|A Sparks picket in Hartlepool yesterday|
Hundreds of electricians took wildcat strike action on Wednesday, defying the bosses who want to slash their wages, the anti-union laws which the bosses use to pick holes in strike mandates, and the union bureacracy which had to be dragged kicking and screaming to holding a ballot at all. The country’s biggest ‘unofficial’ walkout in decades represents a new stage in the UK class war – a stage in which workers recognise the limitations of their own leaderships, and consciously move beyond them. By cutting out the utterly compromised middle men and women in this way, working people come face to face with their ultimate enemy – huge corporations and the capitalist state.
I’ve been reporting on the rank-and-file Sparks movement since early autumn, when electricians angry at proposed pay cuts of 35% started their own rank-and-file organisation, with the aim of pressurising union tops into leading a struggle for their members’ livelihoods. Instead, as the Sparks’ resistance increased, so did the machinations of the bureaucracy. As early as September, negotiator Bernard McAulay was slandering the workers as “cancerous”, but he gradually wormed himself back into a position of influence.
It took an age for Unite to announce any ballot, and when they did, it was only for Balfour Beatty, the biggest of the employers looking to impose worse pay and conditions under the Building Engineering Services National Agreement (BESNA). Three quarters of workers confronting BESNA ultimatums weren’t covered by the ballot, and even for those that were, the potential strike date was set for yesterday – the very day that sparks would have to sign up for reduced pay rates or face dismissal. In this, Unite tried a variant of the approach that they and Unison had taken with Southampton council workers – limiting strike dates before deadlines so that signing became a fait accompli.
81% of respondents still voted for a day of strike action. However, when Balfour Beatty announced their intention to take Unite to court, the union cancelled the strike, and issued a pro forma statement which “condemned” the company. But as Phil Dickens noted, this was a transparent charade, because the union called off the strike without even pursuing the matter in court – as they have done previously. Instead, the implied legal threat was just the excuse that Unite had been looking for to sell defeat to a militant rank and file.
But if the union was using the ‘our hands are tied’ defence, yesterday Sparks proved that their hands – the ones that actually do the work their bosses profit from – are not. Electricians refused to work all over the country, hitting Balfour Beatty from Scotland to London. As Libcom reports:
“Pickets were organised at the Balfour Beatty site at Blackfriars, London, and attempts were made to stop lorries entering the site, before a heavy police presence cleared the road. Other action has been seen in Cardiff, Central Library in Manchester, St Catherine’s hospital in Merseyside, Glasgow, Kelvin Hall school in Hull and North East Lincolnshire.”
In the coming hours and days, electricians will be doubtless be providing their own accounts. Look out for updates on the Electricians Against The World blog, and the Sparks Against de-skilling and 35% Pay Cuts Facebook group.
But despite yesterday’s burning of ‘sign or be sacked’ Balfour contracts, the company will soon want to make good on their threats. In this, they will have the assistance of Unite fat cats. If Wednesday 7th December is to be the high water mark of the rank and file resistance, Sparks will lose this historic battle. If they are to win, they must now organise completely independently of both Unite and the anti-union laws, and immediately make an appeal to the wider working class for support.
Click here for my analysis of why workers and union bosses are enemies.