Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Sparks protests continue with occupation in London

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.

After arriving, I introduced myself to a couple of the lads protesting and had a chat with them about how the dispute was progressing. On this there were mixed views, as though there was a positive reception from most workers and very few refused leaflets there was also a feeling that too many were afraid to put their heads above the parapet. In an industry where you can be let go very quickly with little recourse, and at that one with 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.

Also evident from talking to workers was the contradiction between being critical of the union's role in the dispute and often seeing no other alternative to them. Since the Sparks' demos began to capture the imagination, and Unite's view of them as "cancerous" became public, the union has worked hard to regain control of the dispute. This included Len McCluskey addressing the November 9 demo and saying "I want to be clear. I welcome the work of the rank and file committee. I welcome direct action as part of this campaign." However, not only is this so much hot air like his support for civil disobedience that he has never followed through, it is also clearly a response forced by the pressure of rank-and-file anger.

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.