Friday, 24 February 2012

The Sparks kill off BESNA

In the last two days, all of the remaining employers trying to force the BESNA agreement on construction workers have pulled out. Though there is much more to be done in securing decent conditions for site workers, this marks an important victory. Particularly for the Sparks rank-and-file movement.

The Construction Enquirer reported on Wednesday that, following the decision last week of Balfour Beatty to withdraw, the remaining firms were left in the lurch. They were officially confirmed as having withdrawn the following day, whilst the Unite union has said it won't pursue further action and will engage in talks over where to go next.

The prospect of further talks is one that should raise concerns. Unite says that it is "ready to talk with sector employers at any time about how we work together to secure people’s livelihoods and the stability of the industry." To that end, it has agreed to "wide-ranging talks on modernising the industry." Given the union's previous willingness to enforce "modernisation" on members - from the lukewarm response to BESNA that inspired the Sparks to form, to the capitulation over strike action in December - rank-and-file workers should be watchful.

Because, we should be in no doubt, it was the mobilisation of the rank-and-file that won this dispute. Unite were forced to accept their existence after initially referring to them as cancerous, but this was more to avoid being outflanked from below than anything else. What was important was their continued ability to mobilise direct action across the country, most spectacularly when they made the strike that Unite called off go ahead unofficially.

More recently, the level of pressure being ramped up against the employers saw the courts accept Unite's ballot result for a one day strike despite legal challenge. No doubt the realisation that this would not stop industrial action happening, after last time, and that an official strike would be more controlled played a significant part in this decision.

This followed the Electrical Contractors Association annual dinner and dance, and the Sparks took direct action straight to the bosses. Being hounded and having the streets blocked by angry construction workers hammered home the level of opposition to BESNA.

If there is one lesson to learn from this, it is the power of rank-and-file mass mobilisation. Not to be "harnessed" by officialdom, not as a "bad cop" to their "good cop," but to seize control of our own struggles and take action where those who proclaim to lead us want to capitulate. Direct action gets the goods, and that lesson now has to go forward to every dispute that workers face - in Britain and worldwide.