Following on from reports of pickets at Hinckley Point in Somerset against deskilling by construction firms, the Liverpool Anarchist newsletter looks further at that and linked protests which have been taking place 200 miles to the north.
From March 24th to April 7th, up to 30 electricians (sparks) have gathered weekly outside Balfour Beatty’s in Bromborough, Wirral. Passing cars have beeped their horns in support. Beatty’s is working with EDF on the Somerset nuclear power plant, Hinkley Point C. They have been planning to train up electrical labourers in just seven weeks to do 75% of the work of qualified electricians, both undercutting wages and leading to serious health and safety risks. The trend towards deskilling is deadly serious, whether it’s taking place at an NHS hospital or a block of flats. These protests aren’t the only recent labour struggle in Merseyside, with ongoing strikes at British Gas and lorry drivers winning a 6% pay rise in February due to strike action. What makes them unique is an emphasis on direct action and rank-and-filism.
The socially distanced demos, among many across the country, were a show of strength intended to put pressure on the companies, signalling that if their demands aren’t met, with the lockdown easing, disruptive action will be taken. In London the bosses have already had a taster of this, with the occupation of construction sites and offices. Just after their HQ was occupied, EDF released a statement announcing they had paused their plans, but the campaign is set to continue until they are fully scrapped. On the 31st, the first action also took place at Hinkley itself, with sparks continuously crossing the road to stop traffic, before being stopped by the police, undoubtedly emboldened by their new powers.
Sparks already have a history of direct action, with the BESNA dispute in the early 2010s, over an attempted 35% industry-wide pay cut. With their union leaders in Unite delaying strike ballots (due to fear of legal consequences) the sparks had to rely on weekly protests and creative action, such as disrupting an official dinner of industry executives. This culminated in wildcat, or unofficial, strikes and a victory for the workers.
While primarily members of Unite or non-unionised, these recent protesters have been organising through a rank-and-file group. This certainly suggests frustration with the constraints of an official framework and complacent leadership. On the 30th Unite actually denounced the planned protest outside of Hinkley C. Beyond this, opinion on Unite seems divided with some thinking problems could be solved through greater participation and calls for reform in the union, or even forming a separate union just for Sparks, while others seem disinterested entirely. While we would sympathise with calls for a new union, afterall Unite seem more interested in selling their members life insurance than on the idea of taking strike action, a narrower purview won’t necessarily lead to a militant or democratic union. For example on the railways, the RMT’s broad membership are more militant than the specific-drivers union, ASLEF. Issues around union democracy are deeper than this and in our view can only be solved by forming unions that are not legalistic representative bodies, which necessitate a bureaucracy who form their own separate interests, but that are simply associations of workers relying on direct action, what might be called “syndicalism”. However, groups of workers with strong opinions on this debate are best off leading by example and cooperating with other groups with differing views, rather than descending into infighting.
Nonetheless the focus of the movement is clear: stopping deskilling. If you are an electrician, or supporter, and want to get involved you can on facebook. The important thing is that the sparks are thinking and acting for themselves, and we wish them the best of luck with their struggle.