This morning, I went along to the Unite union office in Liverpool City Centre to meet up with Sparks planning a demo outside a construction site behind the central library. At the same time, similar demonstrations were taking place in Newcastle, Manchester, Edinburgh and London. The struggle - over de-skilling and 35% pay cuts - remains one of the most significant of the moment.
Here in Liverpool, the numbers were small. I had made a brief appearance at a similar demonstration a week ago, where 50 to 60 protesters had turned up and around 20 site workers had stayed off the site in response. This time, we began with eight people, though that number later grew to around 25 or 30. I wouldn't attribute this to failing momentum, given both the upcoming Balfour Beatty strike ballot and other events which I'll get to, but rather short notice.
the continuing legacy of blacklisting, this makes serious organisation difficult to achieve. There is a broad feeling that if this struggle against the changes is won, the next one needs to be against the status quo.
Among the issues that the workers worry about is the introduction of the semi-skilled grade, which essentially allows employers to bring in cheaper labour for those jobs that require less technical or specialist knowledge. As this amounts to about 80% of the work, it reduces the amount that skilled workers are needed for - not only amounting to a pay cut but also increasing competition between workers for work which will further deflate wages.
The question now is whether the workers realise that pressure can only push union leaders so far, and organise to take control of their own dispute beyond that point. A key test of this will be the strike ballot - tellingly called only for Balfour Beatty as a "test case" even though there are seven employers involved - and whether the momentum of unofficial protests continues during and beyond whatever action is called.
There is certainly hope of this, evidence by the fact that the London demo today ended with the occupation of Gratte Brothers head office. About 60 electricians padlocked themselves into the site as over 100 provided support outside.
The Sparks dispute is important for two reasons. One, because it is a demonstration of the power of rank-and-file militancy over officialdom. And two, because the problem it addresses of organising in an increasingly precarious sector is one that continues to grow in Britain with little redress. In both cases, we must hope that they are able to succeed and that in doing so they can ignite the kind of militant class struggle we need to be able to combat the bosses' onslaught.