Construction workers' fight: "unofficial or official, legal or illegal, we need to get work on the big sites stopped"

Submitted by AWL on 5 October, 2011 - 11:31

The latest in the series of weekly, early-morning demonstrations at prominent London construction sites saw hundreds of construction workers and their supporters take over Oxford Street, bringing traffic to a standstill.

The workers are fighting the attempt by seven of the industry's biggest contractors to leave the Joint Industry Board and impose their own national agreement, which would see some electricians take a 35% pay cut.

The demonstrations have been inspiring, drawing hundreds each week and defying police to occupy roads or invade parts of building sites. Today, two activists were successfully de-arrested after cops tried to snatch them.

The campaign has also been successful in pressuring the official union to fall in behind the rank-and-file's lead. Unite officials initially denounced the rank-and-file campaign in typical terms - "Trots", "troublemakers", etc. - but now the workers' demos are regularly attended and addressed by senior officers. Assistant General Secretary Gail Cartmail is due to speak at the rank-and-file committee's next meeting on Tuesday 11. London organiser Guy Langston assured the assembled workers today that "a ballot is on the way", but wouldn't be pinned down to a timetable.

Every speaker at the ad hoc rallies stressed the point that while the weekly demos are important, it is only by stopping work on the big sites that the "big seven" will be forced to back down. Given Unite's caution, the question of unofficial action is posed extremely sharply. Mick Dooley, left candidate for the General Secretary position in construction union UCATT, put it most clearly when he said "official or unofficial, legal or illegal, we need to get the work on these sites stopped. Next week, don't just come for a demonstration; be prepared to block the sites, persuade delivery drivers to turn round, get the work stopped."

The momentum, energy and dynamism of the campaign in London - launched in the summer by a meeting of 500 rank-and-file construction workers - needs a clear focus and strategy if the seven contractors are to be beaten back. An announcement at the Oxford Street demo that workers at the Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station in Nottinghamshire had voted to take unofficial strike action was greeted with loud cheers; how solid will that action be? Can it be replicated elsewhere?

So far, the campaign has mainly been driven by blacklisted workers or workers between jobs. Without a base on the big sites it may be difficult to organise the action - official or otherwise - needed to win. There may be some mileage in the "flying picket" strategy of turning up at a site and blockading it "from the outside"; certainly, the workers have a "right" to picket out other sites in their industry to prevent a savage pay cut. But this would take a willingness to confront the state to a degree not yet seen in this campaign; it would result in scraps with the cops and arrests. The militancy of the construction workers so far has been inspiring, but even militant workers are not immune from the pressures of the past period, in which such radical methods of direct-action class struggle have been rare.

The London meeting on Tuesday 11 October, and similar meetings elsewhere, will be important forums for attempting to discuss these issues and answer these questions. Socialists and workers from other industries with experience of struggles like this should get involved, provide support, and help shape a discussion that can lead to the development of a strategy the construction workers can use to win.