The last few months have seen the start of a fightback against some of the attacks which are currently going on against workers the length and breadth of the country. November 30th saw the largest strike this country has ever known with 3 million workers out in a strike that spanned the entire public sector. From hospitals to local government offices; schools to subways workers refused to work when the government intends to severely reduce their pension entitlements. Faced with the prospect of getting less pensions for higher contributions at a later age it is no surprise that even unions which have never before taken strike action joined the demand for the government to change its plans.
It is not only the public sector however that are seeing attempts to have their pension rights eroded. Throughout the private sector companies including Argos, Ford, Steria, Wincanton and Unilever are just some of the companies which have seen a new level of confidence and militancy within union rank. Nowhere however has that been more apparent than with the sparks.
These Electricians Against The World, have shown a determination not to accept the ripping up of the JIB agreement which for 40 years has determined the payrates of the industry. Faced with paycuts of up to 35% together with a wholescale deskilling of an industry which already faces outrageous levels of blacklisting and industrial deaths, they have mounted an active campaign against the replacement BESNA agreement that eight major companies in the industry have demanded that electricians sign up to or be sacked.
Back in September, faced with increasing levels of opposition, Colston withdrew from the agreement. Yesterday, Balfour Beatty, a major taget of the campaign also withdrew in the face of escalating action, and an overwhelming majority in favour of strike action, despite earlier threatening mass sackings of any workers who refused to sign the agreement and overturning an earlier ballot result by the kind of legal jiggery-pokery that is becoming commonplace amongst companies seeking to circumvent legitimate strike action.
Their struggle has been lively, active and challenging. Not only at the workplaces where they have picketed, leafletted and demonstrated, on the streets where they have marched, rallied and spoken out, but also at the belly of the beast, where the high heid yins of the construction industry gather to slap each other’s back and congratulate each other on how much dosh they have made out of greater exploitation and trade tips for subjugation. It cannot be very pleasant to have your smoked salmon served to you with an accompanying chorus of “scum, scum, scum”, nor to have to run the gauntlet of angry workers informing you exactly how much your ill thought through schemes will cost them on the way to your fillet minion.
Primarily organised within the rank and file the campaign has demonstrated a level of determination, creativity and energy that is rarely seen in campaigns where ordinary members have left it to trade union officials and full timers to orchestrate. Blocking construction sites, taking their message to any and all sites where sparks are employed, and shouting about this outrage from the roofttops, yet other than on teh interwebs, coverage of this issue has been dire. Fifty sparks occupied BBC Scotland Headquarters in December in protest at the lack of media coverage, yet still barely a squeak in the mainstream media.
They have also attracted international support – from the Australian Electrical Trade Union and from the Teamsters in the US. This action is proving not just a demonstration of the power of workers standing in solidarity within the UK, but also internationally. Another really positive development is that in an industry with a reputation for sexism and where the occasional element of racism against foreign workers bubbles to the surface was that the speaker at the rank and file demo at the Grovesnor explicitly linked the direct action being taken by the Sparks, to the militancy of the Sufferagettes and the disobedience of the Civil Rights movement. By making these links, across borders, across gender and across race, there is a determination for the workers to stand strong against any attempts to divide and rule.
With the withdrawal of Balfour Beatty – the largest and the leader of the push for BESNA from the agreement yesterday, the sparks have won a massive victory. Two down; six to go.