Union says it has been forced to call a new ballot after threatened injunction. Employers have postponed deadline for “sign or be sacked” contracts to next month


Unite has condemned Balfour Beatty’s use of anti-union laws to prevent construction workers from taking industrial action against proposals to force new “sign or be sacked” contracts on thousands of electricians.

It comes after the company had threatened an injunction to overturn the ballot, in which Unite members at Balfour Beatty Engineering Services (BBES) had voted in favour of strike action by 81 per cent, over what the union says is a threat of mass de-skilling and huge pay cuts across the industry.

However, it has emerged that the group of seven breakaway employers have postponed by one month a deadline for sparks to sign the new contracts – which were due to be enforced from next week. The new deadline is early January.

Organisers of a three-month wave of rank-and-file protests at construction sites across the UK say they are “left speechless” by the legal challenge.  Union officials concede that there is “huge disappointment” among members at the decision to cancel the ballot, but they say legal advice was that they would have lost the case if they had gone to court to defend the vote.

Further mass demonstrations were expected at major sites to accompany any strike action by Balfour Beatty members, which would have taken place next Wednesday. One activist told UnionNews he expected hundreds of electricians would walk out unofficially, regardless of the challenge to the ballot result.

Sparks campaign meetings are scheduled for Saturday December 3rd in London, Glasgow and Cardiff.

Unite says it intends to re-ballot at Balfour Beatty before Christmas. Following similar previous legal challenges against Unite and other unions, members have frequently returned higher majorities in favour of strike action.

Unite had already announced that it will also ballot members at two other companies which have threatened to pull out of the so-called JIB agreements, which have covered skill and safety levels as well as pay rates for almost 40 years. If members vote to strike, industrial action could follow early in the new year.

It is understood that Balfour Beatty intended to seek a court injunction alleging that postal addresses on some ballot papers were incorrect and that Unite should also have balloted a number of staff members at the company, in addition to electricians on day-rates. Unite has argued that BBES staff are not part of the dispute over the new contracts and therefore had no right to a vote on strike action.

The employers accuse the union of “using misleading and unjustified scare tactics”.

However, Unite national officer for construction Bernard Macaulay told UnionNews: “Employers have been trying to intimidate our members by holding one-on-one meetings with them without union representatives present.  But our members have seen through these tactics and still voted to strike.

“The employers are desperate to get our agreement – they cannot operate without us. If they withdraw from the JIB agreements it’ll cause mayhem in the electrical, mechanical and construction sectors.

“But rather than listen and return to the negotiating table, BBES have chosen to hide behind draconian ballot laws and challenge the democratic voice of BBES employees by quoting concerns, as to whether they have been advised of the correct name of workplaces and concerns, or whether a handful of staff employees received ballot papers.

“We now have a window of opportunity for BBES to talk with us. Unite has contacted Acas to seek its help in bringing a negotiated settlement to this dispute.”

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