Solfed members were on the pickets in London for the biggest wildcat strike of 2011 and one of the biggest electricians' walkouts of recent years. Below we summarise some of the events around Blackfriars as thousands of electricians downed tools against the breaking of national working agreements which will mean pay cuts of up to 35% and defied an injunction against official strike action brought by Balfour's legal team just days before. Below that we've collated summaries from elsewhere.
A half dozen of ours were out on the line at Balfour Beatty's Blackfriars building project this morning, threading our way through police vans to get to the front gates where over a hundred people were gathered listening to music and speeches. There was a pretty militant attitude with a decent number of sparks bolstered by a load of activists, but police had their battle lines drawn and shoved their way into a half-circle around the crowd, putting them in a good position, when organisers called for a blockade of the door, to tighten the noose quickly.
The crowd managed to briefly shut down the main entrance but we were quickly pushed off again by the large police presence which then held us semi-kettled while building workers walked in.
With the police established in control of the front gate our numbers thinned slightly, but later on the action shifted over to a side door and a road occupation started, prompting police to bring out a German Shepherd to intimidate picketers. As 50 thugs and their dog forced everyone back off the road I couldn't help but think it made for an inventive twist on the famous BBC sheepherding show.
The picket drew to a close, shortly afterwards but the organisers weren't out of ideas yet and about half of the original picketers marched down to Victoria, fetching up with a protest outside Balfour Beattie's HQ at 130 Wilton Road.* The walk, which went straight past the Houses of Parliament, prompted a bizarre moment as people walked into the heart of the city where we were told we would be arrested if we "protested inside the zone." Exactly where the line was between carrying a placard saying "One out All Out" past Parliament as part of a protest march and protesting at Parliament was never made entirely clear.
In a quest to make things even more unclear, sparks also visited a site near Victoria station which is owned by fellow agreement-breaking firm Grattes. Rather coincidentally as they approached, a sudden fire alarm was heard onsite and all the workers had to leave, shutting the site down. About an hour later, they were all still out. That presumably didn't count either, fortunately, as police failed to rock up with the handcuffs.
The outcome of the day, despite severe police interference, was generally positive. A great deal of discomfort was dealt out to the building workers who tried to cross the line with many being turned away and most importantly, a message was recieved from inside the building that not a single electrician was in on site that day - while that can't be entirely confirmed, it's certainly true that the general takeup of the call to strike has been high and that Balfour Beatty took a bloody nose just after they'd "won" their court injunction against official strike action from the Unite union.
Later on in the evening a second picket drew hundreds of people to the same site. Although we are still waiting for eyewitness reports on that, turnout appears to have been good and there are reports that two minibuses of night workers agreed to head home.
*Many thanks, incidentally to the postie who refused to deliver Balfour Beatty's mail once we'd arrived, as a note to any local RM bosses who might read this, they definitely had no other choice, serious health and safety risk etc etc.
Background summary and news from elsewhere
This morning was supposed to mark the beginning of on official strike after a ballot recently organised by the Unite union returned an 82% vote in favour of strike action. However, the walkout was called off by the union after Balfour Beatty threatened legal action to stop the strike in the high court - the latest employer to do so after a number of strikes were banned on the basis of technicalities in the last two years.
Regardless, Sparks struck and protested across the country. Pickets were organised at the Balfour Beatty site at Blackfriars, London, and attempts were made to stop lorries entering the site, before a heavy police presence cleared the road. Other action has been seen in Cardiff, Central Library in Manchester, St Catherine's hospital in Merseyside, Glasgow, Kelvin Hall school in Hull and North East Lincolnshire.
Electricians at Balfour Beatty in London have appealed for people to come to Blackfriars station from 5.30pm today, for the arrival of the night shift.
A Hartlepool spark wrote online:
Weds. 7th Dec.2011, Hartlepool; sparks hit Heerema again. A massive site with two main gates, well over a mile apart.
We start at the Headland gate, about 150 of us; we briefly blockade the gate & somebody causes a loud bang. Lots of people masked up, (well, it's bloody cold innit?). [photo1: http://i1104.photobucket.com/albums/h330/neapictures/heerema7121.jpg ] Then off to the Greenlands gate in a proper march down the road led by the Unite construction workers' branch banner. Six bizzie vans & three cars at the second gate & they stop us totally blockading the gate, but there's a couple more bangs, everyone is in a good mood and when they try to make the usual announcement about obstruction and being arrested we make a lot of noise and drown them out. The bizzies also have a cameraperson for the first time. [ photo2: http://i1104.photobucket.com/albums/h330/neapictures/heerema712.jpg ]
About 8.30am we decide to march back to the Headland:
"Quote of the day by a police man as we walked back to the headland in Hartlepool. Right lads the protest is over now so if you stay on the footpath as you walk back we can go. Yeah ok mate straight over the roundabout for us."
The police made several other half hearted attempts to get us onto the pavement on the way back, but we held the road. And then, only a few hundred yards from our final destination, they stupidly block the road with one of their vans and a line of cops. After a brief hesitation, we push through and there's a ruck which looks like getting out of hand until Sergeant Sensible calls off his troops. Wise move. We win & everyone's got that buzz.
Thing is, the sparks' dispute is with Balfours and the other six construction companies, so how come we end up in conflict with the cops? Partly its because they 'uphold the law', and the law says that anything we might do to effectively win the dispute is illegal. But its also because they are trained to 'be in control'. Mostly they get away with it only because people do what the bizzies tell them to do; when people stop doing that it changes everything. You're not in control Mr. Plod, we are - just stand on the pavement yourselves and keep out of our way. At the end, one of them tried to make an announcement to anyone who would listen that the march was illegal because we hadn't informed the police about it. Yes mate, got it in one.
