Reading, 26.5.21: Standing with the #Sparks blockading #AWE in fight against de-skilling #No2ESO, photo RW

Reading, 26.5.21: Standing with the #Sparks blockading #AWE in fight against de-skilling #No2ESO, photo RW   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Rob Williams, NSSN national chair

Rank-and-file construction electricians in Unite have forced NG Bailey and Balfour Beatty to the negotiating table after stepping up their fight against deskilling.

On 26 March, they converged from all areas of the country to AWE Burghfield near Reading, which assembles nuclear warheads. NG Bailey, which has a contract there, is the main company pushing the electrical service operator (ESO) grade. This would mean opening up 70% of the work of time-served skilled construction electricians to cheaper unskilled labour.

As with the Besna dispute a decade ago, the motivation is to slash the sparks’ wages and look to spread this version of ‘fire and rehire’ throughout the construction industry.

The sparks blockaded the main gate at AWE, pushing past the area that the police would ‘allow’. The staff cars were then diverted to the other gate, where they met another group of protesting workers. Sparks on the Bailey contract were emboldened by the protests and drove round in a cavalcade, beeping their horns. Along with the sparks’ blockade, this helped cause a massive tailback of traffic.

This was the fourteenth week of this struggle, but it represents a step change in the fight against deskilling. The sparks have made it clear that this and other Bailey sites are being targeted, and the full range of tactics should be used – official Unite strike ballots, protests and unofficial action. That was the strategy that defeated Besna. In the aftermath of the AWE blockade, Bailey and Balfour contacted the rank and file for talks. The sparks have postponed upcoming protests to allow these talks to take place.

But the sparks have made it clear that they aren’t going away until the ESO is well and truly off the table. Balfour had already indicated that it was abandoning the ESO weeks ago but seemed to reverse this when Bailey still stood out. So the sparks won’t be fooled. The protests may have been suspended but they’ll be back on if the talks go nowhere.