Several years ago construction firms began to replace directly employed workers with contractors. Workers were forced into taking C45s, a special tax arrangement for "self-employed" contractors. The result was most building workers being paid 'cash-in-hand', weak unions, and a dramatic rise in safety problems.
In the years 1995-1997 alone, forty workers were killed on sites. Back in the 1980s when most workers were directly employed there were only six fatal accidents in the whole decade. The average fine on employers for breaching safety rules has been a mere £250.
Being 'off the books' (i.e. in the black economy), workers are not fully insured. Being self-employed they are not entitled to holiday pay, travel time, subsistence payments or any of the other hard won rights that directly employed workers can expect. For years the Department of Employment and the Tax Office have looked the other way.
Promises that the use of C45s would be tightened up came to nothing. Last year just over half of the 110,000 building workers were paying PAYE. The rest were pushed into unprotected so-called "self-employment" on dodgy tax certificates.
Things started to happen when bricklayers on a Cramptons site at Dublin City University refused cash payment 'into-the-hand' from a sub-contractor and instead demanded legal, direct employment by Cramptons, with PAYE paid. They were sacked.
Their union, the Building and Allied Trades Union, balloted them for action and pickets went on. Cramptons ran off and found a judge who gave them an injunction against BATU. Judge Kelly ruled the strike illegal because the ballot did not specify exactly what sort of action the union would take. The fact that there is no law requiring this didn't matter to him.
The injunction not only banned pickets but also placards, leaflets or speaking about the dispute in a "provocative manner". Anyone breaking the injunction was to be carted off to Mountjoy prison. The judge had no interest in the fact that Cramptons were breaking the law by knowingly using sub-contractors who were hiring workers on a 'no tax' basis. Cramptons then sued BATU for £500,000.
Another five bricklayers were sacked from the Cramptons site at the Smurfit Business School in Clonskeagh. The circumstances were the same. The five placed an unofficial picket, and were immediately injuncted by Cramptons.
Not willing to be walked upon, militants in BATU decided to take on both Cramptons and the courts. January 29th saw the public launch of 'Building Workers Against the Black Economy' at a well attended meeting of building workers. This group of union activists made it clear that they would not be bound by injunctions handed down by the courts, they would organise mass pickets, and they would break the Industrial Relations Act.
Mass pickets were then organised at the two sites on a number of mornings. Despite being in contempt of the court injunctions nobody was arrested. It had been made very clear that arrests would lead to a Dublin-wide stoppage in the building industry. But Cramptons were not offering anything either.
It was then agreed to step up the pressure and put full-time pickets on. This was done by the strikers being supported by other brickies who joined in on their way to and from work, at lunchtime, and by taking time off from their own jobs. The Cramptons site in the Liberties was then hit too. With three of their six Dublin sites falling way behind completion deadlines, Cramptons agreed to talk.
The settlement reached included direct employment on all their sites, reinstatement of the sacked workers, no victimisation of anyone involved in the illegal pickets, dropping the court case against BATU, and payment of the union's legal costs.
The feeling of strength this victory has brought is seen in the increased level of participation in the union by ordinary members. By using direct action methods and winning, a lot of BATU members now feel a confidence not seen in the industry for many years.
In Carlow the union has turned things around and ensured that practically everyone is directly employed. In Limerick an illegal 300 strong picket forced Arch Construction to also directly employ. BATU members in a timber frame firm in Monaghan were sacked when they joined the union, their strike was won when the boss was told his products would be blacked all around Ireland.
This is a great example to the rest of the trade union movement. Instead of continually waltzing off to the Labour Court, LRC and other never-ending talking shops, the brickies were prepared to go 'unofficial', ignore the anti-strike law, and use the real strength of the unions - solidarity. Those who dare to fight also dare to win.