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Sparks’ victory shows the power of the rank and file

Direct action and the threat of a strike forced the construction companies to back down, writes John Bowman. What are the lessons of the electricians’ dispute?

Electricians on building sites – commonly known as sparks – facing a 35 per cent pay cut have won a stunning victory in a hard-fought battle as construction firms pulled out of plans aimed at deskilling and devaluing their trade.

A campaign by ordinary sparks that picketed sites, disrupted shareholders’ meetings and mounted noisy demonstrations in London scared off construction giant Balfour Beatty – and six other companies immediately after.

This was remarkable given the ambivalence, slowness and occasional outright hostility from Unite union officials towards the campaign’s organisers.
After rank and file workers elected representatives in democratic conferences across the country, Unite’s appointed negotiator Bernie McAuley called them a “cancerous group”.

In the face of this rank and file campaign, union leaders were forced to ballot for official action against which Balfour Beatty immediately obtained a court injunction, triggering union tops to call for a re-ballot. This delayed action, but in the end Balfour lost their court case, driving a final nail into the coffin of BESNA, the new industry-wide contract they were trying to impose.

The sparks’ victory shows that rank and file organisation independent of the leaders can get the goods, and their campaign is a shining example of how millions of public sector workers facing cuts to their pensions and privatisation of services could win despite union leaders who won’t put up a real fight.

The campaign against BESNA didn’t start at all from a position of strength. The last few decades saw unions all but disappear in the construction industry, with workers casualised with temporary agency contracts.

Worse still has been the widespread use of blacklists to keep tabs on workers’ trade union activity, political affiliations and other sensitive information. While now illegal, such lists are still very much in use, with many denied work on all major contracts regardless of their skills and experience. Anti-blacklist activist Steve Kelly is one of the few construction workers to have obtained his file after a successful legal battle – and found that it was eighteen pages long.

Blacklisting has taken key union organisers off many large sites, a weakness compounded by the failure of unions to reorganise the sector – as admitted by Unite Assistant General Secretary Gail Cartmel at a conference in September.

The Unite leadership used this to justify delaying a strike ballot until the last moment. The original suggested date was 9 December – two days after construction firms said they would sack workers who had not signed the new contracts. Sparks were urged to sign the new agreement, but with a letter to outline their concerns. But none of this put off the electricians, who were determined to fight the new terms immediately, regardless of the unions’ passivity.

Pickets, protests, wildcats and walkouts
Indeed, there wouldn’t have been a campaign if it had been left to the union bureaucrats. So how did the sparks do it?

The campaign started with a 500-strong unofficial conference against de-skilling last August, organised in part by Jerry Hicks, chair of UNITE Grassroots Left, and long-term campaigners against the construction blacklist like Steve Kelly and Steve Acheson. The conference called for immediate unofficial action. As Jerry Hicks said, “When employers go on the attack you can’t always wait for a ballot.”

The immediate target was the Big Seven – construction giants, led by Balfour Beatty – who threatened to unilaterally leave the Joint Industry Board (JIB) and impose new contracts, known as BESNA, on construction site electricians. Central to this was a 35 per cent pay cut.

The rank and file sparks elected an accountable steering group and organised regional conferences to spread the message. At an 80-strong meeting in Manchester, one spark announced to huge cheers plans to walk out at Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station near Nottingham.

Since then, there have been numerous actions across the country every Wednesday – albeit often falling short of full wildcat strike action. That hasn’t however mean that the actions were not successful.

Demonstrations of several hundred sparks have been held at sites like the new Crossrail link in Farringdon, often supported by anticuts campaigners and left-wing activists.

Sparks in Manchester and Liverpool alternated pickets between a politically important site next to Manchester Town Hall and a £250 million project to build a paper mill in Carrington. Pickets there cost Balfour Beatty dearly, angering their Spanish client for delaying work by over two months, as agency workers refused to cross picket lines.

In London activists from Occupy frequently joined the sparks at Blackfriars Bridge for the early morning picket. And in November, builders and students combined their national demos, giving the police a merry runaround. By February, the US Teamsters and the Aussie construction unions were threatening international solidarity actions.

A winning strategy
The sparks haven’t just breathed life into a trade union struggle, they have shown how rank and file organisation and a determined campaign of struggle can win.

Leading rank and file activists, like Jerry Hicks and Mick Dooley (candidate for UCATT general secretary), have pushed a political perspective into the campaign from the outset, relating the struggle to a wider campaign against cuts and austerity, and questioning the bureaucratic regime within their unions – as well as their unions’ huge donations to the Labour Party.

Every meeting witnessed debates and discussions over tactics. Should they target the smaller or larger contractors first? Should they picket sites or shareholders meetings? How should they get other construction workers and trade unions involved in the fight?

Social media and weekly national emails were used to report on every action, every twist and turn in the campaign, keeping every spark fully informed of developments in the unions, and any backtracking by the construction bosses.

Now we can adopt and adapt these tactics to revive the struggle in other trades and industries. If we are to transform the unions into fighting organisations so we can defeat all the cuts, we need to build up workplace organisation in every union and link them together in a rank and file movement.

Time to push forward with our own agenda

Steve Leadbeater, a Manchester spark, spoke to Workers Power:
“We’ve won the battle against the BESNA and put them on the back foot, and can push forward now with our agenda, against blacklisting for instance. For years they’ve been chipping away and chipping away at us until finally they took this radical step. We’ve used different tactics to put the pressure on such as lobbying but I’ve been pushing for direct action in the rank and file meetings, the mass pickets of sites, that’s had the greatest effect.
“Even I was surprised they caved in as quick as they did, the clients saw the unofficial action going on and got worried and began to put pressure on Balfour Beatty and the other seven. Water companies and other utilities wrote to them and said if they’re not in the JIB they’d be taken off the tender list. Now Unite’s suspended industrial action and the big companies are proposing high level talks with the union, it’s really important that we have rank and file representatives in those meetings to keep an eye on the negotiations. That’s why the rank and file committee is continuing to hold national meetings to discuss what next for the campaign and control over the negotiations.”

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