Sparks step out, and Balfour Beatty steps back
BLACK-TIED bosses had to run the gauntlet of angry electricians and other trades unionists, and London's busy Park Lane was brought to a halt for over an hour by protesters, on Wednesday night, February 15, outside the posh Grosvenor House hotel.
The suits were turning up for a night out at the annual dinner and ball of the Electrical Contractors Association, but the 'sparks' were determined to make it a night to remember for employers, in protest at the six big contractors who have pulled out of the Joint Industry Board and unilaterally set up their own alliance, BESNA.
These companies are out to take advantage of the economic recession and new installation methods to introduce deskilling and insecurity in the industry, and reduce wages and conditions.
Some of these firms have also been notoriously involved in blacklisting of workers who raised safety issues or engaged in organising on the sites. One man stood on the steps of the hotel on Wednesday night with a placard that simply read "BLACK-TIED BLACKLISTERS".
Seeing Labour's London mayoral hopeful Ken Livingstone entering the Grosvenor House as a guest speaker, trade unionists managed to grab him and get him to say a few words. Struggling through police to the mike, Livingstone was cheered as he pledged not to endanger London Underground passengers' lives by giving contracts to firms that drove down standards and conditions won by skilled electricians and other workers.
Unite, the union which represents the electricians, has been preparing official action against one of the biggest of the rogue contractors, Balfour Beatty, who have enjoyed major contracts in both the public and private sectors. Yesterday the union welcomed a High Court ruling which dismissed a legal challenge by Balfour Beatty Engineering Services (BBES) over a legitimate strike vote.
BBES had challenged a ballot of electricians, plumbers, heating and ventilating engineers which saw a vote of two to one in favour of strike action.But in his ruling Mr Justice Eady said: “It seems to me that, so far as reasonably practical, every person entitled to vote had a voting paper sent to him/her and also was afforded a convenient opportunity to vote by post.”
The judge also commented "Indeed, I think it fair to say that Unite went to considerable lengths to ensure democratic legitimacy which might be thought to exceed what would ordinarily be expected."
He went on to add: “I am not persuaded that Unite is threatening or intending to do anything that would be unlawful. There would be no ground, therefore, on which to grant an injunction.”
Commenting, Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite, said: “This is a historic ruling that supports our members’ legitimate right to strike. All too often employers are trying to use the courts to undermine the democratic will of their workforces, when they should be putting their energies into resolving disputes. We trust that employers will now recognise that disputes aren’t settled in the court room but around the negotiating table.”
Today came the news that Balfour Beatty has withdrawn its controversial new contracts which were at the centre of the dispute. The company had threatened to sack workers who did not sign the contracts, which replaced long-standing Joint Industry Boards agreements and impose new semi-skilled grades. The new contracts would have led to pay cuts of up to 30 per cent and poorer terms and conditions for key construction staff.
Welcoming the news, Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite, said: “Balfour Beatty’s decision to withdraw these contracts, the threat of dismissal and to enter high level talks is a welcome move. Not only is it a victory for common sense, but it is testament to the resolve of hard working construction workers who have stood shoulder to shoulder to defend their livelihoods.
“Continuing to impose these contracts would have resulted in a race to the bottom that would have been bad for the industry. We expect the other six construction firms to see sense and follow Balfour Beatty’s lead in talking seriously about securing livelihoods and bringing stability to the industry.”
Read the joint statement: Unite and Balfour Beatty Engineering Services (BBES) in talks to end the BESNA dispute (PDF)
The six other contractors are: NG Bailey Building Services; Crown House Technologies; Gratte Brothers; Spie Matthew Hall; Shepherd Engineering Services (SES); and T. Clarke Plc.
Sparks who had been planning a demonstration outside Marks and Spencer on Oxford Street tomorrow, against the award of a contract to Balfour Beatty, may now switch to concentrate their tactics on NG Bailey, as next in line.
Certainly the combination of official union negotiation and action with unofficial, unconventional and imaginative rank and file tactics seems to be cutting through the barriers of Tory anti-union law and police powers , that were preserved by Labour, and pushing back the employers just when they might have been confident with their Con-Dem government in office.
LATEST NEWS February 22 1700
NG Bailey has pulled out of Besna!