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Workers Hammer No. 217

Winter 2011-2012

Down with blacklisting of union activists!

Electricians battle construction bosses

Unions must organise agency workers!

Since August 2011 electricians have been protesting a move by major construction companies to break the Joint Industry Board (JIB) agreement, a longstanding agreement with the unions which sets wages and conditions on building sites. Seven companies have announced they are pulling out of the JIB and that electricians on their sites will have to sign new, inferior contracts, or be sacked. These companies have set up a new association, Building Engineering Services National Agreement (BESNA), to ram through this attack on the workforce. In October 2011, construction giant Balfour Beatty, ringleader of the breakaway companies, issued 1690 redundancy notices to electricians on its sites, moving to get rid of any worker who refuses to sign up to the new terms.

The multi-billion pound construction companies could not be clearer that they mean to shred workers’ present conditions and yet the leaders of Unite’s construction section, the union which organises the electricians, sat on their hands for three months. In the face of the leadership’s unwillingness to mount any effective struggle, an angry, active core of workers has been protesting, led by a rank-and-file committee set up in August. The committee has organised protests up and down the country at major infrastructure building sites such as Crossrail in London, Longannet power station in Scotland, and Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station in Nottinghamshire. By November the Unite leadership finally balloted electricians, for a one-day strike in December against Balfour Beatty. When the company threatened court action to outlaw the strike, on the pretext of “balloting irregularities”, the Unite officials called it off. The protests and walkouts by electricians have continued, blocking roads and picketing site entrances. But to date no strike action has been sanctioned by the union tops, although they have agreed to re-ballot the Balfour Beatty workers and those at two other companies.

If the construction companies eliminate the JIB it will mean a cut in pay by 30 to 35 per cent, setting a three-tier wage system based on skill levels; negotiation will be replaced by dictates reducing holiday pay, and travel and overtime pay. According to Unite officials, the JIB agreement for electricians does not cover agency workers, who now comprise the majority on construction sites and whose pay and conditions lag behind the union-agreed terms. If the JIB is scrapped, agencies will accordingly degrade the pay and conditions of the electricians they engage. It will also be a major defeat for the trade unions in the rest of the construction trades who are next on the chopping block.

The electricians have considerable clout. Objectively, what is needed is for the unions to strike the major building projects and high-profile rail infrastructure projects. However the level of unionisation among electricians, and in the building trades in general, has been seriously eroded. Any effective struggle against the construction bosses must include an aggressive campaign to unionise the agency workers. This applies to the other unions in the building industry — UCATT and the GMB, as well as Unite — who together organise trades including plumbers, carpenters, labourers, bricklayers and painters.

Unions must organise agency workers

The construction industry is notoriously difficult to unionise due to a constantly changing workforce divided among multiple trades, while many subcontractors operate on any given site using a patchwork of different contracts and pay rates. The bosses’ use of employment agencies to provide temporary workers instead of employing workers directly is a key obstacle to unity in struggle. Employment agencies, as parasitic middlemen, offer the capitalists a cheaper, more insecure workforce who are not legally due the same rates of pay or benefits — such as sick pay and holiday pay — as those directly employed. Agencies are rampant in many sectors of the British economy, which has some 1.4 million agency workers. This phenomenon is becoming more common as a result of the worldwide drive for “flexible” (ie cheaper) labour.

The bosses use employment agencies to undermine the trade unions and reverse historic union-won gains. The central factor that makes it difficult to organise agency workers into trade unions is the lack of job security. Agencies are used by the capitalists to provide scab labour during strikes and can easily replace workers who join trade unions.

Trade unionists in South Africa have waged hard battles against the scourge of employment agencies (in South Africa called labour brokers), in powerful actions such as the car industry strike by the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) in August 2010. In an important victory, the bosses were forced to agree to stop the use of labour brokers from January 2011 while allowing existing contracts to run their course. Similar gains were also won by NUMSA strikes on behalf of casual workers in the motor sector. As our comrades of Spartacist South Africa wrote:

“It is critical for full time, unionised workers to fight for the more vulnerable casual employees to gain permanent employment at the same conditions and benefits as a measure of self defence and class solidarity. The fight to defend brokered workers should be tied to a struggle to organise the unorganised and to defend immigrant workers and others of the most oppressed layers in the working class, who are disproportionately forced into casual jobs.”

Where there is no union, there is no organised force to resist the relentless drive of the bosses to increase profits at the expense of jobs and safety. But the existing union leadership’s chief concern is not organising agency workers but maintaining sweetheart deals that exclude them from any rights and benefits. Unions including Unite have engaged in token opposition to the cancer of non-union agency work, lobbying Parliament for legislation giving “equal rights” to agency workers. They cheered the Agency Workers Regulations which became law in October 2011, on paper extending some of the rights and conditions of permanent workers to agency workers, as mandated by earlier European Union legislation. But major loopholes, including that a worker is only entitled to such protection after 12 weeks on the job, will enable construction bosses to maintain the status quo. Workers cannot rely on Parliament and its laws.

