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.
Yeah, the fact that they
Yeah, the fact that they fought it before with British Airways, and that the RMT fought it and won, really shows that Unite aren't even slightly interested in fighting for their members on this one..
With my conspiracy hat on, I can imagine that Unite would probably want the Sparks group they called "cancerous" to disappear and a defeat on this would definitely help in that respect.
This is an absolutely
This is an absolutely appalling, nasty, divisive and sectarian piece. What's wrong with it is rooted in conspiracy theory, which also points to political failure and a very black and white view of industrial relations.
The conspiracy is this: that trade union leaders will always attempt to sell out their members.
This is a conspiracy that is common amongst both anarchists and trotskyists, and I believe it stems from an excuse for political failure: the reason the revolution hasn't broken out, comrades, is because the unions have sold out the militant workers again.
I don't know the specifics of this case, but I know how unions work. They employ lawyers, and they would have got legal advice. I imagine the lawyers told them that in this case, a safer bet would be to reballot. This is not the same as selling out. The problem here is clearly the law, which is what the piece should focus on, and not the union.
The law requires unions to play good cop/bad cop. Unions have to denounce illegal strike action, otherwise they are liable for costs incurred - would you like to see a union bankrupted by a construction giant? So the official union plays good cop to the rank and file's bad cop. The message to the employer is, deal with us and settle, or deal with them and face occupations, sabotage and wildcats. This is the way the game of industrial relations is played in Britain: this is not selling out. The more militant the rank and file, the better the legal agreement the union can win. It's a strategic synergy. Failure to see this equals a failure to understand industrial relations.
It's also worth remembering that the problem for unions is not worker militance, but worker apathy. Most union members are not revolutionaries, and their unions reflect this. Members want to be treated fairly at work, not seize the means of production. Therefore, unions have a mandate from their members to find the best workable settlement as soon as possible - there is generally very little appetite for protracted disputes.
As inconvenient as it may be for you, unions are democratic organisations and they don't have a mandate to start an anarchist insurrection.
It's also worth watching this video which shows a Unite officer joining the Sparks in an occupation to protest the decision to challenge the ballot - it doesn't look like selling out to me.
The woolly conspiracy thinking and insistence on advancing a tired and sectarian "sell out" narrative astounds me: is this the best libertarian communist politics can come up with? If so, we're in trouble, and I'll have to find another term to describe my own politics, because this stuff is embarrassing. Why would Unite want to sell its members out? What would possibly be gained by that? The union wants to grow and become stronger - it achieves this by winning disputes, not by selling out its members.
While being sold out is a danger in any struggle, it looks like the Sparks also need to worry about the ultra-left using them as a political football to advance their conspiracies.
Unions aren't perfect, but they're one of the most powerful forces on the side of working people. Either form better unions, or join the current ones and improve them - but by accusing them of selling out you risk demobilising workers by undermining their organisations.
So, Phil - instead of attacking unions because they didn't behave the way you wanted, why don't you turn your anger on the Tories and construction bosses?
@leischa. So why do we need
@leischa. So why do we need unions when we would do
without them? Your basically admitting that unions are there to stop such actions from happening.
leischa wrote: It's also
Is this true, leischa, is any historically-accurate sense? It’s certainly true in many periods, and is certainly true today. In this partial and present-minded sense, you’re correct.
But is it the whole truth? Even if you’re correct 99% of the time, what of the other 1%?
What of the (perhaps) 1% of the time when the ‘the problem for unions is worker militance’?
Surely, at these historical junctures, where worker militancy is obvious and workers do want revolutionary change, then, according to your analysis, we should see support for this desire from the unions, if the unions do, as you say, reflect workers’ political attitudes and demands?
Do we find periods where the TUC take over the lead when workers showed the militant way? What did the TUC do in 1926?
The ‘law’, leischa? Why not just break the ‘law’, then? Trades unionists (and others like women suffragettes, gays, on right to abortion, etc.) had to break the existing anti-working class ‘laws’ in the past, so why not now?
