Over 30 electricians, members of the EPIU union contracting branch, crowd around two banners outside the Arndale construction site in Manchester city centre on a busy Friday afternoon. They are furious — one of their members was sacked a week ago and hasn’t yet been reinstated.
“We’re not having it any more,” says branch secretary Steve Acheson. “We’re standing up for basic human rights. Our man was sacked for having a brew in the middle of the morning.”
“Most of the site can go to the canteen for a mid-morning brew,” says another picket. “But Amplex, sub-contractors to Balfours, told their staff they couldn’t have one.”
The sacked electrician tells the story: “We do a 7.30am to 5.00pm shift, with a break for lunch. When I asked about tea breaks, the Amplex gaffer said our guys don’t take one. I said, ‘You can’t do that, it’s a basic right,’ and I went to brew up later in the morning.”
Later, in the canteen, the gaffer threatened to dock the man half a day’s pay. “But later, he sacked me, for ‘taking the piss’ by brewing up in the canteen,” says the sacked worker.
The EPIU electricians are hitting back at contractors across the north west of England.
“We’ve been up to the Blackburn Hospital site,” two other pickets explain. “A member was sacked after the firm there wanted him to pay the full cost of a scaffolding course. We sorted that one out.”
The pickets had earlier hit The Edge, a prestigious apartment development in Manchester city centre. They show text messages they got at 9pm on a Sunday night, effectively laying them off without pay because of a fire at the site.
“We want a week’s pay in lieu of notice. You’re not telling me they haven’t claimed on the insurance for that fire,” a picket says.
Steve says, “The contractor there, Skyblue/Carillion, said they would consider it. So we called the picket off in good faith. But we said we can come back next Friday with the banners if they want.”
The pickets are showing they can take on bullying bosses and the demands of New Labour’s “flexible” labour market.
They turn up with banners anywhere there’s a member in trouble and “sort it out”.
As I left them, 30 pickets watched as two Balfour managers negotiated with Steve Acheson and his sacked branch member.