As the looming crisis about Britain’s ability to produce enough power develops, the workers building the power stations are in a crucial position to exert working class control. The employers, of course, have other ideas…
For the first week in December 2010 and during the atrocious freezing weather, engineering construction workers building the new power station at West Burton in Nottinghamshire took action and remained in their cabins, steadfastly refusing to be bullied into accepting damaging changes to their terms and conditions.
EDF, the client and also the main contractor, together with Amec had said some months previously that they wished to introduce clocking on/off machines at the workface. These were to monitor workers’ attendance and the records then used in the redundancy selection process, itself a point of contention.
It has been accepted by construction workers that LIFO (Last in First Out), while potentially unlawful as a means of redundancy selection, is the fairest method. Amec used their lawyers to insist on the “Bradford factor” (a means of measuring workers’ absenteeism) as part of the selection process.
The full-time stewards on site offered to get the signatures of every single worker agreeing to LIFO but again this was rejected.
At the PJC (Project Joint Council) meeting in the last week of November, the employer announced that the clocks would become operative as from 29 November. This was rejected by the unions Unite and GMB, which sought to register “a failure to agree”. Both EDF and Amec refused to accept this, stating that they were going to do it anyway.
West Burton has been touted as the testing ground for EDF and the first of the scheduled new nuclear builds at Hinkley Point in Somerset. For many months the employers had been complaining that the productivity of the job was unacceptable and while recognising that the reason for this was mainly down to management shortcomings, insisted that the remedy and sacrifice should fall on the workers.
The woeful design of the site has meant that the canteen and toilet facilities are situated a good ten minutes’ walk from the workfaces. Needless to say this has meant that the mid morning ten-minute break became stretched to at least half an hour, and the thirty-minute lunch break extended to fifty. It is also rumoured that the job is currently running at £100 million over budget and EDF is on the backs of the local (mis)management.
|Energy is the lifeblood of modern Britain – and engineering construction workers are at the heart of it.|
Threats of using swathes of foreign workers to build Hinkley, of not using the Blue Book agreement (NAECI, the National Agreement Engineering Construction Industry), of not building Hinkley at all – build it in France and export the electricity etc – are uttered regularly in a vain attempt to get workers to give up the morning break and add the ten minutes to the beginning or end of the shifts.
So, with heavy snowfalls and temperatures plummeting to –15 Celsius, working conditions became totally unsafe. Many were unable to even get to the site but nevertheless the employers insisted that the workforce go to work. Struggling to get to the workfaces, workers refused to use the clocks at their break times; the employers retaliated by saying that they were not required on the job. Thus, on the morning of 30 November the men “cabined up”.
Management began using tactics reminiscent of the enforced disputes in 1960s British Leyland. When there was no room left in the car parks for cars coming off the production line, management issued some threat or other and workers downed tools. Hey presto, management could temporarily halt the over-production and save on the wages too.
In the case of EDF, the weather made the site unsafe. Management tried to insist work continued and the workers said no. The union issued a repudiation notice and the employer saved on the wages they would have had to pay due to the unsafe conditions. To highlight further the incompetent and unreasonable attitude of the employer, the site designer thought he could save a mere £6,000 on thermal lagging of the pipes to and from the toilets – end result was that they were frozen solid and workers had to be sent home!
Throughout the action the men remained steadfast, united and disciplined, which represented a most positive step forward. Instead of the previous backbiting and complaint about the shop stewards, a general unity flourished and praise was heaped upon them. By 7 December, following further negotiations, the employers back-pedalled and accepted the “failure to agree”, effectively reintroducing the status quo.
But as is often the way, the employers were spitting feathers at being turned over in such a disciplined way and over the following days set about dismissing workers as part of a speeded up de-manning process. They then set a rumour going about industrial sabotage and called in the local police to investigate.
To suggest that the site is becoming a bit of a joke is an understatement, a reflection of the abysmally poor management. It reinforces the old adage. “We could run the show better than them”! Throughout, constant attempts have been made to goad the workforce into walking off the job so that the employers could say that the NAECI doesn’t work, with a view to future projects being carried out under a less restrictive agreement. In the main, they have failed, while succeeding spectacularly in exposing their own shortcomings.
With the prospect that the EDF/Amec partnership is set to run the new Hinkley build, some serious consideration needs to be given as to the control of that job as it is reckoned that up to 12,000 men may be required to undertake the project.
Nationally, the engineering construction workforce is ageing; there is a pressing need to develop further the demand for more apprenticeships and to work with those employers who care about a future for Britain.
There is a crisis looming about our ability to produce enough power. Nuclear power generation must be embraced as an effective means of overcoming this. We need to develop and increase the skills we have if we are to meet the challenge of “keeping the lights on”. To that end, the more forward-thinking employers are developing a new skills centre to produce the necessary workers for our future. Through our unions we need to be engaged in that and support it as an important contribution to the demand for a national plan for energy – to make it and grow it here.