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From The Socialist newspaper, 16 February 2011


Construction Safety Campaign

by Tony O'Brien

The recent deaths of four construction workers in an industrial accident in Great Yarmouth brought the British construction industry's appalling safety record to the headlines once again.

This book catalogues the 20-year history of the Construction Safety Campaign (CSC). Behind the slogan of "Safety Before Profits", the CSC has campaigned to raise safety standards on construction sites, and fought for justice for victims and their families.

Most of us who work in construction have witnessed an accident or a near-miss, yet there can be a culture of 'that's the way it is' amongst some construction workers. This has been brought about by years of non-enforcement of health and safety by construction companies and government agencies, exacerbated by low levels of union membership and organisation in the industry.

This makes Tony O'Brien's book essential reading for every construction worker and activist. The stories of the deaths, many of them young men in accidents that could have been avoided, are heartbreaking. Yet the determination of their families and co-workers for justice and to improve site conditions, often with the assistance of the CSC is inspirational.

Significantly, the campaign also looks further afield to arm activists with the political ideas necessary to achieve victories. Employers have been ruthless in attempting to stamp out union organisation. The exposure of the bosses' blacklist of union and safety activists, as well as the CSC's support for the Justice for the Shrewsbury 24 campaign, provide us with important lessons for the future.

O'Brien goes into much depth, often almost encyclopaedic detail, of individual instances and events. However, it is rarely too dry, with the story told in an honest, open style. It is also well supplemented with photographs, copies of leaflets, newspaper articles and correspondence, cartoons and fact sheets, as well as a short appendix of poetry written in tribute to those who lost their lives.

The author doesn't hold back from exposing those who acted as obstacles either, with the leadership of the Labour Party and the trade unions coming under attack on occasion. However, he correctly identifies that the campaign's success is based in its grassroots campaigning amongst rank and file trade unionists.

The Con-Dem coalition recently floated plans to give firms health and safety "inspection holidays" and to let smaller companies become practically exempt from safety regulations under "earned autonomy", with the endorsement of the bosses and their representatives in the press. They will claim it as a victory in 'cutting red tape' and fighting against 'health and safety gone mad'.

However, the list of 28 construction worker fatalities in the last six months of 2009 towards the end of the book brings reality home. The ever-expanding appetite for profits by construction companies means that workers become increasingly seen as disposable.

Despite some significant victories in the last 20 years, it is clear that in the immediate future we will need campaigns such as the CSC more than ever to help defend our rights and conditions on site.

A Shropshire construction worker

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In The Socialist 16 February 2011:

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