Construction workers have won a major victory in their fight to keep their national agreements. Winning future battles requires an honest assessment of strengths and weaknesses...
The attempt by a group of seven building industry employers to scrap existing national agreements covering mechanical, electrical and engineering construction and to impose their own agreements has failed.
They started off aggressively and in high hopes, with five of the companies saying they would sack their workforces on 7 December 2011 and re-employ them on the new set of conditions, known as BESNA (Building Engineering Services National Agreement – see Workers November 2011). Over the months the seven companies have had to back down, withdraw from BESNA and return to the previous national agreements. The last of the seven withdrew on 24 February. BESNA is no more.
The union campaign has been protracted – necessarily so – but the death of BESNA is a significant victory. Negotiations between the union and the employers’ body, the Heating and Ventilation Contractors Association, are back on.
Just a truce
The war has not ended, though. If, as is suspected, the main issue of the dispute has merely been put on hold, and the negotiations are going to founder, then the coming months must be used to re-organise the industry, particularly the electrical side. Part of that process must be an honest recognition of the realities of a dispute that has never been easy and where mistakes were made.
London, 9 November 2011. Protest at the Shard against the employers’ plans to withdraw from the JIB national agreements.
What led to the abandoned attempt to impose BESNA is now the subject of contention. Was it the “Rank and File” (R&F) organisation set up at a meeting of some 500 workers on 13 August 2011 in London, electing from their number a “national committee”? Or was it won by the union, Unite? The truth is that it was a combination of both but there is a continuing disconnection that needs to be resolved – or at least more clearly understood.
Four days after R&F began, Unite held a meeting of its Electrical, Plumbing and Mechanical Shop Stewards Forum in Leeds. Two of the R&F committee attended and put forward a motion from the R&F meeting, which called on the forum and the Union to begin a campaign. The motion was not taken: the campaign had already begun and as many aspects of the motion were already in train it was therefore superfluous.
A subsequent Forum decided to target Balfour Beatty Engineering Services (BBES) for industrial action, as it was the leading employer of the seven and had the largest workforce. Unite balloted some 600 members, aiming to begin strike action from 7 December – the day dismissal notices were due to be issued. The result was 360 voting Yes (81.6 per cent) and 81 No (18.4 per cent).
Ballots and courts
BBES’s response was to seek and obtain an injunction. Unite then announced an immediate re-ballot – over the Christmas period! Fortunately wiser counsel prevailed and the second ballot began at the start of January. This time 295 voted in favour of a strike with 145 against. BBES again challenged the ballot, but this time Unite decided to fight the decision through the courts.
Meanwhile the R&F called for an all-out strike irrespective of the court's ruling – seemingly oblivious to the relative weakness of the membership and the certainty that Unite would not risk having its assets seized by the courts (not because the union would not want to but because unlike in the AUEW’s struggle with the Industrial Relations Act in the 1970s, the membership now is unlikely to defend the union in the same way).
At no point did the R&F propaganda help or support the union to achieve positive results by calling on all existing members to contact the union to ensure they held correct details necessary for an accurate ballot. Balloting workers within the law is hard enough for a union, especially those workers whose job means they are regularly on the move (and employers constantly use mobility clauses to mess up ballots).
Neither did they call on existing members to recruit those non-members working next to them and engage more fully in the dispute – BBES said in court it employed more than 1,200 construction workers, double the number balloted.
The implication was that recruitment is “the union’s job” and if it failed then it would be the union’s fault, not the “rank and file’s”. And yet the best recruiters have always been “the ordinary members”.
Still, the R&F was “welcomed into the team” in early January, with Unite providing funding for travel to demonstrations, protests and meetings, and so on, in recognition of its value and despite the vitriol that full-time officers had previously received at the various meetings they “dared” to attend in England and Wales. (It should be made clear that this sort of relationship did not exist in Scotland.) Besides, many full-time officers were prominent in the numerous demonstrations being held on a weekly basis around the country.
The court gave its decision on 16 February – giving Unite the right to legally call a strike. The judge commented, “I think it fair to say that Unite went to considerable lengths to ensure democratic legitimacy which might be thought to exceed what would ordinarily be expected.” Within 24 hours BBES had withdrawn from BESNA. The following day, NG Bailey withdrew and by 24 February the remainder had run for the hills. BESNA was history. Negotiations will now begin with the union, whose team includes representatives from the R&F.
Would BBES have backed down if the judgement had gone their way, even in the face of the weekly demos? They certainly hadn’t done so up to then. There is no doubt that the demonstrations, protests and the “civil disobedience” were having an effect and drawing a good deal of attention to the dispute, but would they be enough to win? These actions had been ongoing since the middle of August so clearly they alone had not persuaded the employers to back down.
It is also fair to say that Unite’s Organising Department was slow off the mark despite the fact that the battle contained all the ingredients upon which the “organising model” thrives, ie a global corporation with union-organised workforces overseas. When eventually it was brought in, connections with sister unions in the USA and Australia were made and they engaged in supportive demonstrations and representations to arms of BBES there. A programme of action against anything and everything connected with BBES was set out and commenced. The battle, however, has to be won on home soil.
Such headlines as "The ‘Rank and File’ won the BESNA battle. Now let’s win the war” are not only a misrepresentation but also beg the question as to what is “the war”? It would appear that it is to do with securing a better agreement with the employers and “reclaiming the union for the members” – conveniently forgetting that only the members can do that for themselves. For R&F to claim that they and they alone secured the victory is both far fetched and ultimately dangerous: it belittles the union’s machinery and implies it is unnecessary; it is also plainly untrue.
The R&F is not only made up of genuine active electricians/union members but, as usual, also has among its number individuals from the various ultra-left groupings, who with monotonous regularity latch onto any struggle going. Although “ordinary” workers may utilise the presence of these groupings in the absence of genuine leaders coming to the fore, they will not be fooled into thinking that they are the answer.
Unite’s Forum in Leeds in August last year called for maximum unity to face the attack, a demand that should be obvious to all. But clearly some people, with their own agendas, see division as more beneficial. With their hatred of appointed full-time officers (as if being elected is a guarantee of commitment to the cause) and a starting point that the union will sell out and make sweetheart deals – unity clearly does not suit their aims.
For example, R&F reported on the meeting saying, “2 of the newly ELECTED committee went to Leeds on 17th August for a Unite shop stewards meeting which was full of appointed UNELECTED Unite officers, apart from 4 or 5 elected stewards and activists.” It went on to say its reps urged that a campaign be started immediately, but that National Officer Bernard McAulay “told us it would be best to wait until January or February 2012 before we should start a campaign and get our army together”.
The impression is of a meeting packed where full-time officers hugely outnumbered the rest. Yet the minutes of the meeting show some 26 stewards/activists and 14 full-time officers – and that the campaign had already started. Indeed, this type of misrepresentation from R&F publications is typical.
If negotiations hit that brick wall then the membership must be in a position to take the employers on, and fight to win. This will not be achieved by constant facile references to “sell-outs” and “sweetheart deals” but by painstaking recruitment and the development of genuine organisation. Those who have involved themselves in the R&F must take that enthusiasm into the union’s structures and onto the sites – because if the call comes again, there may not be time to chase around trying to collect accurate details. Engaging in the challenging activity of arguing with fellow workers is not the preserve of full-time officers but is the responsibility of all truly worried workers.
The withdrawal from BESNA has presented a breathing space – not to bask in reflected glory but to get better organised. The employers know what they are after and inevitably they will come again. ■