1999: Dahl Jenson construction strike

1999: Dahl Jenson construction strike

Immigrants demonstrated their willingness, when asked, to support British workers in struggle in this victorious strike of 300 building workers employed by different firms.

The week before Mechanical Installers and Pipe Fitters working for Dahl Jenson found that cheques for the last three weeks work had bounced. With massive amounts of overtime being worked some workers had lost as much as £2,000, although these figures were the exception as the workers calculated that the £55,000 in total owed was split between almost 100 workers.

Meanwhile Dahl Jenson had disappeared from the site next to Waterloo Station, where a building was being refurbished under the Government's Private Finance Initiative to turn it into a teaching college for student nurses. Responsibility for ensuring the work got completed on time was with Bouynes, a French construction giant.

Workers employed by other firms on the site continued to work normally. The ex-Dahl Jenson workers did not ask them for support, even when standing outside the site entrance on Monday and Tuesday the 5th and 6th of July 1999 seeking their wages.

The workers had approached the Joint Sites Committee (JSC) for assistance, this could best be described as 'broad left' (a left-wing grouping) and the building workers union, UCATT had been informed. Two officials from the union turned up on July 7th and generally played a positive role throughout the day.

The JSC produced a leaflet for the day stating 'no work will take place on this site until all the building workers are paid the money they have worked for'. Considering what had gone before this was a brave forecast, particularly as only one member of the JSC turned out in the first hour on July 7th.

Amongst those working for the other firms on the site were members of a range of ethnic groups. These included Kosovans, Albanians, Latvians, Russians, Portuguese and French. There were also individuals from Poland, Croatia, Italy and Denmark. Add this to the English, Welsh, Irish and Scottish lads employed by Dahl Jenson and you had quite a mix!

With the national and local news crammed full of scare stories about immigrants and asylum seekers it was unsurprising to find some suspicion and a degree of hostility amongst British workers towards the workers from other countries. We were told as a group of what turned out to be Kosovans approached "it's no use speaking to them, they don't speak English". One worker said there been "a lot of nicking" on the site and implied "it's the Albanians" as "they're working for nowt". Not quite, but at £3 an hour not far off the mark!

As it turned out some did speak English but, not unnaturally, there was an unwillingness not to go to work. "We need the money". It was explained that some British workers supported the rights of Kosovans to be in the country but obviously with rights come responsibilities and one of these was not to cross picket lines or be used to undercut other workers rates of pay. This did the trick, they agreed and joined the picket-line.

It took a lot less time to persuade the French, some of whom were absolutely delighted to see "the English doing something". By this time 'the English' had dumped some of their prejudices and begun communicating to other workers from around the World.

Workers from Russia and Latvia, rates of pay £7.50 an hour, were under immense pressure from their employer to cross but they resisted and joined the growing number of pickets. Yes, they'd had unions in the Soviet Union but 'no' they weren't any good. Their spokesperson, Valeri, eight years in London had also "never seen the union" in that time. Nevertheless they knew where their class interests lay.

By 8.30am there were 300 pickets on the gate, no work was taking place, deliveries were being turned away and machinery due to be picked up and moved elsewhere remained idle.

On a beautiful, in more ways than one, sunny day officials from UCATT were sent inside with a couple of workers to see Bouynes management. Before they did so it was agreed that the demands would be extended from getting all back pay to no victimisation of those workers refusing to cross the picket-line with no loss of pay.

Apparently Bouynes management were not too keen claiming that the wages were owed by the sub-contractors. Perhaps, but as the job was now stopped it was difficult to say it had nothing to do with them.

Outside there was tremendous interest in joining UCATT, and in the Working Time Directive, which limits the maximum number of hours to 48 a week and gave workers, for the first time, a legal minimum holiday entitlement of 15 days a year (in November 1999 this increased to 20).

Emerging from the meeting UCATT officials said that whilst Bouynes were reluctant they had asked for a list of those owed money along with the amounts. Meanwhile they had said they would be contacting their Head Office in France.

There was a scramble to make sure the list was correct, at the same time a lad from Middlesbrough could be overheard telling a latecomer that the "foreigners are bloody marvellous".

A couple of hours later, and following speeches which urged workers to stick together, handshakes and thanks all round, the officials went back in and emerged to let workers know that Bouynes had agreed to pay workers two weeks wages and consider them for any jobs on the site. Those owed £2,000 got just over £1,000, not a complete victory but not bad. Most were pleased.

It had been agreed that there would be no victimisation of those who had stayed out and they would be paid. A hundred had joined UCATT, some had volunteered to become union stewards and union officials had promised to go and see their bosses about holidays with pay.

What was needed next was a mass meeting of workers shortly afterwards and a stewards committee established. This would have meant workers could get support from the officials but act independently of them when they needed to. This did not happen.

Some lessons
For future action, it is worth bearing in mind the following lessons:
· That the organising of proper picketing remains the most important element of winning any strike
· That solidarity between workers of different nationalities can be forged through struggle
· The threat of the anti-trade union laws can be defied, and must be if workers are to win
· That workers can win
· New laws on Working Time Directives should be utilised
· Anti-racism is not an academic exercise but part of a life and death struggle

By Mark Metcalf
Revolutions Per Minute
Edited by libcom