“The phrase ‘line in the sand’ often gets bandied about in trade union disputes but this is one case where it is very clearly that.”
By Willie Howard, Unite the Union Organiser
As this article goes to print, scaffolders contracted by Actavo to work on a British Steel site in Scunthorpe are finishing up their 13th week of strike action. Construction can be a rough and ready industry at the best of the times. As such, when disputes emerge between workers and bosses they can often take a red-hot character very quickly.
From the national construction strike in 1972 to the rank-and-file electrician struggle around the BESNA dispute, construction workers have often presented the sharpest challenges to big capital – it is no exaggeration to say the Actavo scaffolders are following in that tradition.
The reason behind the walk-out by these members of Unite lies in Actavo’s refusal to pay the nationally-agreed rate for scaffolders that was decided and set by the National Agreement for Engineering in the Construction Industry (NAECI). Instead, they are paying 10-15% less than the accepted industry standard and utterly disregarding decency and fairness in the process. While the root of the dispute is easy to comprehend, the story takes a more opaque turn. Actavo pay this rate in nearly every other site on which they work in the UK, which raises the question as to why the Scunthorpe workers are being given short shrift?
The answer lies in the onion-like layers of employment within modern construction where huge conglomerates who are the clients engage subcontractors who then subcontract out to even smaller firms (and so on) which often facilitates a race to the bottom in terms of wages and conditions. While the workers at the bottom bear the brunt of this process, profits for the main players skyrocket. To put things into context, Actavo’s main shareholder and de facto owner is Denis O’Brien, a billionaire and tax exile who is Ireland’s second-richest man and someone who has often faced criticism at home and abroad for the morality of his business practices. Meanwhile, British Steel is owned by the gargantuan Chinese-state consortium, Jingye. These are hardly people who would struggle to pay the agreed national rate.
Despite facing people with almost unlimited resources, the response of the workers has been nothing short of inspirational. Not only have they mounted a rock-solid picket with 100% participation that has caused British Steel no end of headaches; they have also gone on a tour of the country as well as abroad to raise awareness of their struggle and highlight its significance to construction workers as a whole.
On top of this, their union has supported them in piling the pressure on Actavo wherever they rear their head. A blitz of protests has taken place across Britain and Ireland targeting Actavo shareholders. Last night saw union activists crash an awards ceremony for Actavo at the highly-exclusive Hurlingham Club in London. What was supposed to be a self-congratulatory event for the captains of industry was instead transformed into a cacophony of megaphones, disruption, blocked roads a healthy dose of embarrassment. Last week, Glasgow Celtic fan Denis O’Brien was treated to the shame of a huge banner being unfurled in the home stands of Celtic Park bearing his image and demanding that he “pay the rate.” The dispute has also gained political momentum as MPs from both sides of the house have criticised both Actavo and British Steel.
The phrase “line in the sand” often gets bandied about in trade union disputes but this is one case where it is very clearly that. If Actavo can arbitrarily decide to renege on national agreement and pay whatever they like in Scunthorpe then what is to stop them doing so in other sites? And what is to stop rival firms from following their lead? Fundamentally, the only thing that can be relied upon to keep bosses honest is organised workers willing to stand up and fight back. Actavo are but one example of what we are up against, but the scaffolders and the wider Unite union are also setting the example of what workers need to be prepared to do in response. We must support them and demonstrate that there is a movement behind them.
- Please show your support for the Actavo strike on twitter here and on Facebook here.
- Donations can be made as follows:
- Bank Transfer to : Sort Code: 60 83 01
- Account No: 20173962
- Account Name: Unite North East Region 1% Fund
- Reference: Actavo Limited and your branch number
- Alternatively, By Cheque made payable to “Unite the Union” and forwarded to the Leeds Regional Office, Unite the Union, 55 Call Lane, Leeds, LS1 7BW marked for the attention of the Regional Secretary (Actavo Limited Dispute).
- Letters of support can also be forwarded to the Leeds Regional Office or via email joe.Rollin@unitetheunion.org