A class-struggle leadership in the unions would undertake a massive organising drive among agency workers in the building industry and would seek joint class struggle by Unite, UCATT and the GMB. Such a leadership would combat craft unionism among electricians, who are some of the most skilled and highly paid construction workers. The bosses and the union bureaucracy foster craft divisions among the workforce, dividing electricians from other less skilled trades, keeping all wages down. The solution lies in a fight for one industrial union of all construction workers regardless of trade, maximising unity in action against the capitalist exploiters. Additionally, a class-struggle leadership would fight for an industry-wide union hiring system and union control of training and safety.

For a class-struggle leadership in the trade unions!

The increasing casualisation of the construction workforce, especially among the unskilled, means a trend going backwards to when casual daily labour — the “lump” — was the prevailing condition on construction sites. The “lump” went hand-in-hand with poor safety practices, high accident rates, and low rates of union organisation. In 1972 building workers took strike action nationally in a period of intense class struggle involving miners, dockers and railway workers. Using militant tactics such as flying pickets, the building workers won a wage increase — an illustration of the power of the working class in struggle. In retaliation against the strike the Tory government arrested pickets who had brought out building sites. In Shrewsbury, 24 were convicted of “conspiracy”. Six were given hefty prison sentences, including Des Warren and Ricky Tomlinson who became known as the Shrewsbury Two. Despite enormous support for these class-war prisoners in the trade union movement, they were abandoned by the leaders of their own unions and the TUC.

The campaign crucially needed today to organise the unorganised workers on building sites must include the super-exploited immigrant workers, many of whom do the dirtiest and most dangerous work for the lowest pay. But such a perspective requires a political fight against the union bureaucracy and its “socialist” tails. This need was graphically displayed during the protests in 2009 for “British jobs for British workers”. Strikes and protests on construction sites, beginning at Lindsey oil refinery in Lincolnshire, led to the removal of foreign workers from building sites. This crusade was poison to the interests of the multiethnic working class, playing into the divide-and-rule strategy of the bosses (see “Down with chauvinist campaign against foreign workers!” Workers Hammer no 208, Autumn 2009). We said what was needed: mobilisation of the multiethnic working class against the then Labour government “in a fight for jobs for all, through a shorter workweek with no loss in pay, and to undertake a union organising drive to draw into their ranks all workers, including those in dangerous and low-paying jobs”, not least the immigrant component of the working class.

The rank-and-file committee leading the current electricians’ protests is supported by the National Shop Stewards Network which is dominated by the Socialist Party, and by Jerry Hicks of Unite, who together with the Socialist Party was a prominent supporter of the reactionary strikes for “British jobs for British workers”. In the 2010 Unite election for general secretary, the Socialist Party fulsomely supported Len McCluskey, a supposed “left” who won the contest. Today the committee leading the electricians’ protests is seeking to pressure McCluskey to call official strikes against the construction companies. McCluskey was the union official who helped sell out the British Airways cabin crew dispute in 2010-11, which ended in a rotten deal because the union would not call out the ground crews in joint strike action.

Anti-Communist witch hunting and class collaboration

The Unite bureaucracy takes as its starting point “partnership” with the construction bosses, not struggle against them. Lamenting the attack on the JIB, they moan that “the agreements that the break-away companies want to withdraw from have delivered industrial peace and stability for 40 years” (, 18 October 2011). Such “peace and stability” has undermined the very existence of unions on construction sites. It is bitterly ironic that the JIB terms must now be defended by the union: the introduction of the JIB in 1968 was rightly fought by class-conscious union members. These workers opposed the JIB — a class-collaborationist board composed of construction capitalists and trade union bureaucrats. Its purpose was to snuff out the militant shop stewards movement which led struggle against the bosses. Instead the union leaders imposed compliant officials to negotiate pay and conditions. For decades, throughout the construction industry union leaders turned a blind eye to — and sometimes colluded with — blacklisting of union activists to rid construction sites of anyone known as a leftist, or anyone insisting on health and safety compliance or workers rights. This is a practice that is widespread today. A secretive right-wing organisation that originated in 1919, the Economic League, kept files on workers considered “subversive” and was paid by companies to identify “troublemakers”. After the League’s demise the blacklist was carried on by a former Special Branch agent, Ian Kerr, whose Consulting Association kept files on more than 3000 building workers.

Many of the activists today fighting for the union to defend construction workers are blacklisted; some of them have not been able to work in the industry for years on end. Files obtained by workers have revealed references to “full-time trade union officials” as sources for fingering those to be blacklisted. In 2011 Gail Cartmail, assistant general secretary of Unite and a Morning Star supporter, under pressure from union members, investigated allegations of collusion by union officials in blacklisting. To the outrage of blacklisted workers and their supporters, her report concluded there is a lack of evidence against officials and “in the absence of any proof I trust that such allegations of collusion will now desist” (“Blacklisting Report”, 19 September 2011).

