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Sparks target the blacklist: fight for workers’ control of hiring

Unite Construction Rank and File – the “sparks” – held their conference in London last Saturday, almost one year to the day since their launch. Jeremy Dewar was there for the Grass Roots Left

“Every time – we beat ‘em then walk away. Let’s get some blacklisted guys and shop stewards in and hit ‘em!” said Kevin, a spark, from the floor of the conference. Suddenly everyone was alert; hands shot up as workers wanted to put in their two-penn’orth on the key issue: how to make the militant building workers’ victories stick.

Seventy construction workers – from London, Manchester, Portsmouth and even Glasgow – debated the way forward for their movement for three hours on one of the hottest days of the summer. This is testimony to the seriousness of the movement they have created over the year.

Besna 1 and Besna 2

“Give yourselves a pat on the back,” Steve Kelly of Siteworker said in his opening remarks. And well they deserved it. Their campaign, launched by 500 Unite construction workers, to rip up the Building Engineering Services National Agreement (Besna) ran for seven months, involving flying pickets and lightening demos, walk-outs and occupations, forced eight of the biggest construction companies to back off.

It was a defensive struggle: defeat would have led to a 35 per cent drop in pay and opened the door to further pay cuts and deskilling. But it was won with rank and file organisation and militant tactics. While the officials did eventually issue a ballot for strike action – they did so reluctantly, at the very last minute, and even then nearly cocked it up by refusing to defend the union against an injunction in the high court.

That was back in February. Since then some important developments: on the positive side of the balance sheet, various walk-outs have secured improved weekend breaks and reinstated shop stewards, while rank and file organisation has spread to other building trades and Ucatt (see their facebook page here); on the other side, it is proving hard to keep the bosses to their word and make the agreements won stick.

For example, most activists expect the “Big 8” to counterattack with a Besna Mark 2. In fact the national committee (which was re-elected at the meeting) proposed a campaign targeting Crown House, which has refused to revert to the Joint Industry Board (JIB) agreement, leaving sparks in limbo and at the whim of the contractor.

But while this campaign was accepted and a series of protests planned – though the exact location of each protest will be kept secret to deter police harassment and interference – the meeting was not content with this:

“Crown House is the symptom, Blacklisting the disease. If we don’t tackle blacklisting, then we’ll have a Besna every year,” explained a militant from Portsmouth. Blacklisting is the widespread – and illegal, though near impossible to prove – practice of refusing work to known militants.

Blacklist

Others pointed out that the successful unofficial strike at Radcliffe-upon-Soar in Nottinghamshire was undermined a few weeks later when militants were refused jobs, while at Fawley, near Southampton, bosses caved in to demands to lift the blacklist when militants confronted them over the issue, but the hired activists were only on the job for a few weeks then dismissed again.

Everyone agreed that we need a register of labour and to tell the bosses: this is the list you recruit from; if in doubt, we’ll tell you which employee you will hire. In effect, this is like the old National Docks Labour Scheme. If controlled from below by the rank and file, not union bosses, and if it is not camouflage for a chauvinistic “British jobs for British workers” policy, then it could be a step in the direction of workers’ control over hiring, a key transitional demand.

The divisions emerged over how to fight for this.

Kevin and a few others demanded the union take the fight to the employer: “We need to picket the union until they start getting blacklisted lads jobs.”

Steve Kelly (Socialist Appeal, and himself on the blacklist) retorted: “Better to picket the employers and walk off site unless they employ blacklisted.” Ian Bradley (Socialist Workers Party) and Richard Allday (Counterfire) agreed that the Rank and File Committee needed to gain more victories and spread organisation before they could take on the blacklist.

Whatever the merits of both sides in this discussion – and it is hard to tell from outside the industry who is more right – the issue of the blacklist is clearly crucial. Whether the issue is agency working, recruitment and union density or seeking an industry-wide agreement for all trades – getting the best militants and organisers back onsite is a unifying demand.

But even more important for the future of this exciting and promising movement is the relationship between the organised rank and file and the union bureaucracy. After all, the blacklist doesn’t only help the employers wheedle out irritating militants, it also serves the union officials’ interests. Remember it was Unite who agreed to the sacking and blacklisting of its own shop stewards at British Airways as part of the deal to end the Gate Gourmet strike in 2005.

Grass Roots Left

But it is precisely over the relationship of the rank and file to the bureaucracy that the conference was most vague.

Steve Kelly repeatedly referred to getting help from assistant general secretary Gail Cartmel and chief construction negotiator Bernard McAuley, who in turn could put pressure on regional officials to support rank and file campaigns. Ray Morrell of the SWP again wheeled out his party’s current motto: “We are at our strongest when we combine official and unofficial action. They organise ballots, we organise walk-outs and occupations.”

When I got the opportunity to speak to the open letter the Grass Roots Left has written to Unite Construction Rank and File and Ucatt Rank and File, proposing closer collaboration and unity, I addressed the weakness of this formulation. Of course we should demand that Unite officials do their job; the real question is, who controls the disputes: the strikes, the negotiations, the tactics? The bureaucrats or the workers whose jobs and conditions of work are on the line?

Every rank and file initiative has to face this question, as does every “left wing” official. For Workers Power the answer is unambiguous: forget fluffy phrases about bureaucrats and rank and file working together; when push comes to shove, officials must do what we push them to do, or we must shove them out to make way for someone who will. Our aim is a cross-union movement in which workers’ direct democracy rules and there is no need for an unelected, unaccountable and overpaid bureaucracy.

There was warm applause for our message and three sparks came up and told us they thought what we had to say was important. We look forward to working with them in the coming weeks and months.

 

Next action: picket of Crown House sites at 7am on Friday 17 August. Phone 07883 089555 for details.

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