After a rank and file victory: where next for the sparks?

It was in an industry dogged by decades of blacklisting, union victimisation and casualisation that we saw one of the greatest workers’ victories against greedy bosses in recent times.

Balfour Beatty Engineering and six other companies were beaten back from introducing a new working ‘agreement’ (BESNA) that would have de-skilled the electrician trade and forced wages to plummet by as much as 35%.

After months of protests, pickets, civil disobedience and rank and file action it was in February that Balfour Beatty’s Chief Executive Ian Tyler received a letter from the International Brotherhood of Teamsters in the United States. “If this dispute is not resolved to the satisfaction of my colleagues in the UK we will have no option other than to demonstrate our support.”

Balfour Beatty quickly withdrew from the BESNA, soon followed by the remaining six companies hanging on their coattails. David had defeated Goliath.

The fight was organised and controlled from below after an overcrowded pub discussion led key Unite union activists to go a step further and call for a rank and file conference in London. The August meeting was 500 strong, elected a committee and called for immediate action – legal or otherwise. Regional conferences soon followed where sparks announced plans for walkouts and demonstrations, electing their own regional representatives.

The grassroots initiative wasn’t always welcomed by the Unite officials who planned to react to the attack by calling a strike after the new contracts had been introduced. One Unite official , Bernie McAuley, called rank and file representatives “a cancerous group.”

But the sparks fought on, and managed to force their union to go forward to an official ballot.

Their victory showed the power that rank and file organisation in the unions can have.

Where now

Rejuvenated and enthused by the success of the campaign, sparks pledged to turn the defensive struggle into a counter-attack, by demanding an end to blacklisting, casualised agency work and ‘bogus self employment’. They also threatened to turn their attention to consumer based companies such as Morrisons, hiring offending construction firms.

They have demanded that any negotiations with the construction bosses should include rank and file representatives at the meetings.

But in recent news construction bosses are refusing to allow the rank and file to take part in these negotiations, causing talks between the BESNA seven and the union to break down.

For now at least, Unite is refusing to allow the fat cats to choose who can take part in their negotiation teams – but what are they doing in the meantime?

Jerry Hicks, of the national rank and file committee and Unite Grassroots Left said “the employers have thrown down the gauntlet. Unite needs to pick it up and shove it down their throats, by calling national strike action.”

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