Seven big construction companies have decided to play it tough. They plan to tear up nationally agreed conditions and pay, and have said they will sack their workforces and re-employ on new terms on 7 December. But workers in the industry are rising to the challenge...
Traffic in London’s Oxford Street is often congested. But at 7.30 on the morning of Wednesday 5 October, it was worse than expected. The reason: only one lane was open at the Marble Arch end of Oxford Street as construction workers belonging to Unite, UCATT and GMB demonstrated at the new Park House Shopping Centre site.
The demonstration was noisy but well organised and effective, with police allowing speeches but keeping traffic moving. Meanwhile the construction workers publicly burnt copies of the employer’s proposed new contract outside Park House.
The protest moved from the Marble Arch site to Bond Street, Tottenham Court Road and Farringdon Crossrail sites, and on 12 October via Blackfriars to Tate Modern, where gallery space is being expanded. Other construction sites targeted include the Shard on Bankside and the Westfield Shopping Centre at Stratford East, and the Balfour Beatty site in Cambuslang, Lanarkshire. There were also protests in Liverpool.
The demonstrations by angry electricians and other construction workers at key sites up and down the country have been taking place against the attack by seven of the larger mechanical and electrical (M&E) employers. The “Seven” are threatening to withdraw from national agreements covering this sector of the construction industry. The protests are set to intensify including “civil disobedience” – and they will, in the words of one Unite official, get “better, bigger and badder [sic]”.
In September there was a protest in Salford outside MediaCity UK, the new base for the BBC, ITV, Coronation Street, Satellite Information Services, and the University of Salford. Significantly, protest has spread to nuclear plants and oil refineries where workers are still smarting from attempts since 2009 to replace skilled local men with offshore foreign labour.
Power station hit
Two days after the London construction workers had demonstrated in Oxford Street, 120 members of Unite stopped work at the Ratcliffe-on-Soar Nottinghamshire power station when contractor SPIE Matthew Hall told them to sign new contracts or leave. Balfour Beatty did the same at Newcastle University resulting in a walkout. On 7 October, The Independent reported that 98 per cent of members of Unite, the GMB and Prospect employed at the gas- and coal-fired Cottam power stations in Nottinghamshire have rejected a 3.4 per cent increase from EDF Energy. A strike ballot has been called for.
A day of action and national demonstration has been called for 9 November (location/s to remain secret) and workers employed by Balfour Beatty, regarded as ring-leader in the attack on workers, are to be balloted for strike action.
The employers are demanding that workers sign up to a Building Engineering Services National Agreement (BESNA) and quaintly state that there is “no intention in any of this to disadvantage any member of our existing workforce” (yes, and fairies really do live at the bottom of the garden!) To signal their seriousness, five of the seven have given notice to workers that they will be sacked and re-engaged on the new terms on 7 December.
The employers want to take control of such areas as the grading system by introducing de-skilled grades, dictate when short-time working and lay-off are introduced, combine the paid morning break with the unpaid lunch break and effectively introduce a no-strike clause.
The desire to introduce a semi-skilled grade of installer would essentially mean that there is the potential to cut wages by up to 35 per cent. The “Seven” are even telling their workers that the BESNA is an improvement and protest that the union is lying! But with each new job, where once they would have required 100 electricians it would become 30 electricians and 70 installers, as up to 70 per cent of an electrician’s work involves installing. The rate for an electrician or “spark” being £16 an hour, for an installer £10.50 an hour. A similar attack was attempted some 12 years ago and it was rebutted – it must be again.
In a cynical attack on the young, they say that the BESNA will “create job security and give apprentices and skilled staff a bright future” but their apprentice scheme will stop at NVQ Level 2 – a qualified spark has NVQ3!
Then there is the change to the Joint Industrial Board (JIB) definition of the “shop” (usually the employer's local office, used for general trading and housing personnel management staff). Currently, JIB agreement states any job over 15 miles from the shop will attract payments for travel. The BESNA clause covering the shop says that if the job/site/project is more than 25 miles away, the employer can temporarily redefine the job/site/project as the 'shop'. And, as if by magic, the need to pay the allowances (including Lodge allowances) is removed. Yet again, in the land of double speak, that won't disadvantage anyone in the existing workforce!
Roots of struggle
The history of the various agreements has its root in the nature of struggle on construction sites back in the 1950s and 1960s. What the employers called anarchy, we would describe as struggle to secure a better rate for our labour. The employers (and in truth, so too workers) ultimately wanted peace/order and thus agreements were made. They have been attacked and defended in equal measure ever since, both by disgruntled workers and employers depending on the conditions of the time.
