Unite seeks to stifle UK electricians’ pay dispute

Electricians’ protests against threatened pay cuts have now entered their seventh week. Protests and meetings, largely initiated by rank-and-file workers themselves, continue across the country, in anger at proposals to cut pay by up to a third.


The livelihood of around 6,000 workers is immediately threatened, however the ripping up existing national wage agreements would open the door to pay cuts and attacks on conditions across the construction industry.


The unofficial protests are attracting increasing numbers and in response the police have stepped up efforts to restrict the protests. A danger greater than the police is presented by the efforts being made by the trade union bureaucracy to establish control over the actions. Should they succeed, the dispute will be shutdown and the workers’ betrayed.


For 40 years national pay levels have been set by a Joint Industry Board (JIB) agreement between employers and the predecessors of the main union involved in the present dispute, Unite. Over the last four years, however, employers have moved to rip up existing agreements, including the JIB. Eight of the 14 major contractors walked out of the JIB talks and formulated their own “Building Engineering Services National Agreement (BESNA),” which wipes out existing pay schemes and introduces a one pay grade system. From a current hourly rate of £16.25, electricians would be graded on a rate of between £14 and £10.50 an hour.


The BESNA proposals would see all grading of tradesmen done by the employers rather than by national agreements. It would enable contractors to treat the majority of construction workers as semi-skilled and would see the end of electrical and plumbing apprenticeships. BESNA proposes to merge electrical and mechanical trades into general building services engineers. Other proposals include cuts in travel pay and overtime rates, the removal of redundancy rules protecting workers from casualisation, and the removal of the possibility of claiming unfair dismissal.


Workers were put on notice of redundancy if they did not accept these new terms and conditions in December. Five of the eight companies—Balfour Beatty, Crown House Technologies, Spie Matthew Hall, Shepherd Engineering Services, and NG Bailey—have served Unite with legal notice of their intention to dismiss. Giving the 90-day notice required by law, they are offering to re-engage workers on substandard contracts on December 7. MJN Colston has now said they will implement the same policies “at a slower pace … for operational reasons”.


In August a meeting of 500 construction workers elected a rank-and-file campaign committee to coordinate the rolling protests across the country. Unite’s main concern was the threat to their authority posed by these unofficial actions. In a leaked email Bernard McAulay, Unite’s national officer for construction, described the rank-and-file committee as “cancerous” and “opportunists”. He denounced them as “this small fringe group”.


Unable to stem the anger of electricians, Unite is now trying to come back to the head of the protest. Union officials have made more regular appearances at demonstrations. At most Unite will attempt to channel workers’ anger into a token official one-day strikepossibly to coincide with the November 30 protests over public sector pensions. Even this may not happen. McAulay was reported saying this week that “plans for a strike ballot over the dispute were progressing”—after the dispute has already being ongoing for two months.


Three weeks ago Assistant General Secretary Gail Cartmail said Unite was “committed to balloting [for strike action] as soon as possible,” before going on to point out problems that might prevent this from happening. The union’s first proposed ballot date would have fallen two days after some workers had already been forced onto new contracts.


The development of unofficial rank-and-file action is an important first step. But workers must go further. Some of those leading the unofficial action do so only in order to bring workers back behind the union. Jerry Hicks, a leading member of the rank-and-file campaign committee, has stressed that Unite, “needs to be put under pressure to negotiate a proper deal for us”. A former member of the Socialist Workers Party and then George Galloway’s Respect party, Hicks acts as a left-talking public relations man for the unions. His main role is to block workers from breaking the stranglehold of the union under conditions in which many workers are not even members because they correctly view this organisation as hostile to their interests.


That is why Hicks claims Unite can be revived, stating, “If we want an effective union, we can’t afford to continue allowing the activist layer to age and dwindle in numbers.” Recruiting young workers would not make Unite into the “fighting union”, he claims. In reality his perspective is to herd young workers into a bureaucratic prison in order to suppress the most militant forces.


The same result flows from the demand of Hicks and other members of the fake left groups to force contractors to agree to the continued involvement of the unions in pay negotiations. This does not challenge the employers’ drive to lower wages and conditions. On the contrary, those companies remaining within the JIB do so because they trust the unions to agree to and implement shabby pay deals. Even the BESNA proposals refer to “accredited and properly trained union representatives” who can “act in accordance with the best interests of the company and the industry”.


The unions are seeking to re-establish their control over the workforce at a time when economic conditions are pushing employers to ever-greater attacks on pay and conditions. The unions will be tasked with policing these attacks, as mass unemployment, low wages and permanent insecurity become normal. That is why the Metropolitan Police looked to Unite to call off last week’s protest in Oxford Street and why, during the protest, it was Unite officials who were urging workers out of the road.


The rank-and-file committees need to be developed as a conscious political and organisational alternative to Unite, not as a ginger-group led by left-talking representatives of the bureaucracy. Committees need to be both elected and controlled directly by the workforce, setting out to unite construction workers with all other sections of the working class in an industrial and political fight against the employers, the government and their accomplices—the trade union leaders.