I had a chat yesterday with an experienced militant in the construction industry about the current electricians dispute.
The substantive issue is that a group of seven building contracting companies are seeking to quit the existing Joint Industry Board (JIB) national industry agreement, which will lead to a significant drop in wages.
There is no doubting that feelings among the electricians are high, they protested this week outside Tate Modern construction site, which led to an impromptu march. But while such visible protests are useful in building a mood of combativity among the workforce, the employers can sit it out as long as it doesn’t hit them in the pocket. Nor do such protests necessarily help to keep union officials on board.
The crux of this dispute is therefore how to turn the screws on management. It is also necessary to understand how the finances work in the industry, where sub-contracting companies are locked into set delivery times, often facing liquidated damages if they fail to deliver.
The tactical discussions of how to proceed also need to consider the relationship between official and unofficial action. Some militants in UNITE are arguing that the union should ballot everyone for a strike on 30th November, alongside public sector workers. Frankly I cannot see how this would be possible for UNITE to do, given the preparation necessary for a legal ballot, and the existing demands upon staff over the pensions dispute. There is no mileage in placing pressure on the union for things they couldn’t deliver. It is also necessary to recognise that the union cannot support unofficial action – if the grassroots electricians take unofficial action they need to be able to see it through with their own resources and initiative to victory.
There are also questions of whether a national strike would be the most effective way to proceed. For one thing it might shift ownership of the dispute away from the grassroots electricians themselves; but in the specific context of the construction industry there might be more pressure on companies to settle if they are picked off one by one. This also raises the question of whether it is strategically wise to concentrate on Balfour Beatty, who are a large multinational with deep pockets. Perhaps militants might be better off focusing on some of the smaller companies, and seeking to make them break ranks.
There are no easy answers to these tactical and strategic questions, but the electricians need to mainatain the momentum, and shift focus on how to hit the contracting companies in their bank account.