The seven major Construction companies, such as Balfour Beatty and NG Bailey, been forced to abandon their plans to cut the pay of their workforce in the face of the threat of strike action. On Thursday 16 February Balfour Beatty failed to obtain an injunction against Unite, the union which had balloted its members employed by the company twice and on both occasions the members had overwhelmingly voted in favour of strike action. Balfour Beatty has now, in face of a potential strike, scrapped its plans to force all its employees to sign up to the BESNA agreement and has instead caved in to the demands of the electricians and retained the Joint Industry Board Agreement (JIB). The other seven smaller construction firms quickly followed suit and threw in the towel. This will ensure that there is no further wholsesale de-skilling of the electricians’ trade and that previous rates of pay will be maintained for electricians employed by Balfour Beatty.
The victory of the sparks over the BESNA seven, as the offending construction companies have come to be known, is the first major example of a successful struggle being waged by the working class since the current economic crisis began in 2007. The example of the electricians shows that the bosses fear nothing more than the workers deciding to fight back.
The electricians’ struggle began in August of last year when the eight largest construction companies announced that they would be withdrawing from the long standing JIB agreement, which guarantees pay and conditions in the industry. Instead, the companies wanted to bring in their own BESNA agreement with substantially worse pay and conditions. They announced that unless electricians signed up to the new agreement by December 7 2011 they would face the sack.
Unite’s bureaucracy however was slow to react. It was a group of activists, who had been fighting the blacklisting of unionists in the construction industry for years, which set up a rank and file committee. The committee coordinated actions to force the construction giants to back down. These activists had learnt from past experience that the union bureaucracy was slow to act because it was generally unwilling to lean out the window too much and that if the workers want something they have to get it themselves.
The rank and file committee organized protests at major construction sites around the country such as the Shard and Blackfirars station in London or the Town Hall refurbishment in Manchester. In Glasgow electricians picketed at construction industry bosses awards ceremony. These protests continued weekly nationwide, culminating in a national day of action on December 7 which saw wildcat strike action at construction sites across the country. It was due to this pressure from below that the Unite bureaucrats finally put some effort in to the dispute and balloted for strike action.
Unable to get an injunction, which would have made strike action illegal, the bosses of the BESNA seven finally backed down. This once again shows that the workers’ power is the strike. So, when the union bureaucracy is paralyzed by its own conservatism, we should organize ourselves along the lines of the rank and file committees and we could go on, not just defending previous gains made in struggle, but making new ones.