9 Nov 2011

Electricians rally over ‘de-skilling and pay cuts’

Thousands of electricians march between London building sites to protest against changes to pay and conditions that one worker tells Channel 4 News are being introduced vindictively.

Electricians march near the Shard (Unite pic)

Hours before students took to London’s streets, electricians and construction workers were arriving from across the UK, to march over a new deal on pay and conditions.

Today’s demonstration comes after several months of unrest within the construction industry. In May a consortium of seven large construction companies, led by Balfour Beatty, announced it was withdrawing from a long standing pay and conditions deal known as the Joint Industry Board agreement.

The replacement deal, the Building and Engineering Services National Agreement (BESNA) is the subject of much controversy with Unite – the union which represents construction workers – claiming skilled electricians will be replaced by lower grade, less skilled workers.

BESNA is being developed by the Heating and Ventilating Contractors’ Association. Chief Executive Blane Judd says that workers are being fed misinformation about what the deal will mean. He told Channel 4 News: “The industry has changed and we need multi skilled teams. At the moment you have three different operatives travelling in the same van, to the same site on different rates and different conditions. It’s unwieldy. We want to level the playing field and 30% will see an increase in pay. Others will see no drop in salary. We need our operatives to compete in the market place so to suggest that we want to de-skill people is nonsense. “

There has been rolling industrial action at major construction sites across the UK since the deal was announced. London has seen weekly demonstrations, while workers have also picketed Sellafield, the Lindsey oil refinery and Paper Mill in Carrington, near Manchester.

Today coaches from across the country brought workers to London to demonstrate, starting with early marches of several hundred people to the Occupy site at St Pauls, then to two major construction sites, the Shard near London Bridge and then Blackfriars Bridge. Both sites are partly controlled by Balfour Beatty. The workers then moved on to Parliament where a group went in for an arranged meeting with their local MPs.

Only around a third of the demonstrators made it to Parliament Square, after police held some back to stop them mixing with the students already in Parliament Square.

Read more: Pop up tents in Trafalgar Square as students protest

“The firms are trying to brainwash the lads”

Speaking from the march, one electrician, who wanted to be known only as Bob, said he had come down from Manchester with 30 others to protect his industry. He told Channel 4 News: “This agreement had been in place for 40 years and then totally out of the blue a gang of the employers got together and said they were making a new agreement, whether we like it or not. There was no negotiation. The firms are trying to brainwash the lads into this and it will cut our rates. The management are telling us that the wage structure won’t change but we don’t believe them.

“It’s de-skilling, they will get people who are not in the electrical game to do this work and will put union members out of work. I see my pay going down by a third. I’m surprised, it was completely out of the blue and it’s almost been done in a vindictive way. They are making good profits at the moment and they should be bringing the standard up, not knocking it down.”

But Blane Judd says workers are being fed misinformation by the unions: “I think there are people in the unions who are hell bent on protesting. Some in the union want to negotiate but can’t because of the others. What’s been lost is the opportunity for the operatives to be able to make a decision without being misinformed.”

He explains that there is clear evidence that many workers will benefit from higher salaries.

“We have even got the employers guaranteeing that workers will transfer from existing grade to a new grade at their current salary or higher – where do you get guarantees like that nowadays? If you are on a particular grade you will be advanced, there will now be London weighting that there wasn’t before. We just want to be able to deal with one wage agreement, with everyone on the same terms and conditions.”

Ballot over strike action

Unite are balloting for strike action from November 16th until the 29th. They warned that any action could hit some of the UK’s key infrastructure projects, including power stations and London’s Crossrail development. Unite’s General Secretary Len McCluskey said: “Balfour Beatty will be the first of the rogue firms to feel the anger of its workers. The failure of senior management at Balfour Beatty to withdraw the threats of dismissal has left Unite with no choice but to ballot members for industrial action.”

Unite’s spokesperson Leanne Groves also spoke to Channel 4 News from the march, as protestors gathered. She said: “This is an attack on people’s skills. There will be a new semi-skilled grade, with eight semi-skilled workers for every one qualified electrician. This work will be paid a third less.

“The employers have looked at the agreement and tried to squeeze every single penny out of it.” Leanne Groves, Unite

“Before, they would clock on at the entrance to a large site before walking to where they work. That could take 20 minutes, so now the companies are saying they will deduct this time from their pay. People will lose an hour and a half of work a day just because of this. The employers have looked at the agreement and tried to squeeze every single penny out of it.”

Groves says that workers are fighting for other sectors as well: The agreements electricians have worked under for years were the benchmark for the industry. If these employers take on the sparks, nobody will be safe, there will be a massive push to squeeze all workers.

“The companies involved say no workers will lose pay as a result of the deal. But Groves says Unite does not believe this: “Our members are already being offered work by agencies who say they only want semi-skilled people on site. This has massive financial implications for workers.”

At BESNA, Blane Judd is frustrated that the unions are refusing to discuss changes that the industry believe are necessary: “There is a real risk that we will cease to be competitive in our own markets and that should be a concern to everybody, if British workers cease to be competitive in our own market place.”

But Bob is not convinced. “I very much hope I don’t have to sign it, I don’t think I will, but the threat will be, if you don’t sign it you are sacked.”