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The Agitator: Sparks target blacklist

“Every time – we beat ‘em then walk away. Let’s get some blacklisted guys and shop stewards in and hit ‘em!” said Kevin, an electrician, or “spark”, from the floor of the Unite Construction Rank and File conference. Suddenly everyone was alert; hands shot up to speak on this key issue: how to make the militant building workers’ victories stick. Jeremy Dewar writes

The sparks’ campaign to rip up the Building Engineering Services National Agreement (Besna) ran for seven months last year. Flying pickets, walkouts 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 deskilling. But it was won with rank and file organisation and militant tactics. While the officials eventually issued a last-minute ballot for strike action – they did so reluctantly, and even then nearly cocked it up by refusing to defend the union against an injunction in the high court.

That was February. Since then some important developments: on the positive side, walk-outs have secured improved weekend breaks and reinstated shop stewards, while rank and file organisation has spread to other building trades and the construction union, Ucatt; on the other side, it is proving hard to hold bosses to their word.

Now Crown House Technologies has withdrawn from the Joint Industry Board (JIB) agreement, leaving sparks in limbo and at the whim of the contractor. Weekly protests and a unionisation drive have begun in London and Leeds with more to follow.

But construction workers know the problem runs deeper, as a militant from Portsmouth explained:

Crown House is the symptom, blacklisting the disease. If we don’t tackle blacklisting, then we’ll have a Besna every year.


A recent successful unofficial strike at Ratcliffe-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, only to lay them off a few weeks later.

Activists are demanding 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 by the rank and file, not union bosses, and as long as 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, challenging the bosses’ right to manage.

The issue of the blacklist is crucial. Whether the fight is over agency working, recruitment and union density, or seeking an industry-wide agreement for all trades – getting the best militants and organisers back on site is a unifying demand.

Who controls our strikes?

But even more important for the future of this exciting initiative is the relationship between the rank and file and the union bureaucracy. After all, the blacklist doesn’t only help employers – 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.

But here much of the left is vague. Ray Morrell of the SWP summed up the confusion at the conference: “We are at our strongest when we combine official and unofficial action. They organise ballots, we organise walk-outs and occupations.”

Of course we should demand officials do their job; the real question is who controls the strikes? Who controls negotiations and signs deals? The bureaucrats or the members?

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 officials and rank and file working together; full time officers should do what workers tell them to do or 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.

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