The electrician’s dispute has been rumbling on since the summer but unless you’ve been scanning the mainstream media very closely to catch the occasional mention as a footnote in an article about a related issue, you wouldn’t know it was happening. The dispute concerns threats by a number of leading construction companies to rip up existing Joint Industry Board (JIB) agreements, cut pay by a third and impose greatly inferior terms and conditions. The latest manifestation of the dispute took place on November 9th when a national day of action was called to coincide with the student protests taking place on the same day.
The rank and file sparks had been active from the early morning, gathering outside the Pinnacle site in Bishopsgate, surging into the road and blocking it. The police pushed them back and tried to drag a few people out of the crowd but the sparks and their supporters stood firm and no-one was arrested. They then moved off to march through the City stopping at site after site owned by the big construction companies wanting to rip up the JIB agreements. Cannon Street station was briefly occupied and a repeat visit was paid to the Gratts site in Cannon Street where two weeks ago the site manager said that if it was up to him he would pay the workers £1 an hour! The sparks eventually ended up at the Shard where they waited for the official Unite march to form up.
Unite wanted to march to Parliament to lobby MPs. The rank and file sparks said that if people had been travelling down all night to be there and they had the numbers, this should be put to good use to close down a site. They wanted to go to Blackfriars where union activists have been blacklisted. Unite would not let the rank and file use their sound system to motivate this. Eventually, the rank and file left the rally to head off up to Blackfriars where the gates were firmly barred and there was a large police cordon to prevent access to the site. After a rally there, the sparks then attempted to move up to join the student march that was heading towards Moorgate. The plod weren’t having it and after the sparks had got so far they ended up being kettled.
A link up between workers and students is a rare thing. Had there been a link up between the two protests, the grievances of the electricians would have been placed right under the noses of the media who would then have had no option but to acknowledge it. That would be the nightmare scenario for the powers that be – an ongoing rank and file dispute involving workers in the private sector getting the oxygen of publicity. It was clear the police were under pressure from high up to ensure that no such thing would happen, hence the kettling of the sparks.
Journalists know this dispute is going on. They are not so spectacularly bad at their jobs as to let something like this go by without noticing it. The problem is that’s all they’ve done – noticed it. Coverage in the mainstream media is virtually non-existent. Without wanting to sound conspiratorial, it’s impossible to escape the conclusion that pressure is being applied from certain quarters to keep this story under wraps and starve the dispute of the oxygen of publicity. Because, if this dispute was widely reported, workers elsewhere in the private sector facing the same kind of shafting would take inspiration from this and initiate their own actions to defend themselves. Who knows, they might end up making common cause with workers in the public sector facing redundancy as a result of austerity cuts… Now that kind of link could end up with something approaching a general strike – something the powers that be would want to avoid at all costs.