Issue 242 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
'We could fight our employer or our union one at a time. The problem was having to take them both on together.' That was the central message contained in a statement issued as the picket line at the Pfizer construction site in east Kent was lifted late last month.
Two hundred and forty electricians were sacked in April by Britain's largest electrical contractor, Balfour Kilpatrick. They had demanded drying facilities and fresh clothing following torrential rainfall. They 'cabined-up' for three days, and as they clocked off on the Friday they were handed dismissal notices and application forms to re-apply for their jobs. Within hours AEEU officials repudiated the action and advised the sacked sparks to fill in the application forms.
The union shop included both AEEU and EPIU members. The EPIU was set up as a breakaway union following the AEEU scabbing operation at Wapping and is now aligned to the TGWU.
The following week mass pickets were set up at the three main gates of the giant pharmaceutical plant, which dwarfs the nearby town of Sandwich. One morning, as local police looked on helplessly, a convoy of 50 cars drove slowly round the plant causing a 20 mile traffic jam. With scenes reminiscent of lorry drivers' strikes in nearby Calais, hundreds of Pfizer employees were hours late for work.
However, the key to winning the dispute was to get solidarity action from the 2,000 fellow construction workers on the site. Although the pickets were not directly asking other workers not to cross the line at the start, one group of electricians employed by another contractor did join the picket for three days until they were threatened with the sack.
Over the course of the seven week dispute, several thousands of pounds were collected on site for the sacked sparks. This is an indication of the level of support that existed and suggests that solidarity action could have been won if called for early on in the dispute.
By week four the AEEU was actively encouraging sparks to travel to Kent and cross the picket line. Balfour Kilpatrick subcontracted their work to another company who recruited teams of scabs--including a gang of Loyalist thugs from Belfast with UVF tattoos who waved a Union Jack inscribed with the slogan 'We're doing this for our country' from the van window as they drove in.
Throughout the dispute, the EPIU held out the prospect of official backing for their members' picket line. This was seen by many of the sparks as the solution to the dispute. But, in a move similar to the TGWU stance on the Liverpool dockers, the EPIU joined the AEEU in repudiating the picket line after the sparks called for a day of action and 'stay-away' in the sixth week of the dispute. As a result, support for the day of action crumbled, though some workers did refuse to cross the picket line.
The EPIU climbdown left many with the feeling that the dispute was at a dead end, and should have shattered any illusions that reliance on union officials, whether left or right, is any substitute for winning support from other workers.
The actions of AEEU officials throughout the dispute was truly scandalous. The area official did not attend any of the sparks' daily mass meetings after the second week of the dispute, and argued the management's line from the start. And on the Friday following the day of action the area recruitment officer crossed the picket line to address the scabs.
But the fact remains that the vast majority of the money collected to support the dispute came from the pockets of rank and file AEEU members--not just on site, but from workplaces around the country.
The mood amongst those on the picket line at the end of the dispute was one of anger and defiance rather than of defeat--hopefully a lesson for the future.Getting back on the tracks