The world economic crisis has hit the construction industry very hard. The Office of National Statistics Bulletin for the 2nd quarter 2011 says that the total volume of new orders for building contracts is at their lowest level since 1980. Faced with this slow-down, one of the major UK Construction companies, Balfour Beatty Engineering, issued 90 day notices of termination to some 890 employees on the 14th September. 7 other major electrical contractors also announced their intention to withdraw from the national industry agreement (the Joint Industry Board, JIB), proposing to split electricians from one grade – where they’re paid £16.25 per hour – into 3 grades ranging from £10.50 to £14 per hour. For those downgraded to £10.50 this will amount to a 35% pay cut.
There was an immediate reaction from the workforce, with co-ordinated unofficial action taking place at several major construction sites across the UK, including the Olympic park, Lindsey oil refinery, the Tyne Tunnel, Farringdon Station and the Commonwealth Games stadium. So far, this has included actions such as blocking entrances to building sites, an invasion of the Farringdon Station site and a noisy demonstration inside Kings Cross station.
At all these actions there have been passionate speeches not only about present and past building workers’ struggles, but the situation facing all workers. After all there is little doubt more and more of us are also going to be faced not only with massive redundancies, but with out-and-out pay cuts. The electricians have welcomed the participation of other workers in these actions, and there have been calls to join the public sector strikes planned for 30 November.
These examples of direct, collective action have already had an impact on the bosses. Since the fight began, one of the 7 contractors pulled back from its stated intention and has said it will ‘honour’ the existing JIB contracts.
These actions have gone ahead despite the lack of official response from the national apparatus of UNITE, which now ‘represents’ the majority of the workers involved. In the demonstrations electricians have called for an immediate national ballot and have openly criticised the apparent sluggishness of the union leaders.
The question is though: if workers can organise so much without the national leadership, why waste time calling on them to act on their behalf? What’s needed is not more ‘co-ordination’ from above, which is invariably designed to paralyse real militancy, but more direct participation from below, with real decision-making not in the hands of the local union structure, but of general assemblies of strikers, with strike committees responsible only to the assemblies.
In fact, the electricians have already taken some vital steps forward from ‘traditional’ ways of organising, where the division into different unions keeps workers divided and therefore weak. Inspired by the example of taking over public spaces that has spread from Egypt to Spain, Greece, Israel and elsewhere, the electricians’ actions create the possibility of street assemblies where all divisions break down and workers, unemployed, the retired, students and others can take part in the debate about spreading the struggle.