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Sparks fly as electricians fight pay cuts

Electricians are involved in a bitter struggle with major contractors against plans to slash wages by 35%.

Thousands of electricians have staged walk-outs from construction sites across the country, protesting against a plan – hatched by a cartel of big employers – to scrap their contracts, cut their wages and deskill their trades.

Their anger comes bursting out of the screen as employers including corporate giant Balfour Beatty, the UK’s biggest contractor, make workers bear the brunt of the impact of the global recession.  

Electricians, including trades unionists illegally blacklisted by employers, have been in action co-ordinated by a rank and file committee elected at a 500-strong meeting in August. They’ve won the support of MPs Jeremy Corbyn, Kelvin Hopkins and John McDonnell and a delegation from the US Teamsters.

Following a walkout from Total’s Lindsey oil refinery in September, they’ve been marching and blocking London’s Oxford Street at the Park House site, and demonstrating at the Tate Modern art gallery extension.

Action has spread across the country to Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station in Nottinghamshire, as well as at Liverpool Central Library and sites in Glasgow and Cambuslang. 

Walk-outs, pickets and protests have taken place at key sites, including the Grangemouth oil refinery, the Tyne Tunnel, Sellafield nuclear plant, Corrington paper mill in Trafford and West Burton power station in Notts. 

With its UK profits shrinking in the wake of government spending cuts, Balfour Beatty are among a group of eight employers who are tearing up the 40-year old Joint Industry Board contracts that regulate standards, training and contracts for construction trades.

They plan to scrap national working agreements, withdraw any recognition of separate trades and skills, and cut pay by up to 35%. Workers have had letters saying they must sign the new contracts by December 7 or be sacked.

The employers claim up to 75% of the work undertaken by skilled trades is in fact unskilled and should be paid at a lower hourly rate. They want to raise or lower pay depending on what task a worker has been assigned to that day. The new contracts would also:

These last two are aimed at making it easier to blacklist active union members, finding ways to get them off sites at the first sign of workers organising to fight back. The blacklist which was a focus for huge industrial battles throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s is back with a vengeance.

Also under threat are holiday pay, sickness pay, accidental disability benefits, death in service payments and pensions.

An anonymous electrician blogger, writes:

"We were told if we didn’t sign we might lose our jobs so we started talking to our union, Unite, and came to the conclusion the only way forward was to walk off jobs and hold protests.

"They are still saying sign or be sacked. We have no other option. It’s not just our jobs and futures on the line – it’s also the young people who come out of college wanting to be an electrician or a plumber and won’t be able to because these rogue employers are trying to wipe out such professions."

The Unite leadership has so far resisted members' demands for a strike ballot, claiming they need to go carefully in case of legal challenges.

Up to now they have seemed more concerned about the future of Unite's bank balances than about the potential destruction of an industry-wide agreement that workers have struck and fought for – even gone to prison for – over the last three decades.

18 October 2011

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