|The Sparks are challenging the Unite leadership, but will need to remain vigilant|
Electricians angry about proposed swingeing cuts to their wages are taking an innovative course of action in an attempt to resist the employers’ attacks. The success or failure of their initiative may serve as a useful pointer for other workers defending their livelihoods.
Eight major construction employers (Bailey, Balfour Beatty, T. Clarke, Crown House, Gratte Brothers, MJN Colston, SES and SPIE Matthew Hall) want to tear up the “archaic” Joint Industry Board, Pay and Conditions agreement. If they get their way, separate pay rates will be imposed for metalworkers (£10.50 per hour), wiring (£12), and terminating (£14). At the moment, all electricians across the board should receive £16.25. For metalworkers, this would represent a pay cut of 35%, at a time when inflation is running at around 5%. Deskilling and its corollary – increased workplace ‘accidents’ – would inevitably follow.
A group of electricians calling themselves ‘The Sparks’ are justifiably skeptical that Unite bureaucrats will successfully wage a struggle in their interests. As I have stated repeatedly on this blog, union tops have separate and often directly contradictory interests to their membership, and cannot be trusted one iota in their dealings with bosses. The Sparks’ strategy to this point has been to remain within Unite, and yet organise their own parallel rank-and-file protests and actions, through an elected strike committee.
This committee was elected at a London meeting on 13th August. It contains four serving electricians, one blacklisted electrician, and Jerry Hicks, the defeated 2010 ‘left’ candidate for the Unite general secretaryship. Since then, the committee has organised two large ‘unofficial’ protests – at a Balfour Beatty site in Blackfriars, and the new Westfield Centre in Stratford. For its part, the Unite leadership have distanced themselves from this action, and are merely asking non-unionised electricians to join up.
This dispute is well worth keeping an eye out for. The employers want to bring in the new pay rates for March next year. Before then, The Sparks will want to escalate their action, perhaps go out on strike, and bring in construction workers from other unions, such as UCATT and GMB. If this were achieved, it would cut right across the interests of Unite tops, who would undoubtedly support any state action to suppress the movement. This is a struggle which has the potential to ‘spark’ others throughout construction, and various different industries. But to achieve that – and indeed to defend their own living standards – The Sparks will have to resist all attempts to water down their tactics, or to take the fight out of their own hands.