And if not now, when you could reasonably argue that there is not yet any taste for ‘breaking the bosses’ laws’, why didn’t the TUC support breaking bosses’ laws when there was a taste for it? Has the TUC ever argued for the breaking of, and the supporting of the breaking of, bosses’ laws?
Would you support ‘breaking bosses’ laws’ at some point in time, leischa?
If you and other Trade Unionists don’t think the time is ripe at this point, will it ever be right? Or is ‘breaking the law’ just wrong?
Hmmmm…. Seems to be at least a historically-supported conspiracy theory… the ‘trade union leaders’ have always ‘sold out their members’, right across the world, even when ‘the problem for unions was worker militance’.
Yeah, it is ‘the best that libertarian communist politics can come up with’.
We workers have had over 100 years to thoughtfully consider this. If you’re truly ‘embarrassed’ by this reasonable conclusion, perhaps you should take your own advice. If you think workers will never become militant, not even 1% of the time, then why be on LibCom?
Personally, I hope you re-consider your auto-advice, and keep discussing with us, because in the coming period, this discussion will be of the utmost political importance.
Is that the best you can do
:lol: Is that the best you can do Leischa. 'They tried their best'....
leischa wrote: The message to
I understand that perfectly, and it's a very succinct description of what's wrong with playing such a mediating role. The union, in this case Unite, has to be able to demobilise its membership otherwise it's unable to convince management to negotiate with them (why do a deal if the union can't deliver industrial peace?). This of course assumes social partnership, i.e. that management want to negotiate at all rather than bypass industrial relations altogether with a massive pay cut and the casualised, unorganised labour force they're trying to create. There were problems with this model of unionism in the 1970s, when social partnership was the order of the day. It's farcical in 2011, when bosses everywhere have ditched any notion of quid pro quo and are only interested in using trade unions to sell 'modernisation' measures they can't themselves (e.g. the CWU calling off strikes before any concessions were made in 2009, only to then agree a basically identical deal).
If Unite get their way, so will the bosses. Perhaps with a token concession to give Unite officials some crumbs to call victory. I mean your whole argument assumes management will get their way, and it's all about slightly softening the blow. Fuck that, Sparks are fighting to win. And even 'winning' here is hardly ambitious, but merely the preservation of the existing conditions. Unite officials can play 'games' all they like, but this is the Sparks lives and livelihoods at stake. It's easy to call a 30% pay cut rather than a 35% pay cut a victory when you're paid by the union and are unaffected by the attack. If the Sparks are to be the pawns in a chess game between Balfour Beatty and Unite, then they'll have the fate of pawns; sacrificed to someone else's cause. But it's not a game when it's your pay and conditions on the line.
And anyhow, if your argument is that rank-and-file militancy strengthens Unite's negotiating position, shouldn't you be supporting it rather than labelling critics of Unite 'divisive' and 'sectarian' (the stock criticisms made of anyone who rejects the 'unity' of blind faith in our betters). Surely the more 'uncontrollable' the rank and file become, the more the employers will back down and make concessions to try and buy back shopfloor peace?
Describing Sparks as "cancerous" then calling off strike action with an 82% mandate at the first opportunity is being on their side?! :lol:
This is a familiar pattern, Unite did something similar recently with the cleaners. And libertarian communists have a pretty clear structural understanding of why this is, and therefore why reforming the TUC unions is a waste of time. All power to the Sparks. Let's hope they aren't demobilised by Unite's move and can pull off some independently organised action.
@malva Because so far,
Because so far, occupations, sabotage and wildcats have failed to achieve the kind of settlement most workers want. Most workers are not insurrectionary. There is only a very small fringe that is willing to engage in illegal industrial action. It's quite easy for the state and employer to suppress this and marginalise radicals.
