I’m a self-employed electrician – or more accurately – a bogus self-employed one. The way Covid has been handled in construction shows us why we need to back Sharon Graham to make our union truly democratic. The way we respond to events like this must be shaped by reps on the ground, not handed down.
Since March 2020, over 2,000 construction sector workers between the ages of 18 – 64 have died of Covid*. At the peak of the pandemic, workers in construction were more likely to contract Covid than front line NHS staff. Site conditions and hygiene are poor at the best of times so during a dangerous pandemic, the situation only gets worse. Whilst continuing with non essential work, it wasn't only us who were at risk, we risked taking it home to our families and communities; as well as potentially spreading it to genuine key workers on our journeys to and from site.
That’s why my branch, along with many others, have been calling for the closure of all non-essential construction work. What frustrated me most about this is the desperation from those to keep non essential construction open who don't work on site. Calls have been made for things like staggered starting times and dedicated parking spaces but was any thought put into how this would affect workers? These are ideas thought up by contractors and endorsed by some without input from many of those directly affected. The only way for our members to have been kept safe during both lockdowns was to join the call for all non-essential work to stop – that was an achievable cross sector aim.
This needed to be linked with a call to extend financial support, to pay every worker. Our big issue is that the majority of construction workers are bogusly self-employed, engaged via an agency or umbrella company. These workers have mostly been excluded from many of the financial support schemes, forcing us on to sites against our better judgement and against our will so that we can pay our bills.
For us, bottom up rank and file organising comes naturally. It’s proven to be the only way trade unionism can work and grow on sites. It’s how we were able to organise to win the major BESNA (Building Engineering Services National Agreement) dispute against rogue employers in 2011 and the fight against blacklisting on Crossrail.
That’s a principle I want to see taken up across Unite. It has to be the reps and members who call the shots. We need to make sure our democratic structures truly represent the workers within our sectors and that our long fought National Agreements are nurtured and developed. We currently have Committees and Combines where we can raise these issues, but we always have to have fight to make sure that our voice is heard.
That’s why I’m supporting Sharon Graham.
Sharon knows that without proper, effective democracy inside our union, Unite becomes distant from the rank and file members. Sharon has committed to a democracy review – and has spoken about a Shop Stewards’ Parliament to take decision making back into the hands of shop stewards and reps. That’s how it must be.
*ONS statistic Covid-19 statistic publication 25th January 2021.