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Rank and file electricians take action against rate cuts

Sparks' picket line at Blackfriars Bridge

OVER 200 rank and file electricians organised a picket outside Balfour Beatty’s Blackfriars Station construction project on 24 August, the first of many protests to stop eight major construction contractors from withdrawing from the nationally negotiated industry agreement. Joy Macready reports

The contractors – Bailey Building Services, Balfour Beatty Engineering Services, Tommy Clarke, Crown House Technologies, Gratte Brothers, MJN Colston, SES and SPIE Matthew Hall – plan to withdraw from the 50-year-old Joint Industry Board (JIB) pay agreement between contractors and electricians from March 2012. The current JIB agreement, which came into effect from the start of 2011, froze electricians’ wages and now the contractors are looking to slash rates.

The proposals would mean three new grades for electricians: metalworker £10.50 per hour, £12 for wiring, £14 for terminating. At the moment, electricians’ JIB rate is £16.25p per hour across the board. For the hardest hit, this means a 35% pay cut.

It is not just the rate cut – withdrawal from the JIB will lead to worsening terms and conditions and a de-skilling of the industry, and will pave the way to smash the organised workforce.

Electrician Alan Keys said:

“What a great turn out and this is just the beginning – now let’s push on. The last time the electrical contractors attempted to cut wages by de-skilling the electrical trade was 1999 which led to coordinated strikes on the Jubilee Line, Royal Opera House, Pfizers and projects across the UK.”

The unofficial action is being coordinated by union activists around the Site Worker magazine and was galvanised by the formation of the UNITE Construction Rank and File Network on 13 August. Over 500 electricians and pipefitters met in London to propel UNITE into action.

The conference unanimously passed the motion: ‘UNITE must immediately ballot members who are working for JIB firms who have been told that the terms and conditions will be changing in March 2012, and a campaign must be set up by UNITE, distributing leaflets to all sites around the country opposing these attacks on our industry and to have regular feedback to the members.’

Importantly it also agreed to call unofficial action immediately on large sites and argued that other sites should come out in solidarity, rather than wait for a ballot. “When the employers go on the attack, you can’t always wait for a ballot,” said Jerry Hicks, who is on the steering committee to coordinate rank and file action and also chair of UNITE Grassroots Left.

The development of a rank and file organisation is critical to winning the battles ahead because it allows the workers to maintain control over strikes and action. For many UNITE members, who have battled the undemocratic structures within the union, this is a welcome breath of fresh air. And importantly the initiative is not limited to UNITE members; there are members of various unions and many are not members of any union.

The action is also forcing UNITE to step up – although no union official made it to the protest, the union did release a strongly worded statement that it will oppose all attempts at withdrawal and has launched a campaign to defend its members’ terms and conditions. Now it needs to put its money where its mouth is – and the rank and file network will be critical in keeping the pressure on.

The model of the UNITE Construction Rank and File Network needs to be rolled out to other industry sectors in UNITE – and other unions – in order to develop cross-union connections and strengthen the fightback against the cutbacks.

• For more info: email jerryhicks4gs2010@yahoo.co.uk or contact Alan Keys at siteworkers@virginmedia.com

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