Health and safety wasn’t handed to us on a plate by benevolent employers or far-sighted politicians, says Hazards organising expert Dave Smith. For centuries, workers fought for safer workplaces. ‘Builder’s Crack’, a newly rediscovered film, reveals how sharing our organising successes and strategies is safety critical.
In 2020, everyone has a video camera on their phone and unions use film routinely as an integral part of their campaigning. But only 20 years ago, long before anyone had heard of ‘social media’, it was virtually unheard of.
Countless acts of individual heroism against hostile employers and collective action by workers in offices, factories and hospitals are mostly hidden from history. So, the rediscovery of a long lost film about union organising on building sites in the 1990s is a rare treat from the archive.
‘Builders Crack: The Movie’ tells the story of the London Joint Sites Committee (JSC), a rank and file network of bricklayers, electricians, carpenters and painters who took a stand over deaths on building sites and attacks on workers’ rights - and won. The digitally remastered film along with a Q&A with the film makers and safety activists who appear in the documentary is now available to watch on YouTube.
The film shows Tony O’Brien of the Construction Safety Campaign interviewed on BBC News after a tower crane at Canary Wharf crashed 25 storeys killing three workers. Another scene shows hundreds of building workers in hard hats and hi-viz on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral, having walked off nearby building sites to attend a vigil for a worker killed in a fall down an unguarded lift shaft.
But instead of being sombre, the film is uplifting, documenting how building workers came together to save lives by fighting back against attempts by bosses to cut corners. One electrician, Steve, describes a safety dispute after workers were told to change and store their clothes in an old shipping container that had previously stored barrels of oil. The dispute was the spark that led to the unionisation of the Jubilee Line – possibly the best organised project in UK construction for the past 40 years.
Another electrician, Jim, recalls how a coordinated walk out by thousands of electricians across the country stopped the major employers’ attempt to allow untrained non-qualified workers to carry out electrical work. In another memorable scene, a bricklayer puts his skills to good use by bricking up the entrance to the construction employers’ headquarters, while senior executives of firms who blacklisted union safety reps met inside.
Yet these large scale mobilisations of construction workers did not happen overnight or spontaneously. They took conscious organisation. Throughout the film, the JSC activists explain the need to do the “nitty gritty work” of patiently talking to workers, finding out their concerns and giving them confidence to “believe in themselves”.
And it worked. Even with the UK’s anti-union laws, JSC activists armed with their notorious fanzine ‘Builder’s Crack’ were still able to lead a succession of successful actions from 1991 until 2005. This was an organic rank and file model of union organising, in which workers’ safety was a central plank.
Whether it be non-existent welfare facilities, asbestos, workers sacked for raising concerns about safety on site or unpaid wages, the JSC strove to unite workers irrespective of their employer, union, trade or race. As another former JSC activist, Steve Hedley – currently the RMT acting general secretary – makes clear, while bosses may use racism as a means to divide and rule the workforce: “We must never fall into that trap. A victory for one is a victory for all.”
While ‘Builders Crack: The Movie’ documents the activities of the JSC, there is a long tradition of grassroots union organising led by adhoc networks of construction workers rather than the official union structures, that are constrained by the most restrictive legislation in Western Europe.
A bricklayer, Paul, commented, that the JSC was “not there to replace the unions, it’s more like an auxiliary”, able to carry out actions that the unions couldn’t. This could equally apply to the Building Workers Charter in the 1960 and '70s, Building Worker Group in the 1980s, the Offshore Industry Liaison Committee that organised occupations of oil rigs in the North Sea after the Piper Alpha disaster, the Construction Safety Campaign, right up to the Construction Rank and File today.
As the film maker Darren O’Grady says in the introduction to the YouTube video, “these stories of working class struggle need to be told”. But its not just construction or in the past. Appearing in the Q&A after the film, Unite safety rep and bus driver, Moe Manir explained how despite being divided into different companies due to privatisation, rank and file workers in London were using Facebook as an organising tool to improve safety for drivers during Covid. “The Facebook groups became our canteen”, he said. A single consolidated “group for London buses now has over 4,500 members.”
Professor Jane Holgate, a Leeds University employment relations expert, highlighted that as far back as New Unionism in the 1880s it was rank and file union activity amongst precarious workers that often led "the real fights that take place.”
Yes, the re-release of Builders Crack reminds us of our heritage, but two decades after the Canary Wharf Tower crane crash, another tower crane collapsed just a mile away in Bow. With the increase in workplace fatalities and neoliberal attacks on workers’ rights, the union movement does not need nostalgia: it needs to debate how best to respond to the massive attacks that are heading our way.
Rediscovering the tradition of rank and file militancy should be part of the debate about how to defend jobs, wages and safety standards. Yet as a Scottish labourer Chris Clarke reflects at the film’s conclusion: “Sure it’s about being safe on site and having a few extra quid in your pocket, but its also about human dignity.”