Thursday, 8 September 2011

Sparks fan the flames

This is re-posted from Counterfire, written by Jo Gough in London and yours truly in Newcastle.

The construction workers campaign spread today with pickets taking place in London, Manchester and Newcastle, calling on workers to take action against eight companies tearing up the national working agreement.

They talked about several different problems: the lowering of general pay rates, cuts in overtime pay, the insecurity of agency work, increasing spells of unemployment, fear of victimisation. One worker talked about the 'agency culture' that involves companies continually under-cutting each other by employing workers, short-term, on lower pay rates. Growing unemployment underpins this, he said. Too many people are scared of losing work.

In Newcastle construction workers came from various sites around the region, determined to stop the all-out attack on pay and conditions they face. Everyone talked about how serious the issues are, how they have no choice now but to organise and fight back.

They fear drastic cuts in pay, an increase in bosses' power to disregard workers' rights (already flimsy), and a de-valuing of skilled work they have devoted years to. Several workers spoke of the self-worth and pride they have taken in their work, and the sense of no longer being valued.

While there were expressions of bitterness towards unions - for their inaction and slowness - there was also a strong will to pressure Unite to get behind them. As one worker said: 'Whatever you say about them, we need a union or otherwise we don't stand a chance. We need them to bring in broader support.' Several protesters said they work with people who are only now joining the union, having never seen the need before.

In London, Steve Kelly, branch secretary of the London Electrician Branch, also spoke of the need for Unite to act, explaining ‘it is good that Unite officials are here today but it is clear they are only here because of pressure from below. We must keep up the pressure to ensure they prepare to ballot all JIB sites as soon as possible.’

Yesterday saw a victory: 40 underpaid agency workers made a collective stand and forced the company to back down. A speaker from the Senate House cleaners’ campaign spoke of a similar victory when cleaners walked out and were then paid the three months wages owed to them by Balfour Beatty. They will now campaign for the London Living Wage.

With confidence increasing, there was a strong response to a call by Mick Dooley, the UCATT General Secretary candidate, to ‘stop the job’ in London next week, when construction workers will picket the Olympics site at 6.30am at Pudding Mill Lane.

In Manchester, Steve Acheson, branch secretary of the Manchester Electrician Branch, is clear there has been a magnificent rank and file self-organised response and the momentum is building for site walkouts and industrial action. He believes the fight will escalate into every city which could not only stop these attacks but could also result in construction workers having strong organisation again.

The workers who joined today's protest are committed to spreading the campaign, involving wider layers of workers, and mounting pressure on the union to throw its weight behind them. They deserve the support and solidarity of every trade unionist, socialist and anti-cuts activist.


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