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From The Socialist newspaper, 25 January 2012

Balfour Beatty re-ballot Vote to strike again

Rob Williams, National Shop Stewards Network chair
'All power to the Sparks' - Electrician construction workers: protest at Cannon Street, London , photo Paul Mattsson

'All power to the Sparks' - Electrician construction workers: protest at Cannon Street, London , photo Paul Mattsson   (Click to enlarge)

The next two weeks are absolutely vital in the construction electricians' struggle against the employers' imposition of the Besna contract. Unite are re-balloting in Balfour Beatty (BBES), the leader of the 'Dirty 7' construction companies who want to withdraw from the JIB agreement and open the door to 35% pay cuts on the back of de-skilling the trade.

In December, the strike ballot in BBES was won with a whopping 82% majority yet Unite have re-balloted because BBES challenged it on a technicality. Yet again, the class nature of the law has been clearly revealed. The employers can run to the courts, even though they have the protection of Thatcher's anti-union laws - the most undemocratic in Western Europe, and scandalously maintained by Blair and Brown's New Labour.

It is vital that the ballot is won again with the biggest possible margin. The scale of the Yes vote in December undoubtedly legitimised the dispute and was a major factor in the successful unofficial action that took place on the intended strike date of 7 December, when thousands of electricians took action. No Balfours' sparks worked on their site in Blackfriars train station in London.

Construction workers protesting in Cardiff, 7.12.11, photo Socialist Party Wales

Construction workers protesting in Cardiff, 7.12.11, photo Socialist Party Wales   (Click to enlarge)

A week later, the electricians linked up with the other construction trades under the NAECI/Blue Book who are facing a pay freeze, in a day of action which saw over 5,000 workers take part in an unofficial walkout.

This has to be the model for this re-ballot. We look to take the official route but if blocked, the dispute can't be constrained by the Tory courts. However, it seems that the union stepped back in December under only the threat of legal action. This time Unite should not back down to threats.

And if BBES get a verdict in court this would clearly show to all of the electricians that unofficial action has been forced on them and would then be the only effective way to continue the battle.

Demonstrate

Whether official or unofficial, Unite should call a national demonstration on the first strike day at one of the sites. When this was done in November, over 2,000 electricians were mobilised. This would really raise the sights of sparks that the dispute is far from over. It could be accompanied by a full page advert in the national press to overcome the media blackout of this dispute.

However, it must also be linked up with the other disputes that are currently unfolding in the construction industry or closely linked to it. We support coordinating any further strike action with the NAECI pay dispute, as well as the Unite oil tanker drivers working for Wincanton, who could shut down some of the refineries that are maintained and renovated by the construction workers.

This would bring home the message to the employers and their customers that these disputes will seriously damage their profits. Balfour Beatty alone made almost 100 million in profits in the last six months and has an order book of over 15 billion!

Rank and file

This has been an incredible struggle in that for almost half a year, rank and file electricians have built and maintained a dispute that has forced Unite to take it seriously. We welcome the union's involvement and recognise the advantages that it brings. But the battle has exposed the role of the full-time officials and the necessity of the rank and file in democratically controlling the dispute and keeping the officials accountable.

The letter from the national officer Bernard McCauley advising workers to sign the Besna contracts has created unnecessary confusion and even potential demoralisation. If the union thought it was necessary for tactical reasons because the vast majority of sparks had signed, it should have been explained clearly at meetings on the sites and at the national rank and file meeting and put to the vote.

This would then be accompanied by an absolute assurance from the union of the dispute continuing with a viable strategy of action outlined.

Many struggles have shown, including industrial disputes and even the poll tax that just because an attack gets onto the statute book or into a contract of employment doesn't mean that the battle's over.

Sometimes workers have to see the reality of a change before they are stung into responding. But that still not need happen in this dispute, which if the work is done now can lead to renewed strike action that can defeat the employers and their Besna contract.

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In The Socialist 25 January 2012:


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