Sunday, 4 December 2011

Unite sells out Sparks over legal challenge to strike

On Tuesday, 81.6% of mechanical and electrical workers at Balfour Beatty voted in favour of strike action. This followed a highly militant direct action campaign by the Sparks rank-and-file group forcing the union to up the ante. However, now that the employer has used the anti-strike laws to overturn the ballot, the strength of the rank-and-file movement will really be tested.

The threat of a legal challenge should come as no surprise in this instance. Balfour Beatty is, as Unite the Union point out, the "ringleader" in forcing through the new BESNA agreement. They are also one of the main players in the continued blacklisting of trade unionists from construction work. As such, in their desire to hamstring workers trying to defend what they already have, it is little wonder that they are prepared to simply wave the draconian ballot restrictions at the union until the ballot is re-run.

What might be more surprising is that Unite actually complied. When they faced a similar situation at British Airways, the company had to get a high court injunction in order to cancel the strike at the last minute. Moreover, the RMT Union's landmark victory against Serco means that Balfour's ability to have the vote thrown out on a technicality is less clear cut. Yet the threat alone was enough to make the union back down - albeit with some angry words - and comply with the company's demand. This fits in with Adam Ford's prediction that "Unite bureaucrats will need to find a way of selling defeat to a largely militant rank-and-file," and the use of the most draconian anti-union laws in Europe almost does the job for them.

The deadline for workers to sign the new contracts or be let go is 7 December. As a mechanical worker I spoke to at a recent Sparks demo in Liverpool noted, the lads will be pulled in the office one-by-one and made to sign. That pressure and the fact that the whole industry is casualised and you can be let go at a moments' notice mean that by capitulating so easily ahead of an already tight deadline the union has effectively abandoned the workers to their fate.

This leaves a lot hanging on how the rank-and-file respond to the latest news. Already, it seems that some pickets are being organised for Wednesday at sites across the country. Though the official action has been overturned, a nationwide wildcat strike would arguably be more effective as it would be beyond the control of Unite bureaucrats and workers themselves can decide how it progresses. If there are pickets, in many places workers will refuse to cross. We have already seen sites shut down by sheer force of numbers, offices occupied and one company forced to back out of BESNA. That same level of militancy and solidarity needs to be displayed now.

The Sparks against de-skilling and 35% pay cuts Facebook group is here and will carry news of planned protests. If you can get down to one, M&E worker or not, show your solidarity and add your voice to theirs. Even if what happens on the day falls short of a national wildcat strike, those taking action will still need to take control of their own struggle back from sellout union officials. We should all help that in every way we can.