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International Socialism, April 1975


Alistair Goulding

The Building Industry in 1975


From International Socialism, No.77, April 1975, pp.29-30.
Transcribed & marked up by by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


EMPLOYERS have predicted 300,000 unemployed building workers this spring. Already government statistics show well over 120,000, and this is probably a conservative estimate. In 1974, only half as many new houses were started as in the previous year; and with government spending cuts, all forms of building activity have steadily decreased. The shortage of available work will intensify competition, not so much between the biggest firms (which perform fairly distinct functions in a diverse industry) – as between these and the middle range firms. The big contractors are looking for smaller jobs (which they wouldn’t have taken on in the boom period) simply to keep a flow of payment on loans. For example, some of the biggest contractors are now organising small scale units, to take on local authority housing conversion. They have the resources to drive the smaller companies out of the market, so that the recession will give a push towards further centralisation in the industry. Building workers face not only mass unemployment: contractors are engaged in a process of rationalisation, including a concerted attack on wages and working conditions.

It would take a massive injection of government money to regain the 1973 employment level. But Wilson’s government, while diverting money from civil engineering schemes into housing, has not reversed the cutbacks introduced by Barber: overall public spending in the industry has decreased. For building workers, government intervention is now crucial; most building work is funded by ‘central or local government. The acute housing shortage, the glut of speculative building and mass unemployment – together with mounting consciousness of the contradictions within the Labour government – provide an objectively favourable climate in which to raise the demand for nationalisation without compensation, under workers control. Propaganda for nationalisation must be taken onto the sites by the Building Workers Charter movement, as an offensive political demand linking local struggles against wage cuts and redundancy. Lay-offs after each contract have, till now, been accepted as an inevitable part of work in the industry.

In some areas now, militants are preparing to challenge redundancy. In the Manchester area a site has been occupied after management contravention of the long-standing militants rule of ‘first in, last out’. In Birmingham some stewards are saying they will demand that their firms take all operatives to its next contracts, even if outside the city. The National Enterprise Board has discussed the possibility of taking one major building firm to exist alongside the private sector. In this context, we must make a clear distinction between workers’ control and workers’ self-management. The Charter nationalisation demand omits workers’ control. We have to pose it as the right of workers to veto management decisions affecting both the priorities of the industry, and its internal organisation.

A basis for agitation was provided by Crosland at the 1973 Labour Party conference, when, pointing to the need for decasualisation in the industry, he pledged an increase in output in municipal building with a substantial extension of local authority direct works departments (quoted in February 1974 election issue of UCATT’s Viewpoint.)

The Wage Settlement

FOLLOWING last year’s UCATT conference, a new claim was adopted by UCATT and the TGWU: for a basic wage of £1.50 per hour (craftsmen) and £1.40 per hour (labourers); a 35-hour week; and renegotiation yearly to keep pace with inflation. Again the initiative came from the Building Workers Charter movement; and though Smith of UCATT wanted a ‘substantial increase’ – which would allow concessions to employers and the government – he was pinned down to the full claim and rejection of the social contract. In December a deadlock was reported in negotiations. The employers offered a two-stage agreement spread over 18 months, which would finally give a basic rate of 91½p per hour (craftsmen) and 78½p per hour (labourers), for a 40-hour week. They added a ‘Joint Board Supplement’ – a form of guaranteed bonus, or ‘plus rate’ – which would not be counted with the basic when estimating bonus rates.

Through the ballot, the UCATT/TGWU leadership has been able to outmanoeuvre the left. While members in well-organised industrial areas voted for rejection, they were outnumbered by the more backward. Many branches barely had time to organise the ballot, and some site ballots were discounted; while sections under quite different wage agreements were able to vote. The result was a narrow majority for acceptance – in the TGWU, a majority of less than 100 in a ballot of 18,000. Only 10 per cent of both unions took part in the vote.

Through Viewpoint, Smith of UCATT had urged his members to accept the offer, passing on the NFBTE threat of unemployment.

The lack of a quick militant response to the wage settlement (in particular, to the conduct of the ballot), means that the struggle will, in the short term, be localised. Already many building workers who voted for acceptance are regretting their mistake, while they fight to hold bonus rates level. The high basic wage and shorter week would have helped to offset redundancy. Now the emphasis is on a high minimum bonus rate.

While increasing unemployment is added to the existing difficulties of organisation in the building unions, the building workers charter movement could still be entering a new growth period. Militant organisation is emerging outside the direct influence of the Charter. The task facing the builders’ rank and file group is to link struggles that are being waged through varied tactics in different regions.

In particular, the Charter should formulate a national demand for consolidated bonus, and pressure the TU executives to negotiate an interim pay award. In several organised areas, notably Birmingham, sites are introducing overtime bans. Given widely varied conditions and consciousness, a national policy should call for progressive overtime bans to compensate for loss of hours.

