Bosses back off but we still can’t trust the unions!

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After six months of struggle against the BESNA agreement[1], which would have meant pay cuts of up to 33%, serious deskilling throughout the building industry, and unemployment for all those refusing to sign the new contracts, the electricians have forced the bosses to back off. Following a failed injunction against an imminent official national strike called by the Unite union, the main BESNA signatory, Balfour Beatty, announced that it was dropping plans to bring in the BESNA agreement, and most of the other firms involved have now followed suit.

As we have shown in a series of articles about this dispute[2], the electricians have fought this battle with an extraordinary degree of militancy and inventiveness. They have occupied public places, blocked roads, held open-mic debates in the street, disregarded the laws on picketing, accepted the support of other workers at their protests, and tried to link up with others in struggle, such as the students and the public sector workers at the big November demonstrations. The most significant expression of this combative spirit was probably the almost country-wide unofficial strike action that took place on 7 December when Unite called off an official national strike under the threat of an injunction. This is a far cry from the tame rituals which we have associated with the recent series of official days of action against public sector cuts or attacks on pensions. All this was almost completely blacked out by the media, including ‘left’ papers like the Guardian, indicating that the sparks’ tactics and independent spirit were seen as a dangerous example to other workers.

In recent weeks, however, there have been signs that the movement has been ebbing, certainly in the London region which had been the epicentre of the movement for a long time. The weekly demonstrations outside selected building sites were becoming less well attended and there were often more leftist paper sellers there than electricians. These weekly actions were themselves in danger of becoming ritualised and did not often succeed in getting other building workers to join the movement. And as the leadership of the strike, organised in the Rank and File group made up mainly of shop stewards, began putting increasing emphasis on the need to pressure the union into calling a national strike, Unite’s incessant delaying tactics were serving to sap workers’ energies.       

And then in the space of a few days, the picture changed dramatically. On Wednesday February 22nd there was lively demonstration outside the Mayfair hotel where Balfour Beatty bosses and others were gathered for a black tie dinner. Park Lane was blocked for nearly an hour and the mood of the sparks was defiant. The next day it was announced that the courts had thrown out Balfour Beatty’s latest injunction against Unite, who would now have no choice but to organise a national strike. Almost immediately Balfour announced that it was pulling out of BESNA.

The leftist press was exultant, trumpeting ‘victory for the sparks’.   A typical example was provided by Socialist Worker (25/2/12)

“Victory shows workers can win in struggle

The electricians’ victory is a simple answer to those that say the working class isn’t a force or that unions are too weak to win. Their determined campaign has humbled a huge corporation—and at the centre has been rank and file workers’ organisation. Despite being ignored by the mainstream media, workers called protests to build up support and show the bosses the depth of opposition to the attack. The threat of an official strike, and the prospect of spreading unofficial action, was enough to force the bosses to back off.

[…]

Strikes are a direct challenge to the authority of the bosses. They can expose the class divide and show the power of the working class. An astonishing level of hesitancy and conservatism from the union leadership marked the electricians’ dispute.

Nonetheless the rank and file rightly fought to get official backing and an official strike. But they were also prepared to act independently of the union bureaucracy. That process needs to be deepened and extended, building up the confidence and organisation of the workers. This can also help to inspire others, in construction and beyond. There should be no return to the corrupt “company unionism” that has infected construction. And the lesson for the rest of the labour movement is simple—militant tactics win”

On the face of it, this was a vindication of the strategy put forward by the leftists and echoed by the majority of the ‘rank and file’ leadership: carry on with the inventive tactics, act unofficially as much as necessary, but put pressure on the union hierarchy to back the dispute. The very threat of a national strike seems to have forced the bosses to cave in.

It’s certainly true that the bosses were worried by the prospect of a national strike. But the unions were also worried. The events of 7 December had shown that the sparks could organise strike action on a national scale without the support of the union machinery. Given the outward looking tactics of the sparks in their local protests and pickets, there was a real danger that a national strike would get increasingly out of their control, even spreading to other sectors. This is why the union was so quick to get together with the industry bosses after Balfour withdrew from BESNA and to issue a joint statement.

On the libertarian communist discussion forum libcom.org, the announcement that BB was withdrawing from BESNA also led to many calls of ‘victory’, but at least one poster (Jim Clarke) sounded a note of caution:

“Have BB really given up on trying to kill of JIB[3]? From having a read of the document sent round today Unite have called off strike action and agreed to come up with a new agreement for modernising the industry, which means electricians and everybody else will still get fucked over but with union approval this time”.

Our comrade Alf supported this approach:

“I agree with Jim Clarke's caution here. A sudden (apparent) climbdown by the bosses on the eve of a union led strike, followed by the cancellation or indefinite postponement of strike action, points to some kind of back room deal. Plus as Jim says, both bosses and union are talking ominously about modernisation. Not to forget that a large part of the workforce in the building trade is not even covered by the JIB in the first place”.

(http://libcom.org/news/attack-electricians-contracts-wobbles-balfour-beatty-folds-17022012)

There is no doubt that the sparks have achieved a ‘victory’ in the sense of forcing the bosses to retreat. But this was the result of their own initiative and willingness to break out of the established union rules. It would be a serious error to think that the fight is now over and that the union has finally shown itself to be on the workers’ side. Of course, the majority of sparks still see the unions as in some sense their organisations and certainly feel that it’s possible to organise at the rank and file level through the shop steward system. But the shop steward network that ran the strike from below, despite being made up of many sincere militants, also served as the main vehicle for illusions in the trade unions and the strategy of pressurising the union machinery. This is an argument for workers taking further steps along the road towards independence from the unions, by ensuring that general assemblies rather than shop stewards’ committees are really in control of the coming struggle against the ‘modernisation’ plans that are even now being cooked up by the bosses and the unions together.  

Amos 28/2/12