For 5 months electricians have been demonstrating and picketing in order to build resistance to the new Building Engineering Services National Agreement (BESNA) conditions, involving a deskilling and reduction of pay by 35%. Protest meetings and pickets several hundred strong have been held outside construction sites run by the 7 BESNA firms every week around the country, seeking support from sparks whoever they work for, from other building workers, whatever their trade, whether they are unionised or not, from students when they were also demonstrating in London on 9th November, from Occupy London at St Pauls. Where they have sought solidarity they have found it, at least from a minority. On 7th December they expected to be on official strike after 81% voted in favour, only to have the result challenged by the employers and the strike called off. Many of them took part in a militant wildcat strike, complete with pickets several hundred strong going from site to site.
Yet in spite of this effort sparks are more and more frustrated that the struggle isn’t developing, knowing that the present level of action is no-where near enough to defend their current pay and conditions – which are in any case not always honoured, especially by agencies. In particular, strike action continues to be delayed. To make matters worse, after months of the Rank and File calling on workers not to sign the new agreement, not to give in to the employers’ blackmail and threats to terminate their jobs if they don’t, Unite has now advised them to sign the agreements in order to keep their jobs. “Received my letter from unite and telling us to sign the besna … sold down the river by the union and we aint had the ballot yet”, “I can see their thinking from a legal view point but the timing could not be worse” (posts on https://www.electriciansforums.co.uk).
Why is it so hard to struggle today?
This is obviously a tough period, the whole working class is losing out as even those not facing a nominal pay cut are worse off due to inflation. Unemployment is high, jobs are scarce. And in the building industry, with the need to move from site to site and the blacklisting of militant workers, struggle takes real courage.
But there is more to it. Militant sparks have spent all these months pressuring Unite to organise a ballot and strike action, and are now expecting this will lead to a strike in February – after many have been forced to sign the new agreement or lose their jobs. Once the strike starts in Balfour Beatty they hope it will spread to other sites. Rank and File speakers at the pickets in London were very pleased that Len McCluskey had promised them full support at the beginning of the year including an unlimited budget for the struggle, and that there will be an elected Rank and File representative at all meetings with a view to preventing a sell-out.
Frustration with Unite’s delaying tactics has been huge with all sorts of ideas put forward on the electricians’ forum:
* There have been sell-outs and sweetheart deals between union and bosses before. Obviously true, but it doesn’t explain why.
* Self-serving union bureaucrats, “The lazy FTO’s use it for a wage and fat pension”. Many former militant workers become union Full Time Officials, so what is it about the union that corrupts them? Salary and pension or the way the union operates as a negotiating body?
* Unite is too big, “If only we had our own union and not lumped in with half the country”, “All they are interested in is the ‘hard done to’ public sector workers”. In fact the unions treat public sector workers just as badly as any others, for instance when Unison strike teachers’ unions tell their members to cross the picket line and vice versa. The one day protest strike and demonstration organised for public sector workers may have got publicity, but it really hasn’t taken the struggle forward at all.
* “But most of all lads have themselves to blame” for not being willing to struggle. Strangely enough, what makes it hard to enter struggle and to take the struggle forward – for the militant workers on the early morning pickets as well as those who are waiting for Unite to call them out and those who don’t have much confidence that they can do anything – is the view that even though “Unite is not an attractive proposition and has very little credibility with the average working spark”, “many sparks would never join it again”, they also feel “the sad fact is it is all we have and we must use it the best we can”.
The union is not all we have
What the sparks have already done shows that there is an alternative to the union methods of struggle. As was said at one of the protests at Blackfriars in January, it was symbolic that on 9th November Unite wanted to lead them to Parliament to lobby MPs, while workers wanted to go and joint the student protest. Union and rank and file wanted to go in totally different directions.
For the workers “we can only succeed with other trades and occupations reinforcing our ranks and standing alongside us in working class industrial solidarity, in a union or not, in common cause and purpose” (Siteworker), the complete opposite of a union ‘struggle’ limited to their members, and then only those employed by the particular employer they are negotiating with. Workers need to struggle with all their solidarity, with strong pickets, to prevent attacks on their pay, conditions and skills. For the unions the struggle is only an adjunct to negotiation, and time and again they agree to redundancies and austerity just so long as they can get round the table with employers and often government.
Sparks have been demonstrating, picketing, going on wildcats, trying to build a struggle – the only thing that can give confidence to others who may be hesitant to struggle. The union have been delaying with all sorts of excuses about needing to recruit, ballot, to do everything legally. It’s no wonder the full time organisers have been largely absent – what have workers’ protests got to do with that?
If we look further afield we can see that struggle, and sometimes very successful struggle, takes place without unions: textile workers in Bangladesh a couple of years ago; Honda workers in China (who were physically attacked by the state sponsored union). And of course the Indignant and Occupy movements across Europe and the US also show that people can get together and organise a struggle even without unions.
The unions are not all we have; in fact they no longer belong to us at all. All we have is ourselves, the working class.
The struggle is on a knife edge
Despite some upbeat speeches at protests in January, there is a general feeling that the dynamic is ebbing away from the sparks’ resistance to the BESNA attack. Unite’s ballot of Balfour Beatty employees will be announced in early February – the previous one was 81% in favour of action – with the expectation of a strike a week later. But it comes at a dangerous time – after Unite has ordered its members to sign the agreement, when the BESNA employers think they have won and many sparks fear they are right. Time and again unions have called a strike or a big demonstration just at the time when the will to struggle has been frustrated and exhausted, when it is set up for a defeat, leaving workers feeling powerless and demoralised. If this is allowed to happen, the negative lesson will not just hit electricians but all construction workers, giving the building employers an (undeserved) air of invincibility. The defeat of a militant section of the working class will also have consequences for the wider struggle.
Militant sparks are determined to take the resistance to BESNA forward by organising “buses to ferry pickets” and escalating the strike “no doubt other sites will support the BBES strike” (https://siteworker.wordpress.com/). But this will not be enough if the workers cannot take full control of the fight into their own hands and spread the struggle. Taking control doesn’t mean electing someone from the rank and file to oversee Unite, however militant they may be; it means organising mass meetings to discuss the struggle, take decisions and carry out those decisions collectively. Spreading the fight doesn’t mean just pulling in sparks from other firms; it means drawing in the other building trades and workers in other industries whether public or private sector. This is the only way to win.