Adam Ford writes on the latest turn in the electricians’ struggle
The grassroots ‘Sparks’ movement of electricians continues to organise direct actions and protests across the country, but it is running out of time before construction companies impose huge pay cuts. Meanwhile, the same Unite bureaucracy whose negotiator Bernard McAulay labelled the Sparks “cancerous” is seeking to gain control of the struggle, the better to strangle it. The rank-and-file workers need to develop a resistance strategy, and fast.
The dispute began back in August, when electricians angry about the proposed new Building Engineering Services National Agreement (BESNA) set up their own rank-and-file campaign committee, with the intention of pressurising Unite tops into adopting a more combative stance than usual. Non-unionised workers were urged to join Unite, with the idea being that they would be able to vote for official strike action. Since then, the national and local committees have organised various wildcat actions, such as brief site ‘occupations’ and road blockages. This momentum has built week on week.
Under BESNA, the current across the board hourly rate of £16.25 would be scrapped, and electricians would be graded for a rate of between £14 and £10.50. This follows a pay freeze last year, so some electricians would be 45% worse off than they were two years ago, assuming they are able to find work at all in a declining construction industry. Inevitably, deskilling would follow, along with an increase in workplace ‘accidents’.
Despite McAulay’s controversial statement last month, certain elements within Sparks have sought to court him and the woman he emailed it to – assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail. Over the last few weeks, both have addressed various Sparks gatherings, repeatedly promising a strike ballot soon, but putting it off again and again due to supposed technical issues.
Finally, on 18th October, Unite announced a ballot for Balfour Beatty workers only. Unite say that Balfour Beatty are “ringleaders” of the attempted industry-wide reorganisation, and they do employ 1,690 of the six thousand workers potentially affected. However, this will leave nearly three quarters not covered by the vote.
The deadline for electricians to sign the new contracts or face redundancy is 7th December. Under Thatcher’s anti-trade union laws, unions must give employers seven days notice of a ballot, and the action must take place within four weeks of the ballot, unless the employer agrees otherwise (this actually happened recently in the Southampton council dispute). In short, the clock is ticking for any official strike action by the vast majority before the contract deadline.
Unite have planned a London rally for Wednesday 9th November, as part of a ‘national day of action’. Judging by posts on the Sparks Facebook group, many electricians are planning to make the trip down south, so it seems possible there will be a sick-out, similar to the oneamongst Wisconsin teachers last winter.
But after that, the huge social tensions will remain, and a new outlet will be required. The employers will surely not budge, and Unite bureaucrats will need to find a way of selling defeat to a largely militant rank-and-file. At that point, Sparks will face a choice of organising outside of Unite and the trade union laws, or swallowing a huge drop in living standards. Will anger win out over demoralisation this time round? We will have to wait and see.
Another factor worth mentioning in regard to Sparks is what might be called the ‘cross-pollination’ of struggles. On the Facebook group, one electrician said he would be going on to the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts student demonstration in the afternoon. He explained that “in London the students have been fantastic for us”, even “helping to block gates and stop traffic”. There has also been interaction between the Sparks and Occupy groups. After the electricians’ action at Blackfriars, the Sparks marched the few hundred yards to the St Paul’s camp.
This kind of interaction is of course essential both to the workers’ chances of victory, as well as the political development of groups which are currently less workerist in orientation. But the launch of a real working class movement is still dependent on workers organising entirely independently of the trade union and left party bureaucracies. If that happens with this relatively small group of electricians, the Sparks will certainly live up to their name.