Issue 189 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published September 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
The level of strikes at present is quite low. But they keep bubbling up. This is the story of one of them, by a group of building workers in Manchester.
Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) is building a new humanities block. The main contractor is Laing. Electrical and pipefitting work is subcontracted to Rosser & Russell, linked to Norweb Hoist.
On the MMU site, all the electricians and pipefitters were hired over the phone by an agency, ESL, which takes a slice of their pay packets. Workers classified as 'self employed' can be hired and fired at the companies' whim. There is cut throat competition for contracts, including those for hiring labour.
There were arbitrary sackings. Over the weeks before VE Day two workers had been summarily dismissed. But the sacking of Ray and Nick, two more electricians, proved the last straw.
'I'm not taking any more. We've seen too many lads go now for no reason. I called a meeting of everyone on the job in Laing's' mess cabin. All 27 lads attended the meeting.' (John)
The Wednesday meeting lasted an hour and a half.
'We were pretty nervous, because a lot of people had not been in an industrial dispute before, a lot of the younger lads in particular. A lot of the older guys congregated and tried to sort of form a preliminary committee, and try to get people who were going to speak for us in the two departments, the pipefitters and the electricians. We agreed on who they would be: Terry and John. In the meeting itself a lot of the younger guys were shouting about "I've got mortgages and kids" and stuff like that, and you can appreciate that, but you might not have a mortgage if you get treated like this. You've got to go through something serious for once in your life and stand up for yourself, haven't you?' (Tony)
The general tone of the meeting was angry. The meeting decided (18 for, 1 against, 8 abstentions) to 'cabin up' the following morning, seek talks with management and then, if nothing was resolved, to walk out at midday.
Management refused to negotiate and so on a second vote (with the same result) all 27 men walked out. The electricians' spokesman, Terry, warned them before they walked off the job, 'The picket line is a hard line'. So it was to prove.
The strikers' representatives held a meeting with Rosser and Russell's regional manager. 'You have a reasonable case', he told them, 'but I have to be loyal to my managers'. Later that day he announced that all 27 were now sacked.
'There was a little bit of euphoria at the beginning. We were all very pleased with ourselves, thinking we'd given them a bloody nose, so to speak.' (Tony)
But it proved impossible to hold the original 27 strikers together. Within a couple of weeks, there were ten men left at the gate.
Men left for different reasons. Some lived up to 80 miles away, and the cost of getting to the picket line every day was too heavy. Some were quickly offered other jobs, and went. Some were pressured by family.
It took a while for the strike committee to get itself organised, with some help and advice from visiting militants and socialists. The strikers began speaking at local union branches, the trades council, socialist meetings. One or two had some previous strike experience, but for others the job of addressing meetings involved learning new skills and overcoming initial nerves. One who was warmly received by a rally of Sheffield's striking library workers in June, described himself as 'like a rabbit transfixed by a car headlights'.
There was a key weakness in the strike. When the electricians and pipefitters came out, the other building trades on the site carried on working. Initially, the men still at work held collections for the strikers. It was said they had promised to stop work if scabs were brought in. But that turned out to be hot air.
Part of the problem was that the pickets themselves responded too passively. In the early weeks they succeeded in turning away replacement workers. Most significantly, they turned away a whole group of electricians sent up by the ESCA agency (reported to have links with the former EETPU). If they could keep turning away local electricians and pipefitters, they hoped, the point would come when the building could not proceed without a settlement.
Partly in this belief, they dropped their early efforts to stop deliveries at the site, and relaxed their pressure on the rest of the workers. Afterwards, some reckoned that had been their major mistake.
The site management refused to talk to the strikers. Two managers from ESL, the agency that had hired the workers, appeared and offered to buy the workers off with lump sum payments. When that failed they phoned the strikers' chief spokesman and offered him £10,000 if he would 'disappear'. That night the pipefitters' spokesman was offered £5,000, but he too refused.
'It was certainly not worth selling my name for. I've got a good name in Manchester... My Dad was a convenor in the building game during the strike in the 1960s. He got offered all that we got offered, the bribes, the threats, and he stood his corner.' (John)
Finally the agency sent letters to each striker's home, addressed to their wives, offering them £1,800. They turned it down, still demanding their jobs back. Steve (who had voted, alone, against the strike, but stuck with it) explained:
'We weren't fighting for that. We weren't fighting for a payoff. We were fighting on principles of sticking together and getting the two guys reinstated.'
On Wednesday 21 June two van loads of scabs were driven onto the site. The other workers on the site had a meeting with an official from UCATT, but he told them the strike was unofficial. The men on the gate remained isolated.
From then on it was all downhill. After eight weeks and two days, the strike was called off. Let the last words belong to the pipefitters* spokesman:
'We've made a little stand against being used, abused and the dangers of it. And if it achieves something--great stuff. I hope it does, because it's eight weeks out of my life that I won't forget, even though I've been on strike before. I've never had the camaraderie that we've had on this one, with ten men, self employed and all, who stood together, at their own financial expense. It doesn't make me a militant who goes for strikes, it makes me someone who says, "It's about time the wrongs was tried to be righted, people stopped using and abusing." If that little message gets along to Laing's and Rosser & Russell, if they take their manager on one side, and say, "We're not going to have this again. It's cost us too much, Treat the men properly"--then we've won.' (John)
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