Balfour Beatty construction workers - the majority non-union - take successful unofficial strike action after management failed to keep their promises about time off for weekends.
On the 26th and 27th June, around 40 Balfour Beatty foundation construction workers went on strike with the intention of making the company stick to earlier promises that workers could expect a four day weekend in return for working 17 consecutive 12 hour days.
The vast majority of workers on the Northern section of the Beauly–Denny electricity transmission project are staying away from home, many having up to 10 hour commutes to their homes in England, Wales and Ireland and under the current arrangements they are given Friday to travel, but must travel back to work on Sunday, meaning that they only have one quality day in their homes with their family.
Prior to beginning work on the project, workers were assured by management that travelling Friday and Monday on the weekend that they were off would be the norm, but some staff have been on the project for more than a year and the promise has never materialised.
Tensions have been building between management and workers over recent months with production levels being heavily criticised despite the fact that gangs have been carrying out unpaid overtime, commonly until 8 or 9 o'clock at night in order to ensure concreting requirements are being met.
The tensions finally came to a head last Wednesday 20th June when the workers decided enough was enough and clarity over the weekend arrangements was needed prior to the next weekend off. All Foundation gangs on the northern section downed tools and had communication from management that if they returned to work forthwith they situation would be considered and answer to the worker's demands would be given on Monday 25th June.
Monday came and went, however and no reply to the demands was forthcoming. It was clear to the workers that they were simply being fobbed of by management and it was decided that the only way forward was to again withhold their labour, and on Tuesday the workers, 90% of whom were not union members, struck once more effectively bring production on the project to a standstill.
The disrespectful attitude of management was again emphasised when the striking workers were informed that no-one would be available to hear their demands as the management were having a coffee morning!
A democratic decision was then taken by the workers that they should withhold their labour for a second consecutive day. On Wednesday news of the action had spread, and messages of support came flooding in from trade unionists, socialists and well- wishers. One of particular note came from Janice Godrich, National President of the PCS who sent a message of solidarity from her union.
Unite the union, who had 3 or 4 members amongst the strikers offered to come to organise the protest had it entered a third day. Six strikers also decided to sign up to Unite because of the protest.
During Wednesday several alternative suggestions were made by management regarding work arrangements. These were in the main either irrelevant or threatening and in no way dealt with the workers' desire for more time at home.
When the workers rejected the last of these counter proposals, the management's attitude become nothing short of malicious. They stated that the workers must either return to work immediately or hand in the keys to the company vehicles and leave. This put the workers in a particularly awkward position, given that most had travelled to the Highlands in the company crew buses they used daily at work. Handing in the keys would mean they were stranded at work.
In a courageous and highly principled moved the strikers flabbergasted the bosses when they voted to ignore the order to return to work, and to strand themselves rather than alter their stance on the protest, immediately handing in the keys to their vehicles! This action apparently caused a change of heart in the management and by around 7pm that evening the workers heard that they had secured at least a partial victory: the weekends at home will now be four days in length including 2 travel days, at least 1 of which will be paid. Payment for the second travel day is still up for negation and a meeting about the whole situation is to be arranged shortly.
This significance of this victory should not be underestimated: Balfour Beatty has been awarded many similar contracts in the Highlands in the coming years and it is vital that any erosion of workers conditions is nipped in the bud as early as possible. Further, it is a perfect example of how a concerted and principled action by a united workforce can yield success, and workers in the public and private sector, unionised or non-unionised, should take heart from this victory for the battles they undoubtedly face in the coming months and years.
The bosses need us more than we need them. As we have seen, when we don't show up for work production of a 100's of millions of pounds contract comes to a complete standstill; if the bosses didn't show up would you even notice?