Sites of struggle: organising in construction

Submitted by Matthew on 28 March, 2012 - 12:26

On 4 March 2012, the long-held suspicions of hundreds of trade union activists in the construction industry were confirmed when it was revealed that the British state had been colluding with construction contractors to prevent union activists from getting work.

The “Consulting Association” (CA), a shadowy body funded by most major construction contractors, held data on numerous individuals which included information that could not have come from anywhere except police records.

The CA has also been revealed to be holding an “RMT file”, suggesting that the extent of their data collection could be wider than the construction industry. RMT general secretary Bob Crow has publicly called for the CA’s files on the RMT and other unions to be released.

The blacklisting revelations came in the wake of a huge defeat for the attempt by seven of the UK’s biggest contractors to unilaterally abolish the collective agreement for electrical and mechanical construction workers (the Joint Industry Board) and replace it with another (the Building Engineering Services National Agreement, BESNA) that would have represented a 35% pay cut for some workers. A sustained campaign of rank-and-file direct action, organised by a committee of activists elected at a mass meeting in summer 2011, was successful in forcing an initially cautious and even hostile union machinery into supporting the struggle and, finally, in forcing the contractors to back down.

What do these two experiences tell us about workers’ organisation and struggle in the construction industry? Solidarity presents a symposium with construction industry activists, including blacklisted workers.


How the sparks won

By Skid Marx

The decision by eight of the biggest players in the construction sector to break away from the existing Joint Industry Board agreement and down-skill the industry by imposing the new Building Engineering Services National Agreement (BESNA) seemed to catch the Unite leadership napping. Not so the rank and file.

Despite low union density on the ground — a common story throughout construction — enough Unite plumbers, heating engineers and electricians could see what this attack from the employers meant. And they weren’t going to sit back and take it.

The response saw lively, aggressive demonstrations taking place, especially in London, targeting sites operated by the eight, and especially those operated by the high-profile industry-leader Balfour Beatty. This was occasionally backed up by unofficial industrial action. One of the eight, MJN Colston, caved within weeks of the direct-action campaign beginning, and the rank and file kept up the pressure on the seven.

Impressive though this was, it lacked any resourced national co-ordination and a strategic focus capable of forcing the remaining companies to back down. The campaign had an elected committee, but the leadership it was able to provide — relying on social networks (both real world and online) and occasional national meetings to coordinate and mobilise — was limited.

Eventually the Unite leadership got involved and the main focus became trying to make official the action that was taking place already.

But in an industry that is as transient and poorly organised as construction, the membership records would (perhaps inevitably) not be up to scratch and thus the first couple of attempts at legal action foundered on the rocks of the High Court. The leadership strategy seemed to be too little, too late, and too predictable.

In fact, the BESNA companies were perfectly able to second-guess and ride out a campaign of sporadic direct action and a seemingly doomed attempt to bring the dispute within legal bounds. There was a turncoat in the office of employers association Heating and Ventilating Contractors Association (HVCA), an ex-Unite national officer by the name of Brian Boyd who had taken a handsome redundancy package and split to work for the bosses’ organisation. He might not have been the sharpest tool in the box while working for Unite, but even “Brother” Boyd would know enough about the state of the union in the sector he had headed up to be of use to his new employers.

Once again, the picture being painted was of a well-prepared and well-resourced employer attack being met with a half-arsed and cobbled together response from a major national union. The difference in this case was that the rank and file were active and determined enough to fight and to push for a better response from their union leaders. Eventually, they would get it.

Unite’s organising department put together a strategy for taking on the BESNA seven. Finally, research work was done to understand these companies — who their investors or shareholders were, what subsidiaries they owned, their key profit drivers, what big contracts they held and which lucrative new contracts they were bidding for, what overseas operations they had and what sponsorship tie-ins they promoted themselves through, and who the directors were, where they lived and so on. Now the union had a strategy — take the fight to the companies in arenas that would damage their reputations, place their clients’ businesses at threat of disruption and threaten the revenue streams from new contracts, as well as damaging their brand reputations and making life difficult for the directors themselves.