The seven companies on the attack
The seven M&E contractors trying to back out of national agreements are Balfour Beatty, NG Bailey, Crown House Technologies, Gratte Brothers, SPIE Matthew Hall, Shepherd Engineering Services and T Clarke (the same one named by the Information Commissioner’s Office as being the main blacklisting employers in the construction industry, and the contractor at the Park House Shopping Centre).
The seven were originally eight until MJN Colston got cold feet and tactically withdrew.
The national agreements are: JIB/SJIB (covering electrical in England and Wales/Scotland), JIB (PMES)/ SNIJIB (plumbing and mechanical engineering services in England and Wales/Scotland and N. Ireland), HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning). ■
But why now – why have these contractors decided to attempt the break from these agreements? With relatively few major projects in hand, employment is scarce, and fewer sites stop through industrial action.
There is, however, much on the horizon - some 64 major projects are in the pipeline, including the highly lucrative new nuclear builds. The time is ripe to make their move with an eye to winning the contracts on a cut price. Without doubt the employers, both clients and contractors, have been beavering away behind the scenes aiming to reduce wages and undermine union control of sites.
Until recently, JIB electricians had free membership of Unite, with the employer paying their union subscriptions – a position won in years past to ensure better union control of sites. Due to a decision, perhaps misguided, free membership stopped at a stroke and no mass campaign to re-recruit was ever undertaken. Electricians had to pay to belong and far too many chose not to!
Additionally, over the years, with a few notable exceptions, the electrical side of the industry has shown a reluctance to fight or support others in struggle and consequently have tended to occupy a somewhat isolated position. So, with favourable conditions and an eye to the future, the employers have made their move against what seems a weak section of the workforce.
The stakes are high for the whole industry and construction workers recognise that BESNA is the stalking horse to attack all agreements – the de-construction of all agreements being the goal. But electricians are in the frontline now and are being called upon to show their mettle. While Balfour is first in line, how the workers employed by the 7 react is key – a great deal of responsibility rests on their shoulders and they must stand up and take responsibility. If they accept the new agreement, it’s odds on that it will become the norm as all M&E employers will abandon the JIB agreements if only to save their own necks.
Some may say “serves the selfish greedy bastards right for the treacherous role they have played in the past” but now maximum unity across the industry is crucial.
It should be remembered that EDF, a French multinational, is to build Hinkley C in Somerset, the first new nuclear plant for over 40 years in Britain, and it has a poor track record. It has had problems in both Flamanville on the Cherbourg Peninsula in France, where over a third of the workforce are migrant labour and costs (and time) have doubled, and also in Finland. If EDF can treat the French workers with such contempt, what hope for Brits?
Alstom, another French multinational, which thought it might be in the running for the nuclear contracts, is apparently lagging behind.
A look at EDF’s recent performance in Britain reveals much. West Burton power station, run by EDF/Amec, has had so many problems it is regarded (nearly) as a standing joke, with a bullying management lacking basic common sense and a workforce unwilling, in the main, to stand up for itself. When it started, the job was touted as the turning point for the National Agreement for the Engineering Construction Industry (NAECI), with full-time National Engineering Construction Committee stewards and Category 1 status. Within six months it had become clear that EDF/Amec were more concerned with trying to succeed where Alstom had failed (see below). By seeking to break the NAECI, its management style attracted criticism in the Gibson Review of Construction Engineering.
EDF is under investigation for their activities at Flamanville, where the practices on the site were described as a modern form of slavery. With two deaths on Flamanville in a space of six months it is obvious why EDF does not want the robust NAECI agreement on Hinkley. It would be scrutinised by both an independent auditor and the trade unions every step of the way.
By contrast, Pembroke power station, an Alstom job that has been built under union (Unite & GMB) control, has had few disputes as industrial issues are resolved with speed. Initially, Alstom had tried the same game as EDF at Langage, Isle of Grain and Staythorpe. But the company learnt through its experiences that workers wouldn’t be crushed – hence their “enlightened” attitude on Pembroke. Consequently, it has been built on time and in budget. Its only delay is in gaining a permit to fire it up.
There is much at stake for the British construction industry, and the immediate attack on the various JIB agreements is the beginning. British workers must take responsibility and act on what they know, not only for their own terms and conditions but for the future of the construction industry in Britain. ■