New Worker Banner

The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain


Construction News

by New Worker correspondent

UNITE and other unions in the construction industry recently submitted a 10 per cent pay claim to the Construction Industry Joint Council (CIJC) in a bid to reverse pay cuts and to compensate for the rising inflation rate. The union argues that the £110 billion per annum industry can easily afford this claim and that bosses need to start offering decent wages to attract new starters.

The CIJC is the main agreement in the sector and governs the pay and conditions of about half a million workers, mainly in civil engineering and the building trades. The union side is seeking a uniform pay increase that will see all workers covered by the agreement, from craft workers to labourers, see their pay rise by the same percentage.

In addition to the pay rise, unions are demanding a large increase in industry sick pay and holiday entitlement to bring the CIJC in line with other construction agreements.

The pay claim comes at a time when the construction industry is experiencing a severe and worsening skills shortage, a result of the failure to train new entrants.

reflect

Announcing the claim, Unite’s national officer for construction Jerry Swain said: “For this industry to succeed and attract new entrants then pay rates must reflect workers’ skills and living costs. Unless radical changes are made to the CIJC agreement it will become increasingly irrelevant in the industry. The first step is to agree meaningful pay rates.”

The start of the annual round of the pay talks is a good excuse to have a look at the industry and problems faced by the industry’s unions and workers past and present.

As in many industries, Unite is the main union in the field, largely due it having gobbled up smaller unions. Mergers is too polite a term for such events.

Before it officially “merged” with Unite, the main construction union was the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians (UCATT). UCATT itself emerged in 1971 from an amalgamation of declining unions: the Amalgamated Union of Building Trade Workers (AUBTW), the Association of Building Technicians and the Amalgamated Society of Woodworkers and Decorators. One member of the AUBTW was Winston Churchill, whose workmanship on his country house was deemed satisfactory for membership in 1928.

The Woodworkers and Decorators had only been founded the previous year from a merger of the Amalgamated Society of Woodworkers (ASW) and the Amalgamated Society of Painters and Decorators (ASPD). In turn, these two unions were themselves the products of amalgamations of local and regional specialist unions dating back to the 19th Century.

examples

To give just a few Scottish examples, these had informative names such as the Aberdeen Operative Masons’ and Monumental Society, the Glasgow Bricklayers’ Union, the Greenock Operative Slaters’ Trade Protection Society, the Edinburgh Associated Operative Plumbers and the Glasgow United House and Ship Painters’ Protecting Society.

mergers

Every decent sized town in Britain had a similar mix of such bodies. In addition to modern trade union functions, they often ran unemployment and burial insurance schemes. Their local and narrow occupational function meant a single defeat could spell the end of them. This made mergers attractive. At first, local unions in the same trade united to form regional then national unions, the mergers of different trades came later, a common trend in British trade unionism.

Unions dealt with small hard-nosed employers, many of whom had risen from the ranks. The world of the housepainters of Hastings in Robert Tressell’s classic novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists accurately reflects the harsh world of many other construction occupations long after its pre-First World War setting.

UCATT initially got off to a flying start, in 1972. Under pressure from union militants it launched the first ever national strike, involving 300,000 workers demanding a minimum wage of £30 per week and abolition of the “Lump Labour Scheme”. The Lump is the payment of daily cash-paid wages with no tax, National Insurance (NI) or employment rights, and was particularly common in the building industry.

The strike saw a rapid increase in union membership and in September a 25 per cent pay increase was secured. A large minority of newly galvanised workers saw this as a sell-out, particularly as the demands for a shorter working week were un-met. This was the dispute that saw the Shrewsbury building workers falsely jailed for unlawful picketing, an injustice only now rectified.

This was the union’s ‘high water mark’, however. Due to the structure of the industry in which major companies sub-contract smaller specialised companies for digging foundations, building walls, installing plumbing, electrical equipment, roofing and decoration etc, it is a difficult one to organise. Only local authority Direct Labour Organisations were comparatively easy to organise, but many of them were organised by the general local authority unions. The ever-changing workplace does not help as workers move on to another job or the dole office once their part of the job is finished.

unsuccessful

Union efforts to abolish The Lump were largely unsuccessful. Attempts to organise workers involved were failures due to many workers being happy enough with the modest and short-term financial benefits from not paying taxes and NI. It was common enough for bosses give Lump workers a weekly hour off for their regular appointment at the dole office.

Across the globe, for many displaced or migrant rural workers their first urban job is on a building site. The proverbial Irish navvy who built the canals of Britain has the modern-day counterpart in a Pakistani labourer building hotels and football stadia in the Gulf states. Such workers, who often have unrealistic dreams of becoming rich enough to build a big house in their home village, are not normally fertile ground for trade union recruitment drives.

A Joint Sites Committee movement of UCATT, TGWU, GMB and the then Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union Workers made much of the running, and not the HQ staff, but despite some victories, including an important one at Heathrow’s new runway in 2006, it took a lot of hard running to maintain a gentle decline.

The construction industry is notorious for the blacklisting of union activists. It was not merely the bosses who were involved in getting rid of those demanding higher pay and better conditions, some UCATT officials also played their sordid part. Not all of these were from the right-wing but belong to organisations whose own members have justly complained about left-wingers being backlisted. Trots can be a pain in the neck but the use of blacklisting against them is shameful! Little wonder Unite rarely mentions this particular aspect of the blacklisting scandal.

unheard of

Another black mark against construction unions is that they have never been great environmentalists. Whilst they approve of ‘net zero’ campaigns, it is unheard of a union ever objecting to any construction project such as nuclear power stations and motorways that might bring jobs, even when people have chained themselves to trees.

At the turn of the century UCATT’s fortunes briefly revived after cutting some regional offices and serving its existing members, but in 2016 it finally gave up the ghost. With membership having declined from 112,000 in 1999 to 54,644 in 2014, and with long-term liabilities of over £1 million, members voted overwhelmingly to “merge” with Unite.