From International Socialism, No.75, February 1975, pp.22-27.
Transcribed & marked up by by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
THE CONSTRUCTION industry employs over a million men in varied activities. The two main sections are building and civil engineering (bridges, roads, tunnels, etc). The biggest firms do both kinds of work, making collective policies through the National Federation of Building Trade Employers, and the Federation of Civil Engineering Contractors.
Since Robert Tressell wrote The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists before the 1914-18 war, conditions have improved, but the general picture is unchanged. Contractors have kept an autocratic control over the workforce, while the temporary nature of building work has been an inbuilt obstruction to workers’ organisation. Trade unionists have to start from scratch on each new job. They face a ruthless ‘hire and fire’ system, reinforced by a blacklist that has kept men off sites for years at a time. The Phelps-Brown report in 1968 showed that two thirds of the workforce cannot look forward to more than one year’s continuous employment with the same firm.
With corruption at every level, ‘backhander’ is a common word. Most big contracts are public works, competed for by private firms. Poulson was able to avoid the regular tendering system, through a specialist ‘systems building’ which was considered separately. Public planners were secretly paid to favour his designs. At his trial he claimed this was nothing unusual, and a spate of corruption cases since then show the truth of his claim.
In the drive to maximise profit a low priority is given to workers’ lives. The Loddon Bridge collapse in 1972 was typical: Marples Ridgway tendered too low in order to win the contract, and then had to cut corners in the construction process. The ‘falsework scaffolding’ – the temporary support for the bridge span – was inadequate, and collapsed under wet concrete, killing three men. Cases like this usually lead to a fine of between £30 and £100. Most serious accidents result from the criminal negligence of contractors, who are protected by low fines and the inability of factory inspectors to cover all of the 80,000 or more sites in Britain. Although included in planning, safety costs are often redirected for other uses. Company safety officers don’t have the power to take adequate measures even in the rare cases when they wish to. Most building workers know many stories of maiming and slaughter and are not surprised when they see it. They have to fight even for washbasins and toilets. Builders also suffer a high incidence of bronchitis and hypothermia (causing premature ageing).
This year the Chief Factory Inspector, in his report for 1973, pledged tougher action against contractors, and attacked their unconcern for human life. His report shows that in 1973, out of 549 reported deaths in industry, construction work claimed 230 – 40 more than in 1972, and the highest rate in industry.
EMPLOYERS have kept the basic rate very low – the present rate is £31.60 for craftsmen and £25.80 for labourers. This can be doubled by bonus and overtime payments. There are many different kinds of bonus, even on sites run by the same contractor. Most are related to output. They are developed from the wartime system of ‘payment by results’, and are usually calculated to confuse the worker. Other kinds are ‘plus rate’ (a flat rate bonus) and payment for hours not actually worked.
Incentive bonus invites the worker to ignore safety scaffolding and fixed ladders, in order to meet his target. Steelfixers have a high dropout rate due to bad backs because they are paid according to the tonnage they handle. Overtime increases the period at risk in dangerous conditions. Yet despite the TUC commitment to a 35-hr. week, in practice fifty are regarded as normal. The demand for a high basic rate has thus become a main focus of militants’ attention.
There are many reasons for builders’ failure to win a high wage at times when they have approached full employment and might have held a strong position. There are the conditions peculiar to the industry, that militate against organisation. But of prime importance is the way the workforce has been divided, so that less than half of all building workers are trade union members. There has always been some form of lump labour. But during the last two boom periods it has expanded, becoming a major concern of both left and right wing trade unionists.
THERE ARE firms which take on specialist work for a contractor, providing their own materials, equipment, expertise and a workforce with holiday stamps, insurance cards, tax deductions etc. – these are known as ‘bona-fide’ subcontractors. On the other hand, there are firms that deal only in labour power. These are labour-only subcontractors, or the ‘lump’. The name derives from the practice of doing the job for a lump sum.
The Phelps-Brown Report, commissioned by the Labour government in 1967, defined four main varieties:
- the subcontractor which is a firm employing all its workers under contracts of service;
- the labour-only gang working under a gang leader who employs the members of the gang;
- a labour-only gang in which all the members are self-employed, although one may take the lead in negotiating the sub-contract;
- the self-employed worker who makes his own agreement with the contractor.