Meanwhile in other parts of the UK today:
"Sparks in Manchester have entered council chambers and are addressing councillors."
"BBES St Cath's Birkenhead Merseyside.
A good morning's work by the hardy souls who braved the Arctic conditions! Great support from the workers who took our points onboard over these attacks on conditions and we advised management and security to get the local constabulary down after "heated discussions" They duly turned up and were very sympathetic to our plight and peaceful demonstration
NHS Estates were sought and given a brief insight into why their hospital had been chosen for Industrial Action. They too, took literature and again, were most sympathetic to our plight stating "we're in the same boat!"
"Now outside a Grattes job. Some bugger has pushed the fire alarm. Job closed. everyone off"
"Flying Pickets shut down Harvey Nic's building site (Gratte Bothers) - 200 workers refuse to cross picket line"
"Occupying Lend Lease site office at Cambuslang."
"Over 100 workers demonstrate outside Balfour Beatty HQ in Glasgow."
"Good show at Kelvin hall school in Hull. TUC members on the line in support"
"Good stuff at Immingham - big turnout and blocking of entrances"
"Am very proud to be part of today - biggest nationally coordinated unofficial strike in decades. See you back at Blackfriars at 5.30pm to get the nite shift"
The strikes follow an escalating campaign of action by electricians over the last four months, and could indicate the direction industrial action could take if the government follows through on its threats to make the UK's strike laws - already among Europe's toughest - more restrictive.
The protests began following the announcement in May by Balfour Beatty and another seven of the UK’s 14 major electrical contractors (Crown House, NG Baileys, T. Clarkes, MJN Colston, Gratte Brothers, Shepherds Engineering, Matthew Hall) that they would impose new contracts upon their electricians, and in doing so scrapping the Joint Industry Board (JIB) agreement which has for the past 40 years been the basis for setting pay and working conditions. The firms have drawn up a replacement, the Building and Engineering Services National Agreement (BESNA), and issued notice to employees in August that their current contracts will be terminated on December 7, leaving them with the option of taking up the new contracts or accepting unemployment.
According to Unite, BESNA will have a number of negative effects on the trade. Contractors will be able to continually raise and lower hourly pay according to specific tasks workers undertake at any point in time, rather than maintaining a standard wage for skilled work. For some electricians this will entail a lowering of the hourly rate from £16.25 to £10 – a 35 per cent pay cut.
Unite say that both travel and overtime pay will be cut and made payable only at the employer’s discretion, the ability to claim for unfair dismissal will be reduced, while employers will simultaneously be enabled to make redundancies while agency temp workers are still engaged on projects. As one electrician analysing the agreement put it: “People are going to be losing a lot. Every single term in BESNA gives all the power to the employer. They get final say on everything.”
The JIB agreement has been in place for over 40 years, and part of the reason for its creation was the avoidance of labour unrest. The prospect of its removal is now fuelling some of the most potent labour militancy of recent years.
Protests by rank and file union members have shut down building sites across the country. In September a group of around 1,500 electricians workers at the Lindsey oil refinery in Lincolnshire walked out to join demonstrating electricians and Unite officials, while sites in London have been blockaded and occupied by workers several times in recent weeks.
“We’ve got to have mass walkouts, whether it’s official or not, it’s our very futures at stake,” explained Steve Acheson, Branch secretary for Unite from Manchester.
He said in view of the fast-approaching December deadline, electricians “aren’t prepared to wait for the union to decide what they’re going to do. Time is not permitting. The rank and file are saying we haven’t got enough time and they’re taking action.”
Acheson, himself a victim of Balfour Beatty’s past union blacklisting activity, accused building firms of lacking commitment to negotiations with their workforces.
“They’re just moving the goalposts so they can get the rate down by £3. This is a 43 year agreement they’re walking away from. The root cause of everything is insatiable greed for greater profit.
“The only language these companies seem to understand is industrial action. There’s no dialogue, they don’t want dialogue.”
One of the original eight companies proposing to scrap the JIB, MJN Colston, has already backed down in response to the protests, and the workers are confident that others can be forced into the same decision.
Balfour Beatty, a firm with a recent history of illegal union blacklisting, is viewed as the driving force behind BESNA and as such was targeted by Unite for the first wave of official strike action. While Balfour Beatty have claimed that the scrapping of the JIB is a response to competitive pressures, Unite point out that the companies orders have risen 6 per cent this year, with £15.5bn worth of projects underway since last year, yielding pre-tax profits of £50.5m. Ian Tyler, the company’s chief executive, received a total pay package of £979,994.
Rank and file organisers of the unofficial day of action of electricians across the UK are saying it is the biggest demonstration of its kind in decades.
Estimates of between 300 and 500 sparks walked off one single site at Blackfriars in London, with scores more walking off sites on Merseyside, in North East England, in Scotland and in Wales. They joined a string of demonstrations around the UK on the day when seven rogue employers were due to enforce ‘sign or be sacked’ contracts, de-skilling and undermining safety levels in the industry, and forcing electricians to take a 35% pay cut.
Under pressure from Unite, the companies have now postponed the deadline for introducing the contracts but the union insists the employers must begin serious negotiations or expect actions such as today’s will escalate.
Sparks from the Grangemouth oil refinery invaded and occupied site offices at a fire station being built Balfour Beatty, seen as the ringleader of the employers. Many sparks walked off the job in solidarity.