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Electricians' national meeting plans next steps in battle against pay cut
Hugh Caffrey, Socialist Party
Electricians from across England, Scotland and Wales gathered in Birmingham on 14 January to plan the next steps for the fight in defence of pay rates and their skilled trade.
Seven companies are trying to tear up national agreements on pay and terms of employment, currently decided by the "Joint Industry Board" (JIB). This will mean up to 35% pay cuts for sparks and the deskilling of the jobs.
Organised by the Rank & File (R&F), this national meeting came at an important time, as the Seven are trying to force sparks to sign the new "Besna" contracts, under clearly implied threats of sacking if they don't.
Around seventy sparks and their supporters took part in a lively discussion, angry and defiant against the employers' plans, and democratically deciding the course of the dispute over the next few weeks.
Gail Cartmail, Unite assistant general secretary, spoke first and confirmed ballot papers were sent to 830 employees of Balfour Beatty (BBES), the "ringleader" in the breakaway seven, on 9 January.
The ballot closes on 1 February, with the first possible date for official strike action being 9 February.
Although Gail did not spell it out, it seems that no other Besna companies are being balloted.
Sparks will however welcome Gail's commitment that Unite regional offices and full-time officials must "consistently" support the protests, and that £ thousands in regional funds are available as well as what exists in construction branch funds.
Gail said the employers asked for more Acas talks but Unite refused because the companies won't lift the threat of dismissals, which is Unite's precondition for serious talks.
Unite is .looking at legal action over Besna because it may breach the Competition Act, and over the legal status of JIBs in England Wales and Scotland.
The Naeci agreement (which covers engineering construction sites such as power stations and oil refineries) is "next in the firing line" and therefore Unite will put resources into organising Naeci membership.
A lively discussion saw a host of questions, some rightly very critical, put to Gail. A press strategy is being developed to target suppliers.
Site meetings should be taking place, organised by stewards, and other possible disputes over companies breaking JIB rules will be looked into.
Unite had decided that a full-page media advert would be ineffective, but this will be looked into again as many sparks feel this would be very helpful.
Criticism of Unite full-time officers in the regions, and especially of national construction official Bernard McAulay, drew a very angry response from Gail.
Out of this debate was agreed a proposal that a currently unemployed R&F activist in each region should be elected by the R&F to be paid by Unite at JIB rates, to organise sites while fighting Besna.
Other speakers from the top table included Brian Higgins, blacklisted building worker, who praised the courage of sparks in uniting against the employers.
Brian emphasised that full-time officials should be elected, and that if necessary we should defy the anti-union laws.
Steve Acheson, national and north-west R&F committee member, spoke powerfully. "I'm filled with enthusiasm for the future of Unite" said Steve, but "the rank and file had to organise and lead this fight against the Besna Seven", not least because of mistrust for the officials after decades of blacklisting in which some officials colluded.
Steve explained, "Twelve years ago we took on the whole JIB... we organised ourselves and we walked off the sites, and within three weeks the whole JIB had capitulated." The lesson of this, is "the only way we'll win this is with unofficial action", such as at Carrington in Manchester where Balfour lost a major contract following protests and walkouts. "We've wiped out Balfour's war-chest" said Steve, referring to the pot of money BBES boasted they would use to sit out the protests, now massively exceeded by contracts Balfours have lost since due to clients' fear of protests following BBES wherever they go! Steve reminded us of how blacklisting has meant "activists have been exiled for years from the sites", we need to get them back on there and "it's crucial to us all that we have elected stewards."
Solidarity greetings from the National Shop Stewards Network were received with strong applause, before the conference got onto deciding the next actions, such as this week's protests.
There will be national weeks of local action against NG Baileys in the week starting 25 January, and against BBES in the week starting 6 February because 9 February is when official strike action should start.
Most protests will continue to be on Wednesdays, except some in Scotland which will be continue to be on Fridays.
The next national R&F meeting will be on 4 February, again in Birmingham. All construction electricians need to be at this event to discuss the detail of walkouts in the following week, with all construction trades welcome.
This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 16 January 2012 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.