There are many advantages for the contractor in using lump labour. Because the worker is technically self-employed, the contractor avoids the tax that he has to pay on a direct employee. It is also easier for him to evade the responsibilities imposed by the Factory Act, Construction Regulations and employer/union agreements. These are big savings, and he can offer the lump worker what looks like a very high wage, while the worker signs away safety and welfare that trade unionists have taken years to win. Some apologists for the lump argue that self-employment means free workers commanding their own high price. But on the sites, lump workers are often under more work pressure than the others, accepting unnecessary squalor and danger as their side of a bargain. Their high price in the past few years owes more to the shortage of labour in a boom period than to self-organisation. The shortage of labour actually pushed lump wages so high that in 1973-4, bricklayers in London were said to be earning as much as £150 per week. But alongside this site ‘aristocracy’ can be found labourers gangs getting less than the direct workers – often immigrants who don’t yet understand their rights or the role they play.
In the past five years or so the lump has more than doubled in size with the collusion of contractors, and is now estimated at well over half a million. It has meant a decrease in safety and work standards, not only because lump wages are danger money, but also because the worker is rarely asked for proof of his training – he just has to carry a trowel, hammer or whatever. Significantly, in 1966 there were 112,000 craft apprentices; in 1970 there were 75,000. The resulting shoddy work has received publicity lately with demonstrations by council tenants who have to suffer the results.
As far as the contractors are concerned, formal and effective decasualisation would have to involve severe built-in control over the militants, something similar to the deal arranged by Chapple for the electricians. In fact, a similar ‘grading’ system has been discussed at length by the Employers’ Federation (NFBTE) behind closed doors. In the ETU it meant a decrease of stewards power and a firm control by the employers over the wages structure. Briefly applied in hospital maintenance building, it meant greater ‘job flexibility’ and therefore less employment. George Smith, General Secretary of UCATT, said defensively at conference last autumn that he was opposed to grading. But he might well favour a similar deal if offered a closed shop in return. In the meantime most contractors cling to the lump. To keep this casual labour system as we move into a severe recession in the industry is obviously to impair the workers’ ability to resist pay cuts and redundancies.
THE PRINCIPLE trade unions in the industry are the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians, The Transport and General Workers Union (building group), and, in council workforces and the north-east, the G&MWU. A few years ago, all unions in the industry were affiliated to the National Federation of Building Trade Operatives, founded just after the First World War. Largely due to bankruptcy, many were forced to merge in a process which led to the formation of UCATT in 1971. This included most of the major trades, dominated by the Amalgamated Society of Woodworkers (by far the largest section of the NFBTO). The TGWU took in labourers from the Amalgamated Union of Building Trade Workers, and a few minor trades (such as plasterers). A few much smaller unions remained separate (e.g. Constructional Engineering Union), but in areas of relatively high membership kept representatives on joint negotiating bodies. The plumbers and electricians moved away quite early to make separate agreements.
The main negotiating body is the National Joint Council for the Building Industry, with equal representation of employers and unions. Trade union composition on the council differs regionally according to relative strength. Nationally, UCATT is the largest and dominates the operative side. There is a different body for dealing with the Federation of Civil Engineering Contractors, in which the TGWU has a stronger presence, but agreements are substantially the same. The NJCBI produces a Working Rule Agreement, a code of practice for employers and operatives, with minor regional differences. It is heavily weighted against the operatives, and the last few years have seen the odds increased – for example, in the extension of the period an operative must be employed on site before qualifying to stand in stewards elections.
Seeing difficulties of organisation as immutable, union leaders have for many years attempted, despite repeated failure, to make easy company agreements with the employers. Under Harry Weaver (Gen. Sec. NFBTO), there was a limited one week strike in 1963 for an increase of 1s 6d per hour and a forty hour week. Despite solid support on all sites, Weaver sold out for less than half the claim, postponing the shorter week. Again in 1966, building workers were let down with a pittance, this time under Labour’s prices and incomes policy.
