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400 Electricians escalate action at Kings’ Cross

 

This morning, Wednesday 28 September, the second London demonstration of electricians and supporters with official backing from Unite the Union took place.  Billy McKean was there

It followed a series of rank-and-file initiated actions. Buoyed by recent news that employer MJN Colston will remain bound by the JIB agreement, larger numbers turned out this week to be civil and disobedient, blocking early morning traffic on Pancras Road for half an hour before rallying in the station proper. For background information on the JIB dispute, see here.

Unite officials addressed the protest but again promised little beyond a ballot “as soon as possible”. Regional Secretary Peter Kavanagh made a rare appearance but conspicuous by his absence was National Officer for Construction Bernard McAulay, who was last week forced to apologise for a leaked email calling the Rank and File Committee a “cancerous group”. The officials are tending to stress the issue of low union membership amongst electricians as the rationale for their failure to call a ballot, while the Rank and File Committee has emphasised the need to organise action amongst all construction workers regardless of how effective unelected officials have been in recruiting them to Unite.

RMT London Organiser Steve Hedley spoke warmly in support of the campaign before introducing UCATT General Secretary Candidate Mick Dooley to the platform. Dooley has attended all the protests so far and has struck a chord with the most militant workers with his insistence that unofficial action is required not only to force the hand of Unite to ballot but also to win. Reading from painter Robert Tressell’s classic novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Dooley reminded building workers that “this is not 1904, this is 2011, and we will not be forced to live again on bread and tea”. If Unite continues to stall on a ballot, he said, we must not hesitate to bring workers out of our own accord, and we must do so fast.

Jerry Hicks, Grassroots Left supporter and runner up in the 2010 Unite General Secretary elections, summed up by demanding that Unite organise a ballot well in advance of the public sector general strike on 30 November, and that all construction workers must make sure they are on strike that day one way or another, joining their struggle with the struggle of all those fighting for their jobs, pensions and the preservation of the welfare state. “I’m fucking tired of coming second,” he said. “Let’s come first. Let’s beat the eighth, then the seventh, then the sixth, smash the lot of them – victory to the electricians!”

Meanwhile 50 demonstrated in Liverpool and ensured that electricians did not enter work at the SPIE Matthew Hall site. This followed a protest of some 500 at Lindsey Conoco in Lincolnshire on Monday, an action serious enough to be reported by a somewhat disturbed Financial Times. A North East Rank and File Committee was elected in Newcastle on Tuesday by an official Unite meeting that saw union full-timers storm out of the room. This Saturday will see a rank and file organised Manchester conference.

The action is heating up, as the retreat of MJN Colston shows. But Dooley is right – we can’t take our foot off the gas. In no small part due to Unite’s very public honesty about poor membership figures among electricians and how this should mean we wait until the new year for a ballot, five of the remaining seven big companies withdrawing from the JIB agreement have given employees a deadline of 7 December to agree to their new contracts or face the sack. This means we need more aggressive wildcat action on more sites, to both pressure Unite to ballot and to strike out in our own right before 7 December.

Workers Power supporters have argued that rank and file committees at each site are important for the maximum effect of our actions, official or otherwise, to coordinate actions, recruit members in advance of a ballot, and eventually to call strikes if the officials refuse to. It’s a step in the right direction that these committees are being elected on a regional basis by mass meetings up and down the country; now we need these regional committees to convene regular open organising meetings to begin to take on the task of organising site committees, and making the weekly protests even larger and more effective.

There is a reason that actions like those at Grangemouth and Lindsey (where some workers on both separate occasions walked out on strike) are attracting the attention of the likes of the Financial Times – the ruling class is terrified of workers taking action that could shut down these key sites at incalculable cost to the bosses’ economy. The rank and file committees need to increase these kinds of exemplary actions, all the while demanding that Unite not only support them but follow them up with all out action such that is necessary to win.

In his leaked email, Bernard ‘do-fuck-all-ay’ McAulay sickeningly referred to this crisis for electricians and their families as a “wonderful opportunity the employers have given us to re-engage (sic) with the workers in the industry”. McAulay is however half-right. This is a wonderful opportunity for him to prove to building workers that Unite is capable of defending their rights with a ballot for strike action. Electricians CAN win this dispute and beat back the employers’ advances again. But to really make the most of their “opportunities” construction workers need to get rid of the likes of McAulay and secure a fighting rank and file leadership – across Unite, GMB, UCATT and the thousands of as-yet unorganised workers – on the back of this inspiring struggle.

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