On 17 August at a protest outside the Crown House site in St Pancras, London, a campaign was launched by Unite and the Sparks rank and file. This was against any attempt by construction company Crown House to bring in a new version of Besna, the bosses’ attempts to break the national agreement and slash wages by 35%. Suspicions have been raised ever since Crown House left the JIB in the aftermath of the historic defeat of the ‘Dirty 7’ big construction electrical contractors. And it appears that Crown House are trying to force their workforce to sign new contracts, in order that the company “remains competitive”, so the campaign against this is urgent.
The national rank and file meeting on 11 August drew up a balance sheet of the incredible events of the last 12 months. A year ago, the Sparks (electricians, pipe-fitters and plumbers in the construction industry) were looking down the barrel at the Besna with the union officials dragging their feet. The last couple of decades of the bosses’ offensive and the apparent weakening of union organisation from the top down were all coming together – with the workers paying the price.
The bosses must have been supremely confident that the JIB terms and conditions would have been ripped up, opening the way to ever more profits. But they didn’t count on a rank and file organisation mobilising ordinary sparks.
There was a marathon national campaign of protests and unofficial walkouts that pushed Unite into committing fully to this dispute. The result was an effective leverage campaign and what in the end proved decisive – a successful official strike ballot in Balfour Beatty which raised the prospect of a national stoppage, starting in the Grangemouth Oil Refinery.
This victory has undoubtedly given a boost of confidence to Sparks with unofficial stoppages around the country including the 1,600 that walked out at Ratcliffe to get safety steward Jay Poulter reinstated. But to protect their profits, the bosses are always looking to grab back what they’ve lost. Jay has been laid off and Crown House are trying to break the agreement through the back door.
But we have to take confidence from the victories of the last 12 months and the union now being firmly involved. One of the unofficial stoppages of the last few months actually came at the Crown House job in Heathrow. We beat the Besna and we can win again now.
If Crown House don’t back down, as soon as the union organisation is strong enough, the union should ballot for strike action. This must be backed up by national action across the industry and unofficial if necessary, mobilising rank and file construction workers.
Forcing Crown House back would send the strongest signal to any other companies planning to follow suit that not only will sparks fight again and again to defend their contracts but that all the other grievances such as agency work and blacklisting have to be dealt with. Victory to the Sparks…again!