THE RESULT of these policies was a widening gap between the trade union leadership and workers on the sites. In the postwar development of industrialised building, especially through the 1960’s, shop stewards gained an increasing importance for site workers. New building techniques, in larger and often longer-term sites, rapidly complicated the bonus systems, with new problems often unique to particular sites. Militant stewards (usually with a good, self-taught grasp of arithmetic), often at odds with union leaders, won widespread loyalty on the sites. In areas of concentrated rebuilding this development was to provide the base of support for the Building Workers Charter. Already in the mid-sixties, joint committees in various areas were beginning to effectively coordinate activities on different sites. Stewards on the sites not only negotiated a large part of the pay packet, but would also intervene over working conditions and safety. Each trade would be represented on the works committee under the Federation Steward (the separation of various trades from the main union negotiating structure has since made it harder to form representative works committees).
The London Joint Sites Committee made its first major impact in connection with the Barbican disputes. The dispute at Myton’s, Barbican in 1966 was provoked by the contractor, who had underpriced the contract, was losing large sums, and decided on a policy of confrontation with the workforce. The failure of management to agree to a fair bonus rate for labourers led to a successful work-to-rule in September. Immediately after the settlement, a new dispute arose over interference with the scaffolders bonus. In October the industry’s Incentives Panel found in favour of the workforce, but this in turn was followed by the gratuitous sacking of three steelfixers. The whole site struck in solidarity. While the TGWU and AUBTW officially supported the strike, George Smith of the ASW refused, describing the stewards as ‘little Caesars’. Mytons then dismissed the whole workforce. Before long the TGWU and AUBTW, despite having declared an official lockout, were pressured through the NFBTO machinery to back down. After thirty weeks the unions agreed on a return to work of all except the works committee. But the eighty remaining men refused to go back without them, and the unions agreed that Mytons should take on new labour if the men stayed out. When Mytons and the union leaders finally attempted to put scabs on the site these were confronted by 450 pickets, reinforced by men from the nearby Turriff and Laing sites. Two stewards, Lewis and Langdon, were expelled from the ASW for disobedience. Four months later the general council reversed the decision under militant pressure.
One reason for Lewis’ popularity at that time was his recognition that on big sites with a high percentage of labourers, differences in payment between craftsman and labourer became less relevant. The demand for a reduction in differential later became part of the Charter’s wage demand. It is ironic that when the NFBTO was founded, it was hailed as a step in the breakdown of old craft divisions, and one of its aims was to ‘establish uniform rates of wages for all operatives’. Today differentials are often accentuated by bonus.
Closely connected with the Mytons dispute was that at Sunleys in Horseferry Rd, 1966-7. Sunleys were also well behind with their contract for a ministry building, and they too decided on confrontation. First they failed to victimise a blacklisted carpenter, Jack Henry, when workers from several sites lobbied an arbitration meeting. Then they faced a twelve-week overtime ban in solidarity with Peter Kavanagh, a victimised Federation Steward. Then shortly after the completion date for the building, when they were paying heavy penalties, they refused to pay ‘site’ bonus, insisting on ‘gang’ bonus. Gang bonus was successfully resisted on the Mytons site. It divides the work-force, making massive disparity between different gangs’ earnings. Within a gang it puts pressure on each worker to watch the rest and resent the weakest. There was a thirteen-month strike at Sunley’s supported by the AUBTW and TGWU. But the ASW scabbed, sacking Jack Rusca and other members of the London District Management Committee for supporting the strike (they were also reinstated after pressure from below). Under the Cameron Enquiry it later emerged that an ASW official had approved the sacking of the works committee in a secret meeting with management. Over a year later the men were instructed to return to work (to a gang bonus). But it was to become one of the strongest sites in London.
Both disputes were dealt with in the Cameron Report, which often approved managerial provocations and declared:
‘There is and has been no constitutional or practical necessity for any organisation, official or otherwise parallel to the NFBTO. The Joint Sites Committee is thus unnecessary.’
But these disputes proved the existence of a base that was prepared to organise, not just against the employers for better conditions, but also against the right wing trade union leadership. And the ‘little Caesars’ were recognised as far more democratic than Smith and his colleagues.
