It is 7.45 on a chilly Wednesday morning with winter approaching. The crowd of around 100 or so men – some wearing hi-visibility jackets, others with hard hats in hand, a few with placards – have already been here for more than an hour and are fairly quiet as they stand outside the entrance gates to the construction works site of Farringdon underground station in London.
What may look like a mass cigarette break is in fact what has become a weekly protest by construction sector electricians. Since the end of August, electricians working on large sites around the capital have downed their tools and staged walk-outs each Wednesday morning in opposition to a move by employers that would see their pay cut by up to 35 per cent.
The trigger came in May, when the so-called ‘Big Eight’ electrical contractors – including Balfour Beatty, NG Engineering and Shepherd Engineering – unilaterally decided to tear up a sector-wide agreement that had regulated pay and conditions for over 40 years.
In September around 1,700 Employees of Balfour Beatty were then sent 90-day notices of termination – leaving them the choice to either accept the new contracts with massive pay cuts, or be forced to 'surrender' their jobs.
Previously workers were paid rates according to their trade – both a recognition of skill levels and a compromise on the part of employers in order to avoid industrial strife. But this new deal imposed by the companies would mean differential rates of pay based on the type of work done.
Heads within the industry say that the changes come because of the need for ‘multi-skilled teams’, while reductions in expenses are due to changed travel patterns – even saying that some workers will see pay increases. Furthermore they have criticized the union for 'not negotiating'.
But crucially, it would see their current rate of pay - £16 per hour – reduced to £14 for connecting cables, £12 for wiring and just over £10 for metalwork. The organizing union Unite estimates that in total approximately 6,000 workers are to be affected.
For those involved in the dispute, pay isn't the only issue at stake.
‘This is also about deskilling,’ says Steve Kelly, Unite London Construction Branch secretary. ‘The employers want to get rid of skilled tradesmen for what they see as semi-skilled work. Under the new contracts they would be able to lay workers off when they decide that there is no work. We are trying to get other trades involved, as they are likely to be targeted next.’
In London over the past two months there have been walk-outs and road blocks on major construction sites including Kings Cross Station, Blackfriar's and Cannon Street, with the weekly protest rotating and drawing in at least 200 workers and supporters.
These scenes are now being replicated across the country, as what started out as a rank-and-file movement organized by local committees spreads to other large work sites. Regular protests are now being held at major sites in Manchester, Newcastle, the Sellafield nuclear plant in Cumbria and Ratcliffe power station near Nottingham.
Two weeks ago Unite held a national day of action timed to coincide with a student march and London-based workers have linked up with activists at the St. Paul's Occupy protest.
The next few weeks will be critical in the next stage of the sparks' struggle, with the general strikes on 29 November bringing huge attention to the cause. A further day of action is expected for December 7 – the same day that the dismissal notices are to take effect – in what could prove to be a head-to-head battle in the sector.