Lump Labour

CONTRACTORS might now prefer to exploit the growing pool of unemployed craftsmen, rather than the generally less skilled lump workers. On the other hand it is likely that they will use the lump as long as it serves to undermine union organisation. The use of subcontractors could also serve as a buffer to protect contractors themselves from some of the effects of sudden financial crises – evasion of responsibility has gone hand in hand with the spread of subcontracting, and workers ditched by ‘fly-by-night’ subbies have rarely received compensation from the main contractors.

But one effect of the recession is that the pay differential between lump and direct labour is narrowing; and so the attraction of casual labour is reduced. Many lump workers are trapped by their tax arrears. While Smith and co applaud the victimisation of individual tax dodgers (as in the inland revenue ‘swoop’ on Murphy employers last year), militants must demand a tax amnesty for the lump (though in supporting militant subbies we must also call for their re-employment direct).

Pressure in branches and at the last UCATT conference has led both unions to re-establish Co-ordinating Committees in London (these had been dormant since 1972). They exist to build union membership and to fight the lump. UCATT presently has seven in London, in which branch chairmen and secretaries and site stewards have voting rights. Potentially the CCs in London could become a vehicle for the local implementation of Charter policies. Under such auspices militants have access to a much wider range of sites. Conversely, the bureaucrats will attempt to use them to contain militancy; as a justification for restructuring the London UCATT organisation (to liquidate some of the more militant branches); and as an information source to facilitate the arrangement of block union membership on lump sites.

The strong right wing element on the UCATT executive still has a soft line on lump labour. But now in two areas regional union officials are refusing to go to arbitration panels in disputes over lump labour; and in London, left and right wing officials are in serious dispute over the direction to be taken by the CCs (some members of the broad left have been reprimanded for their activist positions). As yet the CC areas are poorly defined, as are their powers. Thus the victory at Leach’s site in SE London – the first intervention by the London UCATT CCs – can be seen as a test of strength for the left. The-second, at Lawrence’s in the city, is within easy reach of several supporting sites.

In Birmingham there are no CCs because the existing relationship between the UCATT regional committee and the rank and file has already produced an official local organisation whose terms of reference are far wider than those of the CCs. The Birmingham UCATT shop stewards committee should be seen as a model for the direction of the London CCs.

Significantly, it was reported recently that inter-union differences were jeopardising the possibility of liaison between the CCs of UCATT and the TGWU (in a Joint Action Committee, as in the 1972 strike). Jack Jones’ ambitions for the expansion of the TGWU are reflected in its building trade group, where officials are trying to recruit trades which have traditionally belonged to UCATT (e.g. joiners). The TGWU presents a more militant posture in local issues, and in officially calling for a general strike to free the Shrewsbury pickets. But both unions are still using check-off and block membership systems to recruit lump labour. Their relative strength varies widely in different regions, and the inter-union dispute should be seen as essentially a struggle for members (and money) between the executives. Prominent militants are taking sides, and it is important that the Charter conference this month should reaffirm solidarity between all militants in the industry irrespective of union.

The government has promised legislation against lump labour. Heffer’s 1973 Bill provided for a system of registration of all construction companies and workers. But the NFBTE’s response to his proposal, and to George Smith’s voluntary register of employers, has shown that a registration system must be enforced by the workers on the sites. While keeping up pressure for legislation, it is now urgent that the unions begin to control the labour supply in the industry. In areas where there is strong organisation, militants should call for a union-controlled register of operatives on a regional or local basis. This is urgent not just to fight lump labour but to protect militants from selective redundancy.

The Charter

THE BIRMINGHAM UCATT shop stewards’ committee, and the formation of co-ordinating committees by the London regional trade union leadership, reflect high concentrations of left wing membership. These are areas where the Charter has in the past played a leading role. We can now expect a wave of disputes in areas which until now have had no local Charter organisation. The Eldon Square dispute against McAlpines in Newcastle, which has been compared with the big Barbican disputes of the 1960s, involves for the most part quite inexperienced militants. They have sought support not only on other sites but from the rank and file in other industries. Elsewhere, collaboration between sites is emerging quite outside the Charter framework. It is crucial that the Charter movement keeps pace with these developments, and produces a regular paper: there is the possibility of a massive influx into the movement.

It is early to say how the Communist Party leaders in the industry will manoeuvre at the Charter conference in April. The Communist Party officially opposes the Social Contract. The Charter paper opposed the wage settlement and called for public ownership of the industry. Many Communist Party members – and periphery – were clearly confused by the failure of the Party’s strategy to free the Shrewsbury pickets at a time when this would have signified a major victory.

And the inroads that the broad left has made into the middle bureaucracy of the building unions can reaffirm the Communist Party practice of subordinating all else to this end. In the short term the party clearly, expects to gain ground in the forthcoming UCATT rules revision process – correctly emphasising regular re-election of full-time officials, and strikes official till declared unofficial. Maintenance of this rank and file position, and its reflection within the movement in open discussion of objectives and strategy, are essential if the Charter is to re-emerge as a leading force in the industry. Otherwise the Charter will remain an exclusive platform for Communist Party rhetoric veiling reformist illusions.

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