That the Barbican militants were the local expression of a growing movement was clear when in 1970 the first Building Workers Charter conference was held in Manchester. Delegations came from fifty trade union branches and about the same number of sites. The Charter movement was to be a rank and file grouping open to all left-wing militants in the industry, formed around a twelve-point programme:–
- £1 per hour basic rate for five-day, 35-hr. week;
- Three weeks holiday with full pay and retention of Christmas day and Boxing Day as statutory holidays, and introduction of New Year’s Day and May Day as additional paid holidays,
- A fully comprehensive pension scheme to be introduced;
- Decasualisation of the industry, including registration of all building trade operatives;
- Adequate safety and welfare regulations to be introduced and rigidly enforced;
- Democratise the Trade Unions, by making
a) delegate conferences policy-making bodies,
b) all trade union officials submit themselves for election every three years and branch officials every year,
c) disbanding of selection boards;
- Full recognition of stewards and regular area meetings of stewards;
- 100 per cent TU membership;
- Total opposition to ‘lump labour’;
- Full protection of shop stewards;
- Establishing of one fully democratic union for the building industry;
- Full nationalisation and public ownership for the building industry.
The Charter took up where the New Builders Leader had left off in the mid-fifties, and great importance was rightly attached to the new paper. The paper detailed the history of right wing leadership in the ASW, gave current examples of the rule book in operation against militants, and drew lessons from disputes throughout the country. As well as campaigning for the implementation of its programme in the official movement, it successfully mobilised builders against the Industrial Relations Act.
The initiative for the rank and file group came from left wing CP members in the industry, though it is rumoured that they were opposed by others in the Party. The CP had a very broad base in the building industry, and just as in the EEPTU, an extremely right wing union leadership has often forced them to adopt a militant role. But the history of the Charter has been marked by a conflict between two basic positions – firstly, emphasis on the importance of rank and file initiatives as the rallying point for a radical change within the unions; and secondly, subordination of consistent rank and file work to the importance of getting left wingers into the trade union bureaucracy. The latter is closer to CP industrial policy as a whole, and has increasingly determined Charter policies. The result has been a movement whose course is dependent on what the CP considers to be electorally expedient; and the movement often appears to have degenerated into little more than a CP front. This is not so true of local organisation as it is of national conferences, recently manipulated to exclude voices of opposition. Support for the Charter spread rapidly in its early stages. But the CP themselves have done little to extend its organisation, and the paper appears much less frequently.
IN 1967 the Labour government, in response to a submission from the TUC, set up an inquiry into lump labour. The result was the 1970 Construction Industry (Contracts) Bill, which was dropped when Labour was defeated in the same year.
Because of the widespread tax evasion involved, the Tory government made provisions for lump labour in the ‘Finance Act’, 1971. The relevant action obliged contractors to deduct 30 per cent from their payment to subcontractors in order to pay tax for them. But two categories were exempted:–
- All subcontractors who were limited liability companies.
- Companies that had obtained exemption certificates from the tax inspector.
Between May and October 1972, the number of certificates issued rose from 16,000 to 353,000 (according to government figures)! The number of limited liability companies with less than £100 capital rose from 1,000 in January 1971 to 28,000 in October 1972. It was still easy to avoid tax, and the act did more to institutionalise the lump than abolish it.
In February 1973 Eric Heffer, UCATT-sponsored Labour MP, introduced a private members bill calling for the abolition of all labour-only subcontracting, and providing for the compulsory registration of all building workers and contractors. The NFBTE circulated a document making it plain that even if the bill became law it would be impossible to enforce it against the wishes of the contractors. Heffer’s bill went beyond the question of tax evasion and recognised the effects of lump labour on the industry. It was supported by lobbies of building workers from all over the country, who were assured of solid support from Labour MPs. But on the day of its second reading, a large number of Labour MPs went home. It was defeated in their absence. The bill proposed an extensive enforcement machinery, but it would still have required the active participation of trade union militants. Its failure stressed the importance of their own initiatives:
THE ATTITUDE of trade unions leaders to the problems was well expressed by Les Wood (Asst Gen Sec UCATT), speaking at a US woodworkers convention in August last year: ‘This problem is one which collective trade union action cannot overcome.’ Yet they are increasingly alarmed at the erosion of union membership figures (source of car and salary). UCATT membership last March was estimated at 256,000, against 268,000 the previous year.
