Electricians’ protests show the real ‘big society’ in action

A titanic battle in the electrical contracting sector of the construction industry is getting under way. Electricians – or sparks as they call themselves – working under the terms and conditions of the Joint Industry Board (JIB) are facing cuts in pay of up to 30%. This results from a group of seven of the sector’s largest employers signalling their intention to withdraw from the JIB and establish their own new agreement, with considerably lower rates of pay.

After a series of grassroots mobilisations, the sparks’ union, Unite, has now announced a ballot of its members at Balfour Beatty, seen as the leading protagonist of the breakaway group. Unite hopes to knock out Balfour Beatty, so decapitating the breakaway group. Earlier pressure from the grassroots sparks was successful in reducing the breakaway group from eight to seven when one backtracked.

The battle commenced when, without the support of the body that oversees the JIB, the eight original companies gave notice in the summer that they would leave the agreement and set up their own. What they intend to do is establish their own national agreement from March 2012 that re-grades – and downgrades – existing skills so that lower hourly rates can be justified.

But then they upped the ante in late September when they announced not only the bringing forward of the new wage rates to 7 December of this year but told their workers that unless they signed new contracts of employment with the reduced pay rates, they would be deemed to have dismissed themselves. Local authorities have previously used this technique, but private sector employers have not.

Some of the largest and most sustained mobilisations of unionised workers in the private sector in recent times have taken place since 13 August, when 500 sparks met in London to plan their resistance to the pay cuts. Organised by grassroots networks such as Siteworker and associates, nearly 100 protests have been organised at the sites of the major building construction sites up and down the country.

To the Financial Times, the protests raised the prospect of a rerun of the wildcat strikes in the engineering construction industry in 2009. It is significant that the grassroots activists among the sparks have set the ball rolling. Through word of mouth as well as social media, they have raised awareness about the issue and started laying the groundwork for what many of them argue will be necessary come 7 December: mass wildcat walkouts. After pressure, the sparks’ union took up the cause against the companies and has started to publicise (though not organise) their protests.

The activists know that while the protests have so far been successful in raising collective confidence, it will only be action that hurts the companies financially that makes them reverse their decision. In this, they will seek to use the complex system of sub-contracting in construction to their advantage. Under this system, delays to contracts result in penalties and fines being paid to those that commissioned the work.

The sparks’ campaign so far is the “big society” in action, although clearly not the type David Cameron had in mind. They have taken matters into their own hands, formed their own collective agency and compelled their union to act. The coming months will be the real test of their organisation and mettle. A victory for them, especially through a highly visible series of wildcat strikes, would show that it is possible for workers to stand up, fight back and win. This would be their best Christmas present for the rest of the union movement whose members are suffering in the age of austerity.

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