This article first appeared in the summer edition of the buildingWorker
One of the most exciting aspects of the transfer of UCATT to Unite was the commitment to launch a major organising campaign to dramatically increase the number of unionised construction workers.
Sharon Graham Unite Executive Officer has the responsibility for overseeing and ensuring this is a success. She has previous experience of construction as her organising and leverage department was at the forefront of Unite’s successful campaigns to kill the BESNA agreement and blacklisting on Crossrail.
When I sat down with Graham she was delighted to discuss how the campaign, launched this autumn, will work. What is the essence of the organising campaign? “We have tried to move away from you go to a place grab some members and go to the next place and grab some members. The real difference between organising and recruitment is with organising the shop stewards come first, they are the priority, if you don’t have shop stewards you don’t have a union.
“There is no point pouring in members without a shop steward structure, as you end up having officials doing individual representation. Once we have shop stewards we collectively bring people into membership.”
The other notable component of Unite’s organising strategy is that it’s lay member led. Once the campaign begins the relevant shop stewards are brought together in a committee called a combine. “Combines are a key factor in building sustainability. Unless you bring the workers together you are doing a disservice. A key part of the organising strategy is to leave behind combines.”
During the initial part of the campaign, Graham estimates that the combine will be meeting every four weeks to review progress and identify key issues. She says: “It is important the combine comes back regularly. We will be building the campaign but also dealing with the issues that lay members identify through the combine.”
Once the sector has become established combine meetings occur roughly three times a year.
Again the importance of lay member involvement is emphasised: “If we don’t have the lay member structure when we go out to other areas we have less sustainability and we haven’t left a powerful union behind.”
Since the start of the year Graham’s team has been working on the construction organising strategy “the research took three months” and the document they have produced is very impressive.
They have identified seven principal areas of construction; within those sectors they have identified 40 contractors, 238 subcontractors and the 50 top agencies.
Having undertaken the “dissemination process” with officials and lay members it has been agreed that the first two sub-sectors that the organising campaign will target are infrastructure and education. The initial campaign will last for around two years for these sectors.
Within infrastructure and education the organising department have identified nine contractors and 28 sub-contractors which will be targeted. “The Unite strategy for organising is that we only take sector or sub-sector campaigns. If you really want to raise standards you can’t just take one company. Unless you take that whole it is difficult to make key gains for workers.”
Graham’s emphasis that this is going to be a massive campaign is underlined by the resources Unite is making available. “The campaign is going to be a mixture of officers and organisers. It will be predominately the ex-UCATT officers working with organisers to a detailed plan.”
For newer members of Unite it is worth describing the role of organisers. Graham says: “The department is centrally driven as you can’t take on a multinational in just one region. There are organisers in each region and each team has a senior organiser. They are involved in several campaigns at any one time.”
There will be 35 officers and 30 organisers working on the construction campaign. “You are going to have 65 people waking up every morning and this is what they are thinking about.”
It is important to note that “everyday business will go on up and down the country that doesn’t change.” The strategy will go further than simply seeking assurances that employers sign up to national agreements. “Just because there are agreements [such as] JIB and NAECI it doesn’t mean that employers are adhering to them.
Employers need to abide by the rules
“Employers need to abide by the rules and agreements. Eighty five per cent of employers sign up to one more of these national agreements. On the ground in a number of sites this doesn’t mean anything. It is the area where blacklisting happened, and it is the area where a huge amount of bad behaviour has happened. Nineteen out of the 40 top contractors were caught blacklisting.”
As the strategy develops Unite may move away from simply asking companies to follow national agreements and develop secondary bargaining agreements.
These secondary agreements are described as “accords” and are a set of rules that need to be abided by. “There are obvious things like representation, but there are other things which could be put on the list which will be created by lay members through the combine.”
Another tactic Unite will consider is trigger agreements. Unite will put forward an issue for example undercutting or bogus self-employment. An employer may say they will sign up providing everyone else signs up. Graham explains: “A trigger agreement is then in place. We get them to sign but we don’t implement until we have 50 per cent or 70 per cent [of targeted employers]. The trigger takes the excuse away.”
It is no secret that many employers are anti-union and are prepared to use underhand tactics. Graham empathises Unite will use all powers in its arsenal to defend members. Such tactics are described as leverage.
“We shouldn’t be afraid in saying that if an employer is not adhering to proper agreements; if they are sacking our stewards or blacklisting our members then we have to use everything in our armoury. If we can’t defend our stewards we don’t have a union.
“Whether by force, whether by negotiation or whether by other means we have to ensure our members are properly treated and our stewards do not face the threat of being dismissed on a whim.”
Without doubt the strategy Graham has devised which will be implemented in the coming months means these will be exciting times to be a construction trade unionist and employers are going to find themselves under pressure to treat workers fairly and decently as never before.