One solution tried by both TGWU and UCATT is a block membership or ‘check off’ arrangement, where a firm pays union subs for its employees. This is what Smith means by ‘unionising the lump’, and is usually purely paper membership, involving little participation on site and none in the branch (which is where, in both unions, policies can be initiated or altered). Finding a union ticket waiting for him on the job doesn’t change the role of the lump worker – it just brings money into the union office, and makes things harder on site for other trade unionists.
Another aspect of the ‘check off’ system is that one union can use it on a job to undercut the other. UCATT/TGWU rivalry is now intensifying. Although most militants avoid it, a few have recently joined in with partisan statements. The TGWU, often momentarily adopting a more leftist posture, is opening its doors to UCATT trades; while in Birmingham it is resented by militants as the ‘check-off’ culprit. The competition might get worse as UCATT moves nearer to insolvency (the UCATT leadership has at various times considered amalgamation with either the EEPTU or the GMWU).
In 1973 Smith arranged with the NFBTE a ‘truce’ over the lump, in which he gave contractors a six-month period to sign onto a voluntary register of firms that promised not to use lump labour. The scheme was abortive, but Smith extended it for another six months. Even contractors who signed have continued to use the lump.
The focus of their activity has been their submissions to the TUC and government.
A LONG Charter campaign over the wage demand led in the summer of 1972 to an official claim for £30 for 35 hours, and the first complete national strike for fifty years. The rank and file were calling the tune, and Smith’s first concern was to keep control. He directed selective strikes – with the country divided up into ten regions, six sites in each region were to join the strike each week. This was a shortcut to demoralisation and defeat, and a new call came from the Charter ranks, for a total stoppage, with flying pickets to stop supplies and close down lump jobs. The miners’ new tactic was emulated with success under the day-to-day direction of local action committees (which were in most cases elected from lay members). Again in August, militant pressure with massive demonstrations forced Smith to withdraw from a sell-out. Finally after twelve weeks Smith signed a settlement which, although the builders’ biggest increase for many years, fell far short of the claim, providing a £6 increase for craftsmen and £5 for labourers.
Building workers had recognised that the struggles to abolish lump labour, and for a high basic wage, were directly connected. Given the welfare advantages of direct employment, a high basic wage would reduce the attraction of the lump. In the course of the strike, pickets in some areas were able to recruit lump workers. But the low settlement lost the importance that the full claim would have had as a weapon against the lump.
Following the 1972 strike, the struggle against lump labour again became localised. Although action committees still existed in theory to fight the lump, they were quietly defused. There have been a few area campaigns, official and unofficial, but in general it has been up to militants to do the job if they can. Even then there have been disgraceful examples of union officials siding with employers at the joint ‘conciliation’ panels.
An example is the abortive London Joint Sites anti-lump campaign, early in 1973. A McAlpine site was picketed and the direct employees voted to strike. There were two lump employers on site. At the panel a week later, one was left untouched, the other given a week to put his house in order and then return on site. The union officials had accepted the employers’ definition of ‘lump’ as meaning ‘self-employed’, rather than objecting to all ‘labour-only’. Allowing a bent ‘subbie’ to ‘put his house in order’ is a common formula for betrayal, sabotaging union organisation on many sites.
The long strike at McInerney, Finsbury Park, which ended last December, showed no change in UCATT’s position. The men came out for several weeks, for the removal of the lump. A panel in December told them to resume work alongside the lumpers. The TGWU was excluded from the panel and at first kept the strike official. But behind the scenes UCATT persuaded TGWU officials to withdraw support.
The history of the Birmingham area since 1972 has been exceptional. Retaining the impetus of the national strikes, militants have been able to establish 100 per cent trade unionism through most of the area. A recent campaign there has actually pushed UCATT membership figures up. They have been aided by a UCATT regional council that often aligns with the Charter and sponsors an area bulletin run by Charter members; and by a Labour city council that has stuck firmly by the ‘no-lump’ clause written into all its contracts. This combination has been so formidable that when in 1973 contractors were refusing to tender for contracts with the ‘no-lump’ clause, in Birmingham it was they who capitulated. Elsewhere, it was the Labour councils.
