Academic journal article Capital & Class

The Engineering Construction Strikes in Britain, 2009

Academic journal article Capital & Class

The Engineering Construction Strikes in Britain, 2009

Article excerpt

Introduction

Conventional industrial relations wisdom predicts that in times of economic contraction, where there is a greater abundance of workers than there is demand, strike activity is less likely (Jackson, 1991). The recession in Britain from late-2007 would seem to confirm this, with the number of strikes and days not worked per annum falling to under 100 and 0.5m respectively in both 2009 and 2010 (ONS, 2011), and surveys by employer groups (such as the Confederation of British Industry) and independent analysts (such as Incomes Data Services) indicating the significant extent to which pay freezes and cuts and non-compensated short-time working arrangements have been accepted by workers as a 'necessary evil' to preserve jobs. Indeed, on many occasions these arrangements were suggested by the workers' unions themselves. Obvious exceptions to this acquiescence and 'sharing out' of misery were the three engineering construction workers' strikes of 2009, despite estimated unemployment rates of 25-30 per cent in the industry (Financial Times, 19, 20 June 2009). These strikes were unofficial, unlawful and militant, involving mass picketing, secondary action, flying pickets and many thousands of workers. Consequently, one could suggest that the threat of unemployment could be interpreted as more of a spur than an obstacle to this collective industrial action. Moreover, the strikes gained significant concessions, an outcome uncommon in the current period.

This article examines these strikes in order to present an explanation of why they were a manifest 'exception to the rule'. In order to do so, it examines the nature of the engineering construction industry (ECI) labour market, its cycles of construction activity and its regime of regulation, as well as the traditions and dynamics of labour unionism contained therein, to unpick the strikes' context, processes and dynamics. Consequently, and in regard of the latter, the article examines longstanding concerns of industrial relations research revolving around internal union dynamics, workplace unionism and union governance and democracy within evolving and dynamic labour markets and capital structures. The key finding of this article is that a complex web of factors explains the capacity and capability of the ECI workers to undertake these, but at their centre are the phenomena of the regime of regulation when allied to industry identity and industry class consciousness. 'Capacity' refers to the fragility of the sub-system by which the ECI works, prone to disruption, while 'capability' refers to the ability of ECI workers to take advantage of this configuration (see Gall, 2003:131). The article also examines the issue of the strikes' alleged xenophobia, an allegation that gave the strikes considerable media potency, thus, ensuring both notoriety and controversy. In this regard, throughout the article, the term 'domiciled workers' is used to denote workers in the domestic ECI labour market who, whatever their nationality or ethnic origin, are available for work. This is to differentiate them from those from the external or international labour markets, again of whatever their nationality or ethnic origin, who are specifically brought into the domestic ECI labour market from outside it.

The research materials deployed are drawn from a number of primary and secondary sources. One is ten first-hand testimonies by grassroots strike organisers. These testimonies were collected after the beginning of the first strike and focused largely upon those involved in the Lindsey disputes, the epicentre of the major actions. The second are seven interviews with key employed union officers (EUOs) in the two unions concerned, the GMB and Unite. The third is attendance at four meetings at which strike organisers gave reports and accounts of their activities, progress made to date, and the challenges encountered. These were held in London, and were support group meetings rather than the daily site meetings of the Lindsey site, for example. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.