Construction: Struggle at Laing O’Rourke, Britain, 2004

The following article provides a short summary about a strike of building workers in London in Autumn 2004. Apart from the more or less self-organised character of the struggle, with workers assemblies in parks and blockage of the site entrances, we think that there were two main interesting aspects of the dispute.

Submitted by Steven. on November 10, 2006

1) The fact that eastern European workers got involved. So far capital has more or less managed to use the eastern European countries as a large pool of labour force which could be mobilised for short term projects like large construction projects or the seasonal work in the harvest. By legal regulations the state also managed to enforce a hierarchy within this new work force, some workers are able to move more or less freely, because of the their EU-status, others can only enter with special temporary contracts or only illegally. During the last month there have been several examples of eastern workers in the ‘west’, who didn’t accept their role as an available/dispensable and cheap commodity of labour. Like any other workers, their potential to fight back depends on their collective power as a workforce. We could see Polish and Romanian workers in the harvest in Germany or Spain who took legal actions against their bosses. We only heard of cases on small farms with few workers, so the decision to take legal action instead of collective struggle might be due to their isolated situation. African building workers in Berlin went a step further. They established contacts with support groups and organised demonstrations in order to claim their wages. In Spain in early 2004, Polish workers working for a subcontractor in the mining industry demanded the access to the Spanish social security system, although they were officially employed by a Polish company. They threatened a strike and even the Polish embassy got involved to settle the conflict. In the case of the Laing strike in London we only heard that a lot of eastern European workers were working on the same site and partly got involved, but more information would be required to understand the whole process, the difficulties (language...) and divisions (different conditions...) and the way in which they managed to overcome them. Nevertheless, the example shows that these workers don’t accept being treated as immigrants by the bosses any longer and that they don’t have to be seen as immigrants anymore by their work mates and left supporters.

2) The fact that people from the direct action movement got involved. We are used to solidarity declarations and young Trotskyists collecting money for striking workers. Fair enough. And we are used to more or less ideological debates about the alleged new subject, the precarious worker. Fair enough as well. But we are more interested in practical processes and experiences and their interpretation: what can ‘the movement’ learn from ‘workers struggles’ and the other way round, and where do the boundaries (activists/workers) dissolve? The leaflet of the group involved, the Wombles, mentions the social dimension of the construction site, the gentrification of the Kings Cross area and they supported the strike practically by occupying the cranes. Of interest is how they perceived the relationship between them and the strikers and about what they got out of the dispute.

De-constructing the Contricks

Laing O’Rourke is a major construction company in the UK and the main contractor on the Kings Cross Channel Tunnel Rail Link (CTRL), one of the biggest and most significant construction projects in the UK. They are also builder of UK spy-base GCHQ and many Police renovations. In Autumn 2004 the workers had a series of protests over the new contracts (or contricks as the Laing workers are calling them) and unfair dismissal. They have been supported by direct action groups.
The Facts

Early October: The UCATT union agree the new contract with management, despite not having seen it in full, and there having been no ballot. Workers are told they have six weeks to sign or face the sack. Small groups are taken in to sign, bullied and threatened. The GMB union advises workers not to sign. Only 14 out of 400 workers signed.

4 October: Steve Hedley, union activist, is sacked and 100 workers walk off work in protest. He was sacked by contractors Westinghouse, which employs casual workers on construction projects, after a shunt box worth £800 piece went missing during his shift. He was immediately dismissed and lost over two week’s wages.

8 October: In support for Steve, traffic was brought to a complete standstill in King’s Cross as a picket-line halted all deliveries to the CTRL. All vehicles entering and leaving the site were stopped and backed up cars, vans, concrete wagons, steel deliveries and heavy plant caused gridlock in this major London junction from 7am till 8.30am. Hundreds of workers from the site showed solidarity. Since then Steve has been offered £2500 to stop causing trouble. He has refused.

10 October: The workers requested that GMB rep Steve Kelly comes in to negotiate the employment contacts with management. He was thrown out of the CTRL site and all other GMB reps were banned. Tempers flared.

26 October: Lunchtime meeting of hundreds of workers in a park to agree demands and elect representatives. Heathrow Laing workers join them. Workers appoint a stewards’ council made up of representatives from dry fixers, crane drivers, groundworkers and steel workers to negotiate the contract.

5 November: Workers at the Channel Tunnel in Kings Cross hold a sit in protest in their canteen to demand the GMB is recognised and allowed onto site. A samba band played outside in encouragement. Managers agree to talk to the GMB after only one hour.

11 November: Public meeting with the workers and supporters. The local residents group and various activists were there.

22 November: Several cranes occupied by direct action people on the Laing O’Rourke Kings Cross Rail Link construction site.

The Contrick
Under the new contract or ‘contrick’ as it has been renamed by workers many currently ‘self-employed’ workers become Laing employees, but at a price. The basic pay is drastically reduced to a basic rate of £7.50 per hour (11€), and there is a drop in overtime pay. There is however a ‘discretionary bonus’ – which the boss decides whether you get or not. Those earning between £90 and £180 a day will see their pay slashed in half. A day off must be planned 40 days in advance and holiday pay could be cut by £20 per day for each worker. Management has told workers they will be sacked if they do not sign. Construction union UCAAT has told workers to sign the contract despite there having been no ballot and no full viewing of the contract itself. The GMB union has been barred off the site, in contravention of construction industry agreements. The enforcement of discretionary bonus payments from management means workers now fear this will be used against people who are trade union activists or anyone regarded as a troublemaker. Some employees have been forced to sign the contract after being threatened with the sack if they refuse. Others, who barely speak English, have been pushed into signing a contract they do not understand. However, in a sign of rising confidence, a group of workers from Eastern Europe refused to accept management’s promises until they heard it from the stewards themselves.

