|Sparks blocking Park Lane traffic days before BESNA started collapsing|
A few weeks ago Ray, an electrician from the north east of England, commented on a repost of my article on the rank and file Sparks group’s defeat of BESNA – a construction company contract which would have cut wages by up to 35%. I asked him if he would like to be interviewed and share his critical perspective on the struggle so far. I’m delighted to say he agreed.
You say it was your union branch which took the initiative to “give unqualified support” to the Sparks struggle. What do you mean by this, and how did this happen?
The most rational answer originates from the realisation that employers do not operate from benevolence or some form of altruism. Their entire reason for existence is to make money from their workers. If they can’t make money or not enough money they sack people. In the north east the most recent example of this is the closure of the Alcan aluminium smelter at Lynemouth in Northumberland. Here the plant made a healthy profit of about 25% but the parent company wanted profits of I think 40%. The owners refused to sell the company to anyone who might introduce competition and hence interfere with profits. So last week the smelter closed with the loss of 500 jobs.
So it came as no surprise when the construction companies demanded a modernisation of the construction industry that involved wage cuts of up to 35% with savage attacks on terms and conditions of employment. Indeed the employers quite openly and freely told everyone that the reason for their modernisation plans was to improve profitability.
These attacks did not come out of the blue. Years of sniping at union organisation and the gradual erosion of national agreements led to BESNA. I think the final realisation of just how weak the union was came with the utter disaster of the BA dispute.
In August 2011 my branch Newcastle Central was almost uniquely placed to coordinate the defence of electricians and the attack on the employers. There was a group of workers that the employers thought was easy pickings, the [Unite] union wasn’t doing anything constructive and therefore people just had to organise themselves in the way that history has taught us to do which. We could not just sit back and watch while employers set about destroying wages and terms and conditions of employment. The question was quite simple, ‘whose side are you on?’
Unfortunately the union is now determined to get rid of branches like mine because they cannot properly control them.
Exactly what did you and your colleagues do to earn the label “cancerous” in the email Unite chief negotiator Bernard McAulay sent Gail Cartmail?
I really do not know the answer to this. You would have to ask McAulay. I would guess that there was an idea amongst the union bureaucracy that there was a group of people who were acting independently of the union and therefore dangerous. For example in July 2011 when BESNA first appeared the union told workers to wait until the new year to see what the employers would do. Ordinary members of the union responded by organising themselves in a way that bypassed the entire bureaucracy of the union machinery. This action directly confronted the employers and the police. This I think was the reason for the term “cancerous” – that is spreading and completely out of control that threatened the authority of the union.
How did the Unite bureaucracy manage to worm themselves back into a leadership position, after Sparks had taken their initiative?
The bureaucracy regained control in a benign seemingly innocuous manner by going to sincere well meaning union members to convince them that the best way forward was to help the union to fight the employers in the way the union thought best. ‘We the full time officials want to defeat the employers the way to do this is make the union bigger and stronger’. In the north east we – like all R&F [rank and file] meetings – had a tradition of open meetings where anyone could attend, speak and vote. The union desperately wanted to stop these discussions because they had no control over the content.
No one knows exactly when it happened but reports started coming in of people being called before management and told of what they had said or done at union meetings. Organising emails were produced by management. Slowly people started to think that meetings and discussions were maybe a bit too open. In the workplaces management started to threaten people with the sack over unofficial actions. The union refused to promise support for workers who the company disciplined. The union advice was don’t rock the boat.
The union bureaucrats are also expert at working out what they can offer individuals and organisations. The price of taking inducements is however control by the union.
Just as there is no particular instant when day turns into night, we can only distinguish between the two, so it is that we now know that the bureaucracy is firmly in control. History teaches us that we have to take control decisively and react quickly. If things are left or the initial dispute is not won quickly the bureaucracy of whatever organisation will regain control.
If you look at the tanker drivers dispute you will see that the union was ultra careful to be in complete control from the very start.
Why do you think Balfour Beatty – and then all the other construction companies – suddenly pulled out of BESNA?
Employers like everyone else will take the easy way. BESNA was introduced as a done deal – take it or leave it because the employers probably saw the union as easy meat. This is what the employers would prefer because a massive defeat leads to demoralisation of the workforce. Then the employers ran into determined resistance from workers that looked as though the employers were heading for a massive defeat. Things were worse than just a defeat at the hands of a small but determined workforce. Such a defeat would have been inflicted completely outside the laws of the land, the union bureaucracy and the Labour Party. It would have not only given confidence to all those who want to take on the employers and government but it would have shown these workers how to do it. Would the union and employers want such a thing? Clearly time for Plan B.
Plan B was to get the union and employers into meaningful discussions about the best way to modernise the industry. The entire and only reason for BESNA was to increase profitability. When BESNA collapsed the union promised meaningful negotiations that would take place and be completed within a strict timetable. It is now thought by the union that negotiations are best carried out in a more relaxed open ended timescale. It was decided that the ordinary members would be represented in the form of a combine during negotiations with the employers. Negotiations are to commence shortly about pay rates for next year. The last I heard is that this combine will not take any part in the negotiations. Is wage cuts of less than 35% as originally planned by BESNA the best way to modernise the industry or will it be remembered that there has been no wage rise in the industry for between 3 to 6 years? So instead of a wage cut what is required is a wage rise of at least 25%.
What do you think are the main challenges facing the Sparks over the next few months? What strategy do you think Sparks should adopt in their fight against the construction companies?
These two are closely related. It is the politics of trade unionism generally. In this country we are happy to negotiate the details of wages, and terms and conditions of employment. We do not understand that we already run society while a tiny handful of parasites take and control the wealth we create. We seem content to allow as natural the great inequalities in society without asking the reasons for the inequalities. We often wonder why it is that the share price of a company can go down when although it is still making fantastic profits the profits are not quite as much as the financiers expected.
People may have seen Richard Branson on the TV a few days ago explaining that he doesn’t go into work much these days. Instead he said he spends most of his time engaged in sports and taking part in charitable events.
On one level this sounds all pretty reasonable but while Branson is flying his balloon and cuddling starving children who is it that operates his companies so that his income is maintained? If Branson was to float off into outer space tomorrow never to be seen again how is it that his corporations would operate as normal? Clearly the same people as before would do exactly the same things as before. The only difference is that a different parasite would get the loot.
The real challenge in the short term is for workers to understand that the function of the negotiations is allow the union and employers to maintain this status quo of going to work to make profits for the employer without asking questions about why things are why they are.
The strategy of workers must be to understand what it is that stopped the employers dead, that we have to be clear what we want. In the short term we want an end to BESNA and a reasonable pay rise. In the longer term we have to understand that ONE way the bosses have kept control is by the blacklist. This was operated and maintained because of the use of agency working. So to my mind the long term plan must be the end of agency working.
If negotiations do not look as though they will deliver what we want then stronger measures will be brought to bear. My idea from day one in August last year was to have coordinated strikes at Grangemouth, Seal Sands and Immingham. Shut down these sites and very quickly not only will all petrol and fuel supplies cease but the North Sea oil industry would close down.
While we are doing this we might even get a debate going about the wider politics of the boss system and how to get rid of it.
What is the nature of your disciplinary charges?
I have no idea what it is that I have said or done. Allegations have been made that I brought [Unite north east regional officer] Bill Green into some form of disgrace but no evidence has been produced. On one level the accusations could be just no more than a warning to others.
If you are a Unite member in the north east of England and would like to help Ray with his disciplinary, please contact me via the comments section. Alternatively, please pass this message on to any contacts you might have.