The rank-and-file activists were brought together to work through the plan and at their instigation a programme of nationally co-ordinated action was launched.

At the same time the union’s legal department, under new leadership, took the fight to the courts and argued that Unite had done all that could reasonably be expected in its strike ballot procedures, and that any discrepancies could not be of crucial importance to the overall vote. Unite’s legal arguments carried the day. So now we had a strategy, a campaign and a legal ballot for industrial action at Balfour Beatty. Within days, BESNA was dead.

The sort of campaign that was put together to take on BESNA is not a magic bullet. Unions can’t simply roll out the same corporate leverage campaign against every employer attack or it will lose its edge and its focus and therefore lose its effectiveness. And the tactics and strategy of a campaign must fit the specifics of that campaign. What’s more, we can not replace strong workplace organisation with this style of campaigning.

But what we can learn from BESNA is that an effective, resourced strategic campaign, and active and aggressive rank-and-file militancy can win out against even the biggest, best resourced, best planned and most determined employers in the country.

“BESNA win can be a game-changer”

By Dave Smith, blacklisted engineer

The big issue in the construction industry for the past 30 years has been false “self-employment”.

The bosses have gone so far with casualisation that sometimes thousands of workers on a site are all consider to be "self-employed". It is complete nonsense, but it means we end up getting no sick pay, redundancy, or unfair dismissal rights, etc.

This is a decades-long problem of employment through agencies and sub-contracting. No-one would use the term "the lump" [a system of casualised, cash-in-hand hiring] any more, but it is the same issue.

It makes it very hard for unions to organise with a seemingly atomised workforce.

But we still do it; look at the recent sparks’ dispute or the Joint Sites Committee’s struggles in the 90s, or the late 90s Jubilee Line battles (which were started by agency workers).

The other perennial issue is safety. Profit always comes first, and the deregulation of labour results in the casualisation of everything else.

The blacklisting of union reps is also a huge issue, of course. It’s very difficult for unions to operate if all their activists can’t get jobs. We all knew blacklisting was going on, it’s just that with the new evidence we can finally prove it.

The victory against BESNA was not just a huge confidence boost, it’s also brought new layers of activists into activity. Hopefully it can be a game-changer.

Construction unions need rank-and-file democracy

By a construction worker

Union organisation is generally poor. The construction unions have sold their soul to the devil by agreeing to appointed convenors.

On the major jobs, convenors are agreed between the unions and the main contractor before a single worker gets onto the site. The convenor is appointed by the union and paid by the contractor — there is no election amongst the workforce.

The appointed convenor often shares an office with the company employment relations mangers and will carry out the site inductions on behalf of the firms.

You may get a half-decent one who will give some kind of individual representation, but you can forget any kind of proper union organisation, stewards’ committees, or industrial action.

The unions have given up on ever being able to organise the agency staff and self-employed workers. It’s difficult, but it's not impossible.

Instead they have cut a deal that gets them symbolic positions but no real organisation. It’s almost as if the companies own the unions.

In the old days this would have been all done under the table and with an element of shame. Nowadays they shout about it. It is a disgrace.

Blacklist exposes limits of our “democracy”

By Darren O’Grady, blacklisted electrician

Organisation in the construction industry over the last period has been very poor, but there have been clear examples of how workers can win, such as the Jubilee Line (98-99), Pfizer’s (2000), recent JIB/BESNA dispute, etc. In every case the initiative has come from below.

The union leadership always have excuses why workers don't organise, but most of them don't hold water. Yes, the work is transitory, but in my experience that can encourage people to have a go. If you don't have a permanent job and the temporary one you do have is crap, what have you got to lose by having a go?

Unite appear to be putting some resources into recruitment and organising on the back of the sparks’ dispute, but why wouldn't they? The level of unionisation is so low that any union with an ounce of common sense could surely recruit hand over fist if they made the effort. The issues are certainly there, the ability to hurt the employer is clear to see, and an effective focused campaign could easily set an example that could be followed around the country. There is no inherent reason why construction workers are not organised here — look at high levels of unionisation in other countries. It is the failings of the leadership that are to blame in my opinion.

