A year ago the fight for work erupted when skilled engineering construction workers walked off sites at oil refineries and power stations across Britain demanding jobs for British workers. Now they’re back…
Construction workers are, once again, at the forefront of challenging our thinking and taking the fight to the opposition, both in and outside our own class. Opposition comes in many guises and in today’s climate its most debilitating manifestation is the idea that there is no alternative to accepting whatever capitalism throws at us.
The engineering construction workers’ website, Bearfacts (www.bearfacts.co.uk), developed independently of “official” union control, has become the focal point for the struggle against the deliberate refusal to employ British construction workers and, notably, British shop stewards.
Through the website and its various offshoots, a demonstration and rally has been organised in London for 3 February (see What’s On), to demand the right to work on British sites. It is also in protest at the continued attempts by foreign contractors to undercut the rates of pay on NAECI (National Agreement Engineering Construction Industry – Blue Book) sites, despite Mandelson’s assurances at the height of the first LOR (Lindsey Oil Refinery) dispute.
At a time when there are major construction projects being planned, the government’s commissioning of a report entitled “Would the needs of large projects be sensibly met through immigration?” has, not unsurprisingly, provoked outrage among construction engineers. These workers are fighting, not only for the right to work now, but also to demand a future in the industry for generations to come.
Calling on workers
The work of Bearfacts is not only to be applauded but more importantly, supported. It is calling on all workers to get off their knees and demand work in their own country and for those in work to support that demand. The call, as yet, is not for mass stoppages but for financial support and delegations from working sites to enable those out of work to make the point. The politics are simple – there is work here and we want it!
The origins of this current phase of struggle, marking the anniversary of the first LOR dispute last year, lie in two areas. On the one hand there is the failure of the employers to honour the latest version of the Blue Book and secondly the denial of work to British workers, notably to effective shop stewards.
Last month, following questions at the Staythorpe power station construction site, Italian contractor Somi and its sub-contractor CMN were subject to rigorous investigation by the auditors, and found wanting. Staythorpe is where, in 2008, weekly demonstrations against the main contractor Alstom and two other foreign contractors took place and was recently the scene of another stoppage.
Fears that flying the auditors to Italy, with the ECIA (Engineering Construction Industry Association – employers’ “union”), while refusing to allow any union official to accompany them, might end up being a “pasta n vino junket” proved unfounded. The report confirmed that Somi/CMN had been paying some of their workers over £1000 below agreed rates. Clearly, scepticism is a wise position to take in the construction industry.
But instead of accepting the employers’ usual “ok guv – you found us out, it's a fair cop, we'll pay it back" behaviour, workers are demanding more and are intending to demonstrate in London. The march is scheduled to visit the offices of Alstom, the ECIA and Mandelson. Remember Mandelson’s words a year ago about IREM at LOR? “The Italians,” he said, “have specialist skills.” These claims have proved to be utter nonsense, as illustrated by the employment of British workers, with the requisite skills, to put right the cock-ups made by IREM.
At the time of writing the GMB has backed the demonstration and is laying on coaches and publicly calling on workers to attend. But Unite continues to drag its feet and is refusing to support the demonstration. Why?
Sadly, this is typical of the Unite leadership’s slavish allegiance to the Labour Party. It’s the line of (how many decades old now?) don't rock the boat before an election; we're better off under Labour; it would be so much worse under the Tories.
Forget Iraq; Afghanistan; the promised referendum on the EU constitution/Lisbon treaty; the pretended support for public ownership yet continuing privatisation; the banking bail-out – in short the support for finance capital and its freedom to rule etc etc – but but but ... the Tories would be so much worse. Let’s be honest – one pile of rubbish may be smaller than two, but it’s still rubbish, and it doesn’t smell any better.
We must take care to avoid the obvious inter-union squabbling, each vying with the other to appear the more progressive/militant in order to attract members – not new ones but from each other. What is necessary is that workers join forces to press our agenda of demanding work in our own country. This message must be, and is being, taken out to all workers, both in and out of work in every industry.