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Protesting construction workers call for national strike ballot
Another protest against the attacks on national agreements in the electrical and mechanical construction sector took place on Wednesday 14 September at the Olympic site in East London.
About 100 workers and their supporters gathered to protest against the attempts to deskill the industry by eight major construction companies, including major names such as Balfour Beatty.
Five of these companies have upped the stakes by issuing what the union Unite describes as "legal notice of their intention to dismiss, with notice, thousands of employees before re-engaging them on new inferior contracts". A deadline has been set for 7 December for all employees to sign these new contracts.
The mood of the workers was angry. They get paid good wages (about £16 an hour) for high-grade skills yet face the prospect of being reclassed as 'semi-skilled' and therefore being lower paid; some cuts in pay could be as much as 35%! The bosses want to scrap the existing 50-50 agreements which decide the skill levels of workers and unilaterally decide grades themselves.
And the work is dangerous, with the protest being told by one worker that there had been three serious accidents on the Olympic site last week alone.
This protest, organised by the rank and file construction workers' campaign, was attended by two Unite officials and addressed by Vince Passfield, regional secretary for the union's construction sector.
He recognised the anger of the members that has been shown by big turnouts at weekly protests and said that Unite had officially called the next one for the Farringdon Crossrail site on Wednesday 21 September.
Nevertheless, many workers in the industry believe Unite and other unions have been too slow in organising resistance to the bosses' attacks, which is why the unofficial campaign was established.
Most of the workers are calling for unions, particularly Unite, to organise a national ballot for strike action to hit the bosses in their pockets and stop these attacks on terms and conditions.
A number of speakers backed up this call. Kevin Parslow, assistant secretary of the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) and bringing greetings from that body, welcomed the protests and recognised a growing anger in the private sector against the attacks of the bosses and the Con-Dem government.
He called for any strikes organised in construction (2 million workers are in the industry although only 10% are in unions) to be coordinated with the public-sector unions discussing action on pensions. That could bring the bosses to the table and even to their knees, he said.
The protest marched down to the main road and blocked traffic for a short while before being asked to move on by the police.
The workers felt they had made their point about their potential power! The protest was ended by blacklisted construction worker Dave Smith reminding those gathered that the enemy "isn't Polish workers or Portuguese workers, but the bosses who want to take more profits from your pay".
Other protests also took place today at the Grangemouth oil refinery in Scotland and Balfours Carrington paper mill site in Manchester.
A young construction worker posted on Facebook recently: "I'm 20 years old. I'm in my fourth year of my apprenticeship; you're telling me I have worked my ass off for the last four years doing all my college work and getting all the correct grades to be an electrician and then put on the same money as some one who, no offence, works in McDonalds? This can't be right.
"This is the first I have heard of this de-skilling. What can I do about this? Cheers."
Next protests on Wednesday 21 September:
- London: Farringdon Crossrail site, London, 6.30am, called officially by Unite.
- Newcastle: Balfour Beatty, Percy Street, Newcastle, 6.30am
- Manchester: 6.30-9.30am NG Baileys Manchester town hall site, Peace Gardens/Princess Street site entrance, M2 4EG, organised by Rank & File; then march/travel to Salford MediaCity site, 10am at site main entrance, M50 2EQ. Officially organised by Unite.
Future rank and file meetings:
- North East: Friday 16 September at the Labour Club in Newcastle starting at 7pm.
- London and South East: Wednesday 21 September, 6:30pm, Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London.
- North-West: Saturday 1 October 12 noon, Mechanics Institute, 103 Princess Street, Manchester
This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 15 September 2011 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.