Michael Dooley, a construction worker and left candidate for the General Secretary position of construction union UCATT, spoke to Solidarity about the issues facing construction workers and the ongoing electricians’ campaign against pay cuts.
The recent period has been one of decline and retreat from the point of view of trade union organisation within the industry.
The electricians are one of the last trades with anything like a high level of organisation. Overall union density is probably less than 10%. However, the level of support for trade union ethos — collective organisation and campaigning — is much higher. You will find non-union members, self-employed workers and agency staff expressing support for trade union ideas.
The construction industry has always been transient. However, in the past a job may have taken four years to complete, which gave unions time to build up organisation in a traditional way. Modern construction design allow similar projects to be completed in two years or less so a lot of those old approaches to organising are redundant. New tactics need to be developed, such as campaigns which focus on organising workers in their communities as well as on sites.
Unions need to develop a profile in communities so that when a construction worker goes to a new site they’ll be familiar with the union from its work in their community, and may already be a member. It’s about coupling a community presence with an assertive industrial approach and using industrial muscle to support communities. Other methods include trade or group specific organising, geographical area specific or company-wide organising.
A construction workers’ union run along those lines would run disputes on every site. There’s an endless list issues to organise around, from low pay to safety to bullying, which is rife in the industry. Because of the incredibly tight time-frames now common in the industry, the employers can’t afford any disruption, so even a small group of well-organised worker can have immense power.
I am fighting to transform UCATT into that kind of union and this the platform on which I’m standing in the General Secretary election, which begins on 11 November. There are three other candidates not seen as left, and myself as the left candidate. I’ve got a history of unwavering militancy; I’m the only candidate to have been seriously blacklisted by construction employers and I think I’m the candidate who construction bosses would most fear. I’ve been involved in the campaign of the electricians — who are mainly in Unite — in a supportive capacity. I’ve got experience so I think I can offer solidarity and assistance, but I’m not trying to tell members of another union what to do.
Ultimately I think that campaign needs a level of direct action that official trade unions simply aren’t able to organise. Building sites are well-oiled machines running to very tight timetables. If those timetables fall behind, even slightly, trade contractors can put forward surcharges which can become very expensive for the big employers.
Most sites areas are restricted in size. They don’t store materials on site, so materials need to be brought onto site each day. Employers work on margins of one or two per cent and are under economic pressure to run jobs on or ahead of schedule. Even a minor disruption of, say, 20% of the materials going onto a site can have a huge impact in a very short time.
If you can stop a concrete lorry during a concrete pour, for example, you will shut that site down. We’ve had 300 people on the electricians’ demos; we need to get those 300 people to stand at the gates to a site and ask drivers not to cross their picket line. That’s the mechanics of it. You’d need an awful lot of police officers to continually deal with a flying picket of 300 workers in a urban area.
The workers who’ve been attending the London demos work on a variety of sites across south east England, but not usually the big ones we’ve been targeting. In the run-up to the demonstration at The Shard [an office/hotel building under construction near London Bridge], we leafleted workers there beforehand. A dispute they were having over wages was immediately resolved because their bosses were frightened they’d join our demonstration. We need to do more of that – engaging with workers on the sites in the run-up to the demonstrations rather than just turning up. We can start to use the demonstrations to apply pressure in disputes about poor conditions that may already be taking place on those sites.
The campaign needs to widen its focus. We need to focus on the main contractors offices, and their clients’ offices, as well as the sites themselves. Why not target Crossrail’s office as well as Crossrail building sites? And wherever there is a group of organised workers working on a site run by one of these contractors they should be balloted and supported in putting on picket lines, even if it’s just 10 workers.
The tactics I’m talking about are ones that we’ve employed in the past but have been lost in the conservatism of the British labour movement. But these are the tactics that work.
Fundamentally that’s the only question — how can we win? We should adopt the tactics which are necessary to win the fight.
• A longer version of this article is online at tinyurl.com/mickdooley