The electrical workers union in Britain historically has been beset by leaderships composed of venal anti-Communist witch hunters and scabherders. The introduction of the JIB in the electrical contracting industry was prepared by the earlier purge of Communists from the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) carried out by figures within the union including Frank Chapple. In 1961, Chapple, John Byrne and Les Cannon were installed at the top of the ETU by the High Court after they treacherously took the union to court over alleged ballot rigging. All wings of the union leadership resorted to the courts to resolve disputes about union elections. Marxists oppose bringing the capitalist state into the trade union movement — the unions must clean their own house!

The Communist Party (CP) had a considerable base among the advanced layers in the working class, including the militant shop stewards movement, and their supporters were constantly witch hunted in the ETU. At the same time, the CP’s “British road to socialism” was a programme of class collaboration, aiming merely to apply pressure on Labour governments but posing no threat to the capitalist order. The anti-Communist campaigns in the trade unions — conducted largely by right-wing Labour Party figures — were a reflection of the imperialist anti-Communist drive against the Soviet Union. The anti-Soviet Cold War played a dominant role both in the 1950s and again in the 1980s and the CP’s association with the USSR made it a thorn in the side of the bosses, and therefore of the trade union bureaucrats. Aligned with the CIA-backed, pro-NATO and anti-Soviet cabal in the Labour Party, Chapple and his co-thinkers went on to target miners leader Arthur Scargill on the eve of the heroic 1984-85 miners strike for his correct statement that Polish Solidarność was “anti-socialist”.

By 1986 the union (by then the Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunications and Plumbing Union — EETPU) was under the leadership of Chapple’s successor, Eric Hammond. Its bureaucracy became a byword for scabbing. Hammond became reviled in the trade union movement for having held secret meetings with Rupert Murdoch and supplying scabs to run his printing plant at Wapping, thus playing a central role in breaking the unions in the print industry. The EETPU through a series of mergers with engineering and other unions eventually became part of Unite.

Throughout the year-long miners strike, the Spartacist League pointed to the connection between the attacks on the miners union and the anti-Soviet hysteria being whipped up by the imperialists. As we wrote in a summary article:

“Scargill’s denunciations of the likes of Solidarność ran strongly against the policies of the Labour Party leaders, who enlisted in Thatcher’s anti-Soviet crusade. Those reformists who most zealously red-baited Scargill proved to be the biggest scabherders in the miners strike. Those who lined up against the Soviet Union also sabotaged workers’ struggles at home. This showed that what was necessary to lead the miners to victory was not simply trade union militancy, but a revolutionary party with a conscious understanding of the historical, international interests of the proletariat.”

— “1984-85: what it would have taken for the miners to win”, Workers Hammer no 145, April/May 1995

Attacks on the miners union continued long after the strike. In 1990 at a workers conference in the Donbass region of the former Soviet Union, the British electricians’ union leadership came together with a hard core of anti-Communists that included the scab Union of Democratic Miners (UDM) together with a Russian fascist outfit, the NTS. In addition to attempting to set up a Solidarność-style counterrevolutionary “union” in the USSR, this gang fuelled yet another witch hunt against Arthur Scargill and the National Union of Mineworkers that was then raging in Britain — orchestrated by the state and aided by the Daily Mirror. Comrades of the International Communist League attended the conference and helped spike this lying campaign. As we noted:

“At the conference, our comrades intervened through sales and corridor discussion to oppose the anti-Scargill witchhunt, pointing out the reactionary character of the bourgeois/scab attack on Scargill. After the UDM representative was allowed to appeal from the podium for the Soviet miners to demand that monies contributed by them to the heroic 1984-85 British miners strike be handed over to the UDM, an ICL representative addressed conference presidium members, presenting them with a copy of Workers Vanguard (No. 508, 10 August [1990] with the article, ‘Sinister Frame-Up of British Miners Leader — Scargill Witchhunted.’) In the upshot, the conference resolved not to pursue the UDM’s appeal to join in denouncing Scargill.”

Workers Vanguard no 515, 30 November 1990

We fought for the defence of the Soviet Union, a workers state that was bureaucratically degenerated. We also stood for proletarian political revolution to oust the Stalinist bureaucracy that was the gravedigger of the Russian Revolution. As a result of the relentless drive by the imperialists, and Stalinist betrayals of countless revolutionary opportunities internationally, counterrevolution triumphed in the Soviet Union in 1991-92.

Out of the class struggles that will inevitably be waged by workers and minorities will arise a new generation of militant leaders, who must be won to an internationalist, class-struggle programme. Forging such a leadership in the unions will be inextricably linked to the struggle to construct a Leninist-Trotskyist party. Nothing short of a socialist revolution can bring about an end to the misery wrought by decaying British capitalism, putting the multiethnic working class in power to run society for the benefit of all.


Workers Hammer No. 217

WH 217

Winter 2011-2012



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Mumia Abu-Jamal is innocent — free him now!

Drive to execute Mumia halted


Public sector pensions battle

For hard class struggle to defeat government austerity!


Down with blacklisting of union activists!

Electricians battle construction bosses

Unions must organise agency workers!


For a Socialist United States of Europe!

Down with the EU!

Economic crisis rips Europe