December 7th marked an important date in the struggle of working class people to defend and advance their rights and conditions, in the face of the latest onslaught by capital and employers’ who see the current recession as an opportunity to completely undermine them. For this was the date that saw the biggest co-ordinated wildcat action within the UK, in decades.
Since 8 companies, now 7, announced plans to rip up the 40 year old Joint Industry Board (JIB) agreement with their own BESNA one – electricians, pipe fitters and plumbers, working for some of the largest construction firms in the country, have faced 35% pay cuts, de-skilling and generic working, no strike clauses, and the ending of apprenticeships worthy of the name. In response, they have faced down the continuing blacklisting of trade union activists and built months of momentum of grassroots, rank and file action, that threatens to not only defeat the employers but also help re-ignite working class self activism and confront the backsliding and betrayals of bureaucrats within the TUC unions, and Unite, in particular.
With December 7th announced as the day when several of the companies demanded their workforce sign the new contracts or face the dole, construction workers led by the sparks announced that official action or no official action, in the face of union capitulation to employers’ legal threats despite an overwhelming vote in favour of strike action, they were going to take matters into the own hands and not just roll over in resigned defeat.
Arriving at Immingham in time for the 6.30am start, I joined 200 sparks, activists, trade unionists and supporters outside Conoco Phillips, a place targeted as they use Balfour Beatty as their main contractor. In the face of freezing winter conditions and downpours, entrances were blockaded, shouts of “revolution now”, and frequent traffic jams backed hundreds of yards in both directions, took place. In solidarity, a number of workers arriving on site, not just construction workers either, turned around and refused to cross the picket line. Others were forced to turn round by the show of solidarity, despite one or two idiotic attempts to cross the picket line by aiming their vehicles at us – something that was met with a persuasive response. This continued, despite attempts by a shocked drone on supervision who ran about all over the place in an attempt to re-direct those arriving. Two hours later, with the place seemingly shut down for the day, pickets began heading away and to the warmth of waiting vehicles.
Elsewhere, news came in that sites had been shut down in Liverpool and Manchester, company pre-fab offices had been occupied at a site in Glasgow, Hartlepool pickets had seen a couple of hundred turn up, walk outs by workers from various power stations took place and supported pickets, including many from West Burton who turned up at the Immingham one. London saw its biggest day of action since the 9th November national demo, with hundreds continuing a roving shut down of various sites that lasted all day and that that even managed to turn away the night shift. At one point, at Gratte Brothers – scene of a recent bitter occupation – a fire alarm suddenly went off and everyone was evicted off site – ooops!!
All in all, an excellent day and show of strength and solidarity! However, much is still to be done. We heard that many of the Balfour sparks turned away by the picket line at Immingham, returned to work almost as soon as the picket finished – hardly something that will bother the employer. Meanwhile, Unite are due to attend talks at Acas, after the employer went to the arbitration service. It remains a possibility that Unite officials will try and sell a completely unpalatable “compromise”/sell out to their members. Furthermore, the employers are continuing to do their best to use anti-union laws to scupper a new strike ballot – by the cynical moving around of their workforce from place to place in an effort to say that ballot details are incorrect.
It is obvious that this battle that will only be won by the intensification of unofficial action. This is something that continued this week both at Immingham and elsewhere, with workers covered by the NAECI/”Blue Book” agreement from more than twenty oil refineries and in a dispute over wage freezes, joining their JIB colleagues on the picket line. In response, employers and their representatives, rattled by this upping of action and ongoing loss of contracts, appear to be becoming increasingly desperate – trying to strong arm employees, one on one, to sign the BESNA joke, and even pleading for their workforce to sign the new contracts on YouTube. The latter, a sure sign that wildcat actions are starting to get the goods! Finally, it was reported on the Sparks’ Facebook group page that a message had been received from an electrician at Conoco – Immingham that, “Top Balfour boys having crisis talks with Conoco tomorrow. Client is fuming and trouble on the horizon (for Balfour’s)!.” With the stakes remaining high and this being a battle that must be won, the tide may just be turning the way of those fighting for dignity and respect on the unofficial picket lines, both here and worldwide, as represented by the struggles at the ports of Portland and elsewhere.
For militant rank and file action!
For the OBU!