A day after the High Court refused to grant Balfour Beatty Engineering Services an injunction to stop a planned strike by Unite members, BBES have performed a spectacular and embarrassing u-turn and backed down from their plans to impose new contracts for electrical and mechanical construction workers which would have involved pay cuts of up to 35%.
Balfour Beatty was one of a group of eight construction industry giants, representing over half of the work in the UK, who in summer 2011 announced plans to unilaterally leave the Joint Industry Board (the union-negotiated collective agreement governing pay, terms and conditions for electrical and mechanical construction workers) and impose a new deal, the "Building Engineering Services National Agreement" (BESNA) without union consultation.
While Unite, and other construction industry unions, were slow to react, electricians held mass meetings, elected a rank-and-file committee to coordinate the campaign and launched a series of direct actions at prominent construction sites around the UK. One contractor, MJN Colston, backed down relatively quickly but the remaining seven appeared intransigent.
The rank-and-file campaign began from a position of relative weakness, with extremely low union density on most major sites and with many key activists unable to work because of anti-union blacklisting (an endemic problem in the industry). They also had to drag their own union, kicking and screaming, into action. At one stage Unite national officer Bernard MacAuley referred to the rank-and-file campaign as "a cancer".
After electing to target BBES, as the industry leader, the sparks finally wrung a strike ballot out of Unite. When the ballot returned an overwhelming vote in favour of action, BBES threatened to challenge its legality and the strike was called off. Thousands of sparks struck anyway on 7 December, without union backing, staging pickets and actions across the country. A second ballot, closing on 2 February, returned another majority for action. BBES took Unite to court, but failed to win an injunction.
BBES's climbdown comes after Unite stepped up their own support for the campaigning, dedicating more union resources to it and demanding national-level talks with BBES bosses. Unions internationally, including the influential International Brotherhood of Teamsters in the USA, also threatened action against BBES if they did not back down.
Certainly, a greater level of official involvement from Unite and the threat that they would dedicate more of their considerable resources to targeting BBES, will have given BBES bosses pause. But Unite's active support for the dispute was never automatic and had to be won through concerted rank-and-file pressure. When Unite surrendered in the face of legal threats around the December strike, the rank-and-file committee kept its nerve and struck anyway.
The dispute so far, while not perfect, has been a lesson in rank-and-file organising and tenacity. The direct actions have continued despite apparent intransigence from the contractors and it seems likely now that the remaining six will follow BBES's lead.
The battle is not won, however. A joint statement from Unite and BBES bosses says that both parties are "committed to high level talks within an agreed timeline with the aim of creating new proposals and ensuring agreed terms are honoured." In other words, rather than making a defence of the JIB a non-negotiable bottom line, Unite will help BBES bosses draft another alternative agreement.
A refusal to budge on defending the JIB would be a start, but even that would not be adequate. The JIB itself is a shoddy deal - the result of defeats for construction industry unions. It needs replacing with a deal that guarantees living wages, safe conditions, an end to blackmailing and direct employment to end the agency hiring now common in the industry. Unite should use the momentum of BBES's u-turn to go on the offensive to win new gains in the construction industry. Its conciliatory talk is worrying, to say the least.
The rank-and-file committee is unlikely to let its guard down. It deserves the credit for this victory, which could set an enormous precedent: a major private-sector employer has been forced to back down from huge cuts because of a sustained campaign of grassroots-led direct action, including wildcat strikes. While the sparks are far from winning their war, they have won a major battle. Other workers should take inspiration.