If we had no unions, radical workers would be isolated and jailed, and everyone else would be in a corporate police state. I think the evidence shows that high levels of union density, and collective bargaining cover (e.g. Scandinavia), are the most powerful ways to consistently improve things for most people. In other words, a huge mass of people taking reformist collective action probably achieves more in the long run than a handful of revolutionaries. Insurrection is a tactic that works very well on campaigns, but I haven't seen evidence of it bringing about sustainable change. Mass insurrection is even more powerful, but you can't wish it into being by calling unions sell outs.
Clearly, we need both: wildcatting workers to defy the law and push back the boundaries of industrial relations, and well-organised unions to make sure these wins are consolidated and become the new norm.
Choosing the "unions are sell outs" line is sectarian and divisive, especially coming from people who have failed to organise the mass of working people into effective organisations. Radical groups have a few hundred or thousand members; unions have millions. You need to work where people are.
You seem to assume that unions are, or should be, anti-capitalist, or revolutionary organisations. They are not, and it's not their role to be: unions exist to win for workers the best possible terms and conditions within capitalism. This is what most workers want, largely because no one has articulated a convincing enough alternative. In my view, the role of revolutionaries is to push that relationship to its absolute limits, and then see what happens when it cracks.
The hope is that, having struggled together and built up networks and confidence, workers can seize control of their unions too, and use them to reconfigure a post-capitalist economy. The current unions will cease to be necessary when the system collapses, and we'll need other types of organisations. Until then, however, we need unions to coordinate as wide a resistance as possible.
@LBird Quote: Hmmmm…. Seems
This is not actually true. My introduction to trade unions was during the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. Through a highly effective industrial relations model called Social Movement Unionism, the unions and their allies defeated apartheid - without selling anyone out.
I am not arguing that we should wait for the TUC to take the lead - just saying that always jumping on the "unions are sell outs" band wagon is sectarian and doesn't help working people to win.
leischa wrote: Clearly, we
For someone who in their last post complained about 'ultra left' political football. This comes across strangely like the centre-left (e.g you, labour party and unite) playing political football with those workers willing to take it the extra mile. 'See Labour, see boss, I told you if you didn't deal with me (mr union) then the workers would be too unruly!
Leischa, instead of your stock response*, why don't you deal with the issue in hand? This article is looking to exactly where the workers are. They showed this at the ballot box. Over 80% voted for industrial action, they got no industrial action?
Once again, look at what the workers want. They wanted strike action. As Joseph Kay has pointed out, they balloted on preserving their conditions. This is all possible, even within capitalism.
Now I notice a bit of an internal contradiction here. If the role of the revolutionary is to push the existing relationship to its absolute limits, to show the cracks, then why the hell have you got a problem with criticizing Unite's back down. These Sparks did push the union-worker-boss relationship to its absolute limits. They have shown the cracks. An 80% + ballot has left gaping huge cracks between workers, unions and bosses.
* Secterian and divisive :groucho:
leischa wrote: unions exist
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?
@Joseph Kay Quote: I mean
No it doesn't, and I am not sure why you have chosen to misread me like this. It is important to win this, because if the construction companies get away with it, it's open season on anyone. I find it utterly bizarre that you believe Unite want the Sparks to fail. This is ludicrous. There might be right wingers in Unite who hate direct action (though most right wingers left after the last leadership election), but even these people will want the Sparks to win.
Remember that the existing agreements are with the union. So the message from the union is uphold the agreements, or be faced with chaos that they can't control. The point is not about being able to demobilise members, but to have a formal process to agree a solution. Typically, this involves a ballot.
I do support it - not sure why you insist on misreading me. So, in fact, did general secretary Len McCluskey in a speech to Sparks in London, where he said "we need a rank and file movement that takes direct action" - because the official union's hands are often legally tied.
My beef is with people jumping on the sell out bandwagon - it is sectarian. Workers need both a rank and file movement, and formal support. Splitting this helps no one.
Unions play a mediating role because of the legal framework they find ourselves in, not because they think it's a great way to do things.
@Arbeiten Quote: This article
Neither of us knows why they got no industrial action. Everyone on here assumes it's because the union sold them out, because that suits their conspiracy theory. Personally, I want a bit more evidence.
