Unite sells out Sparks over legal challenge to strike

Unite sells out Sparks over legal challenge to strike

On Tuesday, 81.6% of mechanical and electrical workers at Balfour Beatty voted in favour of strike action. This followed a highly militant direct action campaign by the Sparks rank-and-file group forcing the union to up the ante. However, now that the employer has used the anti-strike laws to overturn the ballot, the strength of the rank-and-file movement will really be tested.

The threat of a legal challenge should come as no surprise in this instance. Balfour Beatty is, as Unite the Union point out, the "ringleader" in forcing through the new BESNA agreement. They are also one of the main players in the continued blacklisting of trade unionists from construction work. As such, in their desire to hamstring workers trying to defend what they already have, it is little wonder that they are prepared to simply wave the draconian ballot restrictions at the union until the ballot is re-run.

What might be more surprising is that Unite actually complied. When they faced a similar situation at British Airways, the company had to get a high court injunction in order to cancel the strike at the last minute. Moreover, the RMT Union's landmark victory against Serco means that Balfour's ability to have the vote thrown out on a technicality is less clear cut. Yet the threat alone was enough to make the union back down - albeit with some angry words - and comply with the company's demand. This fits in with Adam Ford's prediction that "Unite bureaucrats will need to find a way of selling defeat to a largely militant rank-and-file," and the use of the most draconian anti-union laws in Europe almost does the job for them.

The deadline for workers to sign the new contracts or be let go is 7 December. As a mechanical worker I spoke to at a recent Sparks demo in Liverpool noted, the lads will be pulled in the office one-by-one and made to sign. That pressure and the fact that the whole industry is casualised and you can be let go at a moments' notice mean that by capitulating so easily ahead of an already tight deadline the union has effectively abandoned the workers to their fate.

This leaves a lot hanging on how the rank-and-file respond to the latest news. Already, it seems that some pickets are being organised for Wednesday at sites across the country. Though the official action has been overturned, a nationwide wildcat strike would arguably be more effective as it would be beyond the control of Unite bureaucrats and workers themselves can decide how it progresses. If there are pickets, in many places workers will refuse to cross. We have already seen sites shut down by sheer force of numbers, offices occupied and one company forced to back out of BESNA. That same level of militancy and solidarity needs to be displayed now.

The Sparks against de-skilling and 35% pay cuts Facebook group is here and will carry news of planned protests. If you can get down to one, M&E worker or not, show your solidarity and add your voice to theirs. Even if what happens on the day falls short of a national wildcat strike, those taking action will still need to take control of their own struggle back from sellout union officials. We should all help that in every way we can.

Posted By

Dec 5 2011 12:13


Attached files


Dec 23 2011 15:17

Court has found in favour of Aslef after LU tried to get an injunction in this case:


Makes you wonder what Unite's game was here.

Feb 24 2012 13:27

I take it that since this dispute has now been won by the union, you're going to withdraw this divisive and inaccurate article?

HVCA concedes defeat on Besna

Joseph Kay
Feb 24 2012 14:17

Unite calls off strike at first hint of a legal challenge, Sparks strike anyway, Unite advises Sparks to sign the disputed contracts and challenge them through individual tribunals, Sparks carry on collective direct action and win. And the "dispute has now been won by the union"?

You could argue this is all in the 'game' of industrial relations, but it's pretty obvious the Sparks won because they were prepared to take unofficial action outside the law, and disregarded Unite's advice to desist and pursue an individualistic/legalistic tribunal route. And for all that, Unite are still talking ominously of 'modernising the industry'. That could be code for Besna 2, or just hot air to stall and placate the bosses. Time will tell, but I wouldn't be surprised if a new version of Besna surfaces in a few months with some token concessions and Unite's backing (much like the CWU stitched up the posties a few years back).

Feb 26 2012 22:27

IWW 'victory statement' I got by email: http://iww.org.uk/node/658

How dare you call a fair and honest account of what happened 'divisive'.

fingers malone
Feb 27 2012 21:13
Joseph Kay wrote:
leischa wrote:
unions exist to win for workers the best possible terms and conditions within capitalism. This is what most workers want

Like when Unite electricians voted 82% to strike, what they really wanted was for the strike to be called off at the earliest hint of a dubious legal challenge with no concessions in sight. Or when posties were on national strike in 2009, what they really wanted was to be demobilised and kept in the dark for 3 months for 'meaningful negotiations' before being presented with basically the same offer as a fait accompli. Lucky we have professional trade unionists who know best eh?

Leischa, lets look at what the sparks said they wanted from the union. Most of all they wanted information, they felt they weren't being informed about what was going on, which they said was making people feel disorientated and demoralised. They wanted informational leaflets and updates and help with getting them distributed.
Then, they wanted the officials to answer the phone, or to call them back if they left ten messages.
They felt quite strongly that union minutes taken by branch officials shouldn't be turning up in peoples' blacklist files and that ex-officials shouldn't be turning up at negotiations now as employees of the construction companies, a threat to the militants they have loads of confidential information about.
They wanted the union to organise a ballot straightaway, when it would be most effective, not months later, and not back down at the first threat from Balfour B.
They wanted the union not to have neglected the construction industry for the last twenty years.

This isn't ultra left conspiracy, this was Unite members saying they weren't getting the backup they needed despite putting huge amounts of effort into a rank and file mobilisation.