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From The Socialist newspaper, 10 June 2009

Engineering construction workers ballot: End 'race to the bottom'

AROUND 25,000 engineering construction workers, who build and maintain Britain's power stations and petrochemical sites, members of Unite and GMB trade unions, are to be balloted for official strike action. This is in pursuit of union demands to improve job security, health and safety, and pay and conditions.

Alistair Tice

This was the unanimous decision of the national stewards meeting held in Manchester on 5 June after hearing reports from national officers that the employers' organisation has 'offered' a pay freeze and refused most other demands including a union-monitored register of unemployed workers, in the review of the national agreement (NAECI) for 2010.

The employers' real intent is to undermine the NAECI and turn it into little more than a 'voluntary' code of practice so that pay and conditions can be eroded to boost their profits.

It has just been learned that a British steel work contractor, Cleveland Bridge, is demanding in the London area that its workers take a 2 an hour pay cut because it says it cannot compete with foreign subcontractors. Yet the employers have so far refused union demands that would allow the unions to audit whether contractors can comply with the NAECI at the pre-award stage.

NAECI terms have been undercut by contractors paying less than the national rate at Isle of Grain, skills dilution at Lindsey Oil Refinery (LOR) and flouting of health and safety at Staythorpe. This cost-cutting 'race to the bottom' is what provoked the mass unofficial walk-outs by thousands of construction workers in support of LOR workers in January and South Hook workers in May.

Given this pressure from the rank and file, and the employers' refusal to make concessions, the trade union officials had no option but to call an official ballot. Stewards will campaign hard for a big Yes vote, especially amongst the repair and maintenance workers who so far have not been widely involved in industrial action.

The unions will make every effort to make the ballot legally watertight but given the nature of the industry, it is almost inevitable that the employers will challenge it. In that case, armed with a big Yes vote, the unions should defy the anti-union laws and go ahead with strike action.

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