Thursday, November 10, 2011

Invisible Men (and Women) battle cops, but baffle Beeb

HOW many newsreaders would it take to change a lightbulb?

Reason I ask is that I was watching the BBC News 24 yesterday for live coverage of the big student protest, and formed the impression that the corporation no longer employs electricians, indeed is training its staff so they do not see, let alone believe in such persons.

I knew that electricians and other construction workers were planning to come into town yesterday morning, as part of their continuing campaign against de-skilling and pay cuts, and the anti-union blacklist. After visiting two big sites, the Shard and Blackfriars, they were due to go on to an official union-backed lobby of parliament.

Rather than compete with the students for attention, the workers intended to join their forces.

Watching the BBC news, we got helicopter-born coverage, interrupted only occasionally by news of the Greek crisis, and were told that some unspecified other groups were demonstrating that day, or had joined behind the student demonstration. We were even told that police were guarding a big building site at Blackfriers from demonstrators, but might have been left with the impression this was just some breakaway student group or anti-capitalist protesters heading that way for no partiular reason.

In the evening I stepped on to a train and picked up an evening paper, and sure enough it had a photo of a crowd of people who it said were electricians struggling with police. The story mentioned that they were union members fighting pay cuts. Later I met a university lccturer friend who had been on the student demonstration. He complained of "heavy" and intimidatory policing and said "They would not let the electricians join us".

Fortunately we no longer have to depend on corporate media for our news and here's more about the sparks protest, as reported by freelance photographer and journalist Peter Marshall:

Around a thousand 'sparks' (electricians) protested in London today over plans by 7 major employers to tear up national agreements and impose worse conditions and pay cuts of at least 26 %.

The seven companies - Bailey Building Services, Balfour Beatty, Tommy Clarke, Crown House Technologies, Gratte Brothers, SES and SPIE Matthew Hall - announce in May that they were withdrawing from the long-standing Joint Industry Board (JIB) pay and conditions deal in the construction industry. In its place they intend to impose 'BESNA', the Building and Engineering Services National Agreement, which will result in the replacement of skilled workers by lower grade workers.

Unite has targeted Balfour Beatty as the ringleader of the companies, and at today's protest rally outside The Shard site next to London Bridge station, General Secretary Len McCluskey announced that the union has given notice today of a strike ballot for its members employed by them.

Several hundred electricians had arrived in London earlier in the day and had held a protest in Bishopsgate and visited the OccupyLSX site at St Paul's before marching to the protest meeting in the street leading to The Shard site, one of Balfour Beatty's many projects, which also include Crossrail and some power stations.

As they waited for the official Unite rally to start, there were a number of speeches by rank and file trade unionists including Rob Williams of the National Shop Stewards Network. These were followed by several Unite union speakers, including Assistant General Secretary Gail Cartmell, construction workers' rep Kevin Williamson, regional officer Bernard McAuley and London regional officer Harry Cowap, before a final address by McCluskey.

BESNA would see fully qualified craftsmen largely replaced by a new grade of 'Installer' on £10.62 per hour, with a ratio of one craftsmen to eight installers in restructured 'gangs'. For most workers it would mean a basic cut of 26% in pay, but they would also lose out on overtime pay, with an end to the seven and a half hour day allowing employers to arrange shifts to cover unsocial working hours. Workers would also lose out on allowances for travel of over 25 miles and for accommodation where required.

Balfour Beatty is an extremely profitable company and the union says "It has no need whatsoever to rob its employees in order to satisfy its shareholders. Perhaps the threat of strike action will bring Balfour Beatty to its senses and back to the negotiating table." Despite the recession it is doing well and "orders are up six per cent with £15.5 billion worth of projects on its books since last year and the latest interim shareholder dividend is up five per cent.

I left the electricians as they marched through Southwark to a further rally outside another Balfour Beatty site at Blackfriars.

Appeal to "Rank-and- File police"!

Incidentally, some enterprising sparks recently produced a leaflet containing an "Appeal to Rank and File Police from Rank and File Electricians". Explaining how Balfour Beatty had issued termination notices to 1,700 electricians, and were refusing to negotiate, it also pointed out that this company, which does well with government contracts, had been "found guilty of operating an illegal blacklist" to stop union reps getting another job.

Comparing this with what would happen if a Police Federation representative was sacked and denied employment in any police force, the leaflet asks "What would you do?"

Reminding the police that they are facing job cuts, and pay reductions due to changes in allowances, the leaflet appeals to "rank and file police officers" to support the democratic right to protest.

I have not heard how police responded, if at all, to this appeal to their better nature, but it does not appear to have inhibited their action yesterday. My informant says police faces seemed full of hate and anger. Perhaps they were disappointed at not getting the chance to use plastic bullets/ baton rounds as we were promised would be issued.

Another glimpse from the day:

To be fair to the BBC, their view from above seemed mainly focussed on Trafalgar Square, where some breakaway students briefly set up tents before the police moved in to shift them. We heard how the cops were struggling to lift a man lying face down.

Perhaps they were concerned he might be one of their own.

The Sun today has the story of an officer from the firearms squad, who apparently the worse for wear, wandered in among the St.Paul's protesters after having been turned out of the Savoy. The dreaded anti-capitalist occupiers took pity on the poor fellow, and found him space in a tent to sleep it off, and next morning he was back on duty.

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