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Sparks featured on Russia Today!

For more info see Adam Ford’s article below…

Victorious Sparks Celebrate, But Another Struggle Lies Ahead

Electricians are still celebrating following their stunning victory over their employers’ proposed pay cut contracts. The moment put the seal on a dramatic six month battle, which saw new tactics adopted by workers mistrustful of the union bureaucracy. And there can be no doubt about it, the Sparks rank-and-file group won precisely because they took a militant stance beyond the confines of the reformist trade union straitjacket. Yet they did not make a complete break with the Unite union, and another fight is on the horizon.

The grassroots-run Sparks organisation was set up in August, in opposition to the construction bosses’ plans to force the signing of what they called the Building Engineering Services National Agreement (BESNA). Under BENSA, separate pay grades would have been introduced for metalworkers (£10.50 per hour), wiring (£12), and terminating (£14), replacing the £16.25 which all electricians earned under the Joint Industry Board scheme. But the Sparks movement was set up with the intention of pressurising rather than circumventing the Unite leadership, who were correctly seen as a break on militancy following a catalogue of sellouts.

The Sparks’ suspicions were confirmed early on, when Unite chief negotiator Bernard McAulay labelled the Sparks “cancerous” in a leaked email to assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail. But despite this, there remained a consensus within Sparks that sufficient pressure could force the hands of the bureaucracy. So electricians took various forms of direct action – briefly occupying building sites, blocking traffic, and taking what were effectively wildcat strikes.

The tops were certainly spurred into action, because they were keen to keep Sparks within their dues base, but this action was deliberately delayed and generally ineffective, because the bureaucracy are committed to the corporate bosses’ profitability. McAulay, Cartmail and general secretary Len McCluskey polished off their best radical phrasemongering, and promised to fight for the living standards of their membership. Eventually, they even called two one day strike actions against Balfour Beatty – the biggest of the construction employers. But the first was called off as soon as Balfour Beatty threatened court action, and the second was scheduled to have taken place around the time a reported 90% of electricians had put pen to paper on their ‘sign or be sacked’ BESNA contracts. In other words, the two infamous email correspondents made every effort to be seen as doing something, without actually doing anything useful to the rank and filers.

At the time I wrote a rather pessimistic article on Sparks just over a month ago, the union fat cats must have thought their strategy to protect their own living standards was working. After all, electricians were shuffling in to sign up for wage cuts, so they would keep their jobs, and in fact many had joined Unite specifically in response to the Sparks’ campaign. But then came an extraordinary week, which would leave BESNA in ruins.

The Sparks independently made links with students and others in 2011
On Wednesday 15th, Sparks descended on a posh Park Lane dinner, where the suited and booted Balfour Beatty executives were slapping each other on the back for all their wealth. Taking the bigwigs and the cops by surprise, hundreds of Sparks descended on the Grosvenor Hotel, blocking central London traffic for hours. Electricians physically chased the fat cats for some time, and at one point several surrounded Balfour Beatty chief exec Ian Tyler, shouting “scum”, and chanting for the police to “arrest Balfour Beatty”.

The Thursday saw Balfour Beatty take Unite to the High Court, in an effort to get the latest strike ballot overhauled on the grounds of voting irregularities. The judge threw out the case, perhaps mindful that Sparks struck anyway back in December, after Unite’s leadership had caved in to the company. Almost immediately, Balfour Beatty withdrew from BESNA. With the biggest company gone, the six others decided the game was up. Within days, BESNA was dead.

At the moment, it is unclear exactly why Balfour Beatty precipitated the demise of BESNA. It seems impossible to believe that one day of official strike action would have held much terror for a multi-billion pound corporation. More likely, the fright the executives suffered on Park Lane played at least some role. But still, if 90% of electricians had signed up to vastly increased rates of exploitation, surely it was only a matter of time before most of the rest followed suit? And even if they didn’t, surely something else could have been arranged? The abandoning of BESNA is a huge deal, so why give away such ground so quickly?

It’s early days, but perhaps part of the answer came in a statement from Blane Judd, chief executive of the bosses’ Heating and Ventilating Contractors Association (HVCA). He told electricians that:

“Despite the best efforts of the Association and the significant progress that has been made in recent months, all seven companies who instigated the development of the BESNA have now withdrawn from the initiative. However, I can assure the membership at large that, over the next few months, the HVCA will be continuing to work towards the modernisation of the sector’s terms and conditions of employment in such a way as to incorporate a number of the principles contained in the BESNA…”

In return for the cancellation of BESNA, Unite agreed to call off any further demonstrations while ‘consultations’ take place over BESNA II. Essentially, Unite has assented to dampening down the anger of its own membership, and potentially even policing it.

Sparks clearly won the battle of BESNA, but they must continue to resist the Unite leadership’s attempts to strangle their movement. If Sparks are to finally defeat the construction companies’ attacks, they must continue to strengthen their solidarity, and draw in other groups of workers. The time will come when this requires a conscious split from Unite.

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  1. ray smith
    March 24, 2012 at 10:58 am

    I came across this article by accident. I agree entirely with it.

    I was almost certainly one of the “Cancerous” people that McAulay referred to. In fact my branch Newcastle Central 1901 Branch is in the heading of the original email. It was this branch of which I am the secretary that took the initiative in August 2011 to give unqualified support to the Sparks dispute. Indeed as far as I am aware it was the first branch to give the unqualified support that we gave.

    We caught the Unite bureaucracy completely by surprise. In the North East it took the union 5 months to start regaining control. This control is now almost total. One result being that I am facing very serious charges brought by Bill Green the former fulltime official for construction. I have been the accused in many disciplinary hearings brought by employers and unions – the first being 40 years ago when as a shipyard shop steward I was active in helping to organise strikes against the use of asbestos. I don’t know the outcome of the present disciplinary process but the charges are of such a nature that they are almost impossible to defend against.

    Unfortunately a lot of ordinary workers see “their” union as a friend to help and support them against the employers. Unfortunately this is not the case. It will never be the case when very well paid unelected union officials union continue to represent workers on the minimum wage or state benefit levels of income.

    Ray Smith

    • March 24, 2012 at 4:35 pm

      Ray, would it be possible for me to conduct an email interview with you about Sparks, your disciplinary, and your experiences in construction in general, for inclusion in a new blog post?

      • ray smith
        March 24, 2012 at 10:48 pm

        Yes of course you can.

        Ray

      • March 24, 2012 at 11:30 pm

        That’s brilliant! Could you drop me an email via aford1981ATgmail.com so I’ve got your address? And I’ll think up some questions over the next few days.

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