A potential ally against the lump appeared early in 1974, when the NALGO conference drew a parallel between lump labour and agency office staff. They recommended the blacking of local government contracts using lump, though this was only advisory. So far the only attempt to carry it out brought NALGO members to the McInerny picket line in December. Direct meetings between rank and file members of NALGO and the building unions are overdue.
THE CHARTER paper, which successfully campaigned for the big wage demand of 1972, did not appear once during the . strike. It could have been a valuable weapon in spreading the strike and putting a watchdog on to Smith. Instead, the CP chose to boost Smith’s image as strike leader, giving him space in the Morning Star. The Charter editors later claimed they had been too busy picketing. But the failure to keep the rank and file paper going, as a cohesive voice of opposition to the union leadership, left the militants weak when faced with Smith’s final sell-out. (Socialist Worker first produced Builders Specials at that time to partly fill the gap.)
The subsequent history of the CP in the industry has kept a course to the right; at every major rank and file builders meeting, a closing of ranks in order not just to oppose but to stifle any voice of opposition within the Charter. The Party line has increasingly demanded that militants patiently wait on TUC decisions, or for election results.
The 1973 Charter conference in Birmingham was notable for the manipulation by which the CP organisers excluded unwanted speakers and concealed differences within the party itself. The conference merely updated its pledge to the twelve point programme, with no clear statement of how the Charter would relate to the official machinery, leaving the Charter leadership free to follow the path of expedience. The problem of the lump, for example, was above all linked to the demand for compulsory registration, which, although an important demand in itself, detracted from the immediate questions of how to organise on the sites and within the unions.
At that time news of the Shrewsbury case was beginning to spread, and the party was in a position to decisively affect the course of the campaign to defend the pickets.
THE MAIN facts of the Shrewsbury case have been widely publicised: in brief, the NFBTE lobby wanted severe reprisals against the pickets whose actions had been the key to success in the national strike-the first serious challenge to their almost unquestioned power. The Tory government needed an alternative to the Industrial Relations Act which had been crippled by working class solidarity with the Pentonville Five. The weapon chosen to intimidate workers from resistance to Tory incomes policy was the conspiracy law. The NFBTE, which had compiled information on picketing during the strike, submitted a dossier to the home secretary, Robert Carr, detailing the activities of pickets in N. Wales. After a police investigation, and over four months after the supposed crimes, 210 charges were brought against the pickets. But while a savage campaign by the capitalist press condemned the men for violence, all the charges were dropped except conspiracy to intimidate, unlawful assembly and affray.
A North Wales Defence Committee was quite rapidly set up, to publicise the case and call for support. The rest of the year saw the sporadic setting up of local defence committees.
The UCATT leadership made no move to support the men on trial for official picketing, and George Smith upheld the neutrality of British justice; ‘If these lads are innocent, then British justice, being what it is, will find them innocent.’ Although more willing to give legal aid, the TGWU showed no inclination to take official strike action.
But the CP-dominated North Wales Defence Committee directed a campaign solely oriented towards lobbying for official action, despite a verbal commitment to strike action. When the first pickets were sentenced in December ‘73, there was no immediate response, except from a defence committee spokesman who said, ‘Quite frankly we didn’t expect this was going to happen.’ The CP was steering the movement towards total dependence on an official lead or some gratuitous act of government clemency. The first Liverpool conference called for a series of lobbies and one day strikes but the opportunity was lost. In early January, Birmingham shop stewards called a conference for the 21st, for which they prepared a resolution pledging themselves to open-ended strike action to lead the way. The CP undermined this initiative, and the second Liverpool Trades Council conference was called for the 2nd Feb. In preparation, they slandered as splitters any group that didn’t trust ‘unity’ under the direction of the CP. At Liverpool they foisted upon the broad left the weakest option open to them – more conferences, another day of action, and more pressure on the trade union bureaucracy. Their reasoning was that the builders were too weak to take the lead, and that the movement as a whole was unprepared. Yet the Birmingham builders had announced their readiness. Also, the miners conflict was in full swing, and NUM delegates were at the conference with messages of solidarity. (Jack Collins, NUM Kent area, also raised the question on the NUM executive.)
The second part of this article will appear in our next issue. – Ed.
Last updated on 30.12.2007