The Prol Position
The workers organised their own lunchtime meetings and elected their own shop-floor representatives. It was clear that these people had to be from the actual workforce. In the public meeting held later the workers welcomed support from the community, such as help with leafleting by the anti-capitalist groups and troskists groups, but it was clear that the struggle had to remain in the hands of the workers themselves. Having been so clearly betrayed by UCATT the point now was to negotiate directly. The need for national solidarity and spreading the struggle was also clear. They called for a national ballot of all Laing O’Rourkes workers to reject the deal. Their demands are in the leaflet below. Hundreds of workers at the following sites have all refused to sign and potentially face the sack: Channel Tunnel Rail Link, Kings Cross and Kent sites; Canary Wharf redevelopment scheme; Newham Hospital, London; Heathrow Terminal 5; Ascot Racecourse Redevelopment Scheme; Paradise Street Development, Liverpool; Gatwick Airport; John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford; and construction projects for Police stations & facilities for the Greater Manchester Police Authority. Many of these are huge multi-million-pound building projects. The heathrow workers have been particularly militant and the ‘T5’ project is already very controversial with an environmental and residents campaign against it.

The anti-capitalists
After meeting with the workers and asking them what sort of support they wanted, some local anti-capitalist activists wrote and distributed a leaflet, some of which is below. To emphasise their point they occupied two cranes on the CTRL site.

Up to now the anti-capitalist movement in the UK has made only a few meaningful links with grassroots workers struggles. The Liverpool Dockers struggle, which anti-capitalists supported, the links between Reclaim the Streets and the London Underground workers struggles, and the bin men strike in Brighton in 2000 are three previous examples. This new interest partly springs from the new debate around ‘precarity’ in direct action circles. The groups have since got calls from other sites to do similar actions. They have declined to this because at Kings Cross the crane occupations were part of an on-going struggle organised and lead by the workers themselves. Their actions were one part of this and to some extent a catalyst at an awkward stage of the struggle. The requests have come from groups of workers who are not themselves active. The wombles are reluctant to be ‘rent an activist’ and they understand that the push has to come from the workers themelves, both politically and practically.

Extract from one of the workers’ leaflets

Don’t fall for the Laing O’Rourkes “contrick”
The tax-man is the driving force behind the new contract. We’re all going to end up on the cards whether we like it or not. The question is whether we go on PAYE with a cut in money or with the same take home pay as now. The new contract cuts our basic pay and introduces a complicated bonus system that can be withheld at management discretion. No one denies this - not even the company. The company is trying every trick to con us into accepting the new “contrick”. We are being called into small meetings where UCATT union officials and company managers telling us to sign up to the deal or else we will be down the road. UCATT should be ashamed of themselves - they have become part of the Laing O’Rourkes machinery - industrial relations policemen against the workforce.

There should be a national ballot of all Laing O’Rourkes workers to accept or reject the deal. If there is going to be a new contract, then we demand:

* No cut in take home pay

* No complicated discretionary bonus scheme

* Full holiday pay (base on average take home)

* Full sick pay

* Pension scheme

* Redundancy pay

* Effective start date for everybody should be when they first started working for Laing O’Rourkes not when we sign the contract.
Stick together!

We have already had one walk-out and held meetings off site, we are all over the newspapers. Workers on Canary Wharf, Terminal 5 and Ascot are all up in arms. We are already in talks with them. This deal needs to be re-negotiated NOW. They can try their bully-boy tactics all they like but if we stick together across this job and all the other projects, we can get this con-trick overturned.

Extract from a Wombles leaflet

If Laing O’Rourke get away with implementing these contracts, it will have huge implications for all construction workers - driving down wages and imposing conditions that put workers at greater risk. They fear that production bonuses and forced overtime will lead to a faster work pace, cut corners and exhaustion, with health and safety likely to suffer.

In recent years, the building industry has been using a huge amount of subcontracted, casual labour. Many construction workers have seen an erosion of rights, job security and benefits as a result. A decline in safety standards has led to more deaths at work, with over a 100 deaths per year in the industry, and managements refusing to take responsibility.
Double-Crossed in Kings Cross?

Local residents recently won a court order forbidding Channel Tunnel Rail development work 24 hours a day due to the noise and disruption it would cause. This is likely to cause a delay in work costing the contractors millions of pounds. Laing O’Rourke intends to claw back their massive profits by cutting workers wages.

However, noise is only one problem faced by local residents. Since the 1980’s local people have been resisting the development, fearing the destruction it would cause to their community. The Kings Cross Rail Link has already cost the area social housing - many council and housing association flats were pulled down to make way for the development. There is now a seven-year waiting list for council flats in the area. Most new private housing will be expensive and far beyond the reach of local people. The 20-year construction programme will lead to the area’s gentrification. The jobs such ‘regeneration’ will create are likely to be part-time/temp jobs in shopping malls and other services - poorly-paid casual work for people who will no longer be able to afford to live in the newly desirable area.

From prol-position news #1, 3/2005