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Workers' Memorial Day: Building workers must strike for safety
Dave Walsh, Unite convener, Liverpool council, deputy secretary of a large Unite construction branch
Workers' Memorial Day is on 28 April. In many towns and cities, construction workers and their trade union branches will take a lead in organising activities.
The reason for this is simple; construction is Britain's most dangerous and deadly industry.
The Observer put this in context on 13 April, reporting that since 2001 there had been 760 workers killed on British sites; almost twice the number of soldiers killed in action in Afghanistan over the same period.
And these figures don't include the thousands of building workers who die each year as a result of exposure to asbestos, respirable crystalline silica and diesel exhausts.
The reasons for the industry's dire record are clear; over the last 30 years it has been deregulated and casualised, while bogus self-employment, anti-trade union laws and the industry blacklist have pushed unions to the margins and left workers too afraid to raise concerns about dangerous practices. As well as this, since 2011 Health and Safety Executive funding has been cut by 35%.
In 2010, yet another public inquiry into the industry's parlous state was overseen by Lady Donaghy. Her conclusion - welcomed by then Labour prime minister Gordon Brown - was that not much could be done about casualisation because of its benefits to the industry.
So instead of recommending changes which would encourage direct employment and increase trade union density on sites she called for a new government minister to be created for construction.
This was a feeble attempt to give the appearance of worker-participation while completely ignoring the pernicious practice of blacklisting in the industry.
Incredibly, brave and determined trade union activists like Frank Morris and Steve Aitcheson have fought and won great victories over their employers in their fights to uncover and overcome the blacklist.
Their campaigns helped build the confidence of rank and file activists in construction and helped the legal claims of thousands of victimised shop stewards and safety reps.
However, successive governments have failed building workers and worked hand in glove with industry bosses to marginalise trade unions.
But workers have already begun to fight back. In 2009 workers won a stunning victory at Lindsey Oil Refinery after they took unofficial strike action to defend their national agreement (NAECI).
In 2012 electricians took on a number of large construction firms which were trying to scrap their national agreement and attack their pay terms and conditions.
Their rank and file campaign of protests and unofficial walkouts culminated in an official strike action ballot by Unite which forced the firms to capitulate.
Employers are now attempting to circumvent new regulations by forcing workers into umbrella payment companies.
This allows employers to avoid paying holiday pay and to force the employee to pay the company's NI contributions as well as their own. But again, building workers are fighting back.
On 4 April, 30 construction workers in Sussex downed tools and demanded direct employment for the duration of the job.
They were successful and now enjoy the industry rate under the JIB national agreement. And at the Manchester City training ground site, agency electricians working for Balfour Beatty sat in the cabin over similar attacks on their pay terms and conditions.
However, trade union density on building sites remains low. If this is to be turned around, the construction unions need to organise a national demonstration reinforced with the threat of national strike action.
There should be a clear demand for direct employment and national agreements covering all workers' pay and conditions, including health and safety.
Most agency workers on building sites don't even claim the holiday pay that they lawfully accrue because they know if they do they won't get a call to return to work.
There would be a tremendous response from these workers if the unions mounted a serious campaign for their rights.
Their strike action would hit hard and could eventually be coordinated with all the other unions in struggle.
Many unions including the NUT, FBU and NAPO have live national industrial action ballots while many other unions are organising local disputes across the country, yet the TUC has failed to follow the resolution passed at its congress in 2012 which called on it to look into the practicalities of coordinating a general strike.
What is clear is that many trade union leaders are terrified of the political challenge that a general strike represents.
This is why it is so important that a new workers' party is created so that trade unions have political allies who are able to voice their campaigns.
TUSC will mount the biggest left-of-Labour challenge for generations in May's local elections. TUSC candidates will campaign on issues affecting building workers and all other workers.
We must continue to campaign within the trade unions to win support for TUSC and break the link with the Labour Party.
In The Socialist 23 April 2014:
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