers . A couple of hundred electricians brought Oxford Street to a halt last Wednesday. Police moved in, snatching Unite union flags and tearing down banners as they tried to force the men back off the road.

Undaunted, but heeding advice by more experienced militants not to be provoked, the workers instead wheeled around and, to the confusion of the Met, went back to the Tommy Clarke building site where they had begun their demonstration at 6.30 am.

The contractor is one of seven companies - there were eight - who say they will quit the Joint Industry Board (JIB) which has negotiated electricians pay for forty years, and impose their own company agreements. This could enable them to de-skill much of the work on sites, cut electricians' pay by as much as 35 per cent, reduce apprenticeships and abolish established procedures.

It might be no co-incidence that this attack on a section of workers comes at a time when the government is cutting already inadequate health and safety inspections and promising to free employers from what they call 'red tape' and restrictions. It is probably no coincidence either that the big contractors who want to quit the JIB have also allegedly been users of so-called Consultancy Services, successors to the notorious Economic League in compiling blacklists of 'undesirable' employees.

Workers in construction trades who fight for better conditions on sites, or let themselves be put forward as safety reps, have found themselves on the lists, prevented from getting another job. Though such practices were ruled illegal, workers like Dave Smith, who was a UCATT safety representative when he was blacklisted in 1994, have had to fight their own cases - in Dave's case using the Human Rights Act, which Tory Home Secretary Teresa May wants to remove.

Recent actions by electricians have been joined by both Unite and UCATT activists, some of them workers with bitter experience of being on the blacklist. But many of those taking part are younger workers new to militant action. What they might lack in experience seems to be made up for in willingness to try new tactics.

After we have seen employers flouting the law, governments outlawing 'secondary' picketing and solidarity actions, judges accepting frivolous pretexts to dismiss ballots and issue injuctions, and unions hamstrung by fines and the threat of sequestration, these young workers are finding ways to treat the law and the bosses with the respect they deserve - in other words to say "Up Yours!"

It is difficult to organise in the building industry at the best of times, with each site presenting a fresh challenge, and if workers had to ballot for official action each time there was a dispute over safety or victimisation the job could be finished before the union got started. But on the other hand, as UCATT's Mick Dooley was pointing out to a meeting of Greater London trades councils on Saturday, companies trying to meet a target date for completion, and having sub-contractors complaining that they could not get on site to start their work, are quite vulnerable to action by even a section of their workers.

It must also be a problem for employers to threaten "ringleaders" if these are already outside the gate. And the protesters have been gaining confidence when they found they could stop a lorry, and persude the driver not to deliver concrete to a site.

Ar Blackfriars station in August, it was Balfour Beatty who faced a mass meeting outside their site, urging their electricians not to go into work. At Farringdon last month there was a mass trespass on the site, and as a break from speeches the invaders played music over their sound system to make it a festive occasion!

As well as London there have been actions so far in Manchester, Liverpool. and Newcastle, where the protesters tried to block the Tyne Tunnel. Each time, according to Mick Dooley, some 300 workers turn up early in the morning for these "guerrilla" actions. Well perhaps this is that mobility of labour that ministers were always on about.

There are rumours that Unite officialdom, unhappy about the irregular activity have called in some union officers for a talking to. It was nevertheless Unite national officer Harry Cowap who, according to the Morning Star, 'received roars of approval after calling on the sparks to go back and bring "thousands" to the next demonstration outside the Tate next Wednesday'.

I understand that's the Tate Modern. Perhaps they could call it A Happening.

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