Paul Foot

Business as usual
on the Barbican

Workers versus management

(July 1968)


From Socialist Worker, No. 85, July 1968, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.


ON THE MASS DEMONSTRATION last November called to declare solidarity with the pickets at Mytons site on the Barbican in the City of London after a strike of more than a year, Lou Lewis, the federation steward on the site, declared: “This strike will not soon be forgotten in the building industry, and it will, I hope, give confidence to building workers everywhere.”

Lewis’s hopes have been fulfilled more than he could have imagined. For now, only eight months later, the workers on the Mytons site have come out on strike again.

The employers and the union officials hoped to use the defeat of the workers last year as a permanent weapon against their future labour force. They have been confounded not merely by their own arrogance but also by the continuing refusal of the workers to be used as profit-fodder.

Last November, after the pickets were withdrawn, the employers blacklisted all the militants formerly employed there. Some of the workers who had worked on the site before the dispute were encouraged back by letters which vilified Lou Lewis and his colleagues.

The 15 scabs, who had been brought up from Mytons site at Brighton under heavy Securicor guard and had passed the pickets in police vans, formed the nucleus of the new labour force which was built up to its full complement of 200 men last Christmas. These workers were not allowed to elect their own shop stewards. Instead, the Brighton scabs (or “royalists” as they are known on the site) were appointed to all the shop stewards positions.
 

Allowance

From the onset the employers made their position plain. The scabs were “ loyal ” workers, and would be paid accordingly. They were given a £5 a week travel allowance to bring them up from Brighton, and a further scabs. Peter Treacy, the federation steward, for instance, reckons that he will lose a few quid by the new scheme. “But at least we’d be solid when we advance again,” he told me.

The demand was rejected outright by the management who realised that the new scheme would vitiate their “ divide and rule” tactics. Accordingly, on Monday June 16, all the 90 carpenters except the six Brighton scabs walked out on strike. They were still out, angry and militant, when I spoke to them on June 20.

On that day, each striker received a familiar letter from the management, informing them that their action was “contrary to the site procedure agreement and to the Working Rule [line of text missing] them up from Brighton, and a further unearned “bonus” of 25 hours paid work to compensate for the “long journey.” In addition the Brighton scabs were given the jobs with the best bonus rates, and lowest targets.

The bonus rate in the early months was fixed at a standard 4s. per hour for craftsmen, 3s. for labourers. In February, the unions and employers, acting outside the Working Rule Agreement and without even consulting the workers, agreed a bonus scheme which operated on a gang basis. Different gangs got different bonuses and different targets.

No sooner had the agreement been reached than the employers made it clear how they were going to operate it. The gang containing the Brighton scabs got all the good jobs and the low targets. The other gangs were given targets which made it almost impossible for any of them to make more than the “ fall-back ” rate of 4s. Bill Jones, the Brighton “Federation steward” appointed by the management, admitted to a meeting of the workers that if he lived in the area he couldn’t afford to work at the new rates.

Not surprisingly, the workers soon slung out the Brighton scabs and elected their own stewards.

The management replied by threatening to withdraw the “fall-back” bonus, thus rendering most of the workers worse off after the agreement than before. The new, elected stewards threatened the management with a riot if the fall-back rate was withdrawn, and the fall-back rate stayed.
 

Failure

The gross favouritism shown to the Brighton scabs, and the continued failure of the management to lower targets or pay more bonus irritated the workers more and more. They pointed out that many of the carpenters’ gangs were working at targets of 15ft. super, while the Brighton scabs were working at 8 ft. super. In Turriffs and many other building sites, the standard target is 8 ft. super, and the stewards argued, quite rightly, that the management were using the Brighton scabs shamelessly to exploit the majority of the workers.

Throughout April and May the stewards were constantly arguing with, the management over bonus pay. After several weeks, the various demands in different parts of the site hardened into one : that the bonus rate should be the same for all gangs.

This demand did not mean that the management would pay out more money. In fact, on present bonus levels, less money would probably be paid out than under the present scheme. But the “all-in” bonus rate would iron out the arguments between gangs, and enable all the carpenters to argue for rises in a united front, without any chance of being diverted into arguments against the Brighton [line of text missing] agreement, and to the Working Rule Agreement ... Therefore any of these men who fail to resume normal working will be liable to disciplinary action.”

It seems that very little has changed on the Barbican pickets from last year. There was the same arrogant management, the same militant workforce, utterly undivided by racial differences (more than half the strikers are West Indian or Indian). Even if. as seems likely, they return to work following the Local Disputes Commission, I do not imagine that the management will be able to push these workers around for much longer.

*

Hallo to The Hustler

WHAT WITH ALL THE FUSS about Black Dwarf, very few people seem to have noticed The Hustler, produced in Notting Hill, which is very much better and more valuable. It’s the first paper produced in the main by coloured people which is militant, un-self-conscious and informative. It costs 1s. a copy and is available from 194 Westbourne Park Road, London, W.11.


Last updated on 11 October 2020