Sparked out: construction companies crumble under rank and file pressure

On Wednesday May 26th, rank and file sparks (electricians) blockaded the Atomic Weapons Establishment site at Burghfield, near Reading. The action, which was advertised in a previous Freedom article, was the latest in a series of protests held by construction workers across the country under the slogan “No to ESO”.

The protests started in response to construction companies NG Bailey and Balfour Beatty attempting to bring in a new grade of “Electrical Support Operative” to carry out electrical work without having the necessary training. A sharp sense of urgency was added to the dispute by the fact that the ESO grade was due to be introduced at Hinkley Point, a nuclear reactor site where cutting corners on safety could have unbelievably disastrous consequences.

Following on from the AWE Burghfield action, which shut down NG Bailey’s work on the site, it has now been announced that Balfour Beatty and NG Bailey have contacted Unite to begin negotiations, and so future rank and file protests have been temporarily suspended. The Electrical and Mechanical Combine write that “This is a welcome change” and warn that “If the outcome is not to our satisfaction, then I’m sure that the Rank and File will have an opinion on possible future activity.”

The willingness to negotiate is a big climbdown for NG Bailey, who had previously sent letters out to their workforce dated May 20th “to address the situation regarding the unwarranted protests aimed toward NG Bailey in recent weeks” which had boasted about the company’s role in developing the new grade “to provide opportunity”. The letters also stressed “we are not “in dispute” with Unite the union. There is no official Unite support for any of the protests.”

While this statement was clearly intended as a way to undermine and dismiss the protests, there is some truth to it, as the protests have been organised and led by rank and file workers themselves, not by official union structures.

It would be premature to declare victory before a deal is agreed and accepted by the workers involved, but the fact that these massive companies have been forced to the negotiating table by the construction rank and file shows what’s possible when workers are willing and able to organise themselves outside of the constraints of industrial relations law.

~ Cautiously Pessimistic