Balfour Beatty and the other BESNA contractors had gotten used to bullying workers and because of the resources that they have got. Like many employers elsewhere, they probably thought that the virtually unchallenged “need” for cuts meant that the workforce would roll over.

By no means is the war with construction bosses won, but beating BESNA is an important victory and could be a great springboard to build from.

I was contacted by “World in Action” for a programme back in the 1980s and found out that there was a file on my union activities and political sympathies, which was from the Economic League and the Service Group within them. Very little of this information appears in my Consulting Association file. From my experience and from talking to others and seeing some files, it would appear that CA was a smaller scale operation and the “quality” of much of their information was pretty poor — newspaper clippings, hearsay etc.

Yet even then, Dave Smith's case has shown the extent of collaboration between the state and the bosses [contractor Carillion admitted that two of its subsidiaries has “penalised” Smith for his union activity, and David Clancy, investigations manager at the Information Commissioner’s Officer, has given testimony that the information on Smith and others “could only have been supplied by the police or security services”]. I suspect that it was even greater in the days of the Economic League, but perhaps the state has diverted some resources away from monitoring trade unionists as the movement became more compliant after the big defeats of the 80s.

It was no surprise to know that I was blacklisted. I am blacklisted because I wanted safe conditions on site and workers to earn a decent rate of pay — it is as simple as that. That is outrageous and should not happen in a democratic country, but the fact it is so commonplace should make clear the nature of “democracy” in Britain.

It is the sort of thing that the media and mainstream politicians denounce when it occurs in “despotic regimes”, but a practice that they are fully aware of and complicit in over here.

Taking on the blacklisters

By the Blacklist Support Group

The first legal battle since the revelations about police collusion in the illegal blacklisting of workers were exposed in the Observer (4 March) saw blacklisted electrician Tony Jones take on some of the largest companies in the UK construction industry at Manchester Employment Tribunal, 20-21 March.

The companies accused of blacklisting include Carillion and their recruitment agency SkyBlue (and one-time Carillion subsidiary Crown House Technologies), Balfour Beatty, Emcor (previously Drake & Scull), Phoenix and the employment agency Beaver Management.

The claim being heard by the Employment Tribunal is that the firms unlawfully refused to employ Tony Jones because of his previous trade union activities as part of Unite on the some of the most prestigious construction projects in the UK over the past decade, including Wembley Arena, Heathrow Terminal 5, Manchester University, Manchester Law Courts, Fiddlers Ferry Power Station.

Documentary evidence of the blacklisting first came to light after the Information Commissioner’s Office raided the premises of the notorious Consulting Association in 2009. They discovered a database containing the personal details of over 3,200 trade union members which was being shared amongst the biggest building firms in the country as a means of stopping individuals gaining work.

Mr. Jones is being represented in court by his union.

Tony Jones said: “I have done nothing wrong. Nothing illegal. I am an electrician and a member of a trade union. Last time I looked that was not against the law. But time and again I have been refused work and my family has suffered because of this illegal blacklisting.

“I have got pages of documentary evidence that proves beyond any doubt what was going on [...] Are big businesses above the law?”

In an unusual coincidence, in the very same court, on the very same dates, another blacklisted electrician also took a claim, but this time under the new Blacklisting Regulations 2010.

Steve Acheson is taking a claim against Dimension Data for blacklisting him from the Holford Gas Terminal construction project in Cheshire under new blacklisting legislation. This will be one of the first cases ever taken under the new regulations which were introduced in the last days of the previous Labour government in response to the Consulting Association scandal.

The regulations were heavily criticised by unions, legal experts and campaigners when they were introduced as being too weak to effectively protect workers, so the Acheson case will be watched closely.

A new unionism for the construction industry

By Michael Dooley

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 don't work. 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 of 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 workers can have immense power.

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 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.

* Michael Dooley is a construction worker activist and was the left candidate for the leadership of construction union UCATT until bureaucratically excluded from the election. This article initially appeared in Solidarity 220, 12 October 2011

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