I am not sure what relevance the Labour Party has to this discussion. I am not arguing that the good cop/bad cop routine is the way industrial relations should be conducted - I am explaining that this is typically what happens in practice.
To be honest, I think
To be honest, I think leischa's post had a lot in about the inherent contradiction in labour organisations playing a mediating role in struggle. It's his/her conclusions that are faulty.
Instead of recognising that what this article/site offers is a structural critique* of trade unions s/he calls it a "conspiracy theory" (and then condemns us--who've been on the picket lines with the sparks--for sectarianism!).
S/he's also not addressed the points in JK's first post, not the least of which includes that fact that the spark's rank-and-file group has been called "cancerous" by the union leadership.
*i.e. To mediate struggles unions have to be able to control struggle and, that by having hierarchy and a leadership removed from the shop floor, the interests of union members and their officials will inevitably diverge at a certain point.
leischa wrote: My beef is
In what possible way is it sectarian? The interests of what sect are being put before the interests of workers in struggle? Unite have a track record for acting against rank and file militancy (e.g. with the aforementioned LAWAS cleaners). This is not about complaining Unite isn't revolutionary. Of course it isn't, and doesn't claim to be. Nor do Sparks. This is a complete red herring. It's about stressing that workers need to act independently if they're going to avoid getting sold down the river. Calling off industrial action abandons the Sparks to the whims of the employers, unless they can pull off independently organised action. Unite can blame the law all they like, but they've seized the first opportunity to call off action despite the flimsy legal basis (and anyhow, these kind of union manoeuvres long pre-date Thatcherite laws).
Oh yeah the workers have to
Oh yeah the workers have to have some 'formal' organisation because they can't organise on a wider level themselves. I had this same argument with a Labour supporter last night. It comes from massive ignorance of the role that Leftist unions and parties have had not only in suppressing radical actions that might lead to better conditions but also in co-opting the very revolutionary desires that have been present from very birth of the workers movement in the mid 19th century. Our Leftist bosses are still profiting from the murder of the Communards all these many years later. And every time they regurgitate these stock responses in the favour of hierarchy it makes me sick.
I've got five to one
I've got five to one Leischa's a union official, who wants it?
Most of the points I'd make
Most of the points I'd make in response to Leischa have been covered by JK. However, to reiterate:
This is a strawman. The "conspiracy" isn't that trade union leaders will always sell out their members. It is that such sell outs, where they occur, stem from the fact that union leaders have interests above and apart from those of their members, by the very nature of the role they play.
As you note yourself;
Though it's not only that, since the ability to police the workforce is a key selling point to employers who would negotiate with them, regardless of how tough or otherwise the laws are.
I'm a member of one of "the current ones." I'm not (unlike you) under any illusion that it can be reformed - into a vehicle of "anarchist insurrection" or otherwise - but that's not what I'm trying to do. By pointing out the problems with the union structure, the argument is to go beyond it and build from the ground up. This put into practice empowers workers and teaches that it is we who have the power to change things, we don't have to wait for someone to come along and act for us.
On the contrary, by lambasting all criticism of unions as "sectarian"* you're agitating on behalf of a structure which benefits far more from being able to control a servile rank-and-file, helping to demobilise workers. After all, by acting beyond the control of officials, they're implying criticism of the officials and thus "nasty, divisive and sectarian," right?
*a word which means putting the interest of your sect above those it purports to represent, not criticising the sect and advocating that those it purports to represent act for themselves
Chilli Sauce wrote: I've got
Worth a punt, William Hill's is only offering evens.
Great post Phil. EDIT: Of
Great post Phil.
EDIT: Of course it is! You're a SolFed member, you far left sectarian bastard :lol:
Admin: insult snipped, play
Admin: insult snipped, play the ball not the player.
Could you stop with calling political positions you don't agree with 'conspiracy' theories. There is a long history of Unite screwing over the rank and file. Your good cop bad cop analogy includes this in its whole structure....
Chilli, I would not dare bet against you
leischa wrote: Through a
I'm not sure of the relevance of your example to our discussion.
The defeat of apartheid was possible within capitalism, but our discussion is about the defeat of capitalism itself.
The ending of apartheid has probably strengthened South African capitalism. It's certainly united the bosses.
The real question for you to answer is, can the 'industrial relations model called Social Movement Unionism' be 'highly effective' in destroying capitalism, rather than achieving reforms?
LBird wrote: our discussion
Not really, as I'm sure the defence of the existing industry agreement for electricians doesn't require the abolition of capitalism!
Joseph Kay wrote: Not really,
Yeah, sorry, my derail!
Forgot about the OP, and started to question leischa's wider political ideas concerning revolution, Communism and 'selling out'.
...I'm beginning to wonder, at what point does the 'defence of existing industry agreements' really move onto the terrain of 'requiring the abolition of capitalism'?
When the war with Iran and its backer China necessitates 'wartime dilution agreements'?
leischa wrote: I find it
Are you sure? If the Sparks win despite the machinations of the Unite leadership, it will show other workers that we dont need these bloated parasites. And how would Uncle Len justify his ££££££ then?
Unite obviously do want some kind of 'win' in this struggle so they can send me daily emails about how how much theyre doing for the workers involved, as they did during the Visteon dispute; even as they sold those people down the river. What they dont want is for Sparks to win anything independently.
PartyBucket wrote: If the
Chilli Sauce wrote: To be
Yeah I agree with Chili Sauce. For this reason I'm not sure it is useful to talk about 'sell-outs', since that tends to open up the floor for a leadership or different union who would not sell out (which is why the trots love that term so much).
That doesn't mean that unions don't also sell-out workers (or that union leadership themselves don't sell out in the Alan Johnson sense), but the term itself opens up a sense of betrayal that I don't think is good to focus on (since it is exactly their job to do this kind of shit).
Jim Clarke wrote: So sparks
well leischa's been arguing it's great, and part of the game (union obeys law, rank-and-file take 'uncontrollable' action, management yearn for the good old days of social partnership). I think we part company when I'd argue that a successful result for the union here isn't the same as a win for the workers. So for example look at the CWU 'winning' a consultation role in 2009 while management got everything the wanted. It's entirely likely Unite will do something similar here if the Sparks don't keep the initiative, e.g. agreeing a 35% pay cut but guaranteeing Unite a role of some sort.
But yeah, great news the Sparks have wildcatted, sounds pretty solid from Twitter.
Quote: I'm not sure it is
This - the problem is structural, nothing to do with the personal politics of the leadership who could be hard left or hard right for all it matters to their everyday actions. I mean a little birdie told me this morning that various NEC members of an affected union were down at Blackfriars, just not officially because if they had been there in an official capacity as supporters they'd open the union to being sued for backing wildcat action.
That's the key point - the position of union leader carries with it a structural need to put the interests of the union as a legal entity (with the attendant protection of their own jobs, political position etc) above those of the union as a sovereign collection of workers. Where leischa goes wrong is in identifying the two things as one and the same.
Btw was at the Blackfriars
Btw was at the Blackfriars picket and yeah, apparently not one spark turned out for work, which along with a fairly solid picket of maybe 100 making things uncomfortable for the people who did go in (and even turning a fair few away), was pretty reasonable. Plus maybe 50 made it all the way down to Victoria to picket the Balfour Beatty HQ.
...following on from Rob
...following on from Rob Ray's post, Sparks then visited a site near Victoria station which is owned by Grattes. Rather coincidentally ( ;) ), as they approached, a sudden fire alarm was heard onsite and all the workers had to leave, shutting the site down. About an hour later, they were all still out.
Court has found in favour of
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.
I take it that since this
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
Unite calls off strike at
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).
IWW 'victory statement' I got
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'.
Joseph Kay wrote: leischa
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.