Withdrawal of 2nd largest of the rogue employers indicates an imminent conclusion to high-profile, militant six-month dispute


Rank and file sources in the six-month sparks dispute confirm they have been told to end any further activity directed at the construction firm NG Bailey – indicating the company has followed Balfour Beatty in withdrawing the disputed BESNA contracts.

It is the latest evidence that the sparks dispute is accelerating towards a conclusion, ending six months of militant rank and file protests and civil disobedience which have brought mayhem to industrial relations in the £100bn UK construction industry.

UnionNews understands executives of the remaining five rogue employers are poised to announce in the next 24 hours whether they will follow the group’s two leading players into abandoning the ‘sign or be sacked’ BESNA contracts at the centre of the dispute.

The announcement follows high-level talks during Wednesday between Unite negotiators and senior NG Bailey management.

Demonstrations continued during Wednesday, with more planned in coming days if the five companies – Crown House, Gratte Brothers, Spie Matthew Hall, Shepherd Engineering Services and T Clarke – refuse to enter a new round of ‘modernisation’ talks under the auspices of an industry-wide forum.

More than one hundred sparks joined a protest at King’s Cross rail terminal in London, an NG Bailey site, while Unite members and officials demonstrated outside T Clarke’s head office in central Scotland.

Activists chanted “Besna beaten” outside the King’s Cross redevelopment site and urged NG Bailey to follow Balfour Beatty by ditching the controversial contracts and opening negotiations with the union.

NG Baileys has become the new focus of attention for the sparks after it was revealed that the contractor had a multi million pound deal with shopping outlet Morrison’s that saw protests at stores across the UK on Saturday.

Unite’s National Officer for the sector, Bernard Macaulay has told UnionNews the self-appointed BESNA companies ‘have no place to hide’.

“They don’t have to be seen to be publicly capitulating. Our negotiations with them will be about emerging technology and about securing a single industry agreement for the future”

However, indicating one of the specific demands which are likely to feature in those talks, he added: “any agreement will have to guarantee direct employment for our members, otherwise it’s not worth the paper it’s written on.”

Officials insist they will approach what is being variously labelled as the Industry Development Forum or Industry Modernisation Forum with a commitment to seeking what they describe as ‘a major resolution across the construction sector’, as well as the aim of re-establishing a single employers’ organisation.

Rank and file leaders had initially been concerned that a number of their specific demands – such as an end to the widespread practice of blacklisting union activists and a commitment to halt the spread of agency working – would be sidelined in detailed talks to end the dispute.

However, key figures from the rank and file committee which has organised many of the protests – and who are seen as trusted by activists on the sites – have been elected onto a standing negotiating committee which will attend the proposed industry forum and will oversee any detailed talks with individual employers.

One threat to the employers is that if the fast-fragmenting BESNA group once again starts ‘bickering’ with the ECA, Unite will – as a source put it – ‘blow them out of the water and go public on why any talks broke down.’

Reflecting on the course of the six-month dispute and on events of the last week, Bernard Macaulay said: “Everything had an impact: the court case, the demonstration outside the ECA dinner in London, the letter from the Teamsters union.  You can’t measure the impact of one event; but also, you can’t separate one element from the others.

“We are like a spider’s web now. We’re everywhere in the industry.”

Unite rank and file members are keeping the champagne on ice while critical talks take place between the union and the remaining six companies.

Addressing the crowd outside King’s Cross, Unite member Rob Williams described the withdrawal from Besna by Balfour Beatty as “one of the best trade union victories for years,” urging members not to rest until all 7 had “buried Besna for good”.

Unite national officer Harry Cowap heaped praise on the rank and file campaign admitting that the union leadership was “slow off the mark” at the beginning.

But he said even if an agreement was reached by the 7 contractors who originally drafted the Besna contract, the union would be shining a light on “companies who operate in the shadows” and outside the main employer bodies of the ECA and HVCA.

Speaking to UnionNews, he said: “Pulling out of Besna is a victory for common sense, fairness and decency.”

“We need a deal that suits both sides and helps move industry forward.”

Others spoke of the need to enforce existing contracts including the Joint Industry Board (JIB)agreements with the contractors.

Spark Frank Morris said: “If you [the employer] are not paying union rates, the rank and file